Love, War, & Publishing My First Book Pt. I
March 2nd, 2016, after about 10 months of putting all of my time, money, love, patience, hope, and carpal tunnel fortitude into what would become my first book, it became available for digital download. A couple weeks after that I started shipping paperbacks from my apartment outside of Hartford, CT. A year and some change, nearly 1,000 books sold independently, and two national literary awards later, my book is out of print and out of conversation. Take a seat, I’ll tell you the story.
I heard a voice
People always say that, right? They felt called to do something? The “spirit moved” them? Well, before I fully understood my delusions and dissociation from a mental health standpoint, I used to consider that “spirit” my conscience; some sort of metaphysical signal that I needed to make an adjustment. I was at probably the most stressful time in my life; working over 80 hours a week between two jobs, sending money back home to my friends and family with every check, traveling on the weekends to escape Hartford and everything it didn’t have to offer me. I woke up one morning in June of 2015, and I heard a voice say, start writing.
But how? I wondered. With what time? I had always written and been talented at writing. But I had never cared to make life out of it. Those questions and concerns quickly grew irrelevant as I spent my nights, post-16 hour workdays, writing until I fell asleep, drooling on my keypad. I would wake up invigorated and excited to get back to writing the next night. I was doing something for me.
The Only Sunshine
The sixth story in the book was the first one written for the project(not technically, but I’ll explain this later). It’s called “The Only Sunshine”, and it centers on a ex-athlete and his baby-mama drama, his current girlfriend, and the maturation he needs to preserve the relationships in his life that are of value to him. It’s loosely (okay, not so loosely) based on the life of someone I’ve known for a long time. I wrote the story, threw it up on Google Drive and posted the link on Facebook and Instagram. Friends, Romans, ATLiens…lend me your eyes.
This free and expansive form of peer review/editing was a key component in not only pushing my project forward, but helping to validate that I was writing something that people would be willing to read. Including the audience in the process of production was a creative way for me to ensure buy-in without an elaborate marketing scheme from onset.
The feedback on “The Only Sunshine” was overwhelmingly positive. People were mad, sad, entertained. They wanted more. I utilized the Google Drive editing groups for four more stories, a little less than half of what I wrote, and what would end up being half of the book. I didn’t want anybody to read the entire thing before it was published, but I already had some people hooked.
Seeing is Believing
I got about halfway done with writing before I decided that I wanted illustrations for my book.
Yeah, I know the content is adult-themed (or at least mature young adult).
Yeah, I know there are swear words in the text.
Yeah, I know it’s not a kid’s book.
People watch Family Guy and The Boondocks every day and somehow still can’t separate the idea of animated images and children’s media. I wanted pictures for readers like me, who love to visualize what they read, but could use a little artistic guidance for our mind’s eye. I wanted something that would break up the monotony of typical “adult” reading, something that spoke to the inner creative. It’s all self-help books, history, and political science these days with my friends and me. I figured maybe if people could be reminded of why they used to love to read, then they would start loving it again.
I was able to get assistance from my friend and fraternity brother, DJ Johnson, an excellent graphic designer. We worked hand-in-hand on the concepts for the images. I provided him with story summaries and character bios so that he could get a feel for what I was imagining. He also read every story before he started to illustrate. Most times we hit the nail right on the head the first time. For the times we didn’t, we communicated well and made the editing process smooth.
I spent hours and hours crafting the proper order for the stories, examining all the potential permutations of genre, length and plot.
I paid DJ for 10 internal images (one for each story), a front cover design, and a back cover design. He signed a contract that transferred the rights tothe images over to me for infinite use to my own ends, with restrictions on his usage, but that ensured he would be credited as the illustrator any time the images appeared. Measures like this are important, even with your friends.
What are my options?
I kept writing. I created tiers with my Google Drive reviewers. Only highly trusted friends and other writers/editors had access to more than five stories, and their primary purpose was to help me refine the narratives and catch any grammatical mistakes. Charli, my girlfriend-businesspartner-lifesaver, picked up all my slack and contributed great ideas to make things more efficient when needed. She helped me develop a thematic tie for all the stories, which made my writing across tales more cohesive. She gave great, honest feedback, and it was great to have a #2 that I knew I could count on for anything. The book is dedicated to her.
I finished the book on November 2nd, 2015. I was so excited. I finished typing the afterword, a flowery, inspiring couple of paragraphs about dreams come true, but I didn’t sleep that whole night. The next day, I printed out two full copies of my manuscript and put them in binders. Charli and I stayed up all night after work reading through the copies and making edits by hand, switching binders, and doing it all over again. By the end of the week, I had a manuscript that was ready for evaluation.
Now, by this point in the story, I’m sure you’ve picked up that there was no prior planning to this entire endeavor. I kind of just jumped into publishing. I didn’t research publishers, funding, distribution — nothing. I did everything on the go, which I would not advise. Measure three times and cut once.
Going into December, my main goal was to start shopping my manuscript around. I knew it was good, better than many books that I had bought or read in a library, so I should have no problem getting somebody to pick it up within their company…right? Haha. Ha. Ha. Still, I wanted to know what my options were. Large, New York based printing press? Small boutique publisher? I read about self-publishing.
In the materials that I read, they said I would need a marketing plan, business proposal, portions of my book (either the first three chapters or first ten pages), and maybe even some reviews. I set to work on creating these documents immediately, as well as setting up social media accounts that represented my brand as an author and persona. I definitely encourage all new writers to create a set of materials similar to this for their independent pieces. Having a press kit as an independent author isn’t a bad idea either. Having a website is essential. I sent my manuscript to a few publishers. Ones big and ones small.
The submission criteria said things like “please allow 6–9 months for a decision about your manuscript.” Now, maybe it’s the millennial impatience coded into my DNA, or maybe I was just too stubborn to wait so long for a potential (probable) no, but I couldn’t wait. I knew I had something quality. There was no reason to wait for somebody else to make my dream come true. I was making good money working in advertising. I’d do it myself. I resolved to look into self-publishing avenues after winter vacation. And oh, yeah. I never did hear back from those publishers.
All the fun stuff
January saw me looking into a la carte editing services, publishing support agencies, independent POD services, etc. I would need a strong network of dedicated partners if I was going to do this thing alone. It was daunting, but I attacked it fiercely and head-on. I wanted to learn everything. I finally chose a publishing support agency, and they helped me get my manuscript edited and formatted for all methods of distribution, ISBN and copyright, rights to attributions ( I have epigraphs for my stories from published works of other authors), and more. All the fun stuff, basically.
Shameless plug moment for my partners. All of them were awesome to work with.
Publisher’s Support: I worked with Self-Publishing Services out of Missoula, Montana. My project manager was Casey Dawes, but she has since started her own publishing support agency. I would recommend them both highly.
Printing: Lightning Press. A very flexible and accommodating press out of New Jersey. Tell them Hugh Hunter sent you!
Website: LOTUS Creations. This came after the fact, but I have to show love. Can’t say enough about the web design and graphic design skills with this company, which is minority and woman-owned. Peep my website. Please, please, please partner with them. Tell Alexis that Hugh sent you.
I had to invest a few thousand of my own dollars to get everything together for my book, so I would expect at least that much if you want to do things your own way, the right way. There was a little pressure around trying to get the licensing rights, and formatting and uploading your manuscript in different formats to different digital distributors can be cumbersome, but that’s why it helps to have someone guide you through the process. Casey was really helpful in not only getting stuff done for me correctly, but teaching me how to do it as we went along. I only hit one major snag, a snag that has haunted me to this day, and which is the reason my book is out of print.
My book is too nice.
Let’s take a step back.
There were many aspects to my vision for self publishing.
- My first time out of the gate, I wanted control over the process and timeline. I wanted to look back and say, I did this on my own, my way.
- I wanted to write what I wanted to write, content wise.
- I wanted to hand-craft the reading experience.
That last point is what got me in trouble. I settled on having the ten internal images in color, on glossy paper inserts that were a little bit thicker than the other book pages. I wanted a matte cover for the smooth feel in your hand. I wanted quality. So that’s how I designed the book. When trying to upload to CreateSpace or IngramSpark or other POD services, those aspects of the book made it very, very , very expensive to print. With one desired combination of attributes, Amazon suggested their breakeven price for printing a single unit of my book would be $45.64. I would get none of that. I, myself wouldn’t buy any book for $46, so I knew I had to do something differently.
I figured I could work with an independent printer, front the money for book costs, set a reasonable price for resale, and facilitate distribution all on my own. There were definitely an extra couple of steps involved, but the integrity of the process and reading experience were (are) that important to me. I didn’t think that this model was sustainable necessarily, but I would concern myself with that issue later. So, that’s what I did. In March, I placed my first order for 50 books. It cost me about $500 dollars.
I sold out in less than 24 hours from my bigcartel site. New entrepreneurs selling products online with a small (non-existent) budget should utilize bigcartel.
The first fifty books I bought have a white cover; I affectionately call them the #First50, because I took the revenue from those initial sales, changed the cover color to green, and tuned up some aspects of overall design, effectively creating collector’s editions of the first fifty copies. I had to order more books once I got paid, which created a bit of lag in the supply and demand curves. Little did I know, that lag, those upfront production costs, and the strain on partner relationships would make my publishing career much harder than I had anticipated. Much, much harder.