Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Self Publishing Experience

Beginning with the Idea

We all have ideas, but what makes some of us decide to turn them into books?

I have been an archivist for almost twenty years and have been consulting for ten. During that time I have learned much about myself and my field. I have a thorough understanding of what kind of professional I am, what is important to me, and what my talents are.

Despite voices declaring that I should steer toward new technologies, I was confident that I was not going to write a book about digitizing records. I am not an expert in that area and frankly, it doesn't interest me all that much. To those who have asked why my book doesn't address automation more fully, I want to say that I know the importance of automation (and strongly support its use), but it doesn't interest me enough to write a book about it. There is still a place for conversation that doesn't focus on computers.

All my work has steered me toward documenting communities -- making sure locales know their history and have records to support knowledge of their activities; helping them to create plans and strategies that ensure the security and promotion of their cultural heritage. I have ALWAYS been interested in these things. This work is part of who I am. I am always wondering about the history of the place I visit. I repeatedly seek to visit institutions that shed light on history. I stop at signs by the side of the road that help preserve a sense of place. I notice old buildings. I look for cultural symbols. I wonder about the people who live in an area and think about how they communicate and what they share.

I wrote about what I know. I had so many ideas swirling in my head that the subject was begging to be a book (or two, or three...stay tuned...)

Pitching it to the Big Boys

So, ten years ago, I pitched my idea to "the big boys." (The big "boys" were actually a "girl" the first time around.) The publisher liked the idea, but wanted changes. I was not ready to wrap my head around these changes. I had a lot of professional ideas waiting to be formed ahead of me. My ideas had to percolate and grow. I put the idea of publishing a book aside.

So...nine years later I re-pitched the idea to the same company. They liked it and wanted changes. This time I was prepared. I had ten years extra experience, more connections, and more confidence. I worked for a year with an editor, going back and forth by e-mail to make new improvements and alterations. After a year, he told me that I did everything he asked. He offered me a contract.

This portion of my story is the "Don't Give Up!" section. If you know that you have a good idea, stick to it. Pitch a well developed concept. If you are in a niche market like I am and the idea is right for your publisher's audience, they'll recognize that. Do your homework and find the publisher(s) who will best recognize and understand your talent and skills. If you want to publish with a professional publisher be prepared to listen and respond to feedback. Make improvements. Learn.

Walking Away with an Unsigned Contract in Hand

The publisher renamed my book and at first that was okay. He got back to me and said that a committee met and they thought that this new name would attract attention. I was a little perplexed. The title was not exactly what my book was about. It gave prominence to the word "Archives" and while the book certainly discusses historical records and focuses on their care, I felt that word was limiting. In my mind, archives serve as a cultural thread. Everyone has them, but most do not recognize that they do. By placing the word "Archives" in the title, I thought those who did not specifically concern themselves with these particular cultural heritage resources would reject the book outright. Rather, I wish archivists, curators, librarians, town clerks, secretaries, families and anyone who handles records with long-term value to take part in my discussion. I want them to create a dialogue about collaboration and varied ways to reflect society by identifying historical items and by developing collections.

I began to think that maybe the publisher didn't understand my purpose. Was I not explaining myself well? Was I mistaken about my book's strengths? Or, was the publisher not quite listening to me? I still don't know the answer to this.

A little while later I received a contract. It asked me to sign my book away for a return of 5% . I also was required to index the book. (Didn't they have a special class in library school for that and didn't we hire someone to do it when I helped with the exhibit catalog at an art museum?) I began having more concerns about specifics when I started talking to other authors. I do not want to gripe. Suffice it to say that I made a list of positives and negatives of accepting this contract. I will also disclose that I had already self-published a book outside of my field (just for fun) so I knew what self-publishing offered me -- more money and creative control -- the ability to make the book what I fully envisioned from the start. I decided to walk away without signing the contract. I had a few regrets, mainly about the publisher investing time in me, but my concern about wasting their time was quelled by the "negatives" column that screamed that it was the right thing to do.

The Finish Line

Self-publishing does not necessarily make one's book less professional, but it could. I wanted my book to be as professional as possible. I hired a proofreader and editor. I worked on the design myself and had some one with more design experience than I fine tuned it. For some, it may be wisest to hire a designer. I am a semi-professional photographer on the side so I shot my own cover. Others may want to hire a graphic designer, but as an artist I wanted the cover to represent me -- a little old fashioned and eclectic. I asked for input on design and then ran with it.

I tracked down and wrote to the people I quoted in the manuscript. This was a very interesting experience. I met a lot of great people. No one refused to let me use their words and stories. I started great conversations with professional archivists and social historians around the world. If you are planning to publish, do not neglect to ask for permission to quote! For one, you'll get more back from it than you put in.

I sought final reviewers. (I had two initial rounds of review with the professional publisher the previous year.) I bought my own ISBN, submitted copy to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes. I uploaded my final product to Createspace and I'm on my way...

The biggest challenge of self-publishing for me is getting the word out. I hope first that the people who have come to know my work will be the first to grow curious about this book. I have contacted those who subscribe to my newsletter and former clients. I write about the book in this blog and I periodically tweet about it. I do not want to hit people over the head with it, but I want them to know that if they like the other work that I do and they like the way that I think, they are bound to like this too. This book is an extension of me. It has allowed me to articulate my thoughts about the value of archives and cultural heritage in 266 pages. (That would take up a lot of tweet and blog post space!)

I have sought other channels to market. Online, I write for Ezine so a broader audience can get a taste for what I do. I try to respond to queries on various listservs that relate to my professional expertise. I maintain an active LinkedIn network. I am continually on the lookout for online places to publish. HNN just accepted an article from me and will include information about the book. I am in the process of submitting book announcements to cultural heritage associations of various types. I have mailed the manuscript to a few select journals that have requested it for review. Offline, I give talks on related subjects and carry my books around. I publish in the local newspaper and periodically publish in publications with wider distribution. "History News" has accepted an article I wrote about community documentation for their upcoming winter edition.

Perhaps the marketing a publisher would have given me would have better jump-started sales. It is helpful to be part of a trade catalog. My first book publishing experience was with the well-known Arcadia Publishing Company. THEY approached ME when I was an archivist in Waltham so I don't consider the book born of that experience my baby like this new book, Cultural Heritage Collaborators. Images of America: Waltham sells itself just by virtue of the "Images of America" concept. Even if I had gone with a well-known publisher for my current book, I would still need to market myself and pitch the book to drum up audiences.

Everything I do ties back to my expertise. The book is part of the package. It isn't and can't be a "be all and end all". I hope that the experiences I outlined here will help those looking to publish. In return, I hope to get feedback on other ways to promote or on any of the ideas I've presented here.

For another point of view about self publishing, I highly recommend Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 post on the subject.


  1. I should have mentioned that Createspace is a print on demand company. Nina Simon's article talks about the wonderful benefits of the POD business. They (CreateSpace, Lulu and other companies like them) only print books when someone orders them. Therefore, you do not have to spend thousands of dollars at the outset to have books printed for you. Books are also available through standard book distribution channels.

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