Kickstart your writing career

October 21st, 2012

This is my prototype article for Marco Arment’s The Magazine

No, this article has nothing to do with the Kickstarter model. It was just a cool title.

If you are reading this article is because you are an avid and savvy reader and the world of blogs, digital publishing and similar is probably very familiar to you. You may even be a “writer” in your free time, and you now would like to bring your words out to the world.

Enter the realm of self-publishing tools. They are an ensemble of what I call the editorial world 2.0, having largely surpassed in flexibility, potentiality and personalization the traditional publishing houses. Even better, if you decide to self publish your work, you are only subject to the democracy that reigns on the internet: if the result is good you have chances to succeed, if it’s bad you are going to be forgotten quickly.

It’s a hard game but at least it’s fair and everyone with an internet connection can play. It’s far from the elitist system of the traditional publishing media.

Now, I want to tell you my adventure as a self published writer, not because it’s me but because I think I’ve learned several lessons and I want to share my new “knowledge” with you. It’s also a testament of the democracy factor I’ve outlined before: I’m a nobody (I’m not any kind of internet celebrity), but I’ve quite successfully done it.

The first lesson I’ve learned is about the tool you want to use. Nowadays there are literally hundreds and hundreds of online companies ready to sell you some sort of package to publish your work in different ways. Of course this choice is tough so you need some basic standards to weight you options: budget and target audience.

Budget is always the most limiting factor because if you’re not professional writer or you’re not financially backed in some ways, your budget will be your worst nightmare. In a way this is also a good thing because it will clear your way by immediately eliminating many of the potential platform. Now, what about some free alternatives? Free is good, right? Yes it really is, especially when free means Apple or Amazon.

It’s not a joke. Both Apple and Amazon are offering to everybody two of the most powerful self-publishing tools I’ve ever seen: iBook Author and CreateSpace. This dualism also brings us to the second parameter: your audience.

Knowing your potential audience is always a good thing because it will help you in make the right decision both when you are writing and when you are ready to publish. By using the Apple way your audience is represented by every country in which there’s an active iTunes Store and at least the iPad 2. This is a wide audience by it’s also limited by the fact that your book (developed with iBook Author) will only be available to iPad 2 or later owner. The Amazon way instead could be much broader because it allows you to publish both a paperback and Kindle edition of your book to every Amazon customer in the world.

So now you have identified your budget and you have your audience.

After three books published as a private individual I think I quite know my way around these places. So I want to give you a couple of tips.

Exploit all the functionalities of your selected platform. This is the best way to showcase your abilities and also a great way to keep the interest high. A week after Apple released the free iBook Author app for Mac, I published my first book. It’s called “Torino is magical” and as of today is my most successful book that is now stable around 6-7 download a day for the past 9 months.

I want to point out that this book received little to no promotion due mainly to the fact that I have a small social audience, so my self-promoting messaging reached just a small amount of people.

Despite that, I’ve identified three success factors: it’s free, it was built with the iPad 2 audience in mind and it’s direct to a specific niche.

The “free” factor is probably the most important: since you don’t have to commit financially to this book you can download it even if this is my first work. If you think it’s crap you can easily get rid of it. (I’ve noticed this when I’ve tried to publish my third book with a small fee – $0.99 – and it received 0 downloads).

To build the book I’ve used all the available tools. It’s full of pictures that you can zoom, turn, flip and enjoy at full screen. It was built knowing it would end up in the end of iPad owners who are used to this kind of interaction.

Finally it was target to a niche audience. Being all about Turin and my personal relationship with different spots in the city, it’s interesting mainly for people in Italy (which by no surprise is my main market) and by people around the world who love photography (thanks to reach visual elements) and finally by people who want to discover not-mainstream places of a big cities (many of the spots described are not the first destination for tourists).

I achieved a good result because I’ve carefully planned the distribution and because I’ve selected the right distribution channel. I know I would have failed outside of the iBook Store.

The same reasoning can now be applied to each piece of work you and I want to publish.

But what if you want to go with paper instead of just using a digital media? CreateSpace (an Amazon subsidiary) will help you transform your Word document into the real thing and it will do it for free. Or at least, free for you, not for your potential readers. As with anything that involves Amazon, you cannot publish your work for free but you are always bounded to a certain pricing strategy which is mainly imposed by the service.

In the example of CreateSpace, the service will set a baseline that will represent your minimum selling price. If you want to earn something from each book you have to increase over the baseline, making your product less compelling for potential buyers since you’re not a very famous writer.

Anyway, there are some tricks you can use to gain some momentum: any publisher is entitled with some days of promotional campaigns where you can set your book free and you can see your downloads count going up. Despite this, the moment you flip the switch back to the regular price you’ll lose some momentum unless some word of mouth has gone around the net.

The other problem with Amazon is that your book will be dropped among the thousands of titles available on the platform, making the discovery of your title very hard.

That’s why I always prefer to use the iBook Store: it’s still relatively small, making the discovery a little bit easier and it provides any writer with great tools to transform their pages in a very polished product.

I guess that the final lesson that I’ve learned from my self-publishing experience is that your only limit is your creativity. Entry barriers are completely down empowering everyone who believes in his or her potentiality. You don’t need to be a “start” to spread your ideas, you just need be confident in yourself. At the end of the day you have nothing to lose.

Let’s publish, shall we?