by Kate Milford
Three weeks ago I embarked upon my first experiment in self-publishing, and the midpoint of my Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of The Kairos Mechanism approacheth. Early indications are that with the project over 60% funded and more than a month left to go, this book will enter the world. This is huge, and I’m tremendously grateful. But there is a lot left to do, so it’s time to take a minute to revisit the project and remind you why (not to put too fine a point on it) I’d like you to consider helping out.
I have been asked a few questions consistently about this project. The first is a general why? I’m published by Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; my first book has just gone into its fourth printing in hardcover and is nearing its third in paperback, and my second hardcover release comes out this September. Why mess around with self-publishing, Kickstarter, all that extra work? I suppose I could just say, well, it worked for Louis CK and Aziz Ansari. But the longer answer is this.
I like my publisher. I like what they do with my novels, and I think having run the revision-heavy gauntlet of the traditional publishing world has made me a better writer. Both my agent and my editor earn what they make off of my books. But I can’t help but want to try other things, because I have other ideas and because readers are insatiable. Oh, and because publishers (even very committed publishers who really want to work with you) are slow, and they have limited resources.
Remember after Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy concluded, and there were those two nifty little hardcover short pieces that came out? They were called Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. They were illustrated, and they had these cool little extras that were supposed to be clues and hints about The Book of Dust (when, Mr. Pullman, when??). That’s the dream I have for this novella and the ones I want to write after it. But I’m not Philip Pullman, and no one’s going to offer to publish my extra stories in hardcover, pay for full illustrations, and get them onto bookstore shelves. At least not yet. Although, you know, if anybody out there wants to prove me wrong…no?…Bueller…?
Another question I’ve gotten has to do with the elephant in the room, the one named after a river that isn’t the Nile. This question usually goes something like, Kate, you could do this more cheaply and get broader reach with online self-pub services, even for your paperback edition. Explain.
Here goes. I think I am discovering that I want to be a hacker, and I’d like to take the rest of this post to try to convince you to become a hacker with me. Bear with me now. I’m about to deputize Linux into the conversation, but there’s a reason, so even if you’re not a technogeek, please stick with me.
My husband is an ex-hacker-turned-systems administrator, and he’s a big fan of Linux. Most operating systems are not designed to allow sysadmins to do all the little hacks they like to do to make a device do things just the way they want. The user isn’t given ready access to all the underpinnings, and those underpinnings aren’t built to allow the user to easily make adjustments. Most programs and operating systems force the user to adjust their expectations and their work habits and work their way: the Windows way, the Apple way. Sysadmins—and hackers—are all about taking devices and code and bending them to their wills. If a device isn’t designed so as to allow them to do that, a hacker will either find a way to do it anyway (breaking the thing’s digital spirit and violating the warranty in the process), or use something else. Therefore, my husband is big in the Linux camp, which not only allows for customization, it’s open-source, meaning anybody can see, use, edit, and redistribute the code.
The open-source philosophy encourages interaction, diversity, discussion, innovation. It encourages people to take a model, play with it, take it apart, put it back together, and invent with it. It encourages people to find the best way to take existing technical stuff and make it more useful.
Well, let’s say that I am a writer-hacker, and I have decided that, in the interests of creating the experience I want, in order to use the tools I want to use, I need to cobble together my own set of devices. I need to invent my own self-publishing process, and ultimately, my own publishing vision. In my case, this vision includes an amalgam of traditional and self-publishing models. I have decided that if I focus on creating the right product and the right experience, the profit (however I choose to define the term) will come eventually. So that gives me more options. And part of the experience I envision is using services that support independent bookstores. Hence the Espresso Book Machine and Things-That-Are-Not-Amazon.
There may be cheaper ways to make paperbacks, but I can’t control them the way I can control printing on McNally Jackson’s EBM. Heck, I work at the store in which the machine that will make my books actually lives. Nothing’s going to happen that I don’t know about. Most of the self-pub paperbacks I’ve seen don’t look as good as what the EBM turns out, either. Just as important as either of those things—maybe most important of all: McNally Jackson is my independent bookstore. It’s my home away from home, two days a week, but even before I went to work there, it was my independent bookstore. For this project, because I am the big boss, I get to choose where my money goes, and I choose McNally. This is also how I chose Google for the e-publishing platform I would use for the digital version. Google Play requires no exclusivity, and Google e-books can be purchased through independent bookstores. I choose for my business to at least have the chance to go to indies.
Would I have gotten more reach self-publishing with Amazon? You bet. Am I stuck using Amazon services anyway just to use Kickstarter? Yup, although let’s clarify: contrary to popular belief, Kickstarter is not owned by Amazon; they use Amazon financial services to collect monies. I’d love to see Kickstarter figure out a way to do this without having to give 5% of what I raise to a company I don’t personally feel good about, but I think Kickstarter is a great idea, so despite its use of Amazon, I’m glad to support it. Plus, I don’t get to tell everyone how to run his or her business. That’s sort of the point of this post. But I digress.
Yes, Amazon’s self-publishing services have tremendous muscle behind them. But since I have the luxury of not needing their self-publishing services for this project—meaning, I suppose, since I have the luxury of not defining the success of it based on pure reach or revenue—I choose not to give them any more business than the aforementioned 5% through Kickstarter. And it is a luxury, obviously. I see nothing wrong with any other author using their services, I simply choose not to.
On the other hand, crowd-funding is not sustainable business model in the long term, and I’m pretty sure that having done this once, I’m going to want to do it again. As I promised in my Kickstarter video, the first thing that happens once we exceed the fundraising goal is that the young artists will get paid more. After that, I’ll increase the print run. After that, any additional funds will go into the bank toward the next volume of the Arcana series, which I’ve already started writing. I tend to plan five projects out. It’s hard not to look forward to the next book.
But there’s another reason I want to continue this project beyond the first novella. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and messages and have taken part in a number of discussions since starting this thing, and I think I’m onto something beyond just my initial dream of pretty supplemental stories made with a pretty steel-and-glass machine. Lots of traditionally-published authors are curious about self-publishing. Plenty of those authors, however, are very reluctant to take the plunge; the reasons are many and varied, but somewhere on everyone’s list (I suspect) are at least a couple of the following concerns:
- Reluctance to risk reputation on a publishing model they haven’t studied in depth;
- Concern that the quality of the product will not be up to what one is accustomed to;
- Reluctance to use Amazon’s services despite the fact that Amazon’s self-pub programs appear to offer the best exposure and reach;
- Concern about the perception of self-publishing compared to traditional publishing among readers and colleagues.
Everyone knows there is a shift coming in publishing, but anybody who claims to know what that shift is, is full of it. The shift isn’t going to be from one model to another. Barring a meteor or an ice age, things tend to change more subtly. I’m not saying I know what the shift is going to be, either, obviously, but I am beginning to cobble together an image of what I’d like it to look like for me. I wish–speaking philosophically–for something more open-source than we have now. I wish for a hacker culture in publishing.
If you’re reading the word hacker and picturing a nefarious computer vandal, stop reading right now and do a Google search for the hacker ethic. When I talk about hackers, I’m talking about people who are so passionate about what they do that they will break a thing to make it better, because they believe that everything can be made better. They believe things should be questioned, and old modes should be challenged—in the interests of making things better, and not just for themselves.
Not long ago I watched a TEDx talk by Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, in which he referenced Steven Levy’s definition of the hacker ethic:
- Hands-on learning
- Improving the world
He also quoted Burrell Smith, who designed the Macintosh motherboard and who said one can “do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter. It’s not necessarily high tech. I think it has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you’re doing.” The thesis of Dickerson’s talk was that hackers make things better, and challenged his audience to hack their companies, their countries, and their world—“not to solve a problem immediately, but to begin solving a problem.”
And the presence of that giant behemoth in the industry is problematic. It does not encourage an open-source philosophy. I’m not saying it needs to go away, but there need to be other options. Other good options that produce professional results, that don’t limit their uses or what can be done with what’s made with them, and that users can contribute to. Options that foster a publishing industry that feels more like a community of creative individuals eager to support and encourage different business models and different ways of combining them. Options that support both the users and the broader community they’re part of, without requiring those users to be choose sides or view publishing as a battle in which one side or the other must necessarily be doomed.
And I think writers have to be willing to take an active part in creating this new publishing model that everyone seems to feel is on the horizon. Those of us who are uncomfortable with the ready-made toolboxes that are already in the marketplace need to get involved in building our own. We need to be willing to take risks, and we need to be willing to make mistakes.
I know this is beginning to sound a little bit like a manifesto, and it’s certainly colored by my experiences in traditional publishing. But as I’m proceeding along this path to my first self-published work, I can’t help but file away what I’m seeing and learning. I hope that by talking about it, I can convince folks to talk with me about it, and help me to work out some of these ideas. I want to know if I’m the only one who’s feeling the way I do.
In the meantime, I will continue to fumble my way toward September, and the side-by-side releases of The Broken Lands from Clarion Books and The Kairos Mechanism from, you know, my living room. And you know what? I’m really enjoying my strange, hybrid, hacked-together process. There is a certain joy in working things out the difficult way because it’s the way that seems right to me, and a strange freedom that comes with being a little bit willing to crash and burn.
So help out a girl trying to find her own way, will you? Go here and become a backer of The Kairos Mechanism. I will be endlessly grateful.
Kate is the author of The Boneshaker (Clarion Books, 2010) and The Broken Lands (Clarion, 2012). She has written for stage and screen and is a regular travel columnist at www.nagspeake.com. The Kairos Mechanism, a companion novella to The Broken Lands, is her first self-published work. Read more about Kate at www.clockworkfoundry.com, and more about The Kairos Mechanism on Kickstarter.