On Self-Publishing, Distribution, Content Creators, Circles and Critical Mass

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in publishing, nor have I ever published anything apart from a few thoughts on this little blog. I am simply someone who happens to enjoy things related to anime fandom, and read a few articles here and there about the tech industry’s disruption of old media. I also grew up in Thailand as a cheap bastard and took note of my spending habits. Some of my specific ideas will probably apply more to writers that primarily target the anime fandom rather than “mainstream” audiences, but the basic underlying principles might still apply to you. You probably won’t be able to make a living entirely off your content (very few do), but this might be able to let you make at least some money on the side.
These thoughts are not limited to only writing, though it initially focuses on writing. If you are a content creator, be it art, music, plastic models, clothing, or anything else, please read on as you are also a crucial part of what I envision.

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.

The Backbone:

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 ^^”

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8 thoughts on “On Self-Publishing, Distribution, Content Creators, Circles and Critical Mass

  1. Growing a fanbase from scratch is definitely the biggest hurdle with this type of stuff so I have to agree that ease of access takes top priority. Giving away content for free at the beginning is just an investment for future returns essentially.

    Assuming we are talking about original content a possible way to raise awareness is indirectly through the doujin-turned-pro methodology. In other words doing fan works to garner fans from existing fanbases and then introducing your own original creations to the mix.

    Once critical mass is reached merchandise for tie-in products seems to be the best way to go. Obviously you could sell physical copies of your novel or whatever it may be but “otaku-type” merchandise has more inherent value as mentioned. Just having a relatively few number hardcore fans buying your stuff is fine even if the rest aren’t. Besides it doesn’t cost you anything to have your fanbase to advertise for you all over the internet as you said.

    Of related note I’ve had a similar discussion about the OELVN Always Remember Me which although finely crafted from many accounts is also charging more than what many people are willing to pay for an uncertain product in a virtually nonexistent market. Can’t really comment for it’s success since I have no figures to reference but I believe they could do better to sell the game at a lower price point to and focus on growing the market then outright initial profit.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! ^^

      I didn’t think of that doujin-turned-pro method, that’s a good idea!

      I doubt that OELVN has much popularity, I’ve never seen it advertised or heard of people talking about it (though admittedly I don’t usually look up stuff about VNs). The $20 price is really steep though. Even if we ignore the fact that the market is nonexistent, for non-professional software it’s been shown again and again that success comes from low price points and virality, and the most successful apps in the App Store for iOS and Macs and in the Android Market are below $10, mostly $5.

      I hope you try this kind of distribution when you decide to release your novel =) Maybe I’ll have Teahouse up by then~

      • There’s tons of things in the world you’ve never heard of; that doesn’t mean no one is playing or buying them. You can find tons of people who’ve never heard of Minecraft despite it being insanely popular – “I personally haven’t heard of it” is not the same as doing actual research.

        $20 is only “insanely steep” when compared to the price of a phone app. That’s like saying the price of a steak at a mid-range restaurant is “insanely steep” when compared to the price of a bag of potato chips… sure, the price differential is huge, but there’s also a big difference in what you’re getting, and the steak would cost even MORE at a high-end restaurant. There are plenty of PC games that cost an awful lot more than $20!

        While I’m not the developer and don’t know the actual sales figures, from everything I’ve heard “Always Remember Me” is selling extremely well, and the developer makes a fulltime living selling such games, while companies who try to launch into the overcrowded race-to-the-bottom app market crash and burn, because despite achieving popularity, they can’t make enough _sales_ to cover the cost of development.

        It’s a difficult battle, and there is no one solution that is right for every single product. You have to balance the size of your market and the cost of production. Niche products in general – not just games and art, but food, clothes, etc – command high prices. They have to in order to be sustainable. If fewer people are buying, you have to focus on that small group, serve their needs, and charge them a higher price. Or give up entirely.

        I have no idea where you’re seeing that “time and time again” it’s low prices that bring success, since I’ve seen hopeful after hopeful go bust through unsustainable practices and outright exploitation. Employers love to convince the young and enthusiastic that working for next to nothing – or literally nothing! – in order to ‘raise their profile’ is the way to go to achieve success… then once they’ve worked that poor sucker to the bone, toss them out and get a new one.

        Certainly there are times when as-cheap-as-possible is the best and safest strategy, especially if you have a business model that will scale sustainably. (Offering high-quality cheap commissions, as an artist, is an example of something that isn’t sustainable scaled-up. If you suddenly find yourself having agreed to do three year’s worth of work for only enough money to live on for three months, you’re screwed. Don’t DO that! Make sure you cap your offers!)

        • Lad, if you actually read the whole thing, you’ll know that you’re basically saying things that were already covered in the article.
          If you have no interest in reading the article and simply read comments to comment, I suggest that you go somewhere else, since I do not enjoy reading comments of people who haven’t read the actual article.

          P.S. All the points you mentioned were already covered in the article, and I’m stressing this again because you obviously seemed to have not read the article.
          P.P.S. This is not G+, so G+ notation such this “_sales_” does not work.

        • Sure, there are many things I haven’t heard of, but considering how I’m in a community of english-speaking anime/vn/manga/etc fans – the market it looks like they’re selling to – I would imagine I’d have heard of it by now. And if you look in the target audience for Minecraft (gamers and tech geeks), pretty much everyone heard of it – hell it gets on techcrunch a lot too.

          It’s not just phone apps. There’s the native Mac app store, new PC apps and web apps, and most of the ones that are featured/recommended/spread quickly amongst the tech community and blogs (at least from what I’ve noticed) are leaning towards either low prices or a freemium model, unless they’re apps used professionally.
          Many small companies or indie games are selling at low prices too, the games that sell for really high prices are mostly from large companies with very large budgets, well known reputation, and lots of advertising. I don’t know how the developers of ARM are doing, but this is detracting from the main post enough already. Your point on employers doesn’t even have to do with the post.

          The distribution methods are different.

          As for marketing and commissions, yeah obviously it’s going to wary based on the product. That’s something the creators have to figure out for themselves, and figure out for each other.

          I never said to be cheap as possible either, but that cheapness is a part of human nature that should be taken into account when figuring out your strategy. Apart from the initial story that I suggest should be distributed freely to build a market, the complimentary goods can have any price that they think will work out. I’m usually cheap, but once I get hooked into a series I buy expensive figures, for example.

  2. Great article. Building your profile and fan base is important for a new writers/ artist to be able to charge for their works. Your quote “you want people to WANT to pay you” is the perfect way of thought when looking at the business side of the industry.

  3. Pingback: “Piracy”, “Laws”, and the World Wide Web | Puer Magi Halfey Magica

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