The Experiment

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a while, but even after I’d decided to do it, I realized I had some decisions to make. Would it have a theme, or simply be a journal? How often would I update it? How personal would I make it?

I thought for a long time about these questions and others. In my mind, I considered and rejected several options. I figured that if I spent enough time thinking, the answer would emerge.

Then, as often happens, all the decisions suddenly made themselves, without even pausing for my approval.

About two weeks ago, I woke up with an urge to find out how digital self-publishing worked.

I should confess here that I’ve always viewed self-publishing with some suspicion. It’s an unfair prejudice, and I freely admit that, but on some level, it’s always raised some red flags – some warranted, some not.

I should also point out that writers self-publish for a number of reasons. Many of them (and I’m delighted to say that this describes most self-publishers I know) do it for the same reasons bands put out records on a small independent label – that is, they realize they are writing for a niche market, one that a giant corporation might not see as financially worthwhile, but nonetheless a viable market for a smaller-scale enterprise. Getting the book out, and to a reader who will love it, is more important than any profit margin.

Like those independent record labels, self-publishers don’t have to worry about “playing it safe” quite as much. A self-publisher, especially one writing for a smaller, specialized market, might worry that a “mainstream” editor would demand cuts to the piece that would diminish it in some essential way.

On the other hand, (anybody else hear a “big but” coming?) bypassing the normal editorial process means that the end product varies more widely. Some writers are able to edit themselves; many more are not. To continue my admittedly rough analogy between publishing and the music industry, the editor plays a role that might be compared to that of a music producer: they help to focus, refine, capture, and deliver the creative effort in a way that will present the artist in a favorable and profitable light.

Almost none of which has a damn thing to do with why I wanted to self-publish.

I wanted to learn several things: the process of uploading content to a digital publisher, the formatting requirements (if any), how the money would work (assuming it made any), and how much control I would have over the price point offered for the work.

And, of course, I wanted to know if anyone would buy it.

I learned that formatting and uploading are pretty easy, especially with the tools Amazon offers. It turns out that there are two plans available to writers who self-publish – depending on your choice, you are given a different range of options for the retail price. I chose the option that would pay the lower royalty rate, since it allowed me to get the price down to a buck. It seemed an appropriate figure for an experiment, and a fair price for the twenty to thirty minutes of entertainment I was offering. It also seemed to me that since I was asking people to take a chance on my work, the price of a lottery scratcher had a kind of poetic resonance to it.

I chose to put out a story that an editor had gone through – a short story I’d written a while back, which was picked up for an anthology. A number of my friends and family bought the book, but it had been out of print for a while. The rights had reverted back to me upon publication, so I could put my story out free and clear.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of bandwidth trying to promote the story. Self-promotion has never been my strong suit – I would gladly follow the steps if I knew them, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. I decided that I would announce the release of the story via Facebook – only once. I didn’t want to abuse the goodwill of my friends and family, many of whom had bought the book containing the story the first time around.

The response was a surprise. I counted two copies sold, then four. Six. Ten. And so on. I don’t think I’ve experienced a rush like that, on my own behalf, for years. Before I knew it, I had a little “Number One” banner next to the title, indicating I had the top “New Release In 30-Minute Teen & Young Adult Short Reads.” I don’t know how hotly-contested that category is – I know that it must not involve enormous sales, because there weren’t huge numbers involved anyway. That said, there were other new releases besides mine, so I wasn’t just first out of one.

It also felt great that I got such good responses and reviews from people after they read the story. At the end of it all, quite a few people spent a dollar to read my story – and sure, maybe it was “only” a dollar, but to me, it was a vote of confidence. After all, there are plenty of songs on iTunes that I wouldn’t spend a dollar on.

By the way, if you want to read “Going To Ground,” the story in question, you can follow a link to my author page on Amazon under the “About” tab above.