Provisional Hypotheses About Self-Publishing

I’m self-publishing this book. I didn’t come to self-publishing as some waypoint in the process: it started the process. I decided to self-publish, and then I decided to write a book.

A couple of years ago, I got my hands on Guy Kawasaki’s APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.  APE is packed with good information about the logistics of self-publishing: the importance of a good editor and designer, what Ingram is, how one properly chains oneself to Amazon, etc.

More importantly for me, though, it opened with a clear summary of why one would want to self-publish, or why one wouldn’t. Book production, distribution, and marketing, Kawasaki argues, are services, and a writer negotiates a contract with a publisher to gain the benefit of those services. Those services aren’t trivial — publishing a book well requires skilled work from several people. Those services aren’t rarefied any more, though. Anyone can access them if she or he’s willing to take on the cost, work, and coordination.

A contract with a publisher is a connection to centralized services — a boon. However, one gets that boon by playing the game and having it granted. If she self-publishes — if she takes her ball home — she’s now responsible, but the game can be run by her rules. Kawasaki’s pitch is that self-publishing is a revolution, but his argument’s actually a more balanced view. Everyone has access to the tools. That’s all. It’s a choice to DIY or find a contractor.

It did a lot for me to internalize that. I’ve written stories since I was a kid, but nothing about the world of published work felt accessible. I mostly needed a shift in perspective. Putting out a book doesn’t have to be a battle with the publishing industry to get your art recognized. It doesn’t have to be a competition with hundreds of other aspiring authors to break in or out or through or whatever. It can just be a project. I’ve done plenty of projects.

So, I put together a project. I wrote and rewrote the book. I hired an editor, and we refined the book some more. In a couple of weeks, it will be copyedited to a burnished hue. I have a book designer to make the cover and layout slick. I figured out how to get something on a Kindle, and how to get Amazon to produce paperbacks. I’ve got the “A” and “P” of APE down fairly well.

The “E” is a little tough, though. The “Entrepreneur” role in APE is pretty much just “marketer.” A lot of people write about marketing one’s self-published work. There may be more material about marketing a self-published work out there than about authoring or publishing it. Which makes some sense: there’s a lot of crap being pushed to the Kindle Store, and a self-published author is just a voice in the screaming chaos. Getting someone to actually notice is a tough problem.

Unfortunately, the advice for marketing hasn’t really clicked for me. The key points seem to be: 1.) Give away the book with discount ebook wholesalers. 2.) Create an “engaging personal brand” by, apparently, using Twitter a lot.

This part of the self-publishing process seems to be the least understood by the new culture of self-publishers. It also seems to rely on a shaky premise of broadcasting: one floods the market (as best one can, since it’s already flooded) with her name and work until some tipping point is reached, at which point one becomes the Wool guy. This feels like underpants gnome logic to me.

I’ve been entranced by thoughts of an alternative model. What if the goal isn’t to be the Wool guy? What if the goal is to be… a local band?


I live in Austin. Everyone is in a band (or in an improv troupe). I have plenty of friends who are authoring, performing and publishing their own music all the time. They play gigs. They put out albums. They post stuff on BandCamp and SoundCloud, but it’s to support a local audience — other Austinites, or maybe other specific aficionados. They build small, loyal followings. They create, and people get to experience the creation. It works.

One might argue that musicians have shed themselves of an illusion under which authors still labor: the illusion of the big break. Maybe authors still dream of being J.K. Rowling — or, at least, the Wool guy — while musicians are reconciled to the unreality of being Taylor Swift. I don’t know.

I’ve started putting together marketing ideas that mimic a local band model, and it feels a lot more realistic. I’ll have a launch party, and hopefully some readings in town. I’ll ask some meetups if they’d like a guest speaker. I’ll try to get the book into some local bookstores on consignment. Of course, I’ll post on the Twitter and the Facebook and blog some, but the Web is a support, not the whole plan.

All these ideas are provisional hypotheses. They may fail grandly. But, if this is really about “artisanal publishing” (another term Kawasaki uses), it seems to make sense to look at other artisans and take lessons from how they sell their work to a community.

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