Posted on May 21, 2012 - by MG
Question: How much work does it take to write a self-published book?
Answer: about as much as for a traditionally published books
The first part of any experiment, and in many ways the most enjoyable part, is the experimental design.
I love to design experiments. It’s the beautiful phase, where everything is theoretical, and in your head, everything works. That’s some time before you spill radioactive isotopes in the water bath and incur the wrath of the entire lab.
Even executing the experiment isn’t too bad. It’s the eventual failure of most of them that makes science so hard. Starting out, you know that the experiment will almost certainly fail; either at the pathetic stage of not actually working, because you need better reagents, or at the heart-breaking stage where it worked, but the answer was NO.
No, that is not how I, Nature work. Try again. Or give up. Who cares, puny scientist? For lo, I am Nature.
Remember that – the answer is very often NO. If you can fully accept this setting out and still work hard, stay positive and concentrate on all the details, then you have much of what it takes to be a scientist.
The experimental question is this:
Can a modestly successful, internationally-published author (but not a ‘household name’), produce a quality product that will engage existing and new readers and make the author more money than if the manuscript had been sold for a modest advance?
(N.B. It’s important to stress that whatever the results of the experiment, certain extrapolations will always be invalid. Failure won’t mean that all self-published authors will fail. Success won’t mean the end of traditional publishing. Success/failure can’t even be successfully applied to MY next project. Once in a while an author has a runaway success. More frequently we provide a regular drip of content, slowly building an audience. I’m guessing that I’ll be in the latter category. This isn’t pessimism, just an acknowledgement of the balance of probabilities.)
Let’s say that I might have been able to get £5k for this manuscript. (Given that THE DESCENDANT is an adult novel set in the world of a YA book series, a sale would have been impossible via my own publisher, since Scholastic only publish children’s books, but let’s just use £5k as a representative advance).
My ALCS & PLR fund is about £2,000 this year. I’m a strong believer in bootstrap finance for start-ups, so this means I can use this as surplus profit from The Joshua Files to be invested in my imprint.
£2,000 is the total cash budget. So the book needs to make £7,000 for me to break-even including an opportunity cost*. (but only £2K to recoup the cash.)
Designing this self-publishing experiment, I asked myself a few questions:
- Which formats should I produce? ebook only? Enrol in Kindle Select? Make a print version too? POD or short-run offset print?
- Availability of any print edition – make available for sale in the UK and US? Or just one of the two?
- What kind of revenue model are we looking at? How many copies need to sell at what price to recoup the cash investment?
- Marketing – how much to spend and how?
The one thing I never had to consider was this – would I hire an editor.
OF COURSE. No question. Not only that but I’d substantially rewrite the original manuscript, which was the first thing I’d written since my days of Blake’s 7 fan fiction. The manuscript couldn’t be structurally edited too severely, because the Joshua Files mythology and the details of the Alternate Reality Game rest on many elements in THE DESCENDANT.
But edited as much as the manuscript could take? Hell, yeah! The first thing I did was to spend six weeks rewriting the 2005-version of the script.
My accomplice in this was, I’m delighted to say, the experienced senior children’s book editor, Polly Nolan. Polly and I worked together on ZERO MOMENT and DARK PARALLEL while Polly was Editorial Director of Fiction at Scholastic Children’s Books, UK. When I told Polly my plan to publish THE DESCENDANT, she was incredibly supportive and agreed to take the project on. I couldn’t quite afford the three rounds of editing I’d had with all the Joshua Files books, but I knew Polly well enough to know that if the manuscript isn’t too structurally flawed, she can do most of the job in one round.
Imagine my relief when Polly declared that the manuscript ‘didn’t need too much work, structurally’. (Another nice comment was “I’m enjoying very much. I can tell it’s one of your early books, but that doesn’t mar my enjoyment of it.” See how lovely it can be to have an editor?)
I had to do my own proof-read. Not ideal, but here’s a tip – use a Kindle and make the font really large. Mistooks juts lep out.
All in all, the actual creation of a manuscript that I felt able to publish took the following: 9 weeks (first draft – intense writing whilst recovering from a broken leg) + 6 weeks rewrite + 3 weeks editing + 1 week typesetting (Amazon help a good deal with hand-holding an author through this). Plus Polly’s fee.
Total time of mine? 19 weeks. ICE SHOCK took less (about 13 weeks) and APOCALYPSE MOON took more (about 21 weeks).
THE DESCENDANT, at approx 90,000 words, therefore represents a similar authorial effort from me as one of my Joshua Files books.
Next: Design and Decisions: In which I ponder formats (print? ebook? US/UK?)
For pesky business pedants; yes I admit that the opportunity cost is arguably higher. I could have used that time to write another bestseller, or even this book, with a traditional publisher, might have sold more. But creating ‘entertainment products’ is a very unsure thing. No-one knows what will be a hit or not. Nicholas Nassim Taleb correctly identified best-sellers as ‘black swan’ events.