TL;DR - After wasting half a lifetime believing I had as much chance at being a successful author as I had winning the lottery, I discovered that publishing has changed so much that self-publishing is not only easy, but is the best way to make a decent living as an author. Being the sharing type, I turned what I learned over the last few years into a course to help other authors succeed.
Now for the long version...
I started a voracious reading habit very early in life and decided long before the end of primary school I wanted to create those incredible stories; to one day take readers soaring on flights of my imagination.
Being bookish, fat (back when fat kids were rare) and named Nigel, I guess I was destined to haunt the library in school. However, all those years inhabiting the dark corners of the library served to cement an already deep obsession with the written word.
By the end of high school I had published cartoons in the local paper, won school accolades for writing and had written a few hundred pages of my magnum opus.
But there was a problem.
This was the late 80’s, and I was a math and science kid. For starters, I hated English. I barely passed General English–mostly by stringing together bulls**t with memorized quotes from Cliff's Notes. I wasn’t going to get an English degree.
The writers journey was also the road to poverty as those around me were quick to point out. They weren’t wrong though—with no real writing skills and no alternative to traditional publishing in a limited local market, my chances of becoming the next Eddings or King were zero. Zip. Nada.
So I stuck with the technical track and worked my way up over the last 25 years. Starting out as an electronics technician, then a computer programmer and IT entrepreneur, and finally spent the last decade in a variety of management roles.
I have nothing to complain about. The work I did paid well, my partner of 20 years is a wonderful person and I can get through most days without wanting to strangle either of the boys. But that quiet little voice has always nagged at me.
Well, maybe not so quiet.
My partner, Kate, is intelligent, funny and tolerant of my many, many faults. Somewhere around the start of 2015, that not-so-quiet little voice must have got the better of her because one night, she looked me in the eye and said, quite seriously,
“I love you with all my heart, but this has got to stop. You have a choice—write the damn book or shut the f**k up and never mention writing again.”
Moving past the initial shock, getting such an unambiguous message from the one that matters most in one’s life can be an important catalyst. While I am paraphrasing a bit, Kate’s message has never left me and still drives me every day.
So I wrote the book. I sat at my computer early in March 2015 and wrote a 50,000ish word novel in 4 months. Yay!
Problem is, it sucked. Like, total smoldering turd shall-never-see-the-light-of-day kind of sucked. What made it worse is that not long after I finished the draft, I found a folder full of writing from school and it was worse. There was a short story I had been immensely proud of at the time that managed to have a flashback inside a flashback!
Confident I had deluded myself all these years, but with Kate’s ultimatum still hovering over me, I decided to write about something where I felt I at least had half a clue—computer software.
Not game enough to try writing a whole book again, lest my non-fiction sucked as badly as my fiction, I wrote tutorials for Django, an open source web framework I had enjoyed using in my computer programming days. Don’t worry if you have never heard of Django, most non-programmers haven’t either.
About 10 years ago, the creators of Django wrote a user manual that was traditionally published and then later released online for free as an open source book. I decided that updating that book and seeing what feedback I got from readers was likely to be less soul destroying than writing a whole book that everyone hated.
That idea worked well. The Django community picked up on the updates very early and were extremely encouraging in their feedback. So, I kept writing and publishing the updates for free on a website I had created.
After a couple of months, a reader suggested that I approach the publisher of the original book to see if they wanted to publish an updated version. I liked the idea, so I sent an email. They answered with a polite no, but invited me to get in contact with one of their acquisition editors to see if they were interested in a proposal for another book on Django. I had a quick email discussion with the editor, we agreed on a topic that interested them and I was invited to submit the proposal.
I expected to never hear from them again, but it was less than a month before I got and email back from the publisher—the senior editor had accepted the proposal and could I please sign the attached contract.
It’s still hard to put in words how I felt when I got that email. I think I experienced the full range of emotions from black terror to euphoria and back again in the space of a minute. I was going to be a published author. WOOHOO!
Of course, impostor syndrome set in immediately—getting a book deal must have been an incredible stroke of luck and I would soon be exposed as the fraud I was. I didn’t have long to feel sorry for myself though, because those 20 years of business skills that helped me write a rocking proposal were also about to save my arse when the tight deadline I was on finally sunk in. I was going to need every time management skill I had ever learned to pull this off. I had 12 weeks to write a book from scratch while working full time in a day job that had nothing to do with computer programming.
To say I was a little crazy in that 3 months is an understatement. Kate wisely spent about half of it touring Europe with her sister, while our youngest put up with mad dad. But the book got done, and by the end of November 2015 it was off my hands and with the publisher.
After finishing the book, I didn’t do much with the website until maybe February 2016, when I tidied up the site and added more content. I was also reading blogs on writing and getting published and it wasn’t long before I dug up material on self-publishing. Like everyone brought up on the self-publishing equals crap myth, I didn’t give it much thought—after all, I was already a traditionally published author. Albeit, one who was yet to receive more than a small advance for his writing pursuits, but hey, I was on my way.
At the same time, I was getting more and more requests to turn the website content into a book. My problem was that the original publisher had declined to update the book and I knew no other publisher would touch it because of the open source content.
Another writer in the Django community suggested I try lean publishing—a publishing model where you publish an incomplete book and add content over time. Traditional publishers in the IT space have been doing this for years—selling a book as an early release for a discount to generate publicity and revenue for a book long before it was complete.
I had a few decent chapters finished and nothing to lose, so I published those first few chapters with the option for readers to pay if they wanted to. This is called Pay What You Want (PWYW). This pricing model is common in indie publishing and is a brilliant idea. You set a minimum price—in my case I set it to zero so the reader could download it for free—and the reader can pay your minimum or any higher price they choose.
I published the partial book late on 23rd May, 2016, turned off my computer and went to bed with my expectations as high as my asking price—zero.
The next morning I checked my emails as usual and got an even greater shock than that original publishing offer—people had downloaded the book. Hundreds of them. Some had even paid for the book, even though they could download it for free. In total, I had made $21.61 while I slept.
Now that’s a laughably small number, but it triggered a seismic shift in my thinking. Not only were people willing to pay for an independently published book they could get for free online, but it was also my introduction to the world of passive income—that magical world where you don’t have to trade time for dollars.
Of course, taking into account the time I had invested so far, that 21 bucks equated to around 10 cents an hour, but the book went on earn $100 in its first week and $1000 in the first two months. For comparison, my traditionally published book paid an $1000 advance it still hasn’t earned out.
In the intervening years, the book has returned somewhere between $50 and $60 an hour for the time invested in writing and publishing it—not a bad return on investment at all!
I am also extremely grateful the original publisher rejected the offer to update the book. I ran the numbers and if they had published the book, I would have made a fraction of the money I have made as an independent.
It also wasn’t a one hit wonder. I published a third book on Django and it made over $1000 in its first week and over the last couple of years has matched the sales of my first indie published book.
In April 2018 my books had made enough money for me to quit my day job.
None of this came easy. I have condensed several years of intense learning, false starts, frustrations and f**kups to get to where I am and I am still not “there”, but at least I know it’s possible to make a living from your writing; that the starving artist is just a myth.
And it’s not just me. What I have done is being duplicated by thousands of other writers around the world—many of whom are doing far better than most mid-list traditionally published authors.
Which brings me to the reason why this website exists.
The more I research and the more writers I talk to, the more convinced I am that a very large number of writers are being held back by limiting beliefs. Not beliefs about their writing ability, but beliefs about the market, publishing and how to make a living as a writer.
In 2016, I was at a writers festival in my home town and went to a panel session with agents and publishers. As they sat around for an hour lamenting the decline of the industry and broadcasting the minuscule chance any budding author had to escape the slush pile, let along make any money, I watched the death of many dreams in the audience.
It was easy to tell the budding authors in the crowd by how much their shoulders slumped during the discussion.
I was sad for a bit, and then it just pissed me off. It was like an audience of digital photographers taking as gospel the word of a bunch of whining ex-Kodak employees. Why would an author seriously even bother listening to these stiffs?
Kindle had been around for more than 10 years, and many other digital platforms existed. Every author has global media reach and the indies are pulling in half of all author income in all markets—at royalty percentages that make the traditional 10-20% of net look like daylight robbery.
Why the hell would these dinosaurs even be able to pull an audience? (Ok, I am being harsh on the agents and traditional publishers out there. They do have a place in the modern market, but no longer hold the keys to the kingdom.)
It’s still a valid question though, because it was so counter to my experience I wondered why anyone would let a stranger crap on their dreams like that. So I researched some more and sought an answer to the more succinct “Why would an author consider traditional publishing?”
While I don’t believe there is a definitive answer, because we are all different with different goals, there does appear to be 4 broad groups of thinking:
If you are in group 3 or 4, you are my target audience.
I remember an interview with a sports woman a few years back who was being touted as the latest overnight success. I remember her getting frustrated with the interviewer because it had taken her 12 years of hard graft and sacrifices to become an “overnight” success.
I am lucky enough to have 20-odd years of business experience behind me. My writing is a business and has been treated that way since I typed the first word of that rubbish first manuscript. This has allowed me to succeed to the point where it freed me from a corporate management job in less than 3 years. Note that says 3 years, not 3 months—there is nothing “overnight” in any of this.
As writers, we often forget that we are on our own hero’s journey. Our paths might be different, with our own trials and tribulations, but we share a common goal–the desire to live our lives as the artist and creator we know in our hearts we are.
It’s in the common framework of the hero’s journey that there are parallels where we can relate. I for one, refused the call to adventure for two decades because I thought I had no chance of success.
I have since learned just how wrong I was–self-publishing success is very much achievable if you understand what’s changed in the book publishing world and how to benefit from those changes.
You too can slay the dragon.