Why I’m self-publishing my book

On April 7, 2015, I announced Tide of Shadows and Other Stories, a science fiction and fantasy short fiction collection. I will be self-publishing the book and distributing it via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform. It comes out on May 4, 2015 and is available now for pre-order.

Here, I’ll talk a bit about why I decided to self-publish my book, lessons I’ve learned, and how I discovered that self-publishing isn’t an admission of failure but a great opportunity.

A matter of perspective

My opinion of self-publishing has evolved over the years. I thought the early days were ugly — a wasteland of books that no gatekeeper would let into the holy land — but it has pulled itself from the publishing gutter to become one of the most exciting and profitable ecosystems for new and established writers. It’s not a last resort anymore — it’s a desirable and legitimate option for writers of any ilk.

As my opinion of self-publishing went, so did my desire to publish my own writing.

As my opinion of self-publishing went, so did my desire to publish my own writing. Despite having a successful blog and a large built-in audience, there was a big part of me that craved the attention and validation of professional editors. I was convinced that the stories I was writing would only be legitimized if someone else deemed them worthy for publication and wanted to pay me money. I wrote for these markets, trying to emulate what I saw them publishing. I submitted and submitted and submitted. I was rejected and rejected and rejected. I picked myself up each time and kept going.

A typical story for a writer trying to break into the pro markets. Move along folks, nothing to see here.



At the same time, however, my blog, A Dribble of Ink, was continuing to grow and cement itself as a voice within the online science fiction and fantasy community. Last year it won a Hugo Award. I was editing other writer’s work, curating content, and publishing my own essays and reviews. This helped me realize two things: a) publishing other writers didn’t validate their work any more than it would have if they’d published it on their own blog, and b) I was already self-publishing. Sure, it wasn’t fiction, but what’s the difference, really?

So, I began to think about it more. Why was I really writing? What were my goals and desires for my short fiction?

I’m a writer. I want people to read what I write.

Asking these questions revealed many different answers — all of which helped me understand my hesitancy to self-publish, my desire to be validated by selling to a pro market, and my goals as a writer. Some of my more salient thoughts:

  • I want to be read — I’m a writer. I want people to read what I write.
  • The stories want to be read— All stories want to be heard, but some of them deserve it more than others. Over the past five years I’ve written or half-written many short stories that are interesting in one way or another, but are better left as learning experiences. The stories collected in Tide of Shadows and Other Stories, however, have never stopped nagging me. No matter how much distance grew between us, I could hear them nattering away and demanding an audience. I sent them through all the usual suspects — Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fantasy & Science Fiction— to various levels of success: almost immediate rejection by slush readers, serious consideration by senior editors, and (in the case of one story) publication. Despite this, I never let go of the idea that these stories deserved an audience. Each rejection made me more determined to see them in print.
  • People told me they wanted to read it — Readers, friends, family, other writers, bloggers, and people I’ve never spoken to before all expressed interest when I first started floating the idea of publishing my short stories on Twitter.
  • $$$ — Even at the best of times, there’s very little money in publishing genre short fiction. If you were to sell to pro markets on a regular basis, you’re only going to make enough money to take your family on a road trip once a year. At this stage in my career, I can’t expect more than (essentially) pocket change from writing short fiction.
  • Pro-paying markets ($0.05+/word) are tough to break into — And rightly so. Clarkesworld, Tor.com, et al., have access to the best and most popular genre short fiction writers working today. They publish Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ken Liu, Rachel Swirsky, Ted Chiang, and dozens of other top-tier writers. That’s not to say that they don’t also publish up-and-coming writers, but the bar is set so high, and such a small percentage of submissions are published (Clarkesworld received over 1,000 submissions in April 2015 and published only a handful of stories) that it’s unrealistic to bet on becoming a published short fiction writer by breaking into one of those markets. You don’t start your hockey career in the NHL. You play in the minors first — you grow, you learn, you fall down and pick yourself up again, and you learn how to persevere and build success from failure.
  • Semi-pro-paying markets ($0.01–0.04/word) straddle a middle ground— Semi-pro markets such as Bastion or Giganotosaurus are fantastic for writers ready make the jump from aspiring to published. They’re advantageous in that that they provide something of an audience, and they give some perceived value to the stories they’ve published by virtue of being accepted and vetted by an experienced editor. And, just because they’re semi-pro doesn’t your story won’t end up alongside some other great authors. However, the monetary compensation they provide is not going to knock your socks off, their readership is often small(er than the pro magazines), quality is not as consistent as the pro markets, and sales to these venues don’t count as professional sales (natch) for the purposes of impressing the SFWA overlords or other writing opportunities that require a professional sale.
  • I have a built-in readership — This is a unique facet to my journey towards publication. I run a popular award-winning blog which has roughly 30k monthly readers. That alone rivals all but the biggest of the pro markets in terms of reach. By leveraging even a small portion of my regular readers (which is about 40–45% of my overall readership), I believe the opportunity exists to outpace the revenue that I would have made from selling the stories to semi-pro markets and potentially pro markets — more on that later. I won’t make a lot of money, but hopefully enough to cover my costs and (maybe) begin a nest egg for my next collection.

The benefits of publishing in pro- and semi-pro markets is very real, and I will continue to submit my future stories to all of my favourite magazines — no doubt collecting hundreds of more rejection letters along the way. However, once I embraced the idea that self-publishing wasn’t an admission of failure but an opportunity to forge my own path — to find validation in my own confidence that these stories are good and deserve an audience — I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders.

I wanted to be excited by these stories, not discouraged by them.

I hadn’t realized it, but I’d been holding onto these stories for years, buried under the frustration that they wouldn’t sell to pro markets. This frustration had been holding me back as a writer — instead of focusing on all of the new stories bouncing around in my head, I was continually looking for new markets for my old stories. I was looking for closure.

I wanted to be excited by these stories, not discouraged by them.

And that’s ultimately what this collection is: a exclamation point at the end of that sentence in my career as a writer.

(I feel that it’s important to point out that I didn’t stop writing during this time; I’ve been working on a novel and written several short stories in the interim.)

It’s all about the Bordens

Accepting this as a vanity project, I decided early on that my focus is to recover my costs. Any profit on top of that is gravy.

My costs for the project were roughly $300. Selling the book on Amazon for $2.99 (s0, $2.06 royalties after Amazon’s cut) means I’ll need to sell about 145 copies to break even. That seemed doable.

In comparison, selling each of the stories in the collection (totaling about 21k words) to pro markets (assuming $0.05/word) would have netted me about $1,050, and selling them all to semi-pro markets (assuming $0.01/word) would have made $210. So, I’ll need to sell about 650 copies of my book to match the rates of pro markets (after covering costs) and 250 copies to match the semi-pro markets (after covering costs). A little more intimidating, but not discouraging.

Goals

It’s important to set goals. So, I created three simple goals that I will use to determine the success of this project:

  1. Break even on costs
  2. Receive positive feedback from readers (while accepting negative feedback as inevitable)
  3. Gain insight into the publishing industry and what it takes to publish/market a book

The first one is quantifiable, the other two are more subjective. As of writing this article, I feel like I have already satisfied my third goal.

Let’s publish a book

So, the decision’s been made. I’m going to publish this damn thing myself.

So, what next?

Anyone?

*crickets*

Oh, right. I’m on my own here.

(This isn’t actually true at all. There’s a huge community of writers on the Internet that are happy to discuss self-publishing and eBook creation with new writers. Twitter was hugely helpful for me, as was Matt Gemmell’s post on creating anthologies in Scrivener.)

Everyone in the pool

I had a pretty good idea off the bat which stories I wanted to include in the collection. As I mentioned above, they were the five that wouldn’t shut up. Quickly, I settled on the following:

  • “A Night for Spirits and Snowflakes”
  • “The Girl with Wings of Iron and Down”
  • “Of Parnassus and Princes, Damsels and Dragons”
  • “The Colour of the Sky on the Day the World Ended”
  • “Tide of Shadows”

So, I had stories in hand, but what to do with them? A collection of short fiction has its own narrative defined by the stories within — their natural ebb and flow in terms of content, pacing, theme, tone, and all of the other various facets of a story. Nailing down the order of the stories is integral for creating a smooth and enjoyable experience for readers.

Luckily, I only had five stories, and the opening and closing stories were obvious.

  1. “A Night for Spirits and Snowflakes” was previously published in the Sword & Laser Anthology, edited by Veronica Belmont and Tom Merritt. It’s the longest story in the collection, but it also eases into its storytelling in a more relaxed manner than the other stories.
  2. “The Girl with Wings of Iron and Down” is very different than “A Night for Spirits and Snowflakes” and offers an opportunity to show readers that collection is not filled with the same story slightly rearranged five times. By transitioning from a dark and languid fantasy to an ephemeral, staccato science fiction, my goal to keep readers on their toes.
  3. “Of Parnassus and Princes, Damsels and Dragons” is the most playful and friendly story in the novel and — after the tragedy explored in the previous stories —is a nice breather.
  4. “The Colour of the Sky on the Day the World Ended” is the shortest story in the collection and blends the hopeful narrative from “Of Parnassus and Princes, Damsels and Dragons” with the darker imagery of the collection’s final story.
  5. “Tide of Shadows” is the final story for two reasons: a) it’s the title story, and b) it’s my favourite story in the collection. There’s no better way to cap the collection off than on a high note.

I played with several other configurations for the stories, but I kept on coming back around to this order. It’s clean and offers the most natural rhythm and narrative structure to the collection. Thematically, you can see some of the ideas that I first explore in “A Night for Spirits and Snowflakes” reappear in “Tide of Shadows,” imparting the feeling of a literary Möbius strip.

Creative control

Anyone who reads A Dribble of Ink knows how passionate (and grumpy) I am about science fiction and fantasy cover art. I’ve raised a few fits in my time, so pressure was on to produce something that would not only appeal to readers, but also to prove that I can walk-the-walk like I talk-the-talk.

To reduce overhead costs, I decided to take a cue from many of the short fiction markets and license an existing piece of artwork instead of commissioning an original piece. As soon as I saw Kuldar Leement’s portfolio, I knew that he was the artist wanted to represent “Tide of Shadows,” the collection’s lead story. Leement’s artwork is powerful and ethereal and captures the alien feel I wanted for the titular Tide of Shadows.

By self-publishing Tide of Shadows and Other Stories, I was free to choose an illustrator that I felt best matched the title story, “Tide of Shadows.” This is a dream come true for any author, but the freedom also creates a challenge: like many self-published authors, I didn’t have the budget to hire a cover designer. So I pulled up my shirt sleeves and spent several hours working on the design myself— trying to do justice to the great illustration I’d licensed. With great power comes great responsibility, right?

Because of the potential that the artwork (which I have non-exclusive rights to use) could theoretically show up elsewhere as cover art or promotional art (if someone else licensed it), I had to make sure that I executed on my vision of bold-but-simple design/layout/typography that helps the cover make an impression outside of just the gorgeous illustration.

To begin the process, I mocked up a handful of covers using different artwork, fonts, layout, etc. This iterative process allowed me to refine the cover by eliminating things that weren’t working. Inspiration for the layout/design/typography of the final cover came from Kirk Benshoff’s work on Ann Leckie’s Radch Empire series, including Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.

I think I did a pretty good job — and I had a hell of a lot of fun.

(If you can’t design your own cover and your budget affords it, I believe wholeheartedly that you should hire a graphic designer/illustrator. The reasons for this are well-documented.)

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Or, hire a copyeditor

One of the most important decisions I made was to hire a professional copyeditor. This was by far the biggest money sink for the project — it cost about $225 to copyedit the stories and the supplemental material — but was worth every penny.

By tapping into the Twitter hivemind, I finally narrowed down my search to Richard Shealy’s SFF Copyediting. Shealy’s an SFWA Affiliate Member, and has worked with the biggest SFF publishing houses and many of the best writers in the business : Kameron Hurley, Chuck Wendig, and Margaret Atwood.

Shealy describes his services:

Copyediting. The Big Idea is fully spun out on the page, and you’re happy with it. You want to make sure there’s absolutely nothing blocking the path from your work to the reader, to be certain that the finely tuned machine that is the story has no imperfections that can make it work to less than its full potential.

I can’t stress enough how Shealy’s involvement in the project turned it from a cute vanity project into something that I can stand behind as a professional product. Shealy was quick, thorough, and an absolute delight to work with, and comes with my highest recommendation for anyone looking for a copyeditor.

In returning my copyedits, Shealy told me, “You’re a shockingly clean author. This may be the least grammatically / punctuation-f***ed piece I’ve ever copyedited. My hat’s off to you!”

While this was enough to make me blush initially, the real credit for the cleanliness of my pre-copyedit manuscript is owed to my wonderful beta readers. Each of the stories included in Tide of Shadows and Other Stories was revised several times — content, plot, language, character, dialogue, copy, etc — before being passed off to beta readers, who each had their own impact on the story and cleaned up the copy tremendously. Throughout each step, copyediting occurred naturally as eyes pored over the manuscript. Good beta readers aren’t a replacement for a professional copyeditor, but they’re a damn close second — and have the benefit of helping to improve all aspects of a story that a copyeditor doesn’t touch.

Self-published books have to fight an uphill battle against their reputation for being sloppy and unprofessional — rife with mistakes and poor writing. Hiring a good copy editor is like bypassing that hill and taking an elevator to the top. It’s vital in preparing a professional-quality manuscript for readers.

(On that note, I’m certain that Shealy is cringing as he reads this article!)

The long and winding road

In addition to the stories themselves, I felt like it would be fun to append each story with notes exploring the story’s origins and posing a few questions — the same questions I asked myself while writing — that might make it fun for readers to revisit the story in a new context.

These sort of story notes can come off as self indulgent, so, after consulting the Twitter hivemind, I make it a prerogative not to a) tell readers how to read the story, b) spoil any of the more interpretive plot points or scenes (I like to involve readers in filling in some of the blanks in my stories), and c) keep them short. I’m hoping that this approach will make the story notes interesting to readers, rather than relegating them to being a bucket to catch my gratuitous ego vomiting.

Tools of the trade

What did I use to create my book? Scrivener and Photoshop.

Scrivener

Where would I be without Scrivener? This little $50 program from Literature & Latte is an all-in-one writing and publishing tool. The stories themselves were written in other programs (Pages for OSX, mostly), but everything was assembled in Scrivener and it handled all of the eBook conversion, formatting, and layout.

Matt Gemmell does a much more thorough job of explaining how to create an anthology or collection in Scrivener, so I’ll refer you to his excellent blog post.

I can’t recommend Scrivener enough. After hiring a copyeditor, and getting good cover art, this is the best tool a self-published author’s money can buy.

Photoshop

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I created my cover in Photoshop.

Face Out

One of the most important decisions I had to make was deciding where to sell my book. “Everywhere” seemed like the most obvious choice off the bat, but a few factors led me to publishing solely on Amazon (for at least the first 90 days.) Those were:

  • It’s the largest distributor of eBooks and Kindle Unlimited is a tempting way for new authors to find an audience outside of their current circles. Anyone with access to a Kindle eReader (or Kindle App) can buy the book, but for all Kindle Unlimited readers that make it past the 10% mark of the collection, I’ll get a cut of the monthly Kindle Unlimited pot. Being part of Kindle Unlimited, I’m restricted from selling the book outside of Amazon — so I’m betting on this making me more money than publishing the in non-Amazon stores. This decision was made easier because:
  • As a Canadian I cannot publish on the Nook store. I could publish on Kobo, Smashwords, etc, but being blocked out of Barnes & Noble’s distribution channels was a deal breaker. I will likely make the book available through those stores at some point — when my term with Kindle Unlimited lapses — and sell copies through my website, but for now I’m putting all my chips on Amazon. So far, only four people (all friends of mine) have asked about non-Kindle options for the book.

The day pre-orders went live, Tide of Shadows and Other Stories rose into the top 50 science fiction anthologies on Amazon. It was also one of the top 10 most popular upcoming science fiction anthologies. I took a screenshot to commemorate the moment:

My reaction was thus:

“Yay!”
Looks at pre-order numbers.
“Huh. People sure don’t buy a lot of science fiction anthologies on Amazon.”

Still, for all my trepidation and nerves, it was a nice little victory. It will take months to figure out if this was the right decision, however.

Write it and they will come?

What Next?

So, it’s out there, ready for pre-order. I’ve assembled a book of stories that I’m immensely proud of and I’ve learned a lot along the way. But, the adventure is just beginning. What awaits ahead?

I’ve got plans for promoting the book. I’m hoping it’ll find readers. But I don’t know what’s coming. I can’t predict that. So, instead I’ll focus on the next step, preparing for another journey even as I’m still completing this one.

For now, it’s back to writing. As I pass these stories off to the reader, I hear their voices for the final time. Like a parent watching his kid go off to college, I know I move onto a new phase in my life as a writer.

Then, I’ll write. More stories. More projects. And begin to think about the next book. Because that’s what writers do.

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