Self-Publishing—a Memoir

I could (literally) write a book about self-publishing. I was asked a few leading questions by a new author who had wisely decided to focus not on the revenue of publishing his book, but on helping others with its content. I thought this story of how I got started in self-publishing as well as traditional publishing would help him and perhaps others.

The Early Years

Back in the early ‘90s, as Microsoft University was crumbling, I returned from vacation to learn I had been made redundant. I went home, polished my resume, and immediately began work on my first tech book “Hitchhiker’s Guide to VBSQL” based on the knowledge I learned teaching SQL Server. Twelve weeks later, I leveraged that book to get my next job at Microsoft on the Visual Basic documentation team. As an employee, I was required to offer it to Microsoft Press.

“It’s not what we’re looking for, but can you write a book on PowerBuilder?” they said. I declined. But then they reminded me that I needed Microsoft’s permission to get a book published.

“Who do I need to ask?” says I.
“Steve Ballmer,” My heart sank. Five years earlier, he had fired me (long story). When I met with Steve and explained what I was trying to do, he gladly granted that right. As a result, I became the first author at Microsoft to be permitted to write a book and keep the royalties.

After considerable effort, I found an agent willing to shop the manuscript around to publishers but they neither understood the technical content nor showed much interest. In the meantime, word got out in the Microsoft Consulting Services community that I had written a book that uncovered the mysteries of DB-Lib and the linkages between Visual Basic and SQL Server. Yeah, uber-geeky. When asked to send out copies, I started selling the 8.5×11” version if the buyer paid the postage. At the time, I was taking the book to a company in the local area on a 5.25″ floppy where it was printed on an enormous IBM copy machine for about $9/copy. I sold (well, I forget how many) a lot (probably hundreds) for $35 out of the house. My wife was thrilled (not). Remember, this is before the Internet and Amazon. When I started getting interest from bookstores here in the US, they offered to take books on consignment, and if they sold, send me a part of the revenue. I declined. I countered with a 50% reduction off the retail price if they paid the shipping—in cash up front. Some balked, some agreed and I started moving even more to bookstores all over the country. My wife was ever so thrilled. She was doing the packing and shipping. Not long after the 3rd edition came out, PC Bookshops Ltd. in London emailed and asked for 50 copies—and he would fly them over on his dime. Wow. I had a European distributor. He kept taking more copies every few months. My daughter Fred hand-carried a copy with her when she went to China. Based on questions I got from the mainland, it was very, very popular. I can only imagine where they got their copies.

the Mainstream Publishers

At this point, Microsoft Press came back to me wanting to publish the 4th Edition. I declined. I told them they wanted to make it a Microsoft book and expunge the (horrible) geeky humor and critical comments about SQL Server and VB. I countered with demands for full editorial rights on everything. I would choose the editor, the artists, the cover, and the content. This was unheard of at the time. Two days later they agreed. They published the 4th, 5th, and 6th editions and when I found out they were giving them away at trade shows, and not paying me the royalty, I fired them.

In the meantime, I linked up and invested with a startup publishing house called Apress. While they published three of my ADO and ADO.NET books, I found they had broken their promise of not publishing books to compete with mine. I fired them too and sold off the stock. About this time, several mainstream publishers were courting me, some offering very attractive deals. I eventually signed with Prentice Hall who published the 7th Edition as well as my Reporting Services book I co-authored with Peter Blackburn in the UK. They were amazing hits in the marketplace. The problem with tech titles is that they have the shelf-life of bananas. As Microsoft kept “improving” their software, my books kept getting obsolete–at least in regions who attempted to keep up with the industry.

I retired from Microsoft in 2000, became a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) soon thereafter and was touring the world working the tech conference circuit until about 2010 when I retired from tech.

The Vanity PresseS

I love to cruise. One of the joys of that pastime is meeting new people, and in some cases, experienced or aspiring authors. While in the Denali National Park in Alaska I came across a small table set up in the lobby of one of the resort hotels. The middle-aged woman was selling her book. We got to chatting and it seems she had used a vanity publisher. They had promised the world and delivered very little. She had poured several thousand dollars into the shady company only to have a garage-full of a very sad little book. The formatting was amateurish, the book’s pages were as pockmarked with grammar and typos as a teenage girl afflicted with acne. And she had paid extra for editing. She had spent more money on an attorney to try to get at least some of her money back, but that effort was to no avail. Some might say that this charlatan saw her coming and was not typical of vanity publishers. I have yet to find one that’s not. Her story has been echoed over and over again by their victims who appear on the Facebook groups where I lurk or actively participate. Like loan sharks, these companies use slick promotions to make it seem that your work (even your first book) is another Gone with the Wind or Harry Potter. They seem expensive, but if there’s a way to shortcut the years it takes to polish, refine, write, edit, format and market a book, then it makes sense. It doesn’t. If a company wants you to pay them to “publish” your book, they aren’t a real publisher, they’re a for-profit organization designed to lure in unsuspecting authors and secure the rights to their work.

Learning to Fly by Self Publishing

Around 2011, I had written The Owl Wrangler, the first of The Seldith Chronicles series. I had hoped to leverage my 5-star tech fame and jump-start my fantasy fiction books but that was not to be. I poured thousands into the artwork, editing, and promotions and even did several (about a dozen) signings out of bookstores in the area. And yes, these were published through a new startup publisher called CreateSpace—a subsidiary of Amazon. They made it very easy to get into print. To keep costs down, I used none of their paid services (editing, formatting, cover design, etc.) so I sent them the formatted cover (I had to learn Photoshop), and the manuscript and they would print the books. It took several years to get the process right, but the result (IMHO) looks very professional. I also invested considerable time and money into learning the craft. I took the Popular Fiction series at the University of Washington, and attended several book conferences and tried to suck up as much inside information and tips as I could fit into my brain. So far, this self-publishing was costing me quite a bit of money. The books were being well received with almost all 5-star reviews, but still not selling well.

Marketing–The Hard Part

Over the years, I found the writing and getting books printed is the easy part. Marketing them is hard, very hard. Consider that self-published books have considerable competition. 300,000-500,000 self-published books enter the market every year and I’m told 5000 new titles a day are added by Amazon. Getting a book noticed in this arena is a herculean feat. Imagine even 200,000 people standing in Times Square hold up their books and trying to get a reader’s attention away from his video game or her Harlequin novel. Thankfully, I wasn’t in it for the money. I write because I love to write. I love to tell stories and help people understand technology, the fragile world around us, and themselves.

I’m gratified that all of my books both tech and fiction are praised almost universally with 5-star ratings. It didn’t help. These kind words of encouragement made me feel I was making people happy, but it didn’t help sales. I have about 3500 friends on Facebook and many of them are readers and writers. That didn’t really help either–a few are great fans and many some buy the books. But a word of advice. I learned that I can’t sell the books to this audience. I have to sell me. I have to help them and not mention I have books to sell with every other post. So, I do. Every day, I spend a couple of hours in the morning helping people fix their pipes or computers or relationships. And that’s why I’m writing this blog entry. Helping new authors is another thing I like to do.

So, making money should not be a goal for a new author. Getting a mainstream publisher can be done, people do it all the time, but that specific goal requires an entirely different set of skills and training. I mentioned the course called “Popular Fiction.” It walked through the process of building a salable manuscripts, finding a critique group, doing a developmental edit, doing a manuscript edit, doing a copy edit, formatting, designing a cover, and then (and only then) finding an agent or an editor at a major house to publish it. I learned hiring a seriously good editor is a must.

I learned there are “publishers” and “publishers.” Real publishers will (usually) pay your expected royalties up front and take full control of your manuscript. They will edit, format, and print, ship to distributors, buy space on bookstore shelves, and handle all the money. A great author might get 15% of the cover price. Most don’t. Some will actively market your book. Some won’t. What attracts publishers is fame and success. If you’re a well-known person (nationally and internationally) like a movie star or Donald Trump’s stooge, they don’t care what you’ve written (for the most part) or how well it’s edited–they can handle all of that. They want to leverage your name and fame and cash in. Many feel that if you self publish, this kills the chances a mainstream publisher will approach you. I can’t disagree with that in today’s world. That’s not what happened to me, but I expect it’s true now. If your self-published book sells like ice cream on a hot day, they know they can still make a bundle on book two and a movie deal. Publishers are struggling too as readers move to Kindle and streaming content. Mainstream publishers want to invest in you and your future. They’re gamblers hoping for a big payoff after years of work.

You will also find there are many (MANY) companies who will “publish” your book. What they want is to make money from you long before a single copy sells or even if not a single copy sells. They won’t invest a dime in your future. They’ll sell you editing, formatting, cover design and the rest. Others “throw these in” but often you must agree to print thousands of copies and pay them up front. These are called “Vanity” presses. Avoid them. You’ll end up with a garage full of book boxes and your wife’s car in the driveway.

Amazon (no longer CreateSpace but KDP), on the other hand, will let you do all the work yourself. That’s how I did it. I hired my own editor (and no, I don’t tell people who he/she is). Note: what can kill a self-published book in a heartbeat is lack of quality editing. I learned to do my own covers and take my own pictures for the cover (mostly) to reduce costs. KDP charges by the book (about $6.80 for a 380-page book) to print. Shipping is extra. They can turn around an order in about two weeks, so I had to learn to plan ahead.

Amazon is not the only self-publishing giant, but when someone finds out about your book, usually, their first question is “Is it on Amazon?” The next question they ask is “Is it on Kindle?” All of mine are. Uploading to Kindle is another learned skill. Not child’s play, but doable.

I hope this helps. Have more questions? You know where to find me.

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