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Everything I know about self-publishing (part 1)

Wednesday, 23 May, 2012

Because of Kinds of Blue and my work on The Briefing, I have started getting all sorts of questions to do with writing, editing and self-publishing. At one level, it's nice being seen as someone who can Create Things, Do Things and Make Things Happen, and it's always very nice when people tell me how much they like Kinds of Blue (or other work I've done). At another level, these sorts of interactions take time and start infringing upon my goodwill. (At this point, PLEASE NOTE: I do not take editing jobs for free. I used to edit professionally, so it's a tad insulting when you approach me with something that is clearly going to take up a big portion of my time and ask me to work on it without some sort of reimbursement. PLEASE ALSO NOTE that I am not looking for editing work at the moment.) Some exchanges I have with people leave me thinking about this expletive-ridden post by screenwriter Josh Olson about why he will not read other people's scripts. (It's well worth a read if you're wondering why on earth a nice person would refuse to help another nice person.)

Because I've started getting these sorts of questions, I thought I would put up what I know about self-publishing on this blog so at least I have something to refer people to if I ever get approached again on the subject. I may do something similar on writing and editing someday. Maybe.

Of course, I don't claim to be an expert on these sorts of things. If you're really interested in self-publishing and finding out more about the nitty gritty of producing e-books or building your brand or marketing your first novel, there are stacks and stacks of writing blogs out there that would probably answer your questions a lot better than I could. (Here, Google is your friend.) This post is just what I learned from the processing of creating and producing Kinds of Blue. I've talked a little about the process before. But I don't think I've ever explored it in more depth. So that's what I want to do here.

(A little later …) Hmm, it turns out I cannot do this in one post without it becoming an epic, so let's split this over several posts. Here's part 1:

The process

What I know about publishing generally is due to three things: firstly (and obviously), my experience working for Matthias Media; secondly, work experience in Year 10 at McGraw Hill; and thirdly, this wonderful little picture book called How a Book is Made by Aliki. (I used to read that one obsessively as a kid. It's actually pretty comprehensive; you don't expect CMYK to pop up in a book like that.)

Obviously Matthias Media was my most significant influence. There, most of my responsibilities surrounded The Briefing, but every now and then I would edit some of their products (The Daily Reading Bible , Pathway Bible Guides, occasionally a book, and so on). Also, as part of the editorial team, I'd sit in on their production development meetings, so even though my involvement was mainly at the editing stage, I learned bits and pieces about things like cover design, marketing, price points and sales. The other thing that working on The Briefing (and, in hindsight, working on Hippocampus Extensions) taught me was project management—overseeing the journey of articles from conception to print. All of this was really helpful creating Kinds of Blue.

From what I've learned most books go through the following stages:

  1. Creation (i.e. the writing stage)
  2. Editing
  3. Production (which includes things like layout, proofreading, cover design and blurbs, and printing)
  4. Marketing and distribution

Kinds of Blue wasn't quite like that; it was more like:

  1. Creation/editing
  2. Pitching
  3. Budgeting and crowdfunding
  4. Production
  5. Marketing and distribution

Let me deal with each of those in turn.

Creation/editing

Usually writers produce their books and then get them edited. But because Kinds of Blue is comics, the editing would often take place at the same time as the creation.

I started by brainstorming ideas that I thought would work well for five-page comics. The whole anthology would be about depression, but I wanted to draw out different aspects of it. I wrote down things like depression and marriage (which became “The real you”), depression and music (which became “Toward the waves”), suicide (which became “Nihilo”), and so on. There were a number of ideas that I didn't end up using—either because I couldn't fit them into a five-page script or because I felt like I couldn't write about them truthfully. (I had this great idea for something about anti-depressants, but as I've never been on them, I felt like anything I wrote about them would come off sounding contrived.) Sometimes the ideas were more suited to others to write. (“Eating the blues”, which is about depression and food, might have started off that way; I can't remember whether it's something I suggested Bec could do or whether she came up with it herself.)

Then before I even started writing, I also made a separate list of people—artists—I could approach to work with me on the comics. This is because it's often easier to write a comic script when you know who you're working with. More than one comics writer has said that scripts are very much like very personal letters written by a writer to his/her artist. I think it's because you can tailor the script to the artist's style, plus you've already got some sort of relationship you can build on to communicate what's in your head. When I wrote my scripts, sometimes I had a particular artist in mind, but sometimes I only had a vague idea of who I'd like to work with. Not knowing who it was going to be made things a little scary because I wasn't sure whether what I was communicating was enough. Also, I felt like I was intruding onto territory I knew very little about: I'm a writer, not an artist, so visual stuff isn't as easy for me. I knew that my artists would bring so much more to the table than what I could envision, and I wanted to give them the freedom to do so within the constraints of the story/concept.

I also didn't quite know what I was doing as I haven't really written comic scripts before. When I worked with Dan on “Going home”, I didn't give him a full script; it was more a vague idea of what each page should be and kind of what the panels should be doing. But for Kinds of Blue, I wanted to do things “properly” (not that there is a “properly” in comics writing; there is no standard in scripting). So I studied other people's stuff—Neil Gaiman's scripts at the end of Sandman: Dream Country and 1602, issue #10 of Demo by Brian Wood, issue #1 of Chew by John Layman, something Phonogram-related, and so on. (Since then, Kieron Gillen has put the full script of The Single Club: Pull Shapes online. Also, The Comic Book Script Archive is an excellent resource for this sort of thing.)

The other thing that helped me was the seminar on collaboration that my friend Toby Trappel had done at Word by Word. (Word by Word is the writing group I used to run.) I still think about that seminar because it was so useful and so applicable to creating comics (because, obviously, for me, creating comics must involve collaboration). The parts from that seminar that I found the most useful included:

I feel like I'm getting off topic. Anyway, I started writing scripts. Once I'd written them, I tried to match them up with artists that I thought would suit them. Most of the people I approached were keen to work together to the agreed deadline. Most of them were even excited about what I sent them. Some of my collaborators came from the most unexpected quarters. For example, Mike Barry was an online acquaintance. (I knew of him from Grace Not Works, which I think was one of the first Christian e-zines on the internet.) I've met him in real life, but I've only spent maybe a total of an hour or two in his company. I didn't even know he was into comics until I noticed his avatar (which he had created himself) and we got chatting. Similarly, Jemima I didn't know at all; I knew her brother because we used to go to church together and were in the same Bible study group, and I had heard of her and had perhaps met her once briefly, but it didn't occur to me to ask her because I didn't really know her.

I was up front about the fact that I was asking them to work for free. I tried to spell out the scope of the project and what we were trying to do with it so that they knew what they were in for. I probably could have outlined the benefits for them a bit better—things like it would give them experience, it would give them exposure, and they might eventually be paid (because the agreement was that we would split the profits equally among all the contributors, regardless of the size of their contribution. This meant that even though I wrote 10 of the pieces, edited everything, did all the admin and drove the project forward, I would not get any more than anyone else.)

Also, in hindsight, I think I could have outlined the comics creation process much better with my collaborators as many of them had never created comics before. From what I can gather, it normally works like this:

  1. Scripting
  2. Producing roughs/thumbnails
  3. Pencilling
  4. Inking
  5. Colouring
  6. Lettering
  7. Production (i.e. finalising changes and uploading final art files)

My experience in editing is only in print/magazines. But after having a Twitter conversation with Charlie Beckerman (who used to work for Marvel and, it should be noted, who doesn't know me from a bar of soap, but who is nice enough to answer questions from a complete stranger), I learned that comics editors are involved at each stage of the process. That means that when the writer turns in a script, they go over it; when the artist comes up with the roughs, they go over it; when the artist turns those roughs into pencils, they go over it; and so on. They're also often the mediator between the writer and the artist.

So for each of the nine comics and one article that I wrote for the anthology, I did that in collaboration with all of my artists: they would read my script (and maybe ask some questions), then come up with roughs, and I would comment on the roughs; then they would produce pencils, and I would give them feedback on those; they would do the same for inks/colours/lettering, and so on. And at each stage, I would refer back to my original script and check things or notice things that had come out a little differently to how I envisaged (note: not a bad thing!), and why they might have done that. (Checking things against the original script was particularly important at the lettering stage. Sometimes I would even edit the lettering a little because by then, six months would have passed, giving me enough time and distance to see things a bit more objectively.) “Feeling”, for example, was very tightly scripted because I didn't know who I was going to work with at the time, and Mike didn't deviate too much from it. (Also, where he did, I thought his work was an improvement on what I'd written.) In comparison, “Toward the waves” had a looser script because Dan just likes to work that way. (Also, he brought something extra to the story; the icons representing volume were his brilliant idea, not mine!) Sometimes I did have to ask the artists go back and change things, but each time I did that, I was careful to explain why (i.e. there was a reason; it wasn't just me being a dictatorial bitch).

With the comics that Guan and Bec worked on (they produced three between the two of them), I was far less hands-on at the creation process, but I was always on their case to give me updates on where things were at. Obviously when producing art, life always gets in the way and deadlines get missed, and everyone involved in Kinds of Blue (not just Guan and Bec) had to endure me nagging them for stuff. The good part of this whole collaborative process is that it forced me to up my game; if it had just been me by myself, perhaps I would have slacked off and not seen the project to fruition—especially when things got hard. But because I was bringing together the efforts of all these people, I felt like I owed it to them to see it through to the end.

And it wasn't always smooth-sailing. We had an initial deadline of February 2010. That got moved to May 2010. Then June. I think. I forget. Part of the problem was that two of my artists had to pull out and I had to find replacements at very short notice. Fortunately Belinda Stead stepped in to do “Five tips for caring for someone with depression” (and she did such an amazing job in such a short amount of time too!) and Kathleen Jennings offered to do “Nihilo”. (Fortunately we were not starting completely from scratch; we used the original artist's layouts and a bunch of photographic references I had taken.)

I tried to get everyone onto Google Wave, thinking that it would help us all to communicate with each other, develop ideas and foster community (especially as most of the collaborators didn't know each other). It didn't really, but it helped the other collaborators to see what others were doing. Plus a few of our close friends were able to stickybeak and see what was going on! But I soon learned that each of the collaborators had their own preferred method of communication: some were happy with email (which suited me just fine!), but others I talked to face to face or I rang (even though I hate using the phone).

At the same time as all the comics were being created, I collected bios and photos from all the contributors, wrote the back cover blurb and the introduction, worked with Melanie Boreham on the cover art (she came up with the concept of the rain coming down out of the umbrella onto the girl), and tried think about how to get the whole project into print.

Then, of course, things got interrupted when Astrid was born. But I think not long after that, the entire manuscript was finished. And Bec took everything and laid it all out in InDesign, and produced a wonderful draft PDF. (Yeah, I know this bit belongs in the “Production” stage; I'll talk more about production later.)


Okay, that looks like a good spot to take a break. Stay tuned for part 2 …

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Place where you can hire play equipment for parties, etc.

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Unsolicited manuscripts accepted by Pan Macmillan with certain conditions.

Thought Balloon is a group blog in which the writers tackle a new theme every week? month? with one-page scripts. This URL is for their Phonogram ones.

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