When you fail at Indie Publishing
I used to teach people how to run research projects at a University. I had a presentation I gave my students several years running, and the last slide simply said: “Things will go wrong”. You can make as careful a plan as you like, was my point, but you can’t control everything. Even if you could, you will make human mistakes and there are so many things you don’t know yet. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t be doing this research, would you?
You’d think I’d be able to cope with screwing up. Turns out that’s not the case.
It’s a huge moment, seeing your printed book for the first time. I’m like anyone else. When the proofs of my Amazon KDP paperback arrived it was surreal, remarkable, and so familiar from all my dreaming and scheming it felt like coming home. I was elated. And then I opened the bugger.
To cut a very long story short, the gutter margin was off and so the page layout looks weird.
It gets worse, though. I had only ordered hard copies because I wanted to see what the cryptic advice notifications I was getting from Amazon were all about. I’d already prepared an IngramSpark Print On Demand paperback, and that had gone through fine. I shoogled the inner and outer PDFs into a slightly larger trim size on Amazon KDP, thinking I could peruse at my leisure, figure out what the problem was and then change trim, inners and outers when I came to actually publish. I’d done enough publishing elsewhere to know that it’s normal to order a physical proof copy before you hit the red button. All those warnings about not being able to change trim size once you’d published didn’t apply if I was still in Draft mode, right?
Imagine my panic when I was told that this Frankenstein fucker was now available for purchase on Amazon. I’m to this moment unsure what happened here, but it was an honest mistake born of ignorance about modern POD publishing. Just as the confusion about the gutter margin had been. Now the trim size was fixed forever.
At this stage, I only had this wonky, drab, nasty-paper Amazon paperback. Ingram Spark was delivering in a few days. But if this was a problem for the Amazon version, chances were the Ingram Spark was screwed up too.
I’d be stuck with an Amazon paperback in the wrong trim size, and an IngramSpark paperback in the right trim size but with horrible page layout that could only be fixed by a complete rebuild of the PDF. It would make the book significantly longer, which would mean that the cover art might be slightly the wrong dimensions by a couple of millimetres.
I’d never even wanted an Amazon KDP paperback version. I like IngramSpark’s service and finish far better. But Amazon recently changed their sales descriptions of third-party POD paperbacks to say “Out Of Stock”. That’s off-putting to customers, so I reluctantly signed up for KDP as well. Now, because Amazon won’t let me delete my paperback files, the only way I could completely resolve this SNAFU is by releasing a Second Edition with a new ISBN. Before I’ve even launched.
I confess that when I realised this on Saturday afternoon, I spiralled into total despair. I have tried so hard, for so long, to make this story happen. I’ve spent a good deal of money on it. The cover art is beautiful, so I want the innards to be too. And I kept thinking of all the dire warnings from those peppy shouty blogs about indie pub marketing that I have to get it right first time all the time or everyone will laugh and then ignore me.
I felt like I should just walk away. I’d fucked everything up.
Then I made a cup of tea, found my family and had a chat, phoned up my friend the typesetter and chatted some more. And it got me thinking.
There’s great pressure in indie publishing and our mediated lives in general to get everything right, to always be winning, to make it look effortless. The fact is we can’t be perfect, and the stress of trying can ruin everything that’s enjoyable about this process. I know that my book is well-written and well-researched. The artwork is beautiful, and while I didn’t draw it I did commission it. Everything else about this book has been spot-on so far.
The odd thing about my catastrophising response is that I believe in failure. My novel is about people who are "failures". And not just the sort of people who misread the instructions for a self-publishing platform. The kind of people who have fucked up so spectacularly they’ll never be unfucked again. There are lots of reasons to write about them – convicted criminals, a prostitute, a eunuch, a single mum, a traumatised soldier – but a good one is that they are all still there. I don’t make them apologise for who they’ve become: they are the sum of their experiences, and those experiences matter. Failure isn’t the final catastrophe it’s so often sold as.
Don’t forget that when the consequences of fucking up are framed as catastrophic it’s often to scare us into conforming or buying something. There may be consequences to nonconformism or not buying a product, but they’re rarely life-ending.
If I were one of my research students I would tell myself that what we need is a strategy, not a plan. People who set off on their fieldwork with a perfect plan were often the ones who found themselves in my office when their plan fell apart, doubting their worth and wondering if they ought to just throw in the towel.
The art of getting a project done is not following your plan. It’s being able to improvise and adapt to all the things you’ll fuck up and all the things that have nothing to do with you but will fuck you up regardless. That’s what success looks like: survival. Still being there at the end. Not doing the first three tasks perfectly and melting down when the fourth task goes wrong. Not being a bloody clairvoyant and an expert in something you’ve never done before.
Here’s a secret teaching revealed to me: kindness works better than shame or punishment. Be kinder to yourself and you’ll improve your chances.
In my research career, I’d never question my project or my professional worth because something wasn’t as I’d hoped fresh out the box. I’d go for a walk, talk it through with my colleagues, adapt and find a new approach. I quite enjoy the spontaneity, to be honest. When I was a journalist, going back without a story wasn’t an option. Not having a programme to air was not an option. You make it work. Somehow.
Silence is worse than imperfection.
So why was I spiralling into despair and self-doubt when these proofs came back a bit wonky? And let’s be clear: only a bit wonky. Everything apart from that gutter margin was lip-smackingly pretty, in my not-so humble opinion. Deep down I knew imperfect would still get the job done.
It’s very, very hard to accept this, because I also know that the only reason that this project is happening at all is because I’m obsessed. I’d call it determined but really it’s just demented.
Many writers need to weather the rejection and loneliness of writing, but on top of that normal stuff it has not been an easy time in my life in general. I’m quite a private person by instinct, but I also believe that there’s no shame in saying that in the time it took to write this novel I have lost my marriage, my job and my home. I share this to show that I needed to be this mad, this relentless, to have a creative life of any kind. And I needed it to be perfect to prove that it was worth it. I had spent my time writing and publishing rather than making money or having babies like my peers, and I had to be unmockable, unpitiable. Perfect.
I’m convinced that the hardest thing in this life is knowing when to cling on beyond reason and when to let go. That’s the art, and one I am not at all good at. I am a clinger by nature. But in every area of my life recently in which I have clung on and thought hard work was the answer it was in fact the opposite of what was needed. I’d have done more and done better by myself and others these past few years if I had learned when to stick and when to twist, recognised the virtue of mutability, let things fall apart and fall into new shapes.
It is true that I am competing for space and attention with professionally produced books, and that my book not being slickly perfect may put some off. But guess what, I realised? I’m not paid to do this. I don’t have the money or the contacts to run a massive launch campaign, or to wine and dine influencers and stockists, or to pay professionals to execute every aspect of my product. And as a result, I will not do it as neatly as the big hitters. I can’t.
What I do have is my passion and authenticity and integrity. I have my commitment to doing as well as I can, and always aiming higher. I have the effort I can make, the resources I do possess. I have my creativity and love of stories and ideas. My book is worth reading, my voice is strong. That’s what I’ve got to lead with and believe in, and harnessing that effectively is what will make me stand out.
And then, yesterday the IngramSpark versions arrived. I didn’t even bother to open them for quite a while, dreading what was inside. I tore open the carton, flipped over the copies, opened them up. And I screamed.
They were perfect.
The colours on the cover were truer, the trim and margins were exact, the paper weight and feel was professional. It was beautiful. We had done it. We had made a book.
Don’t ask my why on earth IngramSpark could get this right and Amazon had mangled my baby so horribly. I have no clue how the same files can come out so well on one platform and so badly on another. But it’s what I’m working with.
I now have three options, none of them perfect. The first is to carry on with my serviceable but wonky KDP version, alongside the gorgeous IngramSpark version for those who can be bothered to use things other than Amazon. Alternatively, I can stock the IngramSpark version only on Amazon, and take the consequences of whatever bullshit availability warnings the Great Satan applies to my work. Or I can jack it all in and not bother.
The last idea is not an option, although a couple of days ago I felt sorely tempted. I am so bruised and tired after everything that’s happened recently it really doesn’t take much. The other two options have pros and cons, and I will consider them both. And if there’s so much demand for this book it’s flying off the shelves, I will pull together a second edition with a new ISBN that will be absolutely perfect from the off.
How’s that for a deal with you, my readers? The one thing I’ll never be is perfect, and I hope that you’re here for that.