Rob’s Guide to Writing/Self-Publishing

Over the past three years I’ve self-published two books, and based on that I get e-mail from three different groups of people. First there are the people who bought Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie, who typically ask (or simply want to trade stories) about Commodore computers or BBSes. The second group, people who bought Invading Spaces: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Arcade Games, want to talk about old arcades, where I buy my games, and how much I paid for them. But then there’s the third group: people who have questions about writing and self-publishing books.

I remember the first time I saw Steve Hartman on the CBS News. Steve figured everybody in America has a story to tell, so once a week on the CBS Evening News Steve would throw a dart at a map and travel to whatever city the dart landed on. Once there, Steve would pull out a phone book, open it to a random page, randomly point at a person’s name, and go interview them. More often than not, Steve ended up interviewing some pretty interesting Americans, completely at random.

Like Steve I think everybody has at least one good story in them, but most people either don’t know where to start, or don’t know where to go when they’re finished. I will never forget the man who approached me in Chicago at a book signing table. After purchasing a copy of Commodork, the man confessed that he had no interest in the book and just bought a copy because he wanted to pick my brain about self-publishing. After the crowd dispersed, the man and I ended up talking for more than half an hour. Although I am no expert in either writing or publishing, the man was looking for advice and encouragement; I gave him both.

Simply by going through the process of writing and self-publishing two books myself, I have information to share. About a year ago, I sat down to capture some of that information. The things I wrote didn’t turn out to be long enough to be a book, but were too long to be a single blog post. Ultimately I divided the long (long) essay into different topics, and turned it into a web page.

Here it is.

This new section, titled “On Writing” (as a tribute to Stephen King’s book by the same title) is a collection of bits of advice, most of which were originally written as answers to questions people have asked me over the past three years. Everything in that section of my website has my own blood, sweat and tears mixed in. The examples are my own. The advice comes from doing things the hard/wrong way. Trust me, I would love to travel back in time and read this before writing my first book.

Over the weekend my friend Charles politely reminded me that I’ve been promising to post “On Writing” for over a year now, so here it is, warts and all. It’s not 100% complete, but what’s there is there and what’s not there yet is slowly being filled in. If you have questions, please ask them — chances are, it’ll end up added to the collection.

Go read. Then, go write.

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2 comments to Rob’s Guide to Writing/Self-Publishing

  • Hey Rob,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience… As I’m sure you and other self-pubs know, it really is a jungle out there.

    Words are generally free… and everyone’s got a steady supply. Making yours stand out takes a lot of hard work and more than a pinch of luck.

    Thanks again

  • Nice. I’m glad to read your perspective.

    I’m not sure about the figures you cited on advances and such, but things may have changed. When I published for O’Reilly, my advance was considerably more than $3,000. The problem was, the book never sold enough to earn that advance back, so I never made another dime off it. I still get statements every once in a while indicating they don’t owe me any money–10 years later.

    My book, frankly, flopped. What was frustrating was that it nearly was a hit. It sold well in Canada thanks to a glowing review from a popular newspaper columnist, but they weren’t interested in promoting it there. Sadly, copies just sat in a warehouse in Tennessee while people in Canada were trying to find copies and couldn’t. If a publisher decides not to promote your book for whatever reason, you’re stuck. At least with self-publishing, you don’t have to deal with the politics.

    But back to advances… I was approached to write a Dummies book about building a Linux PC, sometime around 2000. I can’t remember the details because we never got very far in the discussion. I don’t remember the specifics anymore about the advance. I know it wasn’t more than $20,000, but I’m also pretty sure it was no less than $5,000. But the per-copy royalty was going to be 25 lousy cents. If you’re Dan Gookin or Andy Rathbone writing the current edition of Windows for Dummies or Office for Dummies that’s fine; you’ll sell a million copies and net a quarter million bucks for about six months to a year of writing. That’s not so great when you’re me, proposing a book about building a Linux PC that was going to be lucky to sell much more than 10,000 copies. Especially in 2000, when some people were curious about Linux but most were hesitant to dedicate $900 worth of hardware to it. (So if IDG was smart, their advance was closer to $5K than $20K.)

    So instead, I started a book about running Linux servers in Windows shops, this time with a coauthor. Unfortunately, everything imaginable went wrong with that project and it got cancelled. My deadbeat coauthor got $1,000 for delivering absolutely nothing; unfortunately I got the same amount for delivering four chapters. So maybe I should have done that Dummies book after all.

    People ask me sometimes when and if I’ll ever publish again. I repeat something that another published author told me in 1997 or 98 when I asked him the same question. I’ll write again if and when I have something to say that nobody else is saying. In 1999 I was the only guy talking about tweaking Windows for performance. Today there are enough books about that to fill a section at a big-box bookstore–even though there’s less you can actually do today than back then.

    Would I consider self-publishing if that happened? Yes. I’d still call an agent and see if anyone was interested, but if I didn’t like what I heard, I’d go the Lulu route. Had I self-published my first book, it definitely would have had more GenX attitude, a more outspoken tone, and it would have felt a bit different. Would it have been a better book? I can’t answer that. A professional editor does bring something to the table, and frankly if I’d liked and agreed with everything he said and every change he made, he wouldn’t have been doing his job.

    But self publishing lets you really leave your mark on your work, kind of like recording a song where you sing and play all the instruments. Certainly there’s someone out there who can play drums better than you, and someone else who can play bass better than you, but only you know what you were feeling when you wrote it.