Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Goal

To be absolutely clear on the goal­—it’s something that each of us aspiring self-publishers needs. Why am I pursuing this path, and can I define my goal clearly to myself and others?  What, precisely, am I trying to accomplish, and how will I know if I’ve succeeded?  Without that clarity, it is difficult to determine the best path forward, and to know how to expend often-limited resources for maximum benefit.

I started by talking to people who knew a lot more than I did.  This consisted of those who had actually published or been instrumental in getting work into print:  mostly literary agents and successful writers, but also one friend who had done both traditional and self publishing.

I also asked myself a lot of questions.  Here’s a sampling of question sets from writers, self-publishers, and others that I found the most useful:

I found some of the following questions particularly helpful and have shared my personal answers in italics:

Why do you write?  What drives you to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and what parts of the process bring you satisfaction and joy?  In your minds’ eye, what are you trying to do through your writing? Some people write purely for the process and the art of expressing themselves, some to impart knowledge or expertise, others see writing as a vehicle to having an impact in the world, others aspire to all of the above, or something else altogether.  

I write because I want to connect with other people through stories. Therefore, I need readers. Even though I love the writing process, my ultimate reason for writing is about that connection, so my goal includes reaching as many readers as possible.  

How do you want to spend your time? What motivates you on a day to day basis? In the long chain of activity between writing a book and seeing it in the hands of readers, where do you want to invest your precious attention and hours?   

Like manyif not most people, I’m highly motivated by a sense of progress.  Forward motion.  Goal-approachment.  I realized that in traditional publishing, after the writing is done, the steps tend to take a really long time and involve a lot of waiting for other people to act or approve, from the process of trying to land an agent to the sales cycle to the year+ before your work is turned into a book.  If you prefer to use that time to move onto the next writing project, it could be ideal to have someone else handling those elements. But in thinking it all through, I realized that I strongly prefer an active role. I also realize that I would rather learn to arrange many of those things for myself and to keep things moving.

Can you withstand the possible lack of respect?  If you’re a new writer, let’s be honest, the stamp of approval of winning over an agent and selling to a respected publishing house goes a long, long way to having credibility in the eyes of most people—whether in the industry or not.  It takes some reserves of self esteem to respond well to the looks that often come when you tell people that, no, you don’t have an agent and no, you’re not being published by Random House.  If you can channel that doubt (or worse, pity) into your drive to succeed in your self-publishing venture, great.   If not, think hard about the path you’re on.

My logic is this: If anyone expresses doubt about my pursuits how can I blame them? The odds are tough and breaking through the noise of tens of thousands of books published in a year is no small feat for anyone, whether pubbed by a major house or a scrappy startup.

How much do you like business?  And its sister question, what resources do you have? No doubt about it, publishing is a business, and the requirements to be successful are not the same as those needed to produce a great piece of writing.  However, business is a learnable field and primarily “applied common sense.”  So, as long as you are not actively turned off by it, and can accept that the other actors will often have more of a profit motive than an art motive, lack of experience in business or as an entrepreneur or salesperson should not be a barrier.   If you’re self motivated enough to write a book, the business part should work out fine so long as you have some resources --time, money, perseverance, connections, advice from experts--and ideally all of the above.

It’s funnyI started writing as a way to pursue something creative that didn’t involve starting a business. It is ironic that I’ve landed here as an aspiring book entrepreneur.  I can see that the people and steps involved in traditional publishing add a lot of value, but in self publishing I will have more control over which people end up editing and designing and publicizing my book, and that is immensely appealing. I also like the idea of trying to figure out this quickly changing business while actively participating in its evolution.

How will you measure your success? Given the low cost of entry for self publishing, one could choose to self-publish without necessarily having “sales” goals. Just having your work available to potential readers (or your family:) seems a legitimate aspiration. It provides a sense of completion and accomplishment with minimal financial outlay.  However, it is also legitimate to set specific and ambitious sales goals that reflect the level of investment (of money and time)you make and the commercial potential that you believe your book has.  I believe Annie Begins has substantial commercial potential but there are so many other possible—and important—metrics. Here are some of mine:

How many people I reach with a story that brings them enjoyment or insight (which of course is correlated to sales, but this goal is about my readers, not me)
How much I learn
How engaged I feel in the day-to-day process

Are you doing it for the money?  I sure hope not.  Kidding.  But, how much cash do you intend to invest in self publishing, and what kind of return are you looking for?  If the money is important to you and you can possibly get an advance through traditional publishing, you should seriously consider that option. Because self publishing is the path that requires you pay rather than get paid, and there’s a very good chance of not recouping the $$ investment.  

For this first book, my minimum financial goal is to break even on what I expect to be a meaningful investment for a first-time author (mostly for marketing and publicity). I’m more optimistic than that sounds, but I also know that it takes time to build a brand and reputation and I’m anticipating that I’ll need to put in sustained effort before seeing rewards.

Summary:  I very seriously considered pursuing traditional publishing to the exclusion of other options, but after careful analysis I decided that my skills and motivations are better aligned with being a book entrepreneur.  I think we are at a critical point in time, possibly a Tipping Point for publishing. The value proposition for a traditional publisher is still strong, but it is increasingly possible to replicate it if you can invest properly in editorial and design experts and in marketing and publicity.  And since traditional publishing is not an option for many of us, self publishing represents a truly exciting alternative.   

No comments:

Post a Comment