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Everything I know about self-publishing (part 2)

Wednesday, 13 June, 2012

(Read part 1, which deals with the process of creation for Kinds of Blue. Now onto part 2.)

Pitching

After coming up with a finished manuscript, it would have been tempting to just stop there, after so much effort—especially given that new motherhood was taking over my life. But I owed it to everyone to keep the project going. Also, I had a plan. I had done a seminar on self-publishing through the Sydney Writers Centre (which was probably more helpful to people who know nothing about publishing), and I knew that distribution was going to be our biggest challenge. So I thought it was worth submitting Kinds of Blue to existing comics publishers as if one of them accepted it, our distribution problem would be taken care of.

However, I also knew that our chances of being accepted were slim. Kinds of Blue is an anthology and anthologies don't sell well. Furthermore, no one had ever heard of us, which meant that potential readers would be less likely to read it.

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, you don't know until you try. I made a list of publishers who I thought might possibly take it (for example, Image, Allen & Unwin [who, I think, are just starting to get into graphic publishing], Drawn and Quarterly and Top Shelf). I even scoured Jason Thibault's post on “The Submission Guidelines for every Comic and Manga Publisher in the Universe” to find publishers I'd never heard of. And then for the next eight months, I sent out submissions.

It was then that I realised how useless my degree in Creative Writing was as they had never taught us about the business of trying to get published. I had no idea how to write submission letters so I had to do some research online. (Google is my friend!) As I soon found out, crafting those things is hard: you have to distill your work down a one-sentence summary and figure out how to sell it—that is, what makes it marketable. Furthermore, I had to find a way to talk about the Kinds of Blue team in a way that was interesting and relevant.

From following the pros on Twitter I learned that publishers don't want large file attachments clogging up their inboxes, so I put Bec's draft PDF online and included a link to it. I also created a website and put the entire anthology online. I figured that way if the publishers did not want to download a massive file, they could still view bits of the work in a more manageable way. The other benefit of doing this was that the rest of the collaborators could finally see the book in its entirety, which was wonderful for them since they only ever saw in part instead of the whole the way I did.

I didn't get many responses to my submission letters. That's pretty standard: usually publishers don't bother to write back unless they intend to use your work. Every now and then, however, I would get a very nice rejection letter. People don't tend to believe that rejection letters can be nice, but they can: just because a publisher doesn't want to publish your work doesn't necessarily mean they don't like it. It just might not fit with their existing line-up. Or they might think there isn't a market for it. Or, as I said before, they know that anthologies don't sell well and people usually don't buy stuff by creators they've never heard of. The publishers who did respond with nice rejection letters told us that they thought the work was good (which was very nice to hear!) and they wished us luck with it. Some even encouraged us to self-publish. So after eight months of submissions and rejections, I figured it was time to pursue that option.

Budgeting and crowdfunding

The thing is, I had to work out how to make self-publishing work—from a financial point of view, that is. Numbers and money are not my strong point, but nevertheless, I tried to nut out a budget for printing, marketing and distributing Kinds of Blue. The distribution part was key: printing is easy; actually moving copies is hard.

First printing. I had a conversation about printers with my old boss, Tony Payne, once very early in the project. He told me that there are two kinds of printers: digital and offset. Digital printers are on the rise because they can do shorter print runs relatively cheaply because it's like sending a file from a computer to a desktop printer. Offset printing is more expensive because they have to create the plates to print with. However, with larger print runs, the unit cost is cheaper than digital because they only have to create the plates once to print 1000 copies or 10,000 copies. He even suggested contacting printers in Singapore as they could often do things for even cheaper, freight included.

But I wasn't sure how many copies we'd need. Tony advised me to think long-term: when you do a print run, you want to make sure that you have enough stock to last for a couple of years before you need to do another one. It's more expensive to do more print runs of smaller quantities. (I also learned this from having a Twitter conversation with Marc Ellerby, who is the creator of Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter and his autobiographical comics Ellerbisms, as well as being another lovely professional who was willing to share his wisdom with a complete stranger on the internet. Oh, I should also mention that he's done a Phonogram B-side too …) So I was initially thinking quantities in the thousands and the advantages that would bring (lower unit cost! Higher profit! We might actually get paid!) But then reality came crashing down: could I actually move thousands of copies of Kinds of Blue? Or would they end up sitting in my garage for years, gathering dust? Probably the latter, truth be told.

Fortunately I happened to be following another Brit and Phonogram-related comics professional on Twitter: Tom Humberstone. (Actually, I'm not sure he did any Phonogram comics; he just knows the creators and they kept retweeting him.) Tom Humberstone is the editor and driving force behind Solipsistic Pop, an anthology of alternative comics by creators in the UK. I bought all the volumes as they were released, and they are very beautiful things that amaze me with their ambitiousness. (Read what Humberstone wrote about the thinking behind Volume 4.) Solipsistic Pop was a useful point of comparison for Kinds of Blue, and I remember reading somewhere that Humberstone kept the print runs to about 500, which was pretty manageable as their early volumes have now sold out. So after thinking long and hard about it and talking to a few people, I figured 500 was about right.

Given we were looking at 500 copies, that probably meant we'd have to go with a digital printer. However, I was told that it was worth asking some offset printers for quotes. I asked around on Facebook for printer recommendations, and got quite a few from people who know far more about printers than I do (particularly those who work in print graphic design). Then I took that list and contacted them all for quotes. The problem was I knew nothing about paper stocks, finishing and binding, so I kind of guessed (in consultation with Bec, of course, as she had more of an idea than I did). Certain printers could do things cheaply, but that was usually because they used lower quality stock, whereas we wanted Kinds of Blue to be a thing of beauty—something you would enjoy holding in your hands. All the initial quotes I received were for 115-250 gsm covers and 80 gsm internals. (Gsm refers to grams per square metre, and the higher the gsm, the thicker and therefore heavier the paper.) Then I got chatting to my friend Francis about the project (he asked me privately on Facebook why I was asking about printers). I showed him what we were doing and he got very excited about it, and gave me some very useful advice about printing—namely, that I should go with thicker paper stock (250 to 300 gsm for the cover and at least 150 gsm for the internals) and that Whirlwind would be a good way to go as they buy their stock in bulk and are able to offer cheaper printing as a result. Out of all the printers I contacted for a quote, Whirlwind were the most reasonable in terms of paper stocks and unit cost, so I was pretty keen to go with them.

Second: marketing and distribution. How were we going to sell the book? Through our website, obviously. Maybe if we had a launch …? Perhaps in bookshops? (That would be tricky though; we'd have to pitch it to each shop individually. Also, as I later learned, most bookshops won't stock self-published books because returns are more problematic.) What about getting an Artists Alley table at Supanova, the pop culture expo? Doing that in Sydney would be fine, but what about other cities—like Melbourne and Brisbane?

Then of course how were we going to pay for all of this? I could have sunk my own money into the project, but there was no guarantee I'd get it back. Would it be worth the investment if no one was interested in buying the book? Was there some other way forward?

Fortunately it was around this time that Kickstarter and the concept of crowdfunding started entering the popular consciousness. I first heard about it when Neil Gaiman started tweeting about a project called The Price—an animated film adaptation of one of Gaiman's short stories of the same name. The filmmaker (Christopher Salmon) used Kickstarter to raise the funds to make the film. It made me think that crowdfunding could help solve our problem.

I investigated Kickstarter, but you can't use it if you're not a US citizen because Amazon.com handles their payments. I was eyeing off IndieGoGo, another crowdfunding platform that's open to an international audience, but I didn't like that they operated on a different model: whereas Kickstarter only gives you the funds when you reach or exceed your goal (and no one is charged until that point), IndieGoGo gives you whatever you raise, minus a higher admin fee as a penalty if you don't reach your goal. I figured that if the demand for Kinds of Blue in print wasn't there, there was no point in going forward; the project could just remain as an online thing and that would be that.

Then Bec put me onto Pozible, which is, to my knowledge, the first and only Australian crowdfunding platform. I liked that they operated more like Kickstarter than IndieGoGo, and I was definitely leaning towards using them.

However, I was still nervous about the whole venture (I was worried it would fail and we would end up in the red), and I wanted to get the financial side of it straight in my head before we proceeded. So I drew up what I called a financial plan (but it probably didn't really resemble what financial plans are supposed to be like). In it, I outlined things like:

Creating that plan helped me get thing straight in my head, at least. I showed it to Bec and Guan, as well as my mum and Peter. Bec and Guan are no better at money and numbers than I am, but they told me that the plan looked good and seemed to cover all the bases. My mum didn't think we'd be able to raise the full amount through crowdfunding, so advised increasing the amount for the rewards, and neither she nor Peter could give me any advice about the rest of it.

So despite feeling like what we would be doing was manageable and having it sorted in my head, I was still a bit nervous about proceeding. Nevertheless, I registered with Pozible and sent them the proposal for the project.

It was a good thing I wrote the plan before starting the application process for Pozible as a number of the questions they wanted answered were related to stuff I wrote on the plan. I was expecting a bit of a wait in between, but the project was approved pretty much straight away. Five days later, I launched the crowdfunding campaign (and blogged about it). And then things really took off!

Bec and Guan pretty much drove the crowdfunding campaign, dragging me (doing my best stunned mullet impression) along behind them. Bec re-did the image I had put up for the campaign (and a good thing too; the one I made was quite awful). They both promoted it wherever they could—through their Twitter accounts, on their blogs, on Facebook, through contacting friends. I did those things too, but they would think of things to do that I never would have thought of—like putting up short interviews with all the collaborators on the Facebook page, coming up with more reward options, putting together a marketing plan (which we didn't need in the end), putting together a list of people we could ask to promote us, and so on. I think the three of us were a collective bundle of nervous and crazy energy. Yet we complemented each other well, and it was so good having a team of people behind the campaign to do things like research time zones (so we would know when was the best time to promote the campaign in different parts of the world), answer questions, write thank you notes, and do various little marketing jobs. People were talking about Kinds of Blue all over the internet—sharing the link on social media, sending us messages of feedback and encouragement, retweeting us. People we didn't even know were talking about it.

At the end of Day 1, we were 31 per cent funded; at the end of Day 2, we were 73 per cent funded; and part-way through Day 3, we had passed the 100 per cent mark, making our campaign the fastest funded in Pozible history at the time. (A couple of weeks after this, Pozible interviewed me on their blog.) By the end of the campaign, we had raised a whopping 142 per cent of our funding goal. We used the extra money to print more copies of the book—600 instead of 500.

The following year, Pozible asked me to speak at their Let's Talk Crowdfunding information evening in Sydney. I said the following about what worked well and what we could have done better during the campaign:

What worked well

  1. Putting ALL the content on our website, along with a link to the Pozible campaign at the bottom of each page. We put it all online because I felt the work itself was our best marketing tool. I figured that even if people didn't donate, we still would have gained exposure.
  2. Having a small team ran the campaign, not just me. This spread the workload so that at least one of us was available to answer questions, write thank you notes and promote the campaign at all times. In addition, we asked the rest of the contributors to get the word out through their family, friendship and even church networks.
  3. Making good use of social media—mainly through Facebook and Twitter. Pozible makes integration with social media really easy. As the campaign progressed, we posted updates—not just about how things were going, but we also did Q&A interviews with the artists and writers, and we highlighted a different comic from the anthology every couple of days. We also tried to schedule things so that stuff went online at the best possible time (which is, according to this infographic, 5pm for Twitter and lunchtime for Facebook). And we also tried to schedule things for the best time to reach people in the UK and North America.
  4. Getting other people to promote us. Pozible very generously did so through social media, their website and their blog. Friends promoted us automatically. But we also went out of our way to ask certain people to do so as well—family, friends not on social media, old employers, people overseas. I asked for retweets from some of the comics professionals I follow on Twitter. (In my wording, I tried to phrase things in such a way that would get people to support us—for example, stressing that Kinds of Blue was a comic, that it was creator-owned and that you could read it online for free.) We were retweeted by comics professionals like Jordan D White (editor at Marvel Comics), G Willow Wilson (author of AIR and Cairo), the creators of Phonogram: my heroes Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen, and (most significant of all) Scott McCloud, who not only retweeted us (a tweet that then went on to get retweeted about 21 times), but also promoted us on his personal blog. AND he donated! Thanks to him, we received traffic and promotion from all over the world. After a couple of days, complete strangers were linking to and promoting Kinds of Blue.

What we could have done better

  1. We should have established a presence on social media sooner. I didn't want to have a dedicated Twitter account because I was concerned about what would happen to it in the future. However, I probably should have set up the Facebook fan page and linked it to the website earlier. This would have prevented confusion as someone we didn't know started one without our permission.
  2. We should have had a contingency plan for when the larger rewards were snapped up as they went quickly.
  3. We should have had a plan before the campaign started for what to do if we reached/exceeded our funding goal.
  4. Even though we didn't need it, it would have been helpful to have a plan for the entire campaign before we started.
  5. We didn't make use of all the channels available to us. For example, we didn't ask organisations who specialise in depression awareness to promote us. They might not have been willing, but you never know until you ask.
  6. We should have been more sensitive to our readers. Two of the comics provoked a very strong reaction—“Nihilo”, which is about suicide, and “The black dog must die”, which features violence against metaphorical animals. We've since put up a note on both comics warning readers about the content.
  7. We should have printed the postcards at the same time as the book as having promotional materials around is handy.
  8. Finally, I probably shouldn't have gone on holidays the week after launch. True, we were 100 per cent funded after Day 3, but there were still things that needed to be done, and I felt we lost momentum.

Okay, I think that's a good place to break. Stay tuned for Part 3, which will be about production, marketing and distribution.

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Writing

Kinds of Blue: Cover art

Twitter

Blinks:

A way of funding writing in the future: pitch and idea and get people to support it.

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

How to recalibrate the home button on your iPhone.

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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