In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss new technologies that have revolutionised self-publishing, including their experiences of the benefits and difficulties.
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In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, writing coach, accredited editor with qualifications in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- How self-publishing used to work
- New publishing technologies: print-on-demand, ebooks, online distribution
- New online marketing options
- How to evaluate the opportunities for us as Gracewriters.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters Podcast – Christian Writers Changing Popular Culture. Find us on your favourite podcast player and at Gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, how self-publishing has changed.
I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my blogs, books and courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I live in Brisbane. I was a former early childhood education teacher and I have four adult children. I write romance under the pen name Alison Joy and you can find all my information on alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hello, I’m Donita Bundy and for the past 20 years I’ve been using my theology degree to inform my teaching and preaching and more recently my writing and blogging. You can find out more about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Our topic today, it’s the next one in our new publishing series. Later on, we’re going to be looking at traditional publishing but for the moment we’re focusing in on self-publishing. And today we’re going to look at how self-publishing has changed, new technologies and opportunities that have revolutionised the self-publishing industry over the past 15 years, and also our personal experiences of using those various technologies and opportunities – both the benefits and some of the difficulties that we’ve encountered.
So, we’re going to be a bit honest with you and tell you what it’s really like instead of just the glowing myth of self-publishing! But we’re still doing it so there must be something good about it. Okay. Stay with us.
So, my story: I was working as an editor with a traditional publisher in Sydney back in the 90s and then I went freelance. Initially I was working for other traditional publishers and that one that I’d been working for before. But in about 2001 I started to get some self-publishers into the mix. So, we’re talking about 20 years ago. So, I just wanted to give you a bit of an idea of how different the world was just 20 years ago. Twenty years is not a long time.
There were no ebooks or e-readers as we have now. PDF ebooks were starting to become a bit of a thing that people were selling from their websites but there were no specialised e-reading formats. So, if you self-published a book, basically it was print. It was a print book and it was printed on an offset printing press and you would need to order about 4000 copies to get sufficient economies of scale to bring the price of each of those books down enough that you could make your costs of publishing back.
So, a self-publisher might have had to spend $8-12,000 on the printing alone. That’s not counting cover design and editing and all the other things. They’d have a garage full of books and then they would have to try to find buyers and package up and post those books, or possibly maybe get an arrangement with one of the distributors that distributes from the traditional publishers, but that was competitive. So, you could only get into that if you had a book that the distributor thought that they could sell.
It was mostly non-fiction that succeeded in self-publishing especially if you were, say, a speaker and you were on the speaker circuit because you could take boxes of books with you and sell them to your audiences. If you were self-publishing fiction, it was primarily a bit of an indulgence. Occasionally it was successful in gaining a traditional publisher but it was very hard to make any great success self-publishing fiction.
Then the new technologies began. The ebooks as we know them today were invented, and short-run digital printing started to become a thing. In the very early days, it looked a lot like a photocopied book because one of my authors back then was using it and it was a book that was bound but it did have that homemade, photocopied look about the technology.
But then that started to get better and better and nowadays you can have a print on demand book which is digitally printed but it looks very similar to the ones that come off an offset printing press. Most people who pick them up actually can’t tell the difference. I can if I look hard, but if you have any books on your bookshelf that have a barcode on the final page inside the back cover, that’s often a signal to know that that has been printed using print on demand. So, look for some of those on your bookshelf and compare them to the others and see how easy it is or difficult it is to tell the difference now.
Ingram has been the biggest book distributor in the world for many years. In the late 90s they actually started a thing called Lightning Source which was producing print on demand books for the big trade publishers, so that they could get their backlist out there, so that the books that had gone out of print could still be made available to readers. And self-publishers did start to access that. It was quite hard to use. Very non-user friendly but you could then get into their distribution channels out to the bookstores.
It was really Amazon that changed the game in a big way for self-publishers. In 2005 they started CreateSpace which was their print on demand arm and in 2007 they launched the Kindle which was the first really successful e-reader. And they had a bookstore as well as the device, so before that you had to try and find ways to get your books to readers whereas now you had both: the platform that would create the technology and also distribute the technology. So, it was a whole new ball game.
Then we got social media becoming more of a thing. In the earlier days, I don’t know if anybody remembers, but back in the early 2000s everybody was anonymous online. Nobody would dare to say their name. You might go into a little chat group somewhere but you’d all have false names and fake identities. And then social media became this thing where you could be yourself online, and so we had this new promotional technology and a new potential way to reach readers.
So, we had Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006 and Instagram in 2010 and there’s others as well – and many that have fallen into the sea since then that we’ve forgotten about! But basically, that became a new marketing potential.
So, we’ve got this situation now where you can get a book printed by print on demand. It’s comparable quality to the ones that you see in the bookstores. You can get as few as one copy printed and bound and shipped all from the relevant continent wherever that buyer is, and you never touch that book. You just, down the track, get a portion of the sales price.
And ebooks we can write and publish, they are delivered instantly via all the big online bookstores. There’s a lot more online bookstores than Amazon now, although it remains the gorilla in the room.
It’s the same text. It’s just formatted to read it onscreen.
IngramSpark, remember Ingram the worldls biggest book distributor, they launched their self-publishing arm in 2013 and that added another big player to the game.
So, basically authors are now publishing via the internet, accessing the technologies via the internet and books are moving over the internet on fibreoptic cables instead of in big trucks. And the promotion is happening via the internet too.
So, it’s this massive, massive shift that’s happened, like a Copernican Revolution in publishing.
Online bookstores: we no longer have to convince a bookstore owner with limited shelf space to give some of that space to us because online bookstores can hold millions of books because they’re all digital.
There are so many people doing different things with self-publishing. There are people who are making a good living from it. There are hobbyists who are having access to this amazing way that they can distribute stuff to people. There are business owners and public speakers using a book for marketing. There are people who are supporting a cause. There are people who are sharing a ministry. So, it’s a massive shift.
Alison, how have you been using these technologies? How did you encounter them? What was it like?
Alison Joy: For me growing up always wanting to write a book and you only know the one way, which is the traditional publishing, and you get to now, where traditional publishing seems to be a little bit too pie in the sky. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for self-publishing. And it’s just obviously been a massive learning curve to try and get your head around all the different aspects of it.
You have to keep working on it and keep improving it. And for me, from my point of view, I don’t have access to some of the technology that everybody else has so therefore in my case I have to get somebody else to do it for me.
So, my editor has to format my book and upload it and that sort of thing because I don’t have those technologies. The technologies are good. That’s my thing I have to look at – changing the way I do things sitting in front of a computer. A different setup so it will make it easier for me to do these things. Otherwise, as I said, I have to get somebody else to do them for me.
So, that’s where I’m at, at the moment. The technology’s available but you have to be able to use it. You have to be able to channel it to your needs.
Belinda Pollard: And they do need to make money from it.
Alison Joy: Yes, they do.
Belinda Pollard: They’re not charities. And I do sometimes see people ranting and raving about what IngramSpark charges us for certain things and I’m thinking, “Hang on, guys. Let me tell you about 2001! Let me tell you what it used to be and what a magnificent system we have.”
I know that sometimes these people will get things wrong – these big organisations that do stuff for us – but I also look at it and think, “Wow!” Sure, they need to make a living too. Everybody needs to make a living. Everybody needs to eat. Everybody needs to keep the lights on. So, yes.
Any thoughts to add, Donita?
Donita Bundy: Well, like I said last week, I thought traditional publishing was out of my possibility so I entered self-publishing thinking it was the only way to go. And it was kind of like going to the airport and getting on a mystery flight having no idea where I was going and then ending up in the middle of Calcutta or something. Like the culture shock was kind of explosive.
Alison Joy: Oh, I can relate to that!
Donita Bundy: Yes. I know you’ve been there. I have not. I’ve seen photographs. I’ve been to a lot of places. But the culture shock of what was expected – it was all part and parcel of the desire to publish a book. If I was going to publish, I had to encompass this and get over it and deal with it and just immerse myself in this new culture.
I found the idea exhilarating but then each step of the way I was a little bit more overwhelmed with what I had to learn and it was a very steep learning curve. Just even… you need to buy ISBN’s and you can buy a pack of 10. To publish you need to start a business and have a business name. Okay, so I then have to register a business name and because I’m visual well then, I need to come up with a logo to go with that business name. And that’s also an extra expense in the whole of self-publishing like buying your ISBN’s, registering a business name.
And like you were just saying, Alison, you need technologies but you also need other things as well. Things that you’re now really aware of as you set out on your overseas trip to a foreign culture.
And then like you were saying, Belinda, there’s these different organisations that enable us but after doing your course which I really appreciated, the Self-Publishing Workshop that you ran, Belinda, it’s about you submit print to IngramSpark and you do ebook and print to Amazon and then you do ebooks to these other people. This is the plan that you found was useful.
So, I thought, “Right, yep! Ticked those boxes!” and of course I stuffed it up and I gave the wrong ones to the wrong people and then having to email and retract and then I was like, “Okay, well you’re going to do your own covers because I have access to those programs which I can do that,” but then I’ve come up with this amazing cover. I love it! It’s so poppy and bright. Oh no, you have to convert your RGB colour scheme to a CMYK. It’s like, “How do I do that!” And then that’s another learning curve and then, “What, 240%-pixel coverage or ink coverage? What, I have to reduce it? Oh, my beautiful poppy cover is now grey! Grey, black and white. Well, no black because black’s too much on a cover!”
So, we have to reduce it to grey, grey and grey! And so then how do I do that? So that was another learning curve and then that rejection and, “Oh, how do I find out?” Well then that’s another program you have to go in and use. So, there was all of this and so every step of the way it was like, “Oh, yeah, there’s this other thing that you need to learn.”
But by the time I got to the end of it I really had to apologise to Belinda. After doing the course she had so many emergency calls! It was like, “Belinda, what does this even mean? What does this mean? Do I put the ISBN in then or my publisher name? What is this?!”
And then setting the fees. You’re going to sell your book so you have to come up with prices and then it has to be currencies all around the world and discounts. I have to give a discount and all of this stuff.
It was mind-blowing and I will admit by just before the end of it I was completely overwhelmed and suffering a little bit of a mental breakdown but, can I say, I survived. And the level of breakdown was directly proportional to the high I got when I actually got over the line and I got all those emails back confirming, “Your book is now published with…”
And I could go to these places and go into Amazon and do a search for my name – which always comes up as ‘donuts’! I would put in Donita Bundy, D-o-n-i-t-a Bundy and then my book, “Dangerous Salvation” and I would get donut cooker! But anyway, we’d fixed that!
And then I would see myself and my book. It’s for sale! The down and the “Oh, my gosh!” the angst directly proportional to the joy at completing it. And then I was thinking, “Right, I have mastered this. I have done so many of these things, made so many mistakes. All the lessons are ingrained. I’m never forgetting this.” And then I wait like a month and I go to check something and it’s like, “Oh, I’ve forgotten!”
So, can I just make a note to everyone who’s listening – make notes! I now have a folder of notes. Every single step of the way take a note. This is what I did and even if you did it wrong, put that too. Say, “Don’t do this! Don’t do this again! Do this instead.”
Belinda Pollard: Do you know what that is? This is writing a procedure. So, it’s like a business thing where you write a procedure. I have folders full of procedures of especially the things that I don’t do very often. So, I write a procedure for it. Do this, then this, then this, then this, then this. Because if you’ve gone through the agony of the ‘whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger’ school of self-publishing, you want to retain those learnings and use them again for next time instead of having to just go through it all again.
And can I tell you a secret? Would you like to hear a secret? The first time that I self-published it was just as bad as this and I had been in publishing for years. And do you know what I reckon was one of the hardest things for me? When I worked inhouse at a publisher in Sydney, there was someone to do the book covers, there was someone to do the layout and design. There was someone to do the marketing. There was a boss above me who I would go to with my edits and stuff and we would talk about that.
And then when I started to do self-publishing, I was this little lonely reed in the wilderness, bending madly in the wind. And I was scared and I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know if it was good enough or if it was there yet. And one of the things that helped the most was to draw together a bit of a team around me. Even just other self-publishers.
And can I say to those of you out there who are trying to do this and struggling through this at the moment, come to the Gracewriters community, our online community, and let’s help each other. Let’s help each other with these weird questions that arise. Let’s encourage each other and equip each other and support each other because support makes the world of difference.
And even though I had self-published for a number of other people, quite a lot of other people, helped them to self-publish before I did my own self-publishing, I found that scary and isolating and difficult. So, we need to support each other, we need to help and as Gracewriters we have a real purpose with this. This is an important thing that we’re doing. We’re getting gracenotes out there into the minds of people who really, really need grace in their lives. So, let’s help each other and support each other.
Any further thoughts or comments, suggestions?
Alison Joy: I think it’s a lot like parenting. You can read up all the information beforehand but it’s not until you’re on the journey that you find out what works and what doesn’t work and that’s the thing. You’ve got to find out what works for you, and what works for you may not work for anyone else.
And even if you learn from book to book or from procedure to procedure, something will always happen that throws a curve ball at you and you’re going, “Okay. I didn’t see that coming.” And then you’ve got to pivot. Pivot. You’ve got to pivot and work around it and come up with the solution.
If you get on and you google a solution – and they’re there – it’s just like, well, which one is the right one for you? Try several and maybe before you find one that works for you and it may not be anything. It might be a hybrid of different ideas. And that, I guess, is the time consuming and frustrating part, everybody’s path is different. Everybody’s journey is different. So, it’s just finding what works for you and that’s sometimes not an easy process.
Belinda Pollard: And give yourself permission to be a bit ordinary at it to begin with.
Donita Bundy: I think it’s important too, to realise that there are different levels of help. There are people who, for a price because they do have to make a living, will help you and do this for you. So, depending on how much you’re wanting to do in this process you can find people to do different levels of help along the way to get you published.
Even when you’re starting out and learning, you can get someone to coach you through it and help you. There’s always help depending on how much help you want and how much you want to do yourself. But, yes, as Belinda said, come to the community because we’re all journeying through this same jungle and learning how to eat Indian food in Calcutta together! It’s great!
Belinda Pollard: And in our next episode we’ll actually be looking at some of the different models of how you might do it, how much you might do yourself, how much you might pay for and different ways of going about it so we will be covering that.
How about I pray for us.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that we live in a time where these amazing opportunities are available to us. We just pray that you will give us as Gracewriters wisdom to know what to do, courage to step forward just a little step at a time and strong and loving and supportive community to help one another through these phases to get little pieces of your message out there into the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Alison Joy: Amen.
Donita Bundy: Amen.
Belinda Pollard: Alison Joy and Donita Bundy, thank you so much. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time on the Gracewriters podcast.
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