On Self-Publishing, Distribution, Content Creators, Circles and Critical Mass
I guess the obvious should be stated first. Publishing actual physical copies of books takes up a lot of capital, something that most of us will not have access to unless you sign up with a traditional publishing house. Counting on signing up is not recommended, as they take high royalty fees, you get drawn in to contracts, and who knows when they will even publish anything you make? Since physical print is out of the question, at least initially, the answer is to publish online.
But in what form?
Why I DON’T Recommend Publishing Exclusively on Amazon Kindle
The Kindle platform tends to be the one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of online publishing, and there are success stories that come out of it. However, the success stories represent a tiny minority of self-publishers. There’s a vast amount of ebooks on the platform, and it’s very hard to distinguish your work. You’ll also be sitting directly side by side to books from major publishing houses, which invest a lot in advertising who they predict to be their star writers. You’ll be sitting next to books that are noted as New York Times Bestsellers, or that have great reviews in literary magazines. When given the choice to buy an unknown book of unknown quality and one that has a good reputation, which will the user pick? This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t publish on the Kindle store AT ALL, just that it shouldn’t be your primary/exclusive platform. Which leads me to my next point.
Consumer Spending Habits
Let’s face it, we’re cheap bastards. Some habits that seem to be prevalent are:
- We don’t like uncertainty, which is why we choose things based on reputation (e.g. NYT Bestsellers)
- When there’s a lot of uncertainty, there’s a HUGE difference between free and a $1 price tag
- We like to buy things we ALREADY like
- We’re more likely to buy something that has a physical entity, as instinctively it’s worth more
- Most of us end up pirating if the price is thought to be too high
- We’re more likely to buy something if we’re not actually holding money (e.g. online shopping leads to this).
- We buy things often based on friend’s recommendations, or just from knowing that the friend is interested
- In a community with high group cohesion, we tend to go along with the flow more and indulge in the franchise, amplified by groupthink
To give examples from the anime community, few of us buy the actual anime DVDs/Blu-ray before having watched it at all. Most of the time we buy them AFTER we already watched and fell in love with the show, or if it’s really well received/has a good reputation in the community. It’s similar with manga, though since in the U.S. it’s EXTREMELY marked up and expensive people buy considerably less and after much thought compared to in Thailand, where it’s cheap and affordable and people happily buy them without thinking twice (appx. 40 baht, a little over a dollar and generally cheaper than a meal in Thailand. Compare to $10, much more expensive than a meal in the U.S.). Some people like me tend to not buy the actual anime but buy merchandise RELATED to the anime, such as artbooks and figures. Fandoms around a certain story are self-enforcing after they hit a critical mass. For example, once the popularity of Puella Magi Madoka Magica crossed a threshold the appearance of fan artworks and parodies skyrocketed, and the fans constantly have new things to share and engage in. Although the fanworks don’t contribute directly to the creator’s pockets, what is important is that it helps fuel and maintain the community, a community that WILLINGLY promotes the series to newcomers and WILLINGLY buys artbooks and figures. After a while fandoms tend to die out, but with careful baiting such as releasing a new figure over long periods of time instead of together all at once, announcing new movies, creating manga spin-offs, and creating mini-games, the fandom is maintained and available for milking for a long time. The Touhou Project is an excellent example of this too, even more so because of its music and games.
Priorities and Working With Consumer Behavior
Based on what I said, your first priority is to get your work out to as many people as possible and hit critical mass. In order for that to happen, your work has to be easily accessible. *Note: if you’re targeting a mainstream audience, the following method probably won’t work well but read on anyways in case you get ideas =)*
Give it away for free.
Many of you are probably shaking your heads at me now. “I want to make money from it!” But as I stated, it is MUCH more difficult to get people to read your work if they have to pay for it, even if their friends recommend it. I’m saying it again, Critical Mass is your First Priority. Monetization can come later, but you want that critical mass. Advertise it to people, and encourage them to spread it to their friends. Make yourself available to questioning/opinions on twitter and other platforms. Maybe have a blog and post what people who like your work said to you – it’ll make the readers like you more, feel more important, and therefore easier to manipulate and milk their wallets later. One thing that releasing the story for free enables you to do is release chapters at a time, like how manga are often released monthly/weekly. If you’re charging for your work then you need to make sure to have a considerable amount that justifies the price, and people don’t like to pay for incomplete things.
You don’t want to MAKE people pay you for your work, you want people to WANT to pay you for your work.
If you’ve been anywhere near a group of fans of a piece of work, you would’ve heard the phrase “MY MONEY, TAKE ALL OF IT!” or other variants thereof when a new product comes out. While the writer can make side stories or continuations and stick a price tag on them, people will have already expected the stories to be free. The inconsistency will be a turn-off from them purchasing the extras. And let’s face it, it’ll probably be pirated anyways.
Here’s the part where the other types of content creators come in.Time to get creative, it’s fun!
Content Creators and Circles
There are many freelance artists, professional and nonprofessional, that are available. Find one that you whose artstyle you like, and work together. Today I was randomly looking around G+ and turns out a guy that circled me is a freelance artist. You probably don’t even need people who are looking for freelance jobs, you can just email someone and say “I like your pictures, you like my money, how about we make a deal?” There are many possible ways to produce something, but to give you an idea, it might go like this: Announce that you two are working together, to get fans of both the writer and the artist interested. Release a few samples, such as designs of the main characters, famous settings, and other significant things from within the story. You can do a few things, like release a limited-edition print version of the book for people who really like it and want to read on paper, with an illustration by the artist on the cover. Or make it an illustrated novel. Or a full-fledged art book, with full color pages of illustrations from the story. And for the #foreveralone types (like me), make a high-res picture to send to a dakimakura factory, many of them accept custom pictures.
“But Anya, what about the capital required to print all these books? Isn’t this why we’re publishing online in the first place?” I’ll answer that in due time, but for now I have two words for you: CRITICAL MASS.
Don’t want to partner with an artist? How about a music composer? And I don’t mean just take random songs and stick “official soundtrack of X” on it, that’s lame. Work together to get songs that capture the FEEL of the story, or an event in the story. Or make character theme songs, like the ones that Touhou characters are so famous for. Work together to make the songs and the story RELATE to each other, and then release an album together.
[Tangent question, does anyone know a good program to compose and create music? One that handles everything from creating sheet music to playing the music out on various instruments. GarageBand is more suited for editing music that you played, but I'm not good at playing instruments.]
Know someone who designs plastic models or figures? Release garage kits of characters! Or if your story has mechas in them, release resin kits. 3D printers are becoming cheaper and more accessible each day, and there are probably stores that do 3D printing for order.
Or maybe some random tidbits of character items, e.g. partner with Etsy to create and sell your character’s earrings or trademark brooch or something. Maybe you have a friend that’s a fashion designer, you can make clothes/uniforms of your characters for cosplay or something. This is a bit far-fetched, but my point is that there are lots of possibilities – come up with something that your target audience will throw money at.
You don’t have to just partner with one person, you can collaborate with many people. Form a circle. Have each person in the circle specializes in one area but also give suggestions and collaborate on various parts of the project. The old adage of being “greater than the sum of its parts” applies highly to these content circles. Such a circle can become really strong, as it produces a cross-over of fans, and brings in people who enjoy various media into the series. For example, music fans may come across the circle’s music, and then go on to discover all the other things they do. Critical mass is easier to achieve here, and it’s easier to keep the fans occupied as new things keep being released.
Essential Capital: Kickstarter
If you knew my answer to the problem of lack of capital would be Kickstarter, then congratulations – pat yourself on the back and have a virtual cookie. For those who don’t know, Kickstarter is a web service that allows groups to raise money for a product from many people by having them pledge risk-free. For example, let’s say a printing factory in China will only accept bulk orders of 1000 books or more. The circle can go to Kickstarter, put up details of the book, and people can choose to pledge as much as they want – but if they pledge up to a certain amount, say, $10, they get a copy of the book. This allows the circle to open the pledges for a long time, wait for enough people to pledge money, and once they collect enough pledges they receive the money from Kickstarter and can send it off to China. The pledgers who pledged over the minimum amount for a book will then receive a copy of the book. If the amount of money raised by pledges doesn’t reach the amount required, then the pledgers don’t have to pay the money. It’s the perfect way to raise capital.
Earlier this year, I had the idea to create a radio site for independent and doujin music, letting people listen to discover music they like and either download for free and donate to the artist, pay-what-you-want, or cheap downloads in mp3/FLAC with minimal royalties. I haven’t gotten anywhere with it at all as I still lack a lot of programming knowledge, but now I’m thinking of putting it into a site for content circles. Maybe I’ll call it CreationCircle, or something random like Teahouse.
The site will have a place for creators to show off their work, and a system to make it easy for various creators to come into contact with each other and collaborate. It should also be easy for creators to receive feedback from consumers, and for fans to suggest collaborations e.g. “Hey! I really love your story, and I feel that X character is very cool and should be drawn by Y. Why don’t you check her out and see if you two can work together?”. There can be cross listings of which type of creator is looking to partner with who, and show who’s available for work and who’s caught up in a project.
A separate account type for fans could help them keep track of new things that their favorite creators/circles bring out, and share works that they like. A possible feature is an opt-in content tracker that keeps track of what users look at and creates recommendations, similar to Amazon’s “Other users who viewed this item also viewed” function.
The site will need to have a team of editors to check on the content to ensure some decent quality, though. CreationCircle has to be known for decent work that people will actually enjoy, rather than a sludge of everything the internet has to offer. I’m not sure what quality requirements there should be, but grammar is one that comes to mind. We don’t have to have grammar nazis that make sure everything is grammatically correct, that would just ruin the unique writing styles of various authors. Heck my grammar isn’t perfect either. But have you ever read something that is so grammatically incorrect that it makes you cringe every line? That’s the kind of thing that needs to be filtered out. If not completely deleted off, then at the very least be dumped in a NEEDS IMPROVEMENT section. On the flip side, there should be an EDITOR’S PICK section where people can go to find something they’ll probably like. It’s never perfect to have humans pick, but computers can’t tell what’s shit and what’s diamond.
I would like to turn CreationCircle (Teahouse?) into a real thing, but I probably can’t do it alone. If there’s anyone who believes in this idea and wants to help, please let me know. Suggestions are good too.
Even if you don’t care about CreationCircle but are a writer or other type of creator, I encourage you to try this distribution method out. It’s probably better and more fun/challenging than simply submitting to Amazon and wait for someone to buy your book, isn’t it?
Lastly, I ask of you to please share, retweet, +1, like, etc this post. I really want to see collaborations and circles take off, and want the idea to be widespread so more people will hear about it and try it out. And since it’s about tech disrupting old media, I hope a tech blog will cover my idea – but I might just be called an idiot so maybe not ^^”