Thoughts on Digital Self-Publishing (DSP), Series One

For me, adulthood has largely been a process of encountering my limitations, accepting them, and finding creative ways to work around them in order to meet responsibilities and achieve goals and desires.

One of the surest ways to stop a good thing from happening is to suggest doing a perfect thing instead. Sure, the perfect thing would be perfect – but it’s going to take so long and require so many resources and prerequisites – not to mention a lucky alignment of the universe and your schedule to miraculously open up for hours and days at a time.

By the time all of that falls into place, you could have finished several good things. Instead, weeks or months later, you’re still on a steep uphill climb to the pinnacle of your perfect thing, eighty percent of which is still ahead of you.

This is not to say we should be settling for ‘good enough’ (there’s a world of difference between a good thing and a good-enough thing). Merely recognizing and accepting my limitations might help me find some temporary measure of inner peace, but by themselves they’re a recipe for stagnation. This is where that third part – employing creative workarounds – comes in.

As a full-time author, it would be great if I could work on two long-format book projects during the same period. I can’t write for more than a few hours a day on any one project, but I ought to be able to work on a novel in the morning, break for lunch, change gears, and put in a few hundred words on a nonfiction project in the afternoon, right?

Well, yeah – that would be fantastic. In theory I should be able to do that without a problem, and I spent a couple months last year trying.

But in the course of a day, whatever I’m working on gets a lot of passive attention – when I’m in the shower, doing chores, out for a walk, cooking dinner – the project is simmering away on a back burner of my brain. I’ve found that I’m dependent on that subconscious development to move a project forward, to maintain its momentum. And my peripheral mind can only pay attention to one thing at time.

So I had a simple decision to make. I could keep trying to push through two projects simultaneously, knowing that one was going to detract from and impede the other… or I could embrace that need for passive-development time by focusing on one until it was finished and then moving on to the other.

I took the second option and produced a beta-reader-ready draft of each project – a combined total of about 65,000 words through two drafts apiece – within 8 months (not counting the two I wasted trying to work on both at once).

The workaround here takes the form of pint-size legal pads scattered strategically throughout my living space. I keep them in my desk, my car, my backpack, my bedside table. That way, when some notion bubbles up from my simmering semiconscious, I don’t even have to leave the room or interrupt whatever I’m doing to write it down. I was able to capture anything and everything that randomly occurred to me about the second, delayed project, even as I focused on finishing the shorter one first.

As a digital self-publisher, I’m under few illusions about the task I’ve taken on. In choosing not to pursue a traditional publishing deal – at least, not yet – I’ve given up the automatic benefits that typically go with it, benefits like:

-creative oversight from experienced story-development editors,
-professional manuscript proofing,
-access to professional artists, graphic designers, and a high-resource marketing engine,
-protection from financial risks, and
-the well-established industry reputation of NY publishing houses.

In return, I’ve gained near-absolute creative control, agility, flexibility, incredibly fast turnaround time for the actual publishing process, and something like triple per-sale royalties. But that exchange leaves me, the author, with a lot of additional hats to wear.

The entrepreneurial side of DSP appeals to me. I started a residential-landscape design & installation company when I was 15 and ran it successfully for ten years. Yardscapes was a small company – typically a three-person crew – and as such, there were plenty of things I could not do, could not do well, or could not do as well as someone else.

For example: I couldn’t compete with big companies’ mowing rates, so Yardscapes didn’t do lawn care. I couldn’t start one project until the previous one was finished, or I’d confuse my focus and jeopardize relations with both clients when both projects dragged unnecessarily. And while I can get by as a graphic designer, it made a whole lot more sense to delegate advertising design to an employee who was getting his degree in communications and marketing.

During my first year in DSP I realized that I can’t market a project while I’m working on one – even if it’s the same one. Marketing and book-writing engage my brain in totally different ways. Just as I have to finish one long-format creative project before beginning the next one, I have to wait until a project is done before I can work on marketing it.

Eventually, in terms of optimizing my time, marketing could become something it makes sense for me to outsource (I currently outsource my cover art, design, & manuscript proofing).

However, at this point in my career, I have more time to invest than money – so I do my marketing in-between book projects. Right now my second novel, The Eighth Square, is out with beta readers. I won’t even look at the draft again until the end of August, and until then I’m focusing on re-promoting its prequel, Her Unwelcome Inheritance, and laying the groundwork for The Eighth Square‘s launch campaign.

While I was writing The Eighth Square I did little more than maintain my existing social media presence. Is this a perfect strategy? No, absolutely not. A year after Her Unwelcome Inheritance‘s publication for Nook and Kindle, I’m still unknown as an author. (Not that I’m surprised, or complaining – HUI has been fortunate to enjoy rave reviews and a steady trickle of sales, despite a flooded ebook market). As of the time of this writing, sales momentum isn’t yet in my favor. There’s still a direct, observable correlation between sales figures and my own personal marketing efforts. So neglecting marketing while I wrote my next book meant (presumably) missing out on sales I might otherwise have made.

I chose this course because I believe and expect that, over time, refining my craft and producing more products will be significantly more beneficial than continuously marketing my first product. Moreover, if splitting my focus threatens the quality and pace of my writing – and it does – then that’s a risk I simply can’t afford.

After all, in the world of digital self-publishing, writing good books is Priority #1.

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