My Long Road To Self-Publishing

After blindly supporting it for a number of years, I’ve decided to crowdfund my own project, a novel that I wrote for my son, and then write about the experience for you guys. Today I’d like to talk about my own experiences in publishing and why I think crowdfunding is, at the very least, a viable alternative to the traditional models. Be warned: this is a little introspective and I’m writing it from the perspective of a crowdfunding – but not a publishing – newbie.

First, understand that I’ve been entrenched in the traditional model for most of the decade. I’ve written two books, both directly acquired by technical publishers and without an agent. The advance for my first one, Black Hat, was negligible and I receive almost no royalties. My second book, Blogger’s Boot Camp, netted about $10,000 for the first edition and the same for a second edition we just completed. That’s split with my co-author, Charlie White.

So I haven’t gotten rich.

I did, briefly, have a nice contract with Random House in 2008 which fell through for a number of reasons, primarily a number of changes at the imprint I was working with as well as the financial collapse and the destruction of Borders. That was the highlight of my writing life up until then but I was quite unhappy. I worked for two years on the book, spending evenings hunched over my keyboard until 10pm. I gained 30 pounds over that period – drinking a lot and having young kids didn’t help – and I’m now trying to reverse that damage.

Having a “real” book contract paralyzed me. It was a huge amount of work and lots of travel. I spent a month in Israel and a month in Europe and suffered from a bout of some kind of stomach cramping that debilitated me and eventually landed me in the emergency room. I think Jason Fagone describes the dread of having to write a big book quite ably: “I started to get scared.”

How did I get the contract? I emailed my buddy Farhad Manjoo who had published a book. I asked him who his agent was and he sent me to a guy named Larry Weissman. I sent Larry a few ideas and he liked the tale of Marie Antoinette’s watch. The story is compelling: a watch made for Marie Antoinette was the iPhone of its day. It could measure time elapsed, ticked like a grandfather clock, and even had an thermometer. You could pull a little handle and it would chime the time. It was, in short, one of the most important pieces of technology of the late 18th century. The creator, Breguet, never saw it finished and neither did Marie Antoinette – they were all dead after the Revolution. The watch floated around, was stolen, and reappeared in 2008. I was writing the book at just the right time and I got some great interviews including some time with the thief’s wife.

Another thing I learned is that the book proposal has to be almost as long as the book itself. Larry ran me through a boot camp that I won’t forget. I was sick of him, but he pounded and pounded until we got out a great proposal. All of this – the story, the agent, and the proposal he birthed with me – helped propel the book into the vaunted halls of high stakes publishing.

But I failed. They cancelled the contract a few years later and the book is still floating around, unloved. I may be republishing it soon, but it’s been a disappointing road.

I popped out of the other side of this crucible with only a tangential understanding of the publishing business but a little more insight into the creative process. I knew I needed more eyes on my work and so I found a network of first readers. I also learned that your first draft shouldn’t go directly to your editor. Publishers are like any editor: they want a good first draft that will go, with minimum work, straight to press. The days of Maxwell Perkins sitting down with a fat, degenerate inebriate and editing his or her work until it shines are long gone. Publishers are happy if the work slightly glimmers and they hope the cover art will sell a few copies. This is obviously not true of all editors but we humans love the path of least resistance.

During that period I was visiting Madrid when we stopped in the Retiro Park where I saw the statue of Lucifer. I was in a historical mode at the time, always looking at old monuments and clocks for the book but I also wanted to write something for my kids. I imagined something hidden under the statue and plotted out a weird Da Vinci Code-like thing in my head. Then the word Mytro popped up. I decided to work on two projects.

As far as I can tell I worked on Mytro from about 2009 onward, writing a thousand words a day into a program called Scrivener, which is a great tool for writing long form pieces and even better for books. I worked on it on and off, at one point abandoning it for a long time while I dealt with the cancellation of my contract. I was extremely lucky – I had a great outlet here at TC and I didn’t let the contract slow me down. Because I had to write every day, that’s just what I did. I worked on Mytro, on a few other things, prepared proposals that never went anywhere, and tried to relax. I had kids I had to try to enjoy and a life that scooted by while I was in my attic working.

When I “finished” Mytro – it still needs a good copy edit – I sent it to an agent in New York who expressed interest in my fiction and wanted to send it around to young adult houses. Why did I choose young adult? First I wanted a book for my kids to read. Second I knew that the last paper and hardback readers are kids and teenagers. Sure Stephen King can sell a few million fat copies of his books to die-hard fans, but I was no Stephen King. Why not try for a market that was still growing and that could potentially support a trilogy?

The agent passed it on to a younger assistant who was tasked with passing it around. I waited all summer for news back but no one wanted it. I don’t blame the assistant but, in the end, she quit the agency and went on to do non-profit work.

It was then I realized that I was placing some of the most important things in my life in the hands of people who were at worst hostile and at best really busy. Why did I keep going back to this system? First you have to understand that it’s very comfortable. You write your 100,000 words, submit it, wait, respond to some emails, and then you see a printed book come out the other end. The book appears in bookstores, you feel momentarily cool, and then it drops off the face of Amazon sales rankings like a stone. By then, however, it’s been so long since you wrote the thing that it doesn’t matter. You’re on to bigger and better things. Again, I know I’m a special case in that I’ve been able to stumble into some degree of publishing success, but I think any writer would love the black box nature of most publishing houses.

Second, I thought these gatekeepers were important. I spent an evening with an old fiction professor of mine who told me he didn’t like Kickstarter and the self-publishing craze because he had made it and he didn’t want these new writers to have it too easy. In a way he was right. Why should they have instant riches when he had to punch up through layers of entrenched editorial control to achieve success? He is a literary writer with a wonderful voice and he got that voice out in an era when rejection slips still came on paper. He worked hard. Shouldn’t I?

I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think I ever will. I’m crowdfunding Mytro for a single reason – I need to see crowdfunding up close and I’m not about to make a smart thermostat or watch anytime soon. Therefore Mytro is the only thing I can offer the world of value that is mine and solely mine. I’m saying “Here, I made this” and watching what happens.

I don’t expect riches from this endeavor but I do expect to see the power of the network over old, entrenched markets. If I can make an acceptable advance for a first-time fiction book and publish a nice book at a nice price in a nice format, then I’ll be happy. To be clear I don’t disagree with my teacher. But I don’t think crowdfunding is a sneaky way of getting into his private literary club. I think it’s a way of creating a new club that is just as vibrant as the old one. One worthy of respect and, ultimately, admiration. To make it on your own terms, based on your own efforts, means something, and thankfully, the world is finally catching on.

I’ll be writing about my experience crowdfunding my novel over the next few weeks as well as featuring a few interesting guest posts from people who have gone through the process. You can read more about my experience here.