I write these words on a Friday having just recently finished and sent off my next YA novel, Pirate Cinema, to all the agents, editors, friends, first readers, and fact-checkers who've been awaiting it. I believe it is a good novel. In fact, I believe it is my best novel to date. I elatedly tweeted about finishing the book, letting my readers know that it was in the can, a month ahead of deadline no less, and that it would be coming to a shelf near them... in May 2012.
At this point, I was forcefully reminded of how fundamentally weird it is to work heroically toward a deadline, hit it, and then have to basically forget all about it for the next 18 months. I've learned many things on the way to becoming a professional writer, but the most difficult thing was learning to cope with delayed gratification. This has not come easily to me. I am, by nature, short of attention span and impatient. But I've come to grips with the long, leisurely pace of print publishing, with all the logistical coordination between writer, editor, sales, marketing, distribution, and retail. I've learned to trust that everyone is doing her or his job and that I can just forget about things until someone tells me it's time to pay attention again.
My readers, however, are less Zen. Upon being told of the new book's delivery, they writhed with scorn, unwilling to believe that it could take 18 months to midwife a book from a draft to an object of commerce. I am sympathetic to this point of view. But working on With a Little Help has taught me that the writer's Zen-like complacency has no place in the world of writer-as-publisher. To be blunt: every piece of With a Little Help that I didn't pay minute attention to has slipped through the cracks. Not just one or two pieces, but every element I took my eye off, even for a second. I was certain I'd be selling books by October—and the first books are just about to start shipping now, a week before Christmas. And things are not about to get any easier.
You see, I've got this back problem. Like a lot of people who sit in chairs for a lot of their lives, my spine is not my friend. Over the years, I've done a lot to try and fix this: 10 years of tai chi, five years of yoga, losing 80 pounds, osteopathy, chiropractic, massage in 11 flavors, acupuncture (with and without electricity), and so on. But it has just kept getting worse and worse, to the point where sitting has become excruciating. After a series of MRIs, the leading theory is that the gnarly bony spurs in my hip sockets are to blame, and so, on January 18, I'm having my hip broken and my femur shaved down. This is going to be every bit as unpleasant as it sounds, and the rehab to follow will eat an enormous amount of my work time over the next six months, at least.
This means that the shortened With a Little Help selling season I'm already facing as a result of the current delays will be confounded by a two-week Christmas holiday, followed almost immediately by surgery, two weeks of bed rest, and four weeks on crutches. During which period, I am, theoretically, supposed to be printing, binding, packing, and shipping limited editions of With a Little Help, as well as doing publicity and so forth.
Frankly, I don't know how I'm going to do it.
So how did the project get to this? For one, I had this idea that using the same outfit to print and bind my books could simplify the charitable giving program I've done with my last four books. As I wrote in an earlier column, I created a program wherein people who work at libraries and schools can write to me and ask for free copies of my books. I pay an assistant to vet the requests, and then I list them online by region, and my generous readers buy copies and have them shipped to the library or school of their choice.
With this project, I reasoned, why not have Lulu.com automate this relatively simple process? They could easily put up an online form for potential recipients. It would ping my assistant, who would then vet them, press a button, and a link would go live where donors could click on the name of the recipient they liked, fill in their credit card details, and a book would ship. This was such an easy thing, I thought, that I basically ignored it. My agent, the incredibly awesome Russ Galen, took up the negotiations with someone from Lulu who the equally awesome Lulu CEO Bob Young put me on to.
In October, when I was ready to ship, I asked Russ how it was going. Not well, it turned out. The guy Russ was supposed to be communicating with had stopped answering e-mails over the summer. It turns out he'd left the company. So Bob put us on to someone new, who then told us that Lulu couldn't do this after all. In lieu of this, Lulu offered to build me an elaborate landing page for incoming readers. It was somewhat redundant, but hey, why not. Now, as the weeks tick by, I've realized that I don't need this at all, and by the time it's done, it will be too late.
So, here I sit, realizing that what I thought was the simplest piece of my whole project, a tiny lagniappe that I barely even looked at, had put the whole thing in jeopardy.
Life Is What Happens When...
With a Little Help has helped me realize something: whatever I do next, I don't want to be in charge of all these moving parts. I can't be both a Zen, let-it-all-happen-at-its-own-pace writer and an aggressive, deadline-pushing publisher. If I were realistically going to keep up this publishing stuff, I would need to outsource every task that requires the virtues inherent in agents, editors, sales, marketing, distribution and retail, especially that willingness to tithe a large portion of my working day to logistics, follow-ups, and calls.
This story will have a happy ending, though. I will get the book out, either this month or next, even if I have to hire assistants to help with the physical schlepping while I stump around with my crutches. And the realization of which parts of the self-publishing world suit me and which ones don't has been cheap enough in coming, and will be profitable enough in going.
You see, in trying everything—audiobooks, POD, limited editions—I've discovered the thing that captures the public's interest is also the thing that makes the most money is also the thing that has the least logistics: super-premium limited editions. Over and over again, when I describe With a Little Help to people, they fixate on the limited editions. I've had dozens of e-mails from people practically begging to buy the $275 editions I'm doing—and I stand to make $50,000 or more from them.
So that's my next project, I've decided, after With a Little Help is done and I'm back on my feet: limited editions, 100 copies each, of all my previous novels, each one elaborate, personal, beautiful, and amazing. It helps that my new office is underneath the London Hackspace, a co-op through which I have 24/7 access to a 3D printer and a laser cutter/etcher.
For my novel Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves a Town (a fantasy that features a trio of brothers who nest like Russian dolls), I'm thinking I will do a full-size edition, bind it, then laser cut a 66% rectangle out of the middle of the pages; print and bind a 2/3 size miniature, slip it into the void; and then cut another void out of it, nestling a tiny quarter-sized hardcover in the middle. I'll charge whatever it costs me to print plus $150, and print and bind them on demand, in tens, and sell as many as I can up to 100. I also figure I'll hold back five copies from each limited, and in a decade or so, I can have custom wooden boxes made for five sets, and auction them off for whatever the market will bear.
If no one wants them, well, at least I've had the satisfaction of playing with the laser cutter and doing an epic arts and crafts project. But if they sell, I stand to make up to $15,000 extra for each title—found money. And I'll get little publicity bumps, one a year or so, give some business to skilled artisans in my neighborhood, and I'll forge strong personal connections with my most dedicated readers.
When I began With a Little Help, I knew it would be an educational project. And one thing I've learned is that being a freelancer with more than 100% demand on my time is a good thing—it means I get to choose which things I'll do to earn my living. If the delayed gratification lesson I've learned as a writer has a twin in importance, it is this: "Do the things that you love."