One author's story about the elusive book self-publishing process

The elusive book publishing process: A little risk, a little reward

Publishing the open source way
Image by :

My favorite thing about the Internet is the way it makes so many of us into storytellers. It turns people on to sharing their own experiences, especially experiences they might be uncomfortable relating in person. My enthusiasm for the Internet’s encouragement of transparency extends beyond digital confessionals and group therapy and well into the mundane: instruction manuals; wikis packed with the sort of minutiae one used to have to wait to overhear at a cocktail party; and the open listserv a friend maintained as a shared journal, where my every entry addressed the lone lurker no one knew (but who seemed to be named Paul and kept showing up in the output of a REVIEW DIARY-L).

I’ve come to count on this recurrent trait of the Internet, the way it appeals to the need we have to regale or caution or consult the tribe. There’s a specific refrain I hear or say every time my social circle has a question come up in conversation, usually voiced while reaching into one’s left pocket: "Hang on, I’ll ask the Internet."

I am utterly reliant on this when writing. The longer I spend in front of a draft, the more tabs I open. I rack up one search after another to check the spelling or meaning of a word, the floor plan of a big-box retail store, the history of Nihilism, a recipe for bread pudding, yet another synonym for "ran". The Internet can cough up a wrong answer as easily as a right one, of course, but it can give me enough information to keep writing rather than sacrifice my authorial rhythm to an hour of detailed research. (Importantly, whatever I find in a search engine when I fact-check my work is probably also what my readers will find when they casually do the same.)

I say all of this to frame the disappointment I felt when I decided to self-publish an ebook and found that plenty of other writers had strong opinions about what not to do—but no one was willing to spill the beans on what worked. I quickly realized that this was something like my father’s flat refusal to discuss his income with anyone other than my mother and his open offense at the idea that anyone would ever ask about such a personal matter as his professional life.

Even writers who openly discuss their business dealings usually eschew sharing the secrets of their success. They traffic instead in cautionary tales, of which there are more than enough. I’ve found reports of countless scams preying on the ambition of those new to publishing. Writer Beware is my favorite source of such information and I recommend anyone who’s interested in publishing their own work begin the planning process by checking the options they’re considering against the money traps discussed there.

All the shalt nots in the world don’t add up to a single thou shalt, and that was my problem. My novel Perishables won the 2012 Laine Cunningham Novel Award with an unpublished revision. This win gave me the motivation to tamp down my paralyzing timidity and try to sell it, for real money and everything, to someone who might never have met me but would think my story worth their time. I could formulate the basics of a plan for self-publishing, but I couldn’t compare it against plans executed by others. I groused about the lack of positive advice and plunged ahead with my own plan, damn the torpedoes.

Somewhere along the way I was advised that a good cover can sell a book but a bad one can kill it. I found a few visual artists on Google+ who had been recommended as possible sources, then emailed six of them at random. I was very direct: I told them I planned to self-publish my first novel, that I was completely clueless, and that I wanted to discuss retaining them as a cover designer. Three ignored me, one rubbed me the wrong way, one gave me a very polite response that he was too busy at the time, and one responded with nothing but enthusiasm. The artist I chose, John Ward, was enthused both by writing in general and by the synopsis I’d given him of Perishables—describing it as a zombie novel that isn’t really about the zombies but is about frustrated geeks and a vampire who lives in suburbia and what they do when the dead rise.

Very early in our discussions, John made a radical suggestion that slotted perfectly into the tab of my frustration with others’ silence: that we conduct the entire process of cover design—brainstorming, drafts, and revision approvals—transparently via public posts on Google+. I hired him immediately and told him I was going to extend his suggestion to trying to document everything about the publishing process as openly as I could. Thus, The Perishables Project was born.

My stated goal with The Perishables Project was to record what was required for me to sell 10 copies to total strangers. I wasn’t sure anyone would care about that, but I got questions before I’d even started. And once I did start posting, I racked up interested observers from all over the place. Many of my friends are fellow creatives and they wanted to know what it would be like to offer their work for others to consume.

There were a lot of writers on Google+ who were interested in observing the cover creation process as it unfolded. People wanted to talk to me about the project, both in person and online. I got a number of personal messages via social media sites, email, and Twitter with specific questions. In all of these cases it was clear that each correspondent had spent significant time—perhaps years—nursing these questions like a too-strong drink.

It’s easy to understand why. There is a vast chasm of vulnerability and courage between the word processor and a stranger’s eyes. Perishables was the most recent output from years of writing I’ve done almost completely in private. I’ve resisted calling myself a "novelist", but Perishables is the tenth book-length work I’ve written. That it’s the first I’ve tried to publish in any formal way is a direct result of how precious the writing process is to me—coupled with the stark terror of what someone might think if they were to read any of it.

All stories are told with an audience in mind, even those told by writers who never plan to share them with anyone. A writer who never reveals their work to others writes for some tight-lipped audience of the imagination. Those phantom readers are the most precious of all to a fragile ego, because they never have anything bad to say about the words that land on the page. The fact that they don't have anything good to say is a small price for avoiding the cut of criticism. I suspect that fear of an unpredictable public reaction is also what prevents creators and self-publishers from discussing their marketing efforts.

An attempt to get the attention of a stranger—and going further to encourage them to read and respond to one’s work—is terrifying in its own right. Telling the world why and how one hopes to do so compounds that fear. The word 'hope' is the central issue. Anytime a person hopes for anything they must necessarily fear rejection or failure. A writer who actively publishes and markets their work is stringing together a whole bunch of mutually compounding hopes: that we write well, that readers notice our work, that they read our work once they notice it, and that they are glad they invested the time and money to do so.

When I publicly declared that I was going to share everything—what worked, what didn’t, what I tried, and when and where and why—it was in part a way to combat that timidity in myself. Putting my own work out was terrifying, yes, but what if it became a series of experiments in which failure was just as interesting an outcome as success? That made it okay for me in a way it had never been before.

I’m a network security engineer by trade, and learned a long time ago that failure had to be a learning moment if I wanted to succeed in my career. I had never taken the step of extending that realization to my writing. I don’t write to pay the mortgage so I don’t care if someone "steals" my idea for marketing their own work. I don’t particularly share my father’s sensitivity to personal questions, either.

When you share ideas and ambitions, you hope to improve them by dragging them into the sunlight and seeing what people think. The ideas don’t go away. I’m not sure I believe it’s even possible to "steal" an idea in the first place. It’s possible to duplicate the execution of an idea, yes, but ideas themselves do not disappear when two people act on them.

Our culture has room in it for The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and eXistenZ—and they’re all distinct from one another despite significant overlap in their core concepts and their release within a couple of years of one another. I published a novel about a vampire and a bunch of zombies, but I didn’t invent either genre. When I make a sale, it does not deny any income to Anne Rice (or Joss Whedon or Poppy Z. Brite or Bram Stoker or Octavia Butler or any of the countless other creators of stories involving vampires). There are more Linux distros out there than anyone can count and users seem to enjoy that about it. I use an open source operating system and open source productivity software at work and find myself having more conversations about why than I ever do about why not because their advantages are so much more interesting than the brief list of their shortcomings.

Likewise, putting my ideas out there allows others to copy them, suggest improvements, or improve their own efforts—and none of this has never allowed anyone to take my ideas, successes, or failures away from me. To the contrary, it provided me with new ideas and new successes (and some new failures—err, learning experiences).

Opening up to friends and interested observers has created a virtuous circle: by being willing to share what I do, I’ve helped others open up about what they do and I’ve learned from their experience in turn.

Over Labor Day weekend, at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, I attended a workshop on marketing for authors. It was one of the rare instances I’ve found of writers being willing to share what worked for them. Something said over and over was this: a writer’s competition is not another writer. Authors do not have to fight over some finite set of readers. Most authors’ core audiences are people who read voraciously and across genres. They’re people who read everything they can get their hands on and those people are always eager to read more authors, not fewer. An author’s competition is instead the Xbox or Netflix or art museums or anything else that takes a reader’s time and eyes away from books—and I say this as someone who likes all of those things. No one said that talking about marketing is itself a form of marketing, but everyone was exploiting exactly that.

Everyone in the room was interested in learning how to market a creative work. We had all figured out that the potential reward of sharing experiences and asking questions was worth the risk of admitting we had done something stupid or had been too frightened of failure to try anything at all.

This is the open source ideal, isn’t it? Writers who see a measure of success with one idea and then immediately try to build a fence around that concept and steer everyone else away from it are the publishing world’s version of closed-source software.

Closed-source writers are safe to have all the bad ideas in the world, and they’ll never have to face the embarrassment of anyone knowing what didn’t work for them. But, by doing this, they also face the incredible challenge of developing their audience in that nebulous single-occupancy decision-making realm that is both an echo chamber and an absolute vacuum. They make it harder for themselves in the name of making it harder for writers they see as the competition. That seems terribly short-sighted to me.

How many proprietary software projects have failed because the coders couldn’t get it past the alpha build without help and no one was willing to admit that until the budget was wrung out and the leads had moved on? How many good ideas never see the light of day because their originators are too frightened someone will steal them? How many stories never get written or published because the writer can’t bear the thought of someone saying they didn’t like what they read?

Every stage in the process of creation is burdened by the possibility of rejection, but ambition cannot be transformed into success without the heat of risk and the catalysts of feedback and alternative ideas. The smart creator recognizes this and builds it into the process.

Public reaction is dangerous and terrifying, but danger and terror are compelling. Stories about vampires and zombies wouldn’t exist otherwise. Making any project open source—whether by publishing code and inviting revision or by posting what I’ve done to market Perishables and waiting to see what everyone thinks I should do instead—suggests all manner of nerve-wracking risks. It also opens up a whole realm of new rewards. As my main character says at one point, "A little risk, a little reward; they’re all anybody ever gets." One requires the other, and new paradigms are formed by those who learn to embrace that.

About the author

Michael G. Williams - Michael is a native of the mountains of Western North Carolina and lives in Durham, NC. He is a writer, reader, gamer and runner and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall.