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Dan Johnson, author of the crime fiction novel Perplexing Problems of the Porcelain Bandits, writes a guest post on his experiences with self publishing.
Guest Post by Dan Johnson
I realized that I was nearly done with my book when I was on a run through Golden Gate Park in the late summer of 2008: Holy crap, I can finish this. One shower, five hours, and four thousand words of caffeine-fueled writing later, The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits was…done.
This wasn’t the first time I had finished—in 2004 I had written a novel and spent a year and half trying to find a publisher, to no avail. In the four years after I had quit several jobs, built a life in San Francisco, started graduate school, and met the woman who I would eventually marry. And now I had written another book.
What to do now? Slowly, grumpily, I started the find-an-agent process. I did my research in Writer’s Market, put together a spreadsheet of agents who might be interested in my work, added several agent blogs to my RSS feed, and tried my best to figure out who might be interested in reading what I’d written.
This was in 2009. Remember 2009? Two Very Important things were happening:
1) Twilight was in full effect—the Borders in San Francisco had an entire wall dedicated to Dark Romantic Fantasy For Teens. My San Francisco-based comic noir novel contained swearing, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs. Not the best way to the golden YA market.
2) The world economy was in hell. Banks were imploding left and right, whole countries were near collapse, and people were getting laid off by the millions. Tens of thousands of them dusted off that novel they had lying around and started bombarding agents with ideas and letters. The agent blogs were alive with talk of escalating workloads, and were estimating response times at three months and above.
So I sent my letters and waited. For months. When I had queried for my first book my luck had been good—several agents had asked for more pages, two for the complete novel. This time around, zilch. Months of waiting yielded three rejections and fifteen queries were still sitting out there in limbo.
The more I waited, the more restless I became, and I started thinking more about my goals for the new book. Was it to get published? Many writers have “get published” as a goal, but…what happens then? Getting published is a means, not an end.
For me, the end was to have people read the story, and find out if they liked it. My day job was in technology, and I had done my share of Web marketing over the years. I knew enough to get some people to read Perplexing Problem, if I could get the manuscript into an accessible form. I wondered if it would it be possible, using the tools available, to put together a book, physical and digital, that would be comparable to what a traditional publisher could do. Sounded like a fun challenge. Either way, I would have something ready for people to read much faster than the year-plus it would take to do it the other way, right?
Well, not really. One thing that I didn’t think of (and I’m sure that most potential DIY-ers may not think of) is that there’s a reason that tens of people touch a book before it hits the shelves. There are story editors and copy editors and designers and typographers and other people those of us on the outside have never even heard of who do a ton of work to get a book from manuscript to reader-ready pages. When I sidestepped the traditional publishing industry, I had to do it all myself.
Well, not all by myself. I’m a terrible designer and, as became quickly apparent to me, you can’t competently edit your own work. I asked around a bit and got lucky—a good friend of mine is a professional editor, and another is a graphic designer. I hired them both. While they worked, I firmed up my vendors for document conversion and distribution. I worked with Amazon’s CreateSpace, KindleDirect (e-book/Kindle versions through Amazon), and Smashwords (converts files to every other e-book format in existence and distributes through dozens of retailers). All three have their acts together— doing the administrative stuff through their online engines was a snap.
When the editing was done I had a well-written manuscript with a cover design that would fit in pretty well at your local Barnes & Noble. All I had to do was format the words to trade paperback guidelines (the best I found were on lulu.com).
All I had to do? Famous last words. Turning an electronic file into something that fits inside the covers of a trade paperback is extraordinarily difficult. I spent a solid two weeks tweaking formats, spacing, and kerning to get The Perplexing Problem into shape, then submitted the finished pdf to CreateSpace and ordered a proof. The next week the proof showed up, and…the title page was screwed up. All of the text was too close to the top of the page. Whoops.
I fixed the title page. In the next proof there were two chapters with single-word hangers on the end. Argh. After taking care of those errors, the rest should have been perfect, right? Nope. It went on and on. I spent three months on nine rounds of proofing. At that point I was near tears every time I sent it back. Why couldn’t it just be done?
Once the physical book was ready, I put together Kindle, pdf, and .epub versions. Less work than the paperback version, but still a pain. Did you know that ebooks are ragged-right justified, and trade paperbacks are not? Now you do, courtesy of one very obvious (in retrospect) Google search and seven very long hours of reformatting. The proofing process was easily the most frustrating thing I have done in years. Typesetting is terrifying. That said, it was also perhaps the most satisfying thing I have done as a writer. When the final proof arrived and it looked good…that work was mine. I hadn’t had to argue with anyone about images or chapter spacing—my book was all Dan Johnson.
Once the book parts were ready, I still wasn’t done. I bought an ISBN for my physical book and made up a name for my own publishing company: Wonderful Terrific Publishing (named after a somewhat-successful baseball player). Through a friend, I found a publicist and we put together a release party at a bar in San Francisco, the night before a five a.m. flight to Texas for my day job.
At the end of the whole process, I guess the big questions are:
The answer to #1 is a qualified yes. What was I writing this story for? Not to make money – I’m lucky enough to do OK with my software job. I wrote the story because I wanted to see how it ended, and to see if other people liked it. I get a charge when someone comes up to me and says, “Hey man, I read your book and liked it,” or when, at the release party, I read a funny passage and people laughed. When I went to Writer’s Week at my old high school and gave some books away, kids rushed the podium because they wanted to find out what happened next in the story. Maybe that would have happened if I had waited for a publisher, but maybe not.
As far as doing it again…I don’t know. I am writing another story, based on a trip around the world I took ten years ago. For something like this—a tragicomic memoir—I’m not sure if self-publishing is the way to go. But, when I’m done, I will probably put together a spreadsheet and compose query letters for the third time. Maybe that time will be the charm, but if it doesn’t work out, I know how to do it on my own. There’s a joy in that confidence, and no number of agent rejection letters can take that joy away.
Dan Johnson is a self-published author of The Perplexing Problem of the Porcelain Bandits, a crime novel published in August 2010. If you’re interested in reading more about TPPotPB, you can do check out my review here. You can also add the novel on Goodreads here, and buy it from Amazon.co.uk here, or on Amazon.com here.
The blurb of TPPotPB can be found here:
Alex Baker is underemployed and undermotivated, until a cop shows up at his door with strange news about his former housemate, Brent. This is a story of baseball cards, the Chinese Mafia, and many conversations over drinks. If John D. Macdonald and Chuck Klosterman had ever met in San Francisco and shared a few too many glasses of Plymouth, this is the novel they would have written together.
You can follow Dan Johnson on Twitter here.