Insider #22 - Why I self-published my first book
and why you should too.
👋🏼 Hello, Insiders + free readers*!
*This post is going out to all readers of the SneakyArt Post because I want to share the lessons of self-publishing SneakyArt of Eau Claire with as many people as I can.
This is part 4 (out of 5) of my notes from the conversation with Amit Varma on his podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. Bear with me, it’s a long one.
Today, I share my frustrations with the traditional publishing model, the decision to self-publish my first book, the process of self-publishing from brainstorming to holding the book in my hands, and the experience of marketing, distributing and selling copies of SneakyArt of Eau Claire.
This Insider post is temporarily available to everyone to read. Please feel free to share with anyone who might find it useful.
😫 Frustrations with the Traditional Publishing Model
I quit my PhD to be a full-time creative. The big goal was to become a novelist, and publish the story that had lived in my head for 3 years already. But it has been nearly 7 years since that day, and I still don’t have a completed draft.
For the first two years after quitting the PhD program, I worked obsessively on the novel. I wrote and re-wrote, imagined and reimagined, edited more than I should have, changed my mind too quickly for my own good, and produced five separate but incomplete drafts. But I kept hitting a slump. I realized that I was not able to motivate myself to work for long periods in a vacuum, on projects that pay off only after many years (if at all). I was better suited to work with a quicker feedback loop. As a blogger and webcomic artist, I was going from developing a raw idea to hitting the publish button inside a day, and gathering feedback on my work almost immediately. Shifting gears to working for months on a project that might reward me sometime in the future just didn’t work for me.
At the same time, the more I learned about the traditional publishing model, the less I liked it. I needed to have a finished manuscript before I could even query an agent or publisher. And then, at every stage, I would be at the mercy of busy editors, readers, agents, and other cogs in the industry, each of whom had several other concerns besides my book. Completing a novel was just the beginning of the grind! Many writers are comfortable working this way, but I realized that I was not.
“The process of writing a novel is very unrewarding,” I explained to Amit.
Meanwhile, drawing from life had become a new obsession. And my art was starting to sell. I decided that, for the short term, it made more sense to lean into being an artist.
📚 The Decision to Self-Publish
In 2018, I sold prints of SneakyArt at the weekly Artists’ Market in Eau Claire (Wisconsin). I registered as a solo business, bought a 10x10’ tent and foldable tables, and sat in my stall from 7am to noon every Saturday for three months. I spoke to everyone who stopped by, whether they were curious about my work or just on their way to buy groceries next door at the Farmer’s Market.
By the end of summer, I had spoken to over 500 people, sold hundreds of prints, and learned some invaluable lessons:
(1) I pitched SneakyArt over 500 times. Every pitch was a little different, tweaked according to what I thought might pique that person’s curiosity. Their facial expressions and comments were my instant feedback. And I began to learn what people cared about.
(2) I observed which drawings sold and which ones failed to make an impact. There were some counter-intuitive lessons here - sometimes my favourite drawings did not sell, but others that I considered hastily drawn were immediately snapped up. I started to understand what people paid money for.
(3) I came to appreciate my unique position - of being a foreigner - working to my benefit. My work came from a fresh perspective, unlike the other artists in town. Fresh perspectives have their own value.
By the end of summer, my mind was buzzing with ideas.
Later that year, I attended a writer’s workshop in Chicago, where I pitched an idea for SneakyArt of Chicago to a literary agent. Dawn was immediately excited by my work. But, she said, the plan wasn’t ready. I needed to put together a formal non-fiction book proposal.
At the time I felt put off by this ‘silly exercise’. But writing out the book proposal turned out to be a life-changing exercise.
In the process of writing it, I realized two things -
(1) I needed to first make a book about Eau Claire,
(2) It needed to be self-published.
I spoke with Dawn to share my new plan. She was delighted, and encouraged me to go for it. She was one of the first people at my launch event for SneakyArt of Eau Claire next year, and is the owner of Book #5.
✍🏼 Writing a Non-Fiction Book Proposal
Writing a book proposal is a marvellous exercise in externalizing your work - i.e. seeing its benefits and flaws from a dispassionate perspective. I recommend it to every writer.
Here is a great article on how to write a non-fiction book proposal. Use the button below to download and read my unfinished book proposal for SneakyArt of Chicago (from mid-2018).
In the Audience Research section of the book proposal, I had to state who the book was for, how many such people there were, where they could be found, and why they would care for my book.
In the Marketing Plan section, I had to make a case for how I would access and pitch to this audience. This meant having a plan for doing launch events, getting on relevant print and online media, being part of useful social networks, and having different ideas for how to gather a crowd around the work.
Both these sections needed me to avoid generalities and be very specific. In writing out this plan, I realized that while I was not yet ready for Chicago, I might be ready for Eau Claire. In fact, there were good reasons for me to focus on Eau Claire for the moment:
(1) I had already created a market for my work - I could estimate how many people cared for it already, and I also knew what precisely they liked about it.
(2) The town was small enough that I could comfortably approach all the relevant book stores and cafes for my launch events
But a book about Eau Claire would never interest a traditional publisher. Dawn, the literary agent I was speaking with, confirmed this as well. I could not make an effective case for why anyone outside of Eau Claire County should care about it. My potential audience was limited to the people who lived in or around town, and those who came to study at the local university. It was too small for a traditional publisher to be interested.
But that didn’t mean the book did not deserve to exist. SneakyArt of Eau Claire has two types of audiences - those associated with the town of Eau Claire WI, and those who are fans of my work. While I cannot change the first group, everyday I make the second group a little bit larger!
So even without the interest of a traditional, big-city publisher, I had some good reasons to pursue this project:
(1) Eau Claire posed the opportunities and challenges of a big city while being a smaller, closed eco-system. It was like a controlled experiment in sales. Selling a book here would help me develop the self-confidence and experience necessary to take on a bigger stage the next time.
(2) The process of self-publishing offered me the chance to implement my ideas in the book’s design and formatting. I wanted to play these games and see if my choices would pay off.
(3) While a traditional publishing process only returned a profit to the publisher after thousands of copies had sold, as a self-published author I could break even after just a few hundred sales. So, there was the definite chance of making money.
In the paywalled section below:
The process of self-publishing and what I learned about book design. SneakyArt of Eau Claire would go on to win Best Book Design at the Midwest Independent Publishing Awards 2020.
Lessons from selling the book in-person, at local markets, cafes, and bookstores.
Links to bonus segments from the SneakyArt Podcast where I speak with guests about self-publishing.