Freedom, Cost, and Responsibility

When I first started looking into my publishing options for My Brother’s Keeper, I spent a lot of time reading about the pros and cons of traditional vs. independent publishing. One of the things that surprised me was the vast volume of blogs and articles on the topic of independent publishing as a path to freedom from the tyranny of the evil publishing overlords.

Most of the posts sounded something like this: Big publishers are evil. They don’t care about good books or good writing or good authors. They’re just money making machines. And if they don’t see your book as a money-maker it doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, they’ll never give you the chance you deserve. And even if they do publish your book they’ll give you pennies for every copy sold and keep the rest for their greedy selves. But that’s ok because now I can publish my book myself and prove them all wrong!!!!!

And for many people who choose to independently publish their work, there are certain kernels of truth in statement like this. Many perfectly good books are rejected by publishing houses every day. Publishers make hard decisions about what books to print and what books to reject – and often it comes down to what they think they can sell. But that’s to be expected, because lest we forget, publishing is a business, and as a business it’s end goal is to be as profitable as possible.

That doesn’t make big publishers evil, dictatorial, or cruel. It makes them pragmatic. It makes them capable of surviving in the midst of an industry that is undergoing radical transformation. It makes them smart.

So yes, if you don’t fit into the mold of what’s popular and sellable, then self-publishing may be exactly what you’re looking for – “freedom” from the limitations of traditional publishing. But if you’re going to take the plunge, it is important to acknowledge exactly what this “freedom” really means.

You see, freedom is a tricky thing. The freer you are, the fewer rules and restrictions you are subject to, the greater responsibility you take on to govern and monitor yourself. Because no matter how free you may be, you’re still subject to the consequences of your own actions (not to mention the other “free” individuals with whom you come into contact).

As Americans get ready to celebrate our national Independence Day, we are, essentially, about to throw a giant continent-spanning freedom-party (with BBQ and fireworks and everything!) But I, for one, am thankful that I live in a place and a time where my freedom is not absolute. I have the right to make my own choices, to live and speak and worship as I desire. But I don’t have the right to kill someone or to take what does not belong to me. I don’t have the right to punch a stranger for looking at me weird. I don’t have the right to wander naked through the mall or smoke in a store. There are still laws that I must obey, and police to make sure that those laws are enforced. There is order in my society, rules and regulations, social expectations and cultural norms, and all of those things limit (in small ways and tiny measures) the breadth and depth of my freedoms.

But the self-publishing industry isn’t part of the 21st century world. It’s closer to the old wild west. As indy publishers we are trail blazers, wanderers, adventurers seeking our fortune in places where “societal norms” have not yet settled. That’s a good thing. It gives us freedom. But it can also be a bad thing, because it means that there’s no one policing our choices. There’s no one keeping us out of trouble.

That means that you can produce exactly what you want in whatever manner your choose. You can sell your book for a million dollars or give it away for free. You can create a 500 page tome made entirely of jumbled letters and childlike scribble. You can do pretty much whatever you like, slap a cover on it, and call it a “book”.

You can do any of those things, because you are free; but each choice that you make as a self-published author comes with its own set of consequences.

So before you make the decision to self-publish, you first need to identify your motives and expectations. Are you publishing because there is a message that you want to get out there and you think print-media will help you in accomplishing that goal? Are you publishing because you want to make a career out of writing? Are you publishing because you want to make money? Or are you publishing because you want to finish a written work that has never felt complete as long as it’s sat in manuscript-form in a drawer somewhere?

There are no wrong answers here. You can publish for whatever reasons strike your fancy. Nevertheless, it is still important for you to understand the “why” behind your decision to publish; because that why will dictate exactly how much freedom you have in this process.

You see, you as a self-pubishing author are not the only one with freedom in this equation. The reader – your end user – also has freedom, specifically freedom of choice. You have the right to publish whatever you want and to present it to readers for their enjoyment, but each individual reader has the right to pass over your book without a second glance. So if your motivation for publishing is tied to commercial success, your freedoms are limited by what you can expect your readers to accept.

What does this mean? It means that you need to know what your readers want and like, and then you need to give it to them. You are, of course, free to put a picture of a zombie on the front of your recipe book, or to cover your spy thriller in pink hearts and flowers. But you will then be subject to the free choices of an audience who will quickly and quietly move on to something that looks more like the books they want to read.

You are free to finish a first draft, print it out, mark it with a kiss, and declare your work complete. You are free to argue that the nuggets of gold that are found in your writing more than make up for the 22 typos that can be found in the first chapter, and that no one cares about which version of to/too/two you use in a given sentence. In other words, you are free to publish your unedited, unproofed work. But your readers are then free to write the scathing reviews that come with such shoddy work.

As an independent author you have freedom – more freedom today than perhaps at any other time in our history as writers. However, that freedom comes with responsibilities and consiquences. So if you are serious about your writing, if you want to be treated like a professional, make sure that you’re acting like a professional. Don’t abuse the freedoms you’ve been given. Treat them as something precious and special – something to be treasured – because that’s precisely what they are!

An Open Door

The 5th of my original posts on my experience in writing my first book and the journey that God took me on in the process:

The funny thing about the doors that God opens (in my life, at least) is that they never come with a bang.  They’re never big, awesome, public displays.  They don’t normally look like the type of thing that should blow your socks off. In fact, most of the time they begin in the most mundane and ordinary of ways and at the most unexpected of times.  In this particular journey, after six months of nothing, the last thing I was expecting was to see a door suddenly opening in front of me. But it did – and it all started with the most ordinary of occurrences – it started with a conversation.

I was talking with my pastor and a few other people at a our weekly women’s Bible study. We were discussing a wonderful blog that’s written by our bishop’s wife and published on the church website, and my pastor mentioned that she wanted to find a way to turn it into a daily devotional book.  As soon as she said it my ears perked up.  The conversation continued around the topic – discussion what it would take to make it happen. “We could have it bound at Staples” was one comment that was met with some enthusiasm, and I suddenly realized that no one else in this little circle understood how doable this project was, or  how quickly or professionally it could be completed.  What’s more, they had no idea that I knew exactly what needed to happen to see it become a reality.

So I started telling them about ISBNs and print-on-demand technology and a few of the other nuggets I’d discovered in my research.  I think some eyes started glazing over – and I don’t blame them, I was in total nerd-mode and probably making absolutely no sense to anybody but myself.  It wasn’t long before we moved on to another topic of conversation (coffee, I think).  But I went home that night with the absolute assurance that this was something that I could do. And so I sat down that night (and for many nights over the four weeks that followed) and set to work “creating” this book.

It was so liberating to be working on something that wasn’t my own writing – the freedom and the joy that it gave me was frankly surprising.  And as I worked on the book I found myself diving back into my research on publishing. I went back to re-learn everything about what makes a book good (and it’s so much more than the writing!)  But this time around my mind was like a sponge.  I just couldn’t get enough.  My brain was whirling around at a mile a minute, filled to the brim with a wealth of new information.  And the best part was that I had a project waiting for me – one that allowed me to put into practice every single new tidbit of knowledge that I came across.

It took several weeks to do all of the editing, formatting, and layout work.  Who knew that font selection and line spacing would become so important to me?  But finally it was done.  I surprised my pastor with a pdf of the final product (she didn’t know I’d been working on it) and then I waited for … well, I didn’t really know what.

The funny thing was that with all of the work that I’d poured into this project, I had no defined expectations of what would happen as a result.  I hadn’t even thought about who might see it or what they’d think. I’d just worked on it for the sake of working on it.  It was something that I could do for my pastor, for her pastor, something that might bless them or help them.  And it was something that I knew that I had the resources to complete.

Sitting back when it was over, waiting for whatever response this little project was going to receive, I marveled at the way that God had orchestrated this whole thing.  The story was far from over, and my biggest breakthroughs were still on their way.  But in that moment I felt so blessed.  I saw how God had orchestrated the past few years of my life in order to prepare me to complete this task.  I suddenly felt as though everything was clicking into place.  God had set me up to pick up all sorts of obscure and practically useless knowledge along my way, because He knew full well that the day would come when I would have the opportunity to put that knowledge to use for His glory.

But isn’t that so like God?  He knows the task that is waiting for us 1, 5, or 20 years down the road.  He knows the tools we will need to be successful.  And He is so faithful that He provides us with those tools often long before we even realize that we need them.  The junk that we’ve collected over the years – the experiences, the trivial knowledge, the random expertise that seems completely useless … all of those things are given to us by God for our benefit and for His glory.  He is the grand designer, and He knows every tool, every cog, every instrument that we require.  He isn’t IKEA.  He doesn’t leave us with extra pieces at the end of our journey.  He is precise, He is exact, and when the pieces of our lives begin to fall into the pattern of His plan … well, it’s a breathtaking thing to behold.

The Deafening Silence

Here’s part 3 of last year’s posts on this incredible experience of writing my first book.

So where did we last leave off?  If I recall correctly (and I know that I do, because I just went back to check) I had just realized that God’s purpose for this whole adventure was significantly bigger than I had first imagined.  I was holding a secret, a beautiful secret of a dream that I’d never even imagined wanting before.  It was impossible, it was insane, but it was there.

And in the meantime I was working on my manuscript, trying to turn my mess of words into a clear and precise expression of the powerful concept that God had placed in my heart.  And slowly but surely pieces were beginning to fall into place.  The hodgepodge of styles and ideas were starting to mesh together into something resembling a cohesive argument.  My words were starting to resemble a book!

But this is the point when things started to get hard – incredibly hard.

Here’s what would happen.  A friend or acquaintance would ask me what I was up to, and I would start to tell them about the book.  They would get excited and ask me if they could read it.  I would gladly say yes, tell them how eager I was for input, and then print out (or e-mail) the latest draft for them to read.

And then … nothing happened.  I wouldn’t hear back.  I would wait for a response for a month or two and then finally ask them about it.  Their response was always the same: “Oh yes, I started to read it, but then …” not one person I spoke to was able to tell me that they’d read the book through to the end.  Not one person was able to give me any kind of feedback whatsoever.  I can not express how frustrating it became.

Now before my friends and family read this and think I’m upset with them I need to clarify that I’m not.  I know, in all fairness, that the vast majority of these people were not avid readers – at least, not readers of this type of non-fiction.  This isn’t the type of book that they typically gobble up, and most of the time their eagerness to read it at all came more from their friendships with me than from an interest in the topic.  And aside from all of that I know without doubt that this was the way God designed the situation to happen – so how could I possibly be upset with anyone for doing exactly what He’d planned for them to do?  But in the midst of all of this, as it happened over and over again, the pattern was more disheartening that I can put into words.

I would work on a draft, run into someone who offered to read it, give it to them, and then hear nothing back.  And so I would go back to the manuscript and work through another draft – trying to make it better, more captivating, more un-put-down-able.  But the response never changed. It happened with my mother, my closest friends, my father, people from church … everywhere I looked there was someone who offered an open door that inevitably led me right into a brick wall.

The silence was deafening.

And the longer I went without any form of encouragement or critique the more the doubt and fear began to nibble at the edges of this dream.  I knew God was faithful – but I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong.  If I couldn’t get my friends to read this book, what were the chances that a stranger would care enough to pick it up, much less finish it?  And how was I ever going to get it published, distributed, and sold if I wasn’t even able to find supporters among the people whom I’ve always relied on?

At this point in my (I won’t say “panic” … let’s go with “struggle”) … at this point in my struggle I began, for the first time, to seriously consider the idea of self-publishing.  The very words “self-publishing” still send shivers down my spine – they conjure images of failure and mediocrity that harken back to those mailings I used to get in high school (We’d like to publish your poem – just send us $100 for your copy of the book).  Of course, now I know that self-publishing has undergone tremendous changes over the past ten years, and that the quality of self-published work has changed dramatically, but it was certainly my perception at the time.

And no, I hadn’t abandoned the idea of working with my church to start their own publishing house, but that dream was still so far over my horizon that I’d never seriously considered connecting it to my current project.

So I started doing research in between revisions.  I learned about self publishing, co-publishing, and what it takes to start a small publishing company.  I learned about the difference between “self publishing services” and websites that expected you to do all the work on your own.  I learned about buying ISBNs, about marketing and distribution, about print-on-demand technology, and about book layout and cover design.  I learned more about the production of a book than I’d ever imagined possible.

I spent weeks pouring over an incredible amount of data, and then one day I just stopped.  It wasn’t like I quit.  It wasn’t an intentional decision.  I had just printed out paper copies of my latest draft, just heard back from another friend who wanted to read the book, just sent her a copy, and was waiting (again) for a response.  And so I took a break for a week – and that week turned into many weeks.  Soon it was six months, and I hadn’t so much as opened the envelope where my latest paper manuscripts were waiting for me.

That was last October, and until this April that was as far as this story went.  I was at a standstill, and there was nothing left for me to do.  I felt like I was idling at a red light, just waiting for it to change to green.  But the more time I spent away from the whole thing, the less stressful it all became.  Yes, I still felt passionate about the topics my book discussed, and yes there was a piece of me that was still hungry for progress.  But in my soul I had nothing but peace.  I knew that this journey wasn’t over.  But I also knew that it wasn’t going to work in my time.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I learned from this period of frustrating silence and brick walls – that I would never be able to force God’s hand to move in my way or my time.  I knew that these dreams, these plans weren’t mine – they were His.  And with that knowledge came the assurance that He already had the answers in place.  He was going to give me exactly what He wanted, and when He did it was going to be glorious.  But until that moment, the best thing that I could do was learn to wait on Him.

A Broader Vision

Here’s the second of the posts that I’d written a year ago about the incredible journey I’ve been on in writing my first book.

After I’d finished the terrible first draft of the book, I set myself to the tedious task of editing the content.  At first I thought it would be a simple matter of polishing a few rough patches, but as I read through the text from beginning to end, the lack of flow really began to stand out to me.  I had done exactly what I’d imagined at the beginning of this process – I’d effectively written a dozen super-long blog entries.  They all worked as stand-alone pieces, but when I tried to patch them all together it became evident that they weren’t really fitting.

Now I don’t know about anyone else, but for me editing my own work is painfully difficult.  I’m fine with working on someone else’s text.  I was a writing tutor in college, and I’d always considered it my specialty to help student develop cohesive arguments and put them on paper.  I can’t diagram a sentence to save my life, but I’ve always been able to tell you when a sentence or paragraph felt “awkward”.  But when I already know what I’m reading – when it’s something I’ve written, it takes an active concentration to dig those pieces out, and a lot of work to re-imagine how they might fit together better.

So for the next six months or so my progress became difficult and slow.  I would work through a draft for several weeks, and then put it away for a week or two.  Then I would come back with a fresh perspective and find a whole new mess of problems.  I was playing author and editor at the same time, and the work seemed endless.

At the same time, in order to remind myself of what good writing sounded like, I started to pick up other Christian books from my shelf that I hadn’t read or hadn’t read in a while.  One of those books (again, there is a blog entry about this somewhere in my archives) was What You Do Best in the Body of Christ. I’d started reading it years before, and put it down after a chapter or two.  But this time as I was reading through it God began to speak to me in a very real and personal way.  So much of what was written was so based in practical common sense that it seemed almost foolish, but these logical and “obvious” statements inevitably led to questions that I’d never sat down to actively consider, and they were questions that needed answers.

The essential premise of the book is that we are each given a specific mix of personality, passion, and talent that God desires to use for His glory.  Finding the right way to use that mix is what will make us successful.  For example, not everyone who has a passion for evangelism is going to pursue it in the same way.  Some people love approaching strangers on the street, but there are others who are more comfortable inviting their neighbors over for coffee, while others were “born” to preach to large crowds of people all at once.  Finding the right way to use your gifts in pursuit of your passion is key to following your call.

Like I said – common sense, right?  But as I went through the exercises that the book suggested, and as I wrote my results down on paper and looked at them, it was like God was ripping a curtain away from an entire realm of possibilities that I’d never considered.  There were connections that were obvious, ministries into which I’d already fallen, work that I was already doing.  But at the same time God was revealing a path that I’d never even thought to consider.  If I tried to explain the dots that God was connecting in my head it wouldn’t make any sense, but they were there, and they were so clear that He might as well have written them out for me.  I was going to help my church start a publications ministry.  I was going to help them write and publish books, curriculums, and literature that could be read and used by the Body of Christ around the world.

Now anyone who knows me will know just how crazy that sounds.  I’m an accountant.  I have NO experience in publishing, and NO idea how that kind of business is run. I’m not a terrible writer, but that’s like wanting to start a record label and expecting to be successful because you’re not a terrible singer.  And on top of all of that I go to a smaller suburban satellite congregation of a much larger church in the city – it’s not exactly like I have easy access to the pastors to be making these kinds of out-of-the-blue propositions.

But there it was, as plain as day, and as soon as I saw it, it began bursting in my heart and my spirit like a bottle of soda that had been shaken and then opened.  It was impossible, absolutely absurd, a task to which I knew myself to be uniquely suited, and for which I was absurdly unqualified.  And yet somehow I knew that it was so right, so divinely inspired, that there could be no question.

There it was – the broader vision.  I had started this journey with an idea that I thought was big: I was going to write a book and get it published.  I was going to put words on a page that would help other Christians with their daily lives.  But God’s idea was bigger – so much bigger that it had never even entered into my realm of thinking.  It was still impossible, still absurd, but now it was there – like a seed that had been planted.

At this point there was nothing for me to do but to continue on the path that God had set me on.  And so I took this seed of a vision and I wrote it down.  I prayed over it.  And I set it in my heart.  And in the meantime – I continued to work on the book.  But this time it was different – I wasn’t an author struggling to edit my own work any more.  Now I was a future publisher, learning the ins and outs of editing from the perspective of an author as well as an editor.  Suddenly this monotonous task (and believe me, it was monotonous) was no longer a drudgery, but an incredible learning opportunity.

God had given me a broader vision, and it had changed my whole perspective.

An Exciting Journey

People always told me that I should write a book. I always laughed – mostly because I couldn’t imagine having anything to say that hadn’t already been said a thousand times over by people who know more than I ever will. So it was more surprising to me than (perhaps) to anyone else when in 2010 God gave me a message and told me to write it.

At the time I didn’t know how it would happen, or even what I would say. I couldn’t imagine how these words could ever find their way into pages bound in a cover and sitting on a shelf. The writing alone was more work than I’d thought possible, but that was only half the journey. In truth, it was more of a first step into a field in which I never imagined I would find myself: self-publishing.

And before you groan in horror at the thought, let me tell you first that I did too. After all, “self-publishing” sent my mind instantly to the horrors of vanity presses and terrible poetry. What I discovered when I looked, through, was a new and developing brand of independent authors – men and women who take their craft seriously and strive for professionalism. Yes, there are bad books being self published today – some of them are, in fact, horrible. But there are also well-written, high quality books out there that have been published by authors who would rather take their work into their own hands than wait to be discovered by a traditional publishing house.

My goal in this blog is to share with anyone who’s interested a little bit of what I’ve learned (and what I’m still learning) about what it takes to write and publish a book. I am by no means an expert. I have learned what I know through trial and error and a whole ton of research. But if it can be a help or an inspiration to other Christian writers (even, perhaps, ones who would never call themselves writers and can barely imagine writing a book of their own) then it’ll be worth the effort.