Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Readership of One

Some of you who have been following Lit Lab for awhile will know that I often weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing versus publication house publishing. Well, as we are approaching the holiday season, I've found myself dipping more than my toe into the self-publication pool. See, I've been working for the past few weeks on a 20K-word novella that I plan to self-publish. This novella will have a readership of about one.

My nephew Dylan is six going on seven, and for his Christmas gift, I am attempting to write him a personalized book starring him and his family. It's currently called Dylan and the Monster, mostly because I haven't taken the time to come up with a better title yet.

On the one hand, this is just a little, insignificant project. It was actually inspired by my wonderful blogging friend Robyn and her son. I actually started writing a fairy tale for her son before I realized he was probably much too old to care about fairy tales. Instead, I decided to try again with my nephew.

But, more than just having a fun side project to work on, I realize that the concept of making this specialized type of book is transforming my views on the publication process. Let's face it, when we think about publication, it's mostly a numbers game. Most of the writers who try to publish through a publishing house do so because they want to reach as many people as they can. They want to be popular. And, often, to be popular, they have to compromise their own personal preferences. The downsides of self-publishing--because there are plenty of upsides--is that readers will rarely be able to find out that the book exists in the first place.

With Dylan and the Monster, my self-published book is going exactly to my intended audience (okay, and Michelle, who kindly volunteered to read it as well). That means, not only do I have complete control over my art form through self-publishing. But, I also reach everyone in my target audience. It's 100% successful. And, even though only a handful of people are ever going to read this thing, I'm finding it deeply satisfying.

I'm not yet sure what this means for me in the future. It may convince me to self-publish every novel I write, or it might not. But, for now, it's really making me think.

Any thoughts on this folks? As you can see, my own thoughts aren't exactly focused yet. Can someone explain why I'm liking this experience so much? And, do you think this is an inherently different thing from writing a "typical" novel?

Update: I'm currently writing the section where the character based on me is going to die! Good times! :P


  1. Davin. How wonderful for your nephew. Actually, Christopher would have LOVED that. He still loves reading stuff like that.

    But I would LOVE to read it too. It sounds really moving. And wait until I tell Christopher about this.

    Thank you Davin. For being there for us!

    And I don't think there is much difference from writing a novel and what you are doing. They both take care. The word count is not the same, of course. But this sounds captivating. I can't wait to read it. :)

  2. Is it satisfying because you're involved in the whole creation of the book, not just the words? I presume you get to find the art work and design the layout as well. Pretty complete artistic control.
    Or maybe it is knowing that you are going to reach exactly who you wanted.

  3. Robyn! Thanks for stopping by. Maybe I will finish that fairy tale I started for Christopher. I was having a lot of fun with it. I'll email it to you if ever I finish it. :)

    Cardiff Sparrow, I do love the idea of being in complete control. Just as I have strong opinions about writing, I have strong opinions about cover art. Something just feels so intentional about this endeavor.

  4. Oh Davin, that would be wonderful! Thank you, my friend. For EVERYTHING!

  5. It's very freeing to write for someone's taste you know, rather than second-guessing some unknown quantity *out there*--the agents, the editors, the big, wide reading public.

    I've only done one project like this--a scene that I may or may not every use, written for my encourager teen fangirl who begs to see every draft. Romance doesn't play centrally to my story, but for her, I wrote a funny romantic piece involving minor characters she connected with, just as a thanks for being awesome and making me feel loved. Her enjoyment of it gave me an unexpected motivational boost.

  6. Laurel, Another little thing I do is that I tuck in little messages in my stories. For example, a writer I deeply admire is Kathy Fish, and I make sure to include fish in most of my stories. If you read my novel Rooster, you'll see that there are lines sprinkled throughout in homage to some of my favorite writers past and present.

  7. With such a well-defined goal, I think self-publishing is the way to go. But beyond that, I really don't know.

    Actually, if you're emailing your novella, would you send me a copy too? I have a 9-year old who inhales books and a 7-year old boy with a great imagination.

    See, your problem just got complicated, because now you don't have ah audience of one anymore. Does that change your stance?

  8. Davin, I think the most important thing is that you realize what your goals are. That makes it much easier to achieve them.

  9. Yat-Yee, I'm happy to send you a hard copy version of it IF I actually finish it. I must warn you, though, it really does have a lot of inside references. Dylan knows all of the main characters in this story personally, up until the second half when I introduce some fairies and goblins. I'm honestly not sure if anyone else, besides my nephew's parents can really connect with it. But, I'd be happy to send you a copy. Just email me your address. (BTW, I tend to really procrastinate on stuff like this, so don't expect it anytime soon! And, like I said, it's not done yet.)

    Does this change my stance? Not yet. If it was more general of a book, then maybe.

  10. Rick, I think that's a most excellent point. I wrote a post about goals awhile ago. I try quite hard to have specific goals, and I think perhaps that's one reason self-publishing doesn't seem so bad to me. I realize y goals are compatible with self-publishing.

  11. There are perfectly legitimate venues for self-publishing. There are things that need to be written that don't necessarily require millions upon millions of people to read it. That's when self-pubbing comes into the picture. It's all about knowing the market you intend for the project. If it's a rewarding project only meant for a small audience, self-pubbing can be very rewarding.

    If you want to be J.K. Rowling, self-pubbing won't get you there.

    If you want to write about a loved family member who passed so other generations can know about him/her, self-pubbing is the way to go.

    It's all in the perspective and in line with what the project demands.

  12. I remember in elementary school one year we wrote short stories and my teacher sent them to an publishing press so everyone could have their story in book form. I think what you're doing sounds like a great idea, especially as a gift for your nephew.

  13. Davin,
    I have always been intrigued with the concept of self-publishing. One of my earliest introductions to the whole publishing industry was through a guy named Hamish McDonald . He takes self-publishing to a whole ‘nother level. I see myself taking his approach some day, for a limited project such as you have in mind.

  14. Davin, this post has touched me today. I've been thinking about self-publishing, too, and what it would mean to me as a writer to do that. I sent you a picture of that book I made by hand. I am so so so so proud of that book, about everything that went into it. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the feelings I have for that book are more deep and personal and satisfying than the feelings I'd get traditionally publishing a book would ever be.

    I tell myself this: I will write what I love and try my hardest to get traditionally published. If it doesn't work I'm okay with that. I have enough of an audience these days to self publish on Lulu or whatever so that my book would be available to those who are interested. No big deal. The point is that I'm sharing in one way or another and that I'm happy with myself as a writer.

    Davin, you are such an inspiration to me. Your book for your nephew has shown me that even when we write something that we think will only be accessible to a small audience, that is when it actually becomes something bigger. Trust me, your book would touch more than just your nephew if you put it out there. Not sure if you'd ever want to, but from what I've read it has that potential.

  15. Stephanie, I think you make a strong argument. A friend of mine, a wonderful writer of WWII memories self-published two wonderful books and is working on a third. Through his contacts with veteran groups, he was able to schedule several readings, and he's a great speaker. He sold multiple thousands of copies.

    Mariah, I taught a writing class where we put together an anthology as well. I think that's a very satisfying conclusion to something like that, and it's a lot of fun too. It's also a great way to preserve a piece of writing.

    jbchicoine, thanks for the reference! As this story is shaping up, I do wonder how it will affect my future plans. :)

  16. I think if it works for you and you're happy about it - then go for it.

    As for me, I'm in the struggle of big press versus small press, especially because of the market. I mean, do I go with these small presses (not POD, mind you) because they cater to the niche/genre of the one project pretty much ready to go? Or, do I hold out hopes for a major publisher, go the agent route, and just hope for the best?

    On the one hand, even if it's small press, that doesn't necessarily mean small success, because word of mouth can increase sales.

    On the other hand, am I settling for something less by going the small press route? Is big success guaranteed with a big publisher??

    Arrrrgghh, I think my brain just exploded.

    Kidding. Maybe. I do have a headache. Oh, wait, that's Robyn trying to steal my idea for Friday's post.

    Oh, and I think you're liking the experience because of the total control thing. You have no one to report to but yourself, you are the editor (well, I'm sure Michelle is helping on that as well), the agent, the publisher (well, for the most part), and so there is basically you doing what makes you happy. I think that's one of those win-win situations!


  17. Wow, what a great gift for your nephew!

  18. It's a wonderful idea! My daughter wrote a children's story. I got a copy of it and created my own book for her, with clip art for the illustrations. I've thought of checking into a self-pub for it. My version is nice and personal, but it's not as beautiful constructed.

    It would also be great for genealogy hobbyists.

  19. I love things like and other POD places, because I like the idea of putting out a few copies of books for a few select readers. I'm sort of gathering together my short stories to print up a book for some friends of mine. I also have some weird book ideas that I might do as one-of-a-kind books with illustrations and the like.

    I really love that you're doing this for your nephew, Davin.

  20. I think you're doing a great thing--and your nephew's lucky he has you for an uncle! If you take scans and could send me an excerpt at least, I'd love to see it.

    Maybe you're liking the experience the way many self-publishing/do-it-yourself writers do and have; that I-like-it response is a natural one. As I said in my "no Mount Sinai guidelines" post on my blog, writing their own worlds is about the only control humans can have over a world. In a largely chaotic real world, control over SOMEthing feels so good. And do-it-yourself writers are getting their fictional worlds down as THEY see them.

    Plus, I think what you're doing is a labor-of-love for you too, no matter who you'd be writing for. If you're enjoying the process, you're enjoying it. What's not to like then?

    As far as sales are concerned, self-publishing is good for niche writing, but it isn't only for niche writing. The Celestine Prophecy was self-published, so was Lip Service, so was Eragon, so was House of Leaves, so was a bestselling writer who once hit on me in a chatroom (eye roll) when he was a nobody, before his self-published book got mainstream attention and sales.

    William Blake self-published a lot of his work. If it had first been published by someone else, I doubt his specific vision would have remained intact through the process, both word-wise and visual-wise. Virginia Woolf--same thing. Her vision really would have never survived outside publication, in my opinion. Some writers have too unique a voice for others to get involved; I think those writers are better off self-publishing.

  21. What a *wonderful* present for your nephew!

    I'm so ambivalent about self-publishing. I have some personal issues with it (which are really just deeply ingrained prejudices against self-publishing), but (as a bona fide control freak) I can also see the benefits of handling every little detail yourself.

    I also think that, as publishing mainstream appears to get more and more difficult, and self-publishing technology gets more and more advanced, I have a feeling self-publishing is going to become a more acceptable route for determined writers to follow.

    Hope you have fun finishing your nephews' story! :)

  22. Michelle, what a nice comment. Thank you, my friend! And, thank you too for reading this story. I really do think it will only have a small audience, and I'm totally fine with that. It still feels very satisfying. As I'm writing other stories, I'm realizing that the thought of this, just having enough copies for the few readers who really want it, is quite satisfying. And, somehow, this is making me raise my own standards since I want to please the dedicated group of readers.

    Scott, the world of small presses is really excellent. I'm not joking when I say that three of the best writers I know about now have gone the small press publishing route. Mary Miller, Kuzhali Manickavel, and Ania Vesseny are all brilliant writers, and all in different ways. Ania's book hasn't come out yet, but I'm excited to see it--and I may be wrong about the small press for her, but still a plug is a plug, right? Really, if anyone ever has a hankering for some excellent literary short stories, check out Big World my Mary Miller or Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel. Ania's book is a novel, and I'll be sure to mention it when it comes out.

    I've been looking into the small presses, and I'm hoping to do some posts on it soon!

  23. Jennifer, thanks. I showed parts of it to my nephew's father and have gotten full approval. :)

    Lily, nice point. Yes, I love hand made books, but in a very different way than published books. They are both special, and, really, I wish I could have the best of both worlds.

  24. Sounds like a wonderful idea as a gift for family, and, you never know who else might love it, too.
    In my critique group one writer made an illustrated book of another writer's unpublished novel. It was an amazing gift.
    There have been some "little" stories I've read to the group that they loved, and it gave me such a boost, even though I don't think those works would ever be professionally published. But I could see me having fun self-publishing them. Maybe. Someday.

  25. Scott, it's quite exciting, yes. I find that in thinking about this, numbers are popping into my head for other stories that I've written. It's almost like I'm predicting the popularity of each book by thinking about how many copies of each I should print. It's separate from quality, but I do think I have a certain impression of how generally interesting each story I have written might be. Whether I'm right or wrong is another issue, of course.

    F.P., Sure, I'll send you something if I finish it. I'm in the last or the second to last chapter of the first draft now, and I'm not going to have much time to proofread it if I want to have it printed by Christmas. I'm relying on Michelle to catch the typos, which she has already done. And, luckily, it's only going to be about 20K words, which means I have a chance to read and revise it at least a couple of times.

    I think you're right about the feeling of control. This product that I am making feels like it's all mine, and that it wonderful.

    I agree with you about Virginia Woolf. She is so unique, and her readership is so divided. Self-publishing really suited her.

    Ann Victor, interesting thoughts. I have that same initial prejudice, and I find that I have to try hard to fight it. I really think that prejudice is one of the biggest obstacles to self-publishing, and I don't think that's fair, sadly.

    Tricia, you make a really good point. Some of my "smaller" stories have been big hits. And, a lot of times, in trying to be personal and intimate, I think we create a story that a large audience can really connect with. I really wonder if that could be the case with this story, but then I just think so many details are personal. It will be interesting to see if anyone else likes it.

  26. I did something similar this year as family Christmas presents, only my tale is about 10K. Yes, they may be the only ones to read it, but I still feel good about the project and that I completed it.

    Would I do self-publish again? Since I don't have as a goal to be a best-selling author, probably.

    Oh yea, it's on --

  27. Davin, this is so touching. Your nephew will cherish this gift forever. And I suspect his parents are pretty impressed, too!

    With respect to future novel publication, if the primary downside with self-publishing for you is reaching people, you sort of have that covered with the blog and your readers, who would spread the word and blog/tweet about your book. It would spiral. In fact you more than most people, who have actually posted your work--truly rich, beautiful, compelling pieces--seem well positioned to sell a self-pubbed work. If you wanted to.

    Sort of like my coming to Alexander Chee's first novel--I bought it only because I read his essay about Annie Dillard. I didn't stumble upon it in a bookstore, and I didn't care who published it. I just knew I had to read it. I think you could easily get a similar vibe going.

  28. Jim, you bring up a good point. Finishing the story is also going to be a great experience for me. Although I feel like I have some experience at novel-writing. I've only really polished one, and I've only written full drafts for three. So, each new long story I finish is still revealing quite a lot to me about what makes a novela satisfying read.

    Jennifer, thanks a lot for your nice words. While I do think I have some exposure on the internet: the blog, SmokeLong, some large online writing groups, I honestly don't think that will translate to many readers. And, I'm not trying to sound modest or anything. From what I've been picking up based on our readership, the majority of Lit Lab readers are writing in different genres. Most probably don't even like literary writing. I also feel like I've revealed plenty of inadequacies in my book that would probably decrease readership instead of increase it! But, I agree with you that one thing we have at our disposal now is the chance to reach more people. Even if you don't want to read my book, you'll probably hear about it, and maybe you'll spread the word to someone who does. :)

  29. I, for one, would be willing to buy anything either of you guys publish.

  30. Some people don't like literary fiction??

    But seriously, you know who does like literary fiction? Women who've put their high-powered careers on hold to be home with their kids, but who, if forced into some kind of a truth-telling situation, will admit that they sometimes are less than fully mentally stimulated. So they form the ubiquitous Book Club and for a couple of hours a week are in heaven.

    So all you need is a super cool website, a little social networking, your blogging audience, your Smokelong contacts, your writers groups AND some hooks into the at-home professional mom crowd.

    Piece of cake. ;)

  31. Ha ha, thanks Jennifer, Charlie and Scott! I'll take it! See, I've just tripled my readership in a matter of minutes. At this rate, I'll be more popular than the H1N1 virus!

  32. I think now and then there are some very good reasons to go the self-publishing route. Many people have already pointed out some of these so I'll try not to repeat what they said. I just want to add that I recently chose the self-publishing route for a children's story and now I'm very glad I did. I had some very specific ideas on how I wanted that book to be set up plus an artist friend offered to do the cover art. Besides it wasn't exactly a conventional novel. The biggest reason I chose to self-publish however, was that my Grandma suggested I give copies of the book to the family for Christmas.
    The point I'm trying to make here is that when you write a story you've got to decide what the purpose of that story is. Is it to inspire a large audience or make a few friends smile? In some cases it's okay to have a small audience and if that's all you're aiming for then self-publishing is probably right for that project. Still there will be times when you’ll want to reach more people because you feel your story has a more universal message or some point a lot of people can relate to. In that case I'd say go to the bigger houses. Query away and stay true to that dream, that project.
    That's my two cents.

  33. I've been thinking about doing exactly the same for my daughter. And like you, Davin, I find the idea very satisfying--complete freedom and control of the project.

    However, getting to the reader, is not 100% success. I think success in this case is being liked by the reader. A positive review, so to speak. My my seven year old
    daughter is not easy to please, and she is a tough critic. The more I think about it, the more terrifying the idea is ;-).

  34. Bardmaid, thanks for your comment! I like to hear self-publishing success stories. It gives me a bit of hope for the future! Thanks for your two cents as well.

    Ania, I think I'm lucky. Dylan isn't as discriminating. Hopefully.

  35. Wow. If someone had done that for me when I was a kid, I would've thought it was the coolest present ever.
    I think about self-publishing quite often. I think it's a bit odd that so many blogging agents freak out about it so often. I get the feeling they're all screaming "NO!" at us every other day on this topic. These agents talk as if self-publishing is going to bring about the demise of publishing. One agent recently lamented that publishing every book ever written would bring about some kind of literary doomsday.
    But I think self-publishing seems like opening a small business. My two favorite indie bookstores do well enough to stay afloat and the owner's consider themselves successful. Does their existence somehow hurt the sales of Amazon? I doubt it. These days anyone with a Mac can use the garage band program to record a song. Then they can "self-publish" it on youtube and facebook, without the benefit of a record contract. Yet somehow I doubt that these lessen the value of classic rock greats such as the Beatles. And any yahoo with a camcorder or an ipod can film something and post it on youtube. Does this compromise the greatness of George Lucas' work? Nope.
    And if you or I self-publish and sell even a thousand copies, how could that possibly hurt Dan Brown's sales? And if some agent doesn't like our work, that does not mean that if we self-publish it it will somehow corrupt Jane Austen's masterpieces.
    Sorry about the rant.
    I hope your nephew is delighted. Do let us know.

  36. When weighing MY options on this subject, I had A) publishing house for wider audience (might take forever... or never) and I had B) self publish, get it in print immediately and cheaply and let a few folks start reading it.

    With plan B, I can still submit it to publishing houses as time goes by, but for now, at least my friends and family can hold and smell it and read it.

    As it turns out, word of mouth is spreading rapidly in my little town.

    So, maybe someday I'll get picked up by a publishing house. But, in the meantime, hundreds of folks are able to enjoy my work and massage my ego. (wink)

    Note: mine was just a fun little time-waster hobby that mushroomed into a full blown novel. And now I'm working on the sequel.

    Hope your nephew likes the book!

  37. Davin, I love the concept. It's one I've toyed with for a few years, to write my children a story, just for them. I think it's great that you are doing this.

  38. I find your post utterly refreshing and perhaps one of the nicest gifts you can give to your nephew.

    A friend of mine is doing a similar things for her mom.

    You know, the Audience of One will gobble up your work, as will nephew. Don't forget about Him.


  39. I think its a great idea. And you never know what can happen if you have a few extra copies on hand. I'm planning to self-publish a family project next year. My father left an autobiography before he died. I plan to add some additional material and photos and do a run of copies to give to family members. I will probably also try some extra copies to sell on a family related web site and perhaps some other places. But it is unlikely that any publisher would be interested in this. It will be a labor of love and a memorial to my dad. It will also be an educational process for me.

  40. A Paperback Writer, Thanks a lot for your comment! I appreciate you (and everyone) taking the time to broadcast your thoughts on this topic. From what I've been reading from agents, the message I get is that self-publishing is "not viable." But, like many people have mentioned here, the definition of viability has to be determined by the reader. To an agent, viability is sales. This is their job. For most writers, that's not the case.

    Michael, Thanks for sharing yet another self-publishing success story. Really, I love hearing these. Where are all of you when agents speak so badly of self-publishing? Congratulations on all of your success!

    Steena, thank you very much for your kind words! I do hope my nephew likes it! He loves to be read to, and that's something I've kept in mind as I was writing it.

    Patti, thanks also for your good wishes! It's interesting to see how many people are doing this. It's making my smile bigger and bigger. :)

  41. There's a difference, though, between self-publishing and printing. It sounds to me like you're printing a novel for a select audience (no ISBN or anything, right?). That's not quite the same as self-publication, and I personally see nothing wrong with printing something personal for the select few you want to distribute it to.

    On the other hand, I do have issues with self-publication as a route for fiction. Unless it's an extremely niche-market, self-publication for a career fiction writer seems to be too shrouded by false promises to be a truly viable route for someone who wants a career from writing.

    I'm not at all trying to tell you want to do or sway you--just my opinion! And I think your fairy tale sounds charming and I know that I, personally, would have loved it if my uncle wrote and printed a book just for me...


  42. Self-published fiction could be perfectly valid if you have a means by which to distribute it. For example, say if you were a musician or artist or anybody who has some kind of following and made regular public appearances where you sold goods, you could easily add your fiction to those goods--if you have avid fans, they will often buy anything you do. By the way, I'm not talking about celebs, but I mean the working artists who are out there and have cultivated a following.
    Likewise, I have seen local "celebrities" or just ambitious writers in an area like, for example, The Great Smoky Mountain area or some high traffic area, who write a regional fiction and distribute to tourist sales outlets in the area. Don't know what their sales figures are like, but everytime I go into stores like that I will see the regional literature on sale.

  43. Beth, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, with Dylan's book, I am only going to print a few copies. But, the process is making me think more about "real" self-publishing, if you will. Will self-publishing allow me to make a career out of writing? Maybe not. Probably not. But, I think most writers, no matter how they are published, can't make a self-sustaining career out of it. I've got a pretty good job that pays me consistently. So, I don't really have that as my goal these days. I'd like to sell a lot of books, though, which requires a way to make my book public. As for the ISBN, I'd probably avoid that if I self-published. Those bar codes can be so ugly!

    Lee, thanks for your comments. I think you're right. Whether you self-publish or not, if you want to sell books you have to take care of the business end of things. That means either having someone else handle the distribution, or being able to do it yourself.

  44. Yes, Davin, maybe the real issue for agents is self-preservation. If everyone self-published, there'd be no need for agents.

  45. PS.
    Please excuse the typo on my original comment. I can't believe I typed one of my most hated mistakes: using a possessive in place of a plural.


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