A True Story
I recently shared an email from a middle grade author finding success with self-publishing. Now here’s a story of how non fiction can be inspired by self-publishing and take a non-traditional route. You often hear that non-fiction would suffer without a publisher to provide an advance. But what author really gets a yearly salary simply based on an idea for a book, then goes out and works on it full-time? That’s not how it works. Great books are going to be written no matter what. Karyn’s story is proof of that.
I first became aware of your books through Amazon, just after that thing called Wool first started to really take off. I bought the first omnibus in paper copy, loved it, read all the rest of your books too, and started reading your blog. I found all the stuff about self publishing, and the publishing industry in general, really interesting, from the point of view of a reader. Never in a million years did I think that I would be doing it myself one day, much as I would have loved to. I also had the great pleasure of hearing you speak, and getting my book signed at Camden Library during your Australian tour.
Then something completely and utterly amazing happened.
My two main areas of reading interest have been Science Fiction – hence my attraction to Wool, and Antarctic Exploration. (There is a deep connection between these interests, but it may not be obvious.) Last year I read a book by Australian historian David Day about one of my Antarctic explorer heroes – Sir Douglas Mawson. This book made be absolutely bloody furious – this “historian” had really taken an axe to Mawson’s reputation, and I considered much of his criticism to be absolute rubbish. But what could I do about it? Who am I to challenge a respected professional historian?
Taking a huge amount of inspiration from your personal story – I realised that I was no longer without the power to protest, and that I can have a public voice. I decided that I would write a response to this book – and publish it myself on Amazon as an e-book. I really did not care whether it would be a success, I just wanted it out there.
So I set about doing the research, and doing the writing. I’m in my late fifties, and had not written anything longer than a letter since I left university in 1978 – so it took a bit of effort, and some guidance from a highly literate friend to “excavate” my writing skills. When I finished I had a 27,000 word essay – fully footnoted. Effectively the Masters Degree thesis that I never did.
After several drafts, and a thorough edit, I thought it was actually quite good – but only two people had read it, my husband and my friend.
Gathering all my courage, I thought I would send it to the CEO of the Mawson’s Huts Foundation here in Sydney seeking comments I could use as a “cover blurb” equivalent for the e-book. What did I have to lose? I received a polite reply, no promises, but he would have a look at it.
A week later I had a phone call – he absolutely loved it, and said that the Huts Foundation would like to publish it for sale at their Museum shop. I was astonished. Since I didn’t do the work to make money, I immediately donated the print rights to the Foundation. If they wanted to publish it, they would bear the cost and keep the profit. I would keep the e-book. (Hugh’s note: I swooned when I read this.)
I then wrote to a publisher in the UK – seeking permission to use some quotes, and explained a little about the project. The publisher not only gave permission, he suggested that I contact the leading author in the field, who would also be very interested in what I was doing. I sent them my draft, and they both loved it too, and the publisher said he would be interested in publishing it in the UK. Additionally, I received a lovely response from that leading author. I was now even more astonished.
Once I told the Foundation about the UK publisher’s interest, they agreed for me to go with that deal – since the UK publisher would make a better job of the book production. So I have just signed my first contract – for print rights only, and I will still donate my royalties to the Foundation. The Foundation and the publisher are setting up a deal to sell my book, and several other related publications too, at the Museum shop. The Museum is attracting more than 20,000 visitors per year, so this is potentially good business for this small publisher, as well as contributing to the Foundation’s fundraising that pays for their work of conserving the historic site in Antarctica.
The publisher is going to ask the leading author to write a Foreword for me. And I will release the e-book myself at the same time as the hard copy comes out.
So in the space of a year – I have gone from being an infuriated reader, to a researcher and writer, to a soon to be published author (both trad and e-book), and who knows where that may lead. This is completely beyond my wildest imaginings. I am very fortunate in that it does not matter to me if I do not make any money out of this. I am doing it because it is a subject that I am absolutely passionate about, and I have re-discovered my passion for the work too – the research and the writing. I’m having the best time of my life, and have had an enormous amount of pleasure in doing this project. To have it so well received by people who really know their stuff, and who matter in this field, well, you can probably imagine my delight.
So to finish this story, I just wanted to say that I can’t thank you enough Hugh. Your inspiration really did start all of this for me. Your influence is spreading far and wide, including into the to non-fiction areas of writing and publishing. None of this story would have happened if I’d never read Wool, and never read your blog.
With sincerest thanks, and every best wish for your own impending voyages of exploration,
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the democratization of literature on full display. This is what the New York Times and others are railing against. And it’s one of the purest, most beautiful, most inspiring developments in human history. And I don’t say that lightly.
The tools at hand (the internet for research, email for contact, social media for outreach, e-books for distribution) are truly causing a revolution in how we connect our minds and thoughts with one another. The combination of these forces is right up there with spoken language, the written word, and the printing press for changing the individual’s ability to contribute to our understanding of the human condition.
This happens both through fiction, with the expansion of empathy, and through non-fiction, with an expansion of facts and ideas. We shouldn’t overlook what is happening. What blogs have done for the news, and wikis have done for the warehousing of knowledge, e-books and self-publishing are doing for stories and ideas.
Those decrying the death of literature are being startled not by the collapse of anything important, but by the rise of something far grander, something they don’t understand and fail to appreciate. It is as if those who love their solitude and specialness are frightened by the onrush of a giddy, enthusiastic, brilliant, contributing crowd.
The more the merrier, I say. A stampede of ideas and artistry. Those who shun progress had better step out of the way.