I have been writing stories since my first year at school. I absolutely adore escaping into a book, the more enchanting and out-of-this-world, the better. Writing for me started out as a way to take all the imaginary games I played with my 'My Little Ponies' and Barbies and put them on paper. I loved the idea of writing being permanent; thoughts and playing pretend were fleeting things, but if you wrote things down, those thoughts suddenly became real. They became frozen in time. I doubt I thought it as abstractly as that when I was five, but I do know my love for writing was instant.
During school I devoured every creative writing assignment, and always kept a diary (most of which I still have, and just about die of embarrassment when I re-read them). Much of my spare time was spent reading, writing and drawing; and, admittedly, watching a lot of TV. In my defence, TV in the 80's and 90's was predominantly storyline-based, compared to the reality TV rot of today. Without even realising it, the hours I spent watching cartoons and sitcoms was actually an education on great story-building techniques like the race against time plot device, crafty foreshadowing, point of view, cause and effect, character development, and so on.
When I left high school I studied animation at Griffith's Queensland College of Art, where I learned that drawing for eight hours a day is not as fun as it sounds. I changed direction after two years and branched into design and illustration. Finally taking my writing seriously, I also enrolled in a professional children's writing course through correspondance. During that course I wrote my first award-winning short story, 'The House on Connor's Street', which was Highly Commended in the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's Short Story Competition and read aloud on international radio. It was a huge buzz and fueled me through the rest of the course.
By the time I finished my final assignment I was halfway through the initial draft of my first 'real' novel for children; that is, the first idea that was so powerful, so tenacious, it wouldn't let go. I spent every spare second scribbling away in cheap exercise books until I had a box full of them. Then came the meticulous task of deciphering my godawful handwriting and typing up each chapter (if I thought that was bad, I had never edited a book before. Talk about ignorance being bliss...). Twenty-two exercise books and three years later I had my first completed manuscript, 'David and the Heart of Aurasius', sitting on my hard drive and begging to be read! After another year of editing, researching publishers and sourcing manuscript appraisals that wouldn't cost more than my car, I started subbing my book to editors. The rejection letters flowed in! While I was well-educated on the competitiveness of publication, I was still dissapointed. My list of potential publishers grew shorter every week. Friends and fellow writers started suggesting I approach overseas publishers, but after the first few rounds I realised spending $60 on postage per submission was going to send me to the poorhouse pretty quickly. Not only that, the months of waiting between submissions and rejections were adding up into years. I was going to be old and grey before I found a publisher!
This was the moment when I probably would have given up. Ironically, it was the rejections that spurred me on. Some were form letters, but many were personalised, and encouraging enough to convince me (or possibly allude me, depending on your perspective) to believe that my book was worth publishing.
After seven years of writing, re-writing, submitting, failing, re-writing, re-submitting, failing again, I took a deep breath and asked myself the dreaded question; should I self-publish? My first thought was, oh, god, NO. Not my baby! My baby deserves better. My baby deserves a real publisher. Self-publishing was admitting failure, was at the scum-feeding bottom of the publishing foodchain. Worse than that; it was the scum that the bottom-feeders feed on.
Then I asked myself; was it worse than not getting my book published at all? Worse than putting 'my baby' away on a USB stick and letting it become nothing more than a corrupt Microsoft Word document?
Seven years is a long time to just throw away.
I did my research. I read about the pros (100% profits, faster publication, full control of the content); and the cons (100% of the risk, poor perception of self-published books by consumers and booksellers, no assistance with marketing and promotion). To be honest, it all looked too hard, too expensive, and too much work. But I couldn't give up on my dream that easily.
My answer came from a fellow writer I'd met through one of my online writing groups. He'd had three books published through an affordable Vanity Press with modest sales results. He regularly held signings at a well-known bookstore chain across several shopping centres. The Vanity Press did the editing, the type-setting, organised the ISBN and barcode, managed the printing and distribution, wrote and sent out the press release, even handled the online selling, while all I did was collect the cheques. It sounded a lot better than leaving my poor manuscript to rust away on its USB stick. I took the bait, contacted the Vanity Press, and handed over my money.
I will never say it was a 'bad' experience. It was, however, most certainly a 'learning' experience. Publishing is a business. Businesses need to make money. The service of the Vanity Press was great, the promoting and marketing satisfactory. It was definitely more than I knew how to do myself; but only because I hadn't bothered to learn, or ask someone to teach me. (As it turns out, writing a press release and sending it out is surprisingly easy.) The true crunch was in the cost. My initial printing fee got the book from the USB stick to the printing press. After that, I also had to pay for each actual copy of the book at almost $20 a pop, which I then had to onsell myself. At an asking price of $25, I was not making a lot of money; particuarly as most of my sales were made at craft and general markets, where I had to pay stallholder fees of up to $75. I wasn't just failing to make a profit; I was making a loss. Something had to change.
The calculator came out. I crunched the numbers, broke down exactly what the Vanity Press had delivered, and what it was costing me to sell my own book. I realised that considering I had illustrated the book covers myself, and the editors had only done a typographical edit on the book compared to the structural edit it needed (nay, deserved), there was nothing to gain from sticking with the Vanity Press. They were the ultimate middle man - taking their cut without doing any of the actual grunt work, and until I did something about it, they would continue taking a slice of the pie forever. It was time to stop being lazy and go hard on Plan B: Self-publishing, completely solo. I had needed a hand-holder to get started, and they had obliged. I no longer needed that hand-holding. It was time to stand up and take control of my dream again.
I broke the 2-year contract for a $100 fee, gave the manuscript an extra polish, re-did all the type-setting myself and started obtaining quotes from printers. As a graphic designer I knew the lingo, the specs, and the expected costs. Sourcing ISBNs and barcodes is childs play, cheap, and takes all of 20 minutes online. The covers were still mine to use as I saw fit, plus I was starting to build up a nice little range of merchandise in the form of colouring books, bookmarks, stickers, posters and a fan-oriented website for the series. I painstakingly hand-coded the book into the necessary e-pub formats and set up bookshelf accounts with Kindle and Kobo, and started selling a pure PDF version through my own website. I continued selling at markets - and still do - and started approaching independent bookstores about taking the book on consignment. I arranged book signings at bookstores, school festivals and fetes, set up presentations and author visits at schools and libraries. Finally I realised I wasn't just a writer anymore. I was self-published, but I was living my dream. I was an author.
It was hard work, and a big learning curve. I suddenly had to look at my writing career in an entirely different light. When I'm writing, my book is a journey, a form of escape, an art to delve into and immerse myself in. I now had to re-train my brain to think of my writing as a business. When people pick up my book, they are surprised it's self-published. It doesn't look self-published. And judging by my small - but loyal - fanbase, it doesn't read like a self-published book either. When it's time to publish, my book is less about the journey and the artisitic immersion and everything else light and fluffy; it's a product. And if you want to sell a product, the first priority must be quality. I took the time to source the right printer, to add illustrations and a map to the interior, to set out the book absolutely immaculately. Self-publishing has a stigma of poor-quality writing wrapped in a poor-quality cover. I did not want my book to fall into that blackhole of self-published garbage.
I worked hard. After six months I had sold 400 copies of my book. The Vanity Press, in the same time frame, had sold eleven; and most of those had been orders from libraries I had arranged myself.
Something else was happening. People weren't just interested in my book; they were interested in my journey. How did I publish the book? How did I find a printer? What's an ISBN? How can I get my manuscript appraised? When people realised I had the answers, they said, 'Wow, you should write a book about all that'. I'd just laugh and shake my head. Books take a long time to write, and I had enough writing to do!
But what about workshops?
I started seeking venues and asking writers from various online groups what they thought about a low-cost workshop where they could learn everything they needed to know about self-publishing. The response was encouraging, so I set up a few trial workshops. Then people started asking me about one-on-one mentoring, so I started offering that, too. I'm not making millions (or even hundreds!) but it helps subsidise costs of some of my printing and marketing, and is another way to network with other writers and artists. If you'd to read more about that, click here.
In February 2012 I released my second book, 'The Brothers of Turoc', a standalone dramatic tale of two child slaves who work in the diamond mines of a false King. While I still aim for trade publication, and would encourage any writer to continue submitting their work to trade publishers even if they also choose to self-publish in the meantime, this novel is also self-published. It took eighteen months to write and twice as long to be rejected by three Australian publishers. After the manuscript was short-listed in the 2011 Text Prize I decided not to continue submitting the book, and instead get it 'out there' as soon as I could. This time round, I was prepared. I painted the covers while the manuscript was professionally edited by a fantastic editor, Helen Maurus, after a thorough appraisal and polish by legendary Australian children's writer Sally Odgers. I sent out a press release that landed me three newspaper interviews and organised a special visit by Amnesty International at the book launch, to whom I donated $5.00 from every book sold. In March I entered the book into the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, where it (somehow) managed to wriggle its way into the top 250 of almost 5,000 entries. The fact that this book is standing out in these kinds of competitions is nothing short of pure encouragement. I may not be a trade-published author yet, but I am still honing my craft, still attending workshops and classes, still writing and submitting to publishers, still sending my books into competitions. And I am still an author. No one can ever take that away from me.
I have learnt that self-publishing is not failing, or giving up. It was not my preferred path. It still isn't. But for me, Plan B was better than Plan Give Up and Fail Completely. I still receive fan mail, I still sell my books and make money from them, I am still invited to speak at schools and libraries like a trade-published author. And I will keep writing, and self-publishing, until I am trade published, or until I have no stories left.
And I don't think that will be for a very long time.