Self-publication for Professionals

Everything I have ever written for money has been self-published, one way or another, but then the economics of copywriting-for-hire are not nearly the same as commercial fiction.

The first book I ever wrote was “published” via a photocopier and a stack of three-ring binders [0].  This was back in the early 1990s, when desktop publishing was still in its infancy and producing our graphics was only one step up from Zip-a-tone [1]. After that I spent a couple of years writing responses to Requests for Proposals [2] and we thought a $10,000 color laser printer was the height of affordable sophistication. Proposals were still submitted as bound booklets, and you had to schedule at least one full day for printing, final quality control checks, reprinting, binding, and making a 3:00 Fed-Ex pickup deadline. In its way it was ghastly work, but I cut my anal-retentive copyediting teeth on it [3].

After that was a long, professionally-dry spell filled with dead-end temp jobs and visions of dot-com-millionairehood dancing in my brain [4]. I kept my hand in by beta-reading fanfic and producing the occasional piece myself [5], as well as some freelance tech consulting in which the documentation would be produced mostly as a value-added afterthought [6]. By the time I got to grad school, writing masters-level term papers was a dawdle, and now I write about history. But instead of finishing by slaving over a binding machine, I print to PDF and post to the website.

I can tell you that the self-publishing tools have gotten much better over the years. Once upon a time, in the Dark Ages before Pagemaker, you had to pay thousands for a vanity press to typeset your book, a couple of hundred copies of which would sit in boxes in your garage while you desperately tried to figure out how to get rid of them. These days publication is dead simple— you can post a blog, email a PDF, convert to an e-book format, or use a just-in-time print service to produce hard copies. If monetizing your work is not your priority, that’s a good way to go.

But here’s the thing about self-publication. Quality still matters. Detail still matters. Your attention to these can make or break your reputation as a writer. And it’s all up to you. There isn’t anybody else telling you that yes, your work is worthwhile, and holding your hand while they cross your Is and dot your Ts and handle the marketing for you. You have to build your own team of beta-readers, proofers, and marketeers; people you can trust to tell you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it; and figure out how to compensate them. You have to be brutally fearless in facing and overcoming your own inadequacies. You have to shove your ego out of the way and be prepared for raging success, utter obscurity, or, worst of all and most certain, emails from random strangers telling you where you got it all wrong [7].

[0] I’m confident that I am still the only person who has read that book from cover to cover.
[2] You know how writing your own resume and cover letter is a pain in the butt? Imagine doing it as an engineering firm. A single typo can cost the company the chance at a $3 million contract, and it’s no fun having senior vice-presidents of sales screaming at you.
[3] For the record, yes, “anal-retentive” is hyphenated if used as a compound adjective in front of a noun. It is not hyphenated if used as a predicate.
[4] Yeah, right. Don’t ever accept shares in lieu of pay, because your landlord won’t.
[5] Now thankfully lost to the sands of time.
[6] Mostly because I didn’t want them calling me back in 6 months to ask me to redo the work for free because the one guy who understood it got a better offer.
[7] I was once very flattered to receive an email telling me a white paper I had written was being used as a text in a college-level course, but could I please correct some obscure technical detail about the chemical engineering? I didn’t even understand the quibble, much less know how to go about correcting it. I decided that Professor X could have the enjoyment of pointing out my error to his students for as long as he decided to use my paper. He wasn’t paying me any royalties, after all.

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