How Did I Do It? – Lessons Learnt in Self-Publishing
Twelve years ago, I started my first job straight out of graduate school. It was a small design firm, which was owned by a then 85 year old gentleman called Ralph. On the very first day, he sent me off to survey in the woods, where I spent many weeks in the bitter cold; whacking bushes; and wading through muddy waters to set the route for a water pipeline. During those days, I used to get so tired by the end of the day that I would sleep on the couch without even having dinner.
One day, Ralph asked me if I was enjoying the work. I replied that I was looking forward to spending time in the office instead of the field. Ralph yelled at me almost immediately, “Nonsense, I spent six months building a 50 mile pipeline in dead winter. I had to travel up and down hills several times a day, that too, on horseback. How did I do it?”
That day, I felt that Ralph was a heartless, unsympathetic person. Today, as I have reached a milestone in my journey as an author, I remembered Ralph’s words.
Three years ago, I started writing NRI: Now, Returned to India. The idea of writing a book had been brewing in my mind for several months, and was prompted by the positive feedback I received for my posts on the R2IClub site. I write longhand, and my first draft is always on pen and paper. As a result, penning down nearly a 100,000 word manuscript and then typing it took a long time. You might either think that I am crazy for adopting a “do-it-yourself” approach, or might get overwhelmed by the amount of effort one has to put into getting a book published. Those who think the former are right, by the way. I underwent a lot of frustration, pain and hardship, but it all has been worth it. I have chronicled my journey as a first time author at www.nrithebookblog.wordpress.com. I hope you will go through my blog, learn from my mistakes, and try not to repeat them. Below are some of the key learnings from my journey as a self-published author:
Write Before you pitch
Somewhere in the second half of 2012, I lost interest in writing and spent months understanding the book publishing business in India and abroad. I spent hours reading blogs by authors, listening to podcasts by Joanna Penn and the Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast, following tweets by David Gaughran and Amish Tripathi, among others. For the next several months I ‘sold’ my book to anybody and everybody I met. However, I did not write a single word during this period, and possibly lost a lot of credibility and potential readers in the process. The audience wanted to read my book, but it was far from complete. The proverbial writers’ block nearly ruined my avatar as an author.
Lesson Learnt: make sure your book is ready for prime time before you actively start pitching it to the whole world. It is okay to market your book subtly even before you write your first word.
Self-Publishing is not a fallback option
In March 2013, my cousin and her husband literally dragged me to Hissar in Haryana, where the quiet and green environs inspired me to start writing again. Two months later, I was ready with my first draft. By early June, I had sent my book proposal off to nearly two dozen publishers in India, though most of them did not bother to respond. Of those who did, some rejected my work right away, while another was ready to release the book provided I was willing to share the costs. A third was professional enough to respond to all my emails in a very timely manner, but six months later, I let them go because we disagreed on the marketing plan. One publisher tried to sell me their book editing services, at the rate of £3.00 for every 100 words. Following my mentor’s advice, I also contacted two or three literary agencies, talked to published authors, and attended book club and book launch events to develop my network. I made a lot of acquaintances, but ended up without any publishing contract. It was time to look for alternatives.
Lesson Learnt: Self-publishing is not a fallback option. For a first time author, it should be your preferred option.
How ISBN turned out to be my biggest pain point
Around January this year, I decided to self-publish NRI: Now, Returned to India. By then, I was convinced that this is what I wanted to do. My wife, who had been my biggest critic so far, became my biggest supporter from this point on. As a first step, we finalized an editor, who charged a bomb. But the editor’s work was mediocre at best, and we had to revise and re-draft the manuscript several times. This set us behind by three months. We were fortunate to find a good cover designer, and also a freelancer to set up my author website. We applied for copyright registration, which we received within a couple of months. Getting the ISBN code has been a pain. Six months and four applications later, I am nowhere close to getting ISBN in India.
Lesson Learnt: Apply for ISBN as early in the process as possible. Application is free and simple, but getting ISBN can take a lot of time and may potentially delay your book release.
August 2014 saw several days of hectic activity. The draft of the book was finalized, and we got the ebook released on Amazon. Setting up the account on Kindle Direct Publishing, uploading the manuscript, and creating the book description page was a breeze. I was happy to announce to the world that my book was released.
Little did I realize that my real learning would begin from that point onwards. To my surprise, most of the readers (read: paying customers) were interested in the print version of the book. They included some of the most tech-savvy persons I have known, and one is even an investor in e-learning companies. We found a local printer in Gurgaon, who was quite responsive and not very expensive. Around mid-September, we received the first set of 100 books. When I saw the prints, my jaw dropped. The page numbers were missing, the font was too small, and that’s when I realized that formatting the manuscript for print is very different from formatting it for Kindle. Re-formatting and modifying the manuscript for print version took another two weeks. Today, the print book is available via Createspace and Amazon for North American and European markets. Hopefully, my book should be available for sale in India by end of November.
Lesson Learnt: Hire a professional to do the editing, cover and formatting for your book. Otherwise, you will have to spend a lot of time behind these tasks.
Coming back to Ralph
Whether you get a contract from a traditional publisher or go the self-publishing route, you will have to travel down a long road before you get your book published. Metaphorically speaking, you will have to shovel the snow, wade through muddy waters, and whack the bushes. Hopefully, you will not have to go hungry and sleep on the couch. Once you will publish your book, you will ‘earn your wings’. But this will also mark the beginning of your journey as an author. And several years and hopefully many book releases later, you will get to ask others the same question that Ralph asked me once, “How did I do it?”