~ 12 September 2007 ~
Regrettably I don’t have as much time as I’d like to author this article in polished format, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there while they’re fresh. You’d think I’d have time to slow down now that the book is done, but with running a job site, preparing material for several presentations before the year is over (including a ginormous workshop), maintaining this site, oh and a family and full-time job, “busy” is a severe understatement.
Warning: I’m typing this up without any of the spit & polish I usually put into my writing, so whatever comes of it is what comes of it.
I could probably summarize my thoughts in one sentence: The process of self-publishing isn’t as glamorous as some (myself) thought it would be.
One evening shortly after the book was published, I recounted with Suzanne everything I had done over the last 10 months to go from an idea for a book to a finished, published book. Having already co-authored one book through a publisher, I compared the experience of self-publishing, and here’s roughly what I described:
Chapter outline - This is usually where you begin, publisher or no publisher. Chapter titles plus a few bullets for what each chapter contains. Fortunately, I’ve had the mobile web on my mind long enough that I knew roughly what I wanted the book to include. But a publisher will often start as early as this stage with an author, providing tips and recommendations for chapter flow and content ideas. I started creating the outline in October 2006, began some initial writing, but didn’t have the outline roughly as it stands today until December 2006.
Content gathering - This is where I verified that I indeed would have enough content to support the chapters I outlined, based on previous articles I’d written and speaking material. I wasn’t about to head down the long path of authoring without knowing I could come up with enough stuff to write about. I had gathered most of the content that would support the ensuing writing by around March 2006.
Writing - This stage, of course, is the meat of the project. Day after day after day of writing. I began writing in earnest around April 2006 and averaged around 1 hour per day for the next three months, most of that writing done on the light rail commute to and from work and on Saturdays. While a publisher will certainly help in this stage, it’s really up to the author to shoulder the burden of writing. So the difference between self-publishing and publisher is marginal in this stage. Update: Maybe it’s not so marginal. I failed to mention two other reasons I chose to self-publish: schedule and page count. I didn’t want to stick to the stringent schedule and deadlines imposed by a publisher (usually 6 months) nor the 250-300 page count they often demand. I figured I’d say what I needed to say on the subject, and whenever I was done — time or length — I was done.
Editing - This is a biggie. I’ll stop the conversation here and say if you’re not a good writer, don’t self-publish. A publisher-supplied editor is invaluable in this stage. They’ll not only correct grammar and clarify confusing sentences, but they’ll often rewrite entire sentences or even paragraphs to help you make your point clearly and succinctly. And yet ironically, this was one of the driving factors for me to not use a publisher even though I had a couple offers along the way — I didn’t want to endure the rigorous editing process that follows writing with publishers. And I like to think I can hold my own with writing and editing, whether or not that’s really the case.
Technical review - This is an important step for most technical books, but especially this one given all the varied opinions and ideas floating around a topic as volatile as the mobile web is right now. A publisher will typically supply a technical editor, and with most web standards books, that person is pretty well-known and experienced with writing (think Molly, Dave Shea, etc). I didn’t have the luxury of a publisher-supplied technical editor, but fortunately I have a lot of contacts in both the mobile and web industries. I realize, however, not everyone is as fortunate. But I was able to get the likes of Russell Beattie, Barbara Ballard, Bronwyn Jones, John Gruber, Jared Benson, and a dozen others to offer feedback. And that feedback was absolutely invaluable.
Layout - So, once the content is polished, you usually hand everything over to the publisher, and your work is largely done at this point. Not so with self-publishing. Guess who has to format the book’s interior pages? With a publisher, you’ll likely write everything in Word and then send over the final document with any images you’ve prepared. They take it from there. As a self-publisher, your work is just beginning when the writing & editing is done. I cheated here and formatted the book as I was authoring it. I probably shouldn’t admit it, but the entire book was authored in Apple’s Pages program. It never graced InDesign or QuarkExpress, as I admit I don’t know either of these programs nearly as well as I should. However, Pages has some pretty decent typography and layout controls, so it did the trick. All images were prepared in Photoshop, while most of the diagrams and tables were created in Pages.
Cover - Oops, still not done. A publisher typically has designers on staff who take care of the cover artwork for you, even though many design authors prefer to help out with cover design. This wasn’t a terribly challenging stage of the project, at least not for the PDF version. The one-piece jacket artwork for the upcoming print version, however, was plenty more work.
Promotion - Ha. You think everything above was a lot to tackle? Try getting your book in the hands of customers. Where do I begin? I knew from the start I’d publish this initially only in PDF format, and that meant I’d need a place to sell the book. Sure, I could do it on cameronmoll.com, but I wanted a more permanent home. So I elected to go with a separate site entirely, mobilewebbook.com.
The entire site is essentially just two parts: home page and order page(s). However, still I knew I’d be overwhelmed with everything above and therefore outsourced the design and development of the site — all of it. I wanted this to be a Cameron Moll-quality site, if that doesn’t sound overly self-serving, and therefore I trusted the design with one of the few persons I could trust it with: Long-time friend Jesse Bennett-Chamberlain of 31Three. I did some light art direction for the design, but to take credit for the incredible design would be to rob Jesse of due credit. Jesse’s the real star and he did an awesome job.
The coding and backend was handled by none other than the same two developers who work the magic behind the scenes for Authentic Jobs: Jonathan Linczak and Myles Grant. Jointly the two executed the markup, front-end development, Paypal integration, database, PDF delivery workflow, admin, and lots more. I couldn’t imagine doing all that without their incredible talent. (Orchestrating the efforts of three designers/developers was no small task either.)
The PDF creation & delivery process: Lots have asked about it. In short, we looked at using E-junkie to automate the delivery of PDFs, emails with links, etc, but in the end we chose to embed the buyer’s name in the PDF, and at the time E-junkie didn’t offer this service (though my sources tell me they will very soon). So we built our own process to embed the name in the PDF, send an email to the buyer with link to download the PDF, expire the url after a certain number of days, etc. The process isn’t flawless yet, but it’s worked well for most customers to date.
Print version - From literally the start of the project I knew I might publish a print version in addition to PDF at some point, and therefore I wisely created any images for the book in hi-res along the way. I’m happy to report I’ve submitted all the necessary files for a print version to Lulu, and I’m now awaiting proof copies in the mail before opening up orders to the public. But even this stage was no small chore, largely due to the fact that Lulu doesn’t support anything exported from Pages currently. I ended up having to export the book as individual Encapsulated PostScript (EPS) pages — all 108 of them — using Adobe Acrobat, and then I rebuilt the book inside of InDesign by importing the individual EPS files. Yeah yeah, I should have used InDesign to begin with, but learning InDesign properly was low on the list of tasks above.
By the time I finished describing all of this to Suzanne, you can imagine my astonishment as I said out loud, “Did I just do all of that? No. way.”
So can I recommend self-publishing to all of you? I’m not sure. One of the driving factors for me choosing to self-publish was the fact that I’d get nearly 100% of the profits. You don’t write a book in this industry to make money, as the publisher’s advance of a few thousand dollars and royalties of just a few percent make few rich in our business. But looking back at the countless hours spent on everything above over 10 months’ time, I’m not sure I’ll break even on my investment anytime soon.
But here’s the more important question: Was it worth it? Absolutely. Absolutely again. I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome. And the fact that I can look back and say “Hey, I did all that” is extremely, extremely rewarding.
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