Love, War, & Publishing My First Book Pt. II
The first story in my 2016 collection of stories, A Magic Door and A Lost Kingdom of Peace, is called “The Southern District.” I wrote it when I was 19 years old (I told you I would explain). I included it in a collection of stories that were mostly written in 2015 as an homage to my former self, a testament to my growth, and because mental health is important and deserves all the literary support it can get to prevent a single-story narrative. The story is basically free since you can read it in its entirety through the sample on Amazon. It’s probably my favorite story that I have ever written.
Apart from The Southern District, which lends its name to my professional website and budding publishing company, every other story in #AMagicDoor was specifically crafted for the reading experience. There are ten stories. Five are realistic fiction, five have elements of fantasy fiction, fairy-tales, or futurism/sci-fi. The stories alternate by brand of fiction as the reader blurs the line between what is real and what is imaginary.
The book takes it’s title from a line in playwright Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night: “Obsessed by a fairy-tale, we spend our lives searching for a magic door and a lost kingdom of peace.” My goal was to create relatable yet idiosyncratic narratives that illuminate our yearning as humans to live “a perfect life,” or, at least the life our imagination designs for us. What happens when we come up against obstacles or hardships? The book explores that too, all while integrating black culture and peculiarities of being a person of black heritage in America in today’s society. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t have the answers to the questions it poses. But it does make you think. It does force you to create your own world, and to live with what you have created. Kind of like…life.
From 4:55 onward in this video, I describe one of the ways I held myself accountable during my writing and publishing process to make sure that I wasn’t just writing for fun. I wanted to create something unique and valuable.
In terms of structure, like I mentioned before, I wanted to create something for me, for us. The millennial reader-creative-youngprofessional. We don’t always have the time we want to read, but we’re passionate about literature and ideas. We love creativity and have a certain nostalgia for childhood cartoons, but we are also uber concerned and involved with present-day sociopolitical dynamics. We don’t really have a lot of money, but we have enough to spend on things that are important to us (we think).
The shortest story in my book is 4 pages. The longest isn’t quite 30. You can pick it up, read five pages and have a whole experience, put it down, and do the same thing over again months later without missing a beat. I tried to create a fiction book with minimal downsides. I wasn’t quite sure of the “target audience;” (I’m still not)a marketing phrase that it would behoove you to understand and come up with answers for. One thing I’m sure of, though, is that this is definitely a readers and writers collection. If you have a literary affinity, there’s something in here for you.
So, now what?
I published the book and started selling copies. I was selling at $20 a pop and five dollars for shipping(somebody later told me to always put my price at “dollar.99;” some sort of buyer psychology that increases purchase conversion). It cost me about $10 to make a book at the low volume that I was ordering. Media mail is about $3 per book, and 8.5x11 shipping envelopes cost 50 cents a piece if you know where to shop. So, I was making about $9–10 per sale, which was cool, because making money was never the goal; exposure was. As long as I had enough to keep distribution going, I figured I would be okay.Through economies of scale and more affinity over time with my partners, I eventually was able to sell books for $14.99 and keep the same profit margin. I ran various discounts and promotions depending on the time of year or catered to certain affinity groups.
I applied for more free reviews, which normally take a few months to process. I only wanted free, because I didn’t want to feel like I was paying for favor. I could be patient for honest thoughts about my art. I got the reviews back and they were stellar, everyone has lauded the work. I also entered the book into 8 or 9 national literary award contests. No major ones, no big prize money. But, for many of the short story book contests, I was the only self-publisher, and the only first-timer. I felt that I was being ambitious. I won two awards, which definitely boosted my confidence and the credibility of my book.
I used that credibility and my age and entrepreneurship to get into motivational speaking and workshops for students, elementary to graduate school age. This was mostly for exposure, marketing, and community engagement, but sometimes I got paid to go and speak. These engagements helped me build connections and content for my website. All in all, minus the time it took to get rolling, it was a great addition to my professional endeavors.
In the summer of 2016 I had a mental health meltdown. I sold my last 100 books in inventory to raise $1000 for a friend’s funeral costs. I pushed everything aside in my life except grief and suffering. Publishing, distributing, writing, eating — everything. It was hard to watch everybody’s lives continue on while mine seemed frozen in time. I wanted to keep playing “the game;” trying to figure out new audiences, establishing new strategic partnerships, negotiating new bulk sales; I just didn’t have the energy. I didn’t order another batch of books until September that year, and even then, it was only to have enough to apply to more literary awards. I sold the extras, sure, but I didn’t purchase nearly enough. I would go and do speaking engagements and students would beg for books to buy — I just didn’t have any.
Another significant reason that I didn’t have any is that I changed jobs. I left corporate America and New England to come back south to Georgia and work in education. I was in search of something fulfilling, something altruistic, something worthwhile. My pockets suffered. Not in a poverty sort of way, but I no longer had the disposable income to spend an extra $500 a month to purchase books. The lags between restocks grew. I kept pushing the digital copies, but people had heard all about the nice look and feel of the physical copy and wanted to purchase that. Some people wanted their books signed.
I ran out of books in December of 2016 and have been out since. It hurts to think that my book, such a quality read, might become nothing more than a relic. A pretty-good piece of work by a no-name, kinda-one-hit-wonder author. I’m marginally comforted by the fact that if that is the case, at least my only time out was quality.
So, the drawbacks of all in-house self-publishing began to show and have shown. Sure, it’s a ton of hard work. It’s annoying, depressing sometimes. In my case, the hardest parts have been that it takes equal parts high-volume time and money, and working in a business (publishing) that isn’t exactly the most lucrative, it’s not easy to create a sustainable one-man-band model. The hardest part is that when you stop, everything stops. And sometimes you have to stop. It sucks, but it’s true. Since I sold out of physical copies, I’ve been trying to utilize the high brand regard of my book that I’ve earned through reviews, awards, and other connections to catch the eye of a second-run publisher. I’m still unconcerned with the profit. If a company would be interested in printing and distributing my book and cutting me in, I’d be ecstatic. I just want people to read and think. That’s all. That’s all.
I started blogging to grow my online audience. I figured if I could catch enough eyes, it could convert into digital sales, at least for the meantime. Best case scenario, I could create a larger following so that whenever I did get a second run, or publish something new, I’d have an audience waiting.
While I was writing my first book, I read an article about marketing as a self-published author. The thesis of the blog was that the best promotion you can offer your first book as a self-published author is to write another book. New things excite people, they’ll read what you put out and then backtrack and read your old work. I was working so damn hard on the first book, I completely eschewed the idea. Now, with my book against the proverbial wall, I understand. I understand all too well.
So, I write. Not everyday (find out why, here), but when it’s worth it; when it means something. I plan now. If I ever write another book, I have a drive full of partners, illustrations and ISBNs and barcodes already purchased, already licensed, ready to go. I won’t make every page colorful and glossy — regular paper will do. I’ll start shopping my manuscript before it’s fully done so that by the time I hear a response, I’ll be ready to move. I’ll try boutiques and also evaluate my self-publishing options.
I hope some part of my story has helped a burgeoning author. There aren’t any missteps that I made that I would hope someone else makes. There’s so much competition in every industry these days, and even if you have a great product, so much of the battle is won in form and delivery. We can’t afford to lose on things we can control. If someone doesn’t like my writing, I never had a chance. But my designs will be flawless. My website will be professional. My art will be affordable and positioned properly. The writing will be quality, whether or not it suites your taste.
I love literature and I love writing. I’m no stranger to hard work, and even less than two years in, I understand the war-zone of mixing business, art, and entertainment, and trying to “make it big.” I’m inspired by Roxane Gay and Ta’Nehisi Coates, writing for decades before making it big. Never giving up. Proving that it’s never too late.
I’m also not trying to wait that long.
I’m suited for the war. I will be back. Until then…