Self-Publishing Freedom (My Story)

Freedom Pic

Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, here in the United States. So it seems appropriate to write about some form of freedom today.

This post is far more personal than usual. But it relates to self-publishing and freedom.

I have been writing avidly for over twenty years, but I only published my first book in 2008. I had considered publishing my first book around 1990.

Back in 1990, publishing wasn’t nearly as easy. To put things in perspective, in 1990, I had a beat up old typewriter and a computer that was basically a fancy word processor. No internet, no email, hardly any memory. Still typed with two spaces, not one, after a period.

That didn’t stop me from writing, though. But compared to today, publishing was a far greater challenge.

I didn’t realize that self-publishing was possible then. Well, for me, it wasn’t. I didn’t have the money to order a thousand or more books up front and didn’t even have a garage in which to store them. Even if I did, how was I going to sell them? I wouldn’t have self-published in 1990 if I had known how to do it.

The idea of publishing also seemed much more intimidating twenty years ago than it does now.

I had no idea how to get published. I didn’t know any published writers. So what did I do?

Went to the bookstore, of course. Compared to today, there weren’t nearly as many books about how to get published. I wound up spending an arm and a leg on a huge book called Writer’s Market.

That book was intimidating, too. Partly, because it was enormous. Also, it seemed very formal. And it emphasized the importance of query letters and book proposals. And self-addressed, stamped envelopes; the good old SASE.

First, you browse through all of the publishers listed in Writer’s Market. The places where you really want to publish your book have closed doors. Most of the big boys weren’t looking for first-time authors. And they didn’t want to hear from the author, they wanted to work with your agent.

Big dilemma: Should you search for a publisher or an agent? And was it worth going through some small publisher whom you’ve never heard of before?

I wrote frequently. Nonfiction, mostly math and science. Short stories. I loved writing. I had no shortage of creative ideas back then. I felt sure that a publisher would be interested in one of them.

But contacting a publisher, that was the hurdle. Which idea to present? You have to choose wisely.

You’d hate to write the whole book, then never get published. You’d hate to write a hundred page book proposal and not have anything to show for it thirty rejection letters and one year later. You could write a whole book while all that time was being wasted.

It didn’t seem very efficient. Just imagine what first-time authors could do if they could just focus on writing.

And what if they stole your idea, or your whole book? Maybe this was rare, but I had heard stories. True or not, those stories scare you. Our books are our babies. We must protect them.

Writing didn’t seem very practical, so I was studying physics. I wrote my homework as if I were writing a textbook. I didn’t just put the math together. I wrote sentences in between the lines, explaining the steps. I numbered figures and wrote captions below them.

If I couldn’t get my writing published, maybe I could publish a textbook someday. I was practicing for it.

In the late 1990’s, I made a variety of math worksheets. Mostly arithmetic. It was for family. I formatted the problems to fit on the page and provided room to work in. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about making a math workbook. But the way they were formatted, a math workbook could easily be made from them.

I started teaching as a graduate assistant in 1994. I loved typing up handouts, from syllabi to problems to lab manuals to notes to supplemental material.

By 2000, I had written numerous short stories, a few books, several math worksheets, tons of lecture notes and other handouts, and a very long dissertation for my Master’s thesis in physics. In the next few years, I would add another long dissertation for my Ph.D. thesis and publish a half-dozen articles on the collider phenomenology of large extra dimensions.

I started writing complete lab manuals for physics in 2003 and put together a book of creative physics problems. I typed all of my lecture notes.

Did I mention that I was a very avid writer? I have always loved writing. And I have always been organized and efficient. Plus, I can’t sit still for long. I have to do something. One thing you can do regardless of the weather (thunderstorms, ice, rain, snow, hail, too hot and humid – doesn’t matter) is write. So I wrote. And I wrote an awful lot.

There was also a very lonely period of my life in there. A couple of years where there was nothing else to do but write. Writing will always be there for you.

But what was I going to do with all of my writing? Fortunately, I was able to share it with students. Would that be it, or would there be more?

I decided to see if I could get some of my writing published. I had always enjoyed contemplating the fourth dimension, ever since I discovered Rudy Rucker’s book on the subject. Then when I was working on my Ph.D. in particle physics, the subject of large extra dimensions just started to become popular. It was a match made in heaven.

Thus, my first serious book, for which I became determined to publish, would be a book on the fourth dimension. At first, I called it Searching for Extra Dimensions. Later, it turned into The Visual Guide to the Fourth Dimension. And it grew into two separate volumes.

I made a serious search for a publisher or agent when this book was more than half finished. I wrote several drafts of query letters and book proposals. I even sent some out.

Rejection is painful. It’s not just being rejected. It’s often what they say when they reject it.

I had a Ph.D. in particle physics. I had published a half-dozen papers on the collider physics of large extra dimensions. I taught physics to eleventh- and twelfth-grade geniuses at a specialized school for math and science. I had been explaining difficult math and physics concepts to students for 15 years. I had contemplated a fourth dimension of space since I was a teenager. Was I not qualified to write a popular book on the subject of the fourth dimension?

Apparently not. I submitted a hundred page book proposal, including a sample of the book. I had even made a cover myself where the title looked four-dimensional. The cover featured a three-dimensional construction of a four-dimensional tesseract. In color. I thought this cool cover would give it an edge over all of the dry nonfiction science book proposals out there.

The publisher could have been open and honest from the beginning and saved me a great deal of time. There was only one page on that proposal that seemed to matter: My resume. Why ask for a book proposal when there is only one page of interest?

I taught physics to gifted students at one of the premier high schools in the country. Students from around the state came to this school, living in a dorm while attending. These kids earned a ton of scholarship money. Many went to top universities and thrived there. The physics course I taught to those high school students was more rigorous than any university course I have ever taught.

But to the editor, it was no different than any other high school.

So I had written a book on the fourth dimension, but didn’t know what I was going to do with it. My publishing dreams had been smashed, shattered, crushed…

Then, one day in 2008, I logged onto Amazon as I often did. I have been a loyal customer for a long time. I loved books, and with the used book prices, I could afford to buy more books from Amazon. And I could buy more books by reselling some of my used books; the ones I was willing to part with, anyway.

I can’t remember why I scrolled down to the bottom of Amazon’s homepage. I just did. And then I noticed it. In small letters. Self-publish with us.

What does that mean? Self-publish with whom?

That’s when I discovered CreateSpace.

CreateSpace offered me the freedom to self-publish. With no up-front cost. Without having a thousand books stored in my garage. And to have my book available on Amazon. It seemed too good to be true.

  • The freedom to write and publish regardless of my resume.
  • The freedom not to have to cater my book to the needs or expectations of an editor.
  • The freedom to write my book the way I want.
  • The freedom to focus on writing the book, not query letters or book proposals.

I had to learn how to format my own manuscript, convert to PDF, make my own cover, market my book, and a thousand other things I could never have imagined.

But it was worth it. I’d rather invest my time and effort perfecting my own book and getting it out there than to put all of that time into query letters and book proposals. Self-publishing is a sure thing; your time won’t be wasted. Your book will be available. It might not sell, but it will be published.

I decided that I needed some experience before I published my work on the fourth dimension. I had made some sheets for keeping track of golf statistics in the past. So I made a few books like The Golf Stats Log Book. These were easy to make, especially since I had made several worksheets like these in the past. They were useful for me, so I figured they could be helpful for other golfers. I turned these into books, formatting the interiors and making covers for them. This was good practice for my book on the fourth dimension.

I published several books in 2008, including the first volume of my book on extra dimensions. It was really cool to find my books on Amazon. To see my book in print. To show friends and family. To send my books to friends and family. To sell my first book. To get a sales rank.

Would these books sell? Every author has the fantasy of selling hundreds of copies per day and eventually becoming a bestseller. Before you publish your first book, you already have a fancy sports car and beautiful mansion picked out, right?

Well, you read something about advances that publishers pay. You were dreaming of tens of thousands of dollars up front if you traditionally published. Dreaming. Because they’re more likely to pay that to celebrities and already highly successful authors. You might get a modest advance, and that might be all you get. You were also thinking that if you sold 50,000 copies or more, you’d get 15% of the royalties. Hoping. Dreaming.

So when you self-publish, you have that advance (that you never got) and that huge royalty check (that you never got) in your mind. You’re comparing with what you had hoped for.

But you also have to be realistic. You’re not sure you’ll sell any books at all.

What would a reasonable expectation be? Maybe, if I could buy a car? Maybe, if after 10 years, the total royalties would be good enough that I would stop wondering if traditional publishing would have paid better? Maybe.

$200 per month would be $2400 per year. That wouldn’t be much after one year, but after 10 years, that would be pretty big. And if sales held steady, your book becomes a retirement plan. Well, we can dream; there are no guarantees.

I started publishing in July of 2008. From August, 2008 thru February, 2009, sales were dismal. Just a few copies here and there. I should have quit, right? It clearly wasn’t working out. My books weren’t being discovered. They weren’t selling. No reviews.

But I didn’t give up. I knew that I just needed to give it time. I was confident in my book on the fourth dimension. There had to be other people like myself who appreciated this subject, who would enjoy some cool concepts and diagrams from my book.

And I kept writing. I had ideas for other books, and worked on those. I have since discovered that most indie authors employ this trick: Keep yourself busy writing to keep your mind off everything else. There is also the hope that the next book will do better. And it should, because you’re wiser and more experienced.

Then in March, 2009, it happened. All of a sudden, out of the clear blue, people were starting to buy my books. I released Volume 2 of my extra dimensions book in March. That did it.

Maybe people were waiting for both volumes to be out. Maybe somebody reviewed my book. (One reader had contacted me by email, asking me when Volume 2 would be out. Was he a book reviewer? I always wondered, but never investigated.) The second book related to string theory, so it was in the string theory category at Amazon. In March, Volume 2 showed up in the New Releases section of Amazon. Maybe there were a lot of readers checking out new releases in string theory back then. Most string theory readers probably didn’t know about self-publishing in early 2009, and so wouldn’t have realized that my book wasn’t traditionally published. Maybe Volume 1 had finally sold enough copies to gain visibility through Customer Also Bought lists. Who knows?

But whatever happened, it was amazing. Prior to March, 2009, I had never made $100 in royalties in a single month. In March, 2009, I almost busted a $1000. I took a snapshot of my sales rank on Amazon. It peaked at about 5,000 and held onto this for several days.

So I took my family out to dinner to celebrate. Thinking, finally. This is awesome. I started having more of those fantasies of being a successful author. That’s when sales started to drop off somewhat. Why does a little celebration kill your own sales? Are we not allowed to celebrate for an hour? Really? After months and months of hard work?

But even after sales had stopped skyrocketing, they still came. Not as frequent as the first two weeks of March, but far, far better than they had before. And they have steadily grown from that point forward. If you keep publishing books, your sales can grow. Similar titles may help one another.

In the summer of 2009, I got an idea. I could make a series of math workbooks. Heck, I had already made math worksheets several years before. Thus started my Improve Your Math Fluency Series. These math workbooks have been among my most successful books. And they help students improve their math skills. I’m a teacher at heart. For me, helping others learn is the most important thing. Here, I had a chance to do this through writing and publishing.

I’ve learned a great deal about writing, formatting, cover design, and especially marketing. I had been a salesman for 9 years while working my way through college, so I knew something about marketing. But marketing books is different.

With what I know now, I would do things differently. I would have marketed more from the beginning. I was fortunate. I published nonfiction and I had qualifications. I had also had years of experience of trying to format pages to look like books, including drawing illustrations on the computer. I have learned much, much more about marketing, and started marketing my own books more and more.

I can’t help my former self. But now that I have achieved some modest success, I can help others. They had a great concept in that movie, Pay It Forward. I see it in action frequently in the self-publishing industry – i.e. experienced authors helping new authors. New authors are fortunate to find a lot of support from others. There is more and more free material to help authors learn about formatting, marketing, editing, and so on. And there are many helpful authors in the self-publishing community forums. It makes me smile to see all of the helping hands.

I try to see the good. It’s easy to see the bad. It’s more challenging to find the good. Look for it. It’s more rewarding than looking for the bad. And it helps you stay positive. And it helps improve the ratio of bad to good. If you have a chance to help fix the bad, even a little, then try it. But don’t dwell on the bad.

Amazon, CreateSpace, and Kindle Direct Publishing have given me the freedom to self-publish. Amazon gave me my chance. And I’m forever grateful for that.

I have a writing voice, and my voice has been heard. It might be a whisper, but it’s a voice nonetheless.

And WordPress. I’m glad I finally discovered WordPress. I love it. 🙂

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers