Notes from a Singaporean independent writer

Channel NewsAsia interviewed me today on the topic of trends in self-publishing. You can find the full clip here.

In this post, I’ll expand on the key talking points in the interview, addressing the big debate between independent and traditional publishing from a Singaporean perspective.

What is an independent writer?

I defined an independent writer as a writer who is not compelled by contract to write for a publisher. With the advent of self-publishing and print on demand technologies, every writer is also potentially a publisher. Writers are no longer beholden to publishing houses to publish and sell their works. This means that writers are free to pursue self-publishing or fairer contracts with publishing houses — or both. Regardless of the path to publication, the writer gets paid higher royalties and the reader gets more books, leading to a win-win situation.

Previously, I called myself a self-published writer because that was the path I took. Now, having adopted a hybrid publishing path, I define myself as an independent writer. I self-published my stories American Sons and At All Costs, and I will be self-publishing my next novel Keepers of the Flame. In addition, I sold a short story, War Crimes, to Castalia House for its upcoming anthology Riding the Red Horse. This hybrid approach suits me best, because through self-publishing I can build up my core brand, and Castalia House lets me tap markets I could not have reached otherwise.

Self-publishing: With great responsibility comes great rewards

Self-publishing offers many benefits over traditional publishing, and very few of the disadvantages. Through self-publishing, the writer retains total control over intellectual property rights, the publication process, distribution, promotion and sales. This is the pitfall and the promise of this approach.

Writers who take the self-publishing route have to think of themselves as writers and publishers. The work does not stop when the writing is done. After writing comes editing, cover art and formatting. These have to done to a professional standard to attract and retain customers. Following publication, the self-published writer needs to think about distribution, marketing, branding, pricing, legal regulations, and accounting. If the writer cannot handle these, the writer has to hire someone to do it, which drives up overheads.

Yet this responsibility comes with opportunities. Publishing houses want to make money, and they will focus their efforts, resources and energies on their bestsellers and the best-selling genres of the day. Newcomers are left to fend for themselves. A self-published author chooses which editor to work with, instead of an editor who might not understand the genre he writes in. A self-published author decides what the cover art looks like, instead of relying on a graphic designer he may not be able to communicate with and may not know what the book is about. A self-published author can choose when, where and how a book would be sold and at what price, responding directly to the state of the market, instead of relying on a marketing team that is likely too focused on promoting established bestsellers. A self-published author gets to define their brand instead of letting a marketing team do it. A self-published author cannot be locked into unfair contracts by unscrupulous publishers, allowing them to retain full rights to their work, to use as they wish.

Most importantly, self-published writers are not beholden to the whims of publishers. Publishers want to make a profit, and this means publishing books they believe to be profitable, written by high-profile or connected writers. Without a network or reputation to rely on, or a manuscript that happens to fit the hot genre du jour, many writers are out of luck — unless they take the self-publishing route. Nate Granzow writes men’s adventure fiction, but traditional publishers do not think the genre is profitable (notice the dearth of books in that genre on bookshelves these days). By publishing on Amazon, he got his opportunity to shine — he was one of the 1000 finalists of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards 2012, and ranked first in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category in the IndieReader Discovery Awards 2012.

By shouldering the responsibilities of self-publishing, self-published writers get to reap much larger rewards than their peers. Smashwords offers 70% royalties, plus distribution to affiliates and marketing tools. Amazon also offers 70% royalties, plus extra promotional tools for Kindle exclusives, access to a global supply chain, and its brand name. (Note for Singaporeans: after the Internal Revenue Service takes its 30% withholding tax, the actual royalties are closer to 45%, and because Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the US at this time, there is no way around this.) By using online ecommerce tools, writers get to sell directly to consumers, earning royalties between 90% to 100%. I use Sellfy and Gumroad, which you can find on my website’s bibliography page.

In addition to creative control and royalties, there are three other ancillary benefits: dexterity, flexibility and economies of scale.

Using self-publishing tools, writers can update their works very quickly. If they want to upload a reworked cover or an corrected manuscript, all they have to do is upload them on their distribution or publication platforms, and the changes will be committed within 24 hours at no additional expense. Publishing houses cannot boast the same turnaround time, and for publishing houses that rely on traditional print-to-warehousing-to-retailer solutions, the cost of changing manuscripts can be prohibitive.

This low-cost dexterity also leads to story flexibility. Thriller writer Steven Hildreth Jr. began his publishing career with The First Bayonet. The story started off as a novella on the Kindle store. He received so much positive attention, he expanded it into a full-length novel. The novel-length version generated even more positive press, giving him an inroad to writing success. This is especially important since, compared to the former Special operations Forces or established writers on the market these days, it is extremely unlikely that he would ever be published. With very few exceptions — virtually all of whom are bestselling writers — publishing houses would not allow their writers to do what Hildreth did.

Self-publishing also grants writers economies of scale. For publishing houses to be profitable, they have to sell novels and novel-length books. It is too expensive for publishing houses to sell novellas, novelettes and short stories, except perhaps as ebooks, and even then they have to charge higher prices than self-published authors to cover overheads. The self-published writer, on the hand, can dash out shorter stories and monetise them from the get-go.  This allows the self-published writer an opportunity to make money off these works, promote their existing fiction and reach wider audiences.

Working with publishers: Lessons from Castalia House

I said in my interview that Castalia House ‘knows what they’re doing’. By that phrase I meant that Castalia House is keeping a very close eye on the publishing revolution, and they are doing the things traditional publishing should be doing to stay relevant.

Castalia House is committed to publishing quality works by talented writers. One of my fellow contributors, William S Lind, is Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in military strategy. Another is Tom Kratman, bestselling author of the M Day and Legio del Cid series. Other writers in Castalia House’s stable include John C. Wright, considered to be the modern C. S. Lewis, and Vox Day, whose novelette ‘Opera Vita Aeterna’ was nominated for the Hugo Award. By attracting and retaining such an august collection of writers, Castalia House is able to tap into their fanbases, reach larger markets, and reassure writers and readers that the works they produce are worth every cent. I feel this is how traditional publishers can survive in the new world of publishing: by being synonymous with high-quality work.

Castalia House also offers fairer royalty rates. For Riding the Red Horse, Castalia buys first-time publication rights. With the exception of editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Castalia offers fiction contributors 25% of revenues, divided according to the proportion of words contributed to their section of the anthology. Non-fiction contributors also receive the same terms for the anthology’s non-fiction section, as the non-fiction pieces tend to run shorter than the fiction ones and Castalia wanted the non-fiction contributors to be compensated fairly too. Castalia House prices its stories comparable to market rates, which tends to attract plenty of customers. By comparison, professional rates for science fiction short stories are defined as at least USD 3 cents a word, but this is a one-off payment. Riding the Red Horse could potentially generate royalties that exceed professional rates, paid twice a year for as long the book is sold. While this in no way compares to the monthly payouts of 45/70% offered by self-publishing platforms or the immediate 90+% if you sell directly to customers, it is a far sight better than a one-off payment of USD 3 cents a word or royalties of 1% to 10% from traditional publishers. Personally, I could accept these terms, since this anthology allowed me to reach a far wider audience and monetise what began life as a literary experiment.

Castalia’s last major advantage is that they handle all the backend work: marketing, distribution, pricing, branding, etc. This meant that after I submitted my piece, I was free to pursue other projects. Castalia House uses promotional tools like blogs, newsletters, and free ebooks to market their products, which means I would not have to. Furthermore, by working with the editors I learned a few tricks of the trade, which I am applying to my other works. They also have an in-house ebook store on their website to sell directly to customers, which in turn can be paired with marketing campaigns and special promotions to generate sales and publicity. Their cover art is of a consistently high standard and so is their editing and formatting. I’m confident that Castalia would handle Red Horse Rising, and by extension War Crimes, the same way.

Do note that this is the best case scenario. Many publishers do not necessarily think the way Castalia House does, especially in the realm of marketing and royalties. Writers who want to go the mainstream publishing route must do their research and pay very careful attention to contracts and rights.

Picking the right path

With so many options at their disposal, writers need to decide which path suits them best. I see myself as a craftsman and a professional. Self-publishing allows me to express the totality of my vision and be paid fairly for my work, and by working with Castalia House I can reach out to a wider audience. This hybrid approach suits me best — but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

The choice between self-publishing, engaging a publishing house or a hybrid approach depends on entirely on the writer. Writers need to decide early on how much work they are willing to put into learning the industry. They need to ask themselves if they are willing to shoulder the burdens of running a business, or just want to focus on writing. They need to decide how much money they want to make from their stories, and how much time they can dedicate to writing and the post-writing process. Most of all, they must find out which path would actually get them published.

Whichever choices they choose, one thing is clear: a writer cannot be an author without publishing a story, and self-publishing virtually guarantees publication. But, only publication — actual success is dependent on the writer’s definition and efforts.

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The 90/30, 8/10 Rule

For the past month, I’ve been tinkering with ways to enhance my overall productivity, trying to squeeze out more work without being exhausted by day’s end. Burnout was a constant companion, and I wanted to be rid of it for good. Among the life hacks I discovered was the 90/20 rule: work for 90 minutes, rest for 20. Based on studies into the human ultradian rhythm, 90 minutes is the optimum length of time a human can concentrate intensely on a task before needing a break. The idea sounded good to me, save for one minor detail.

I know for a fact I’m able to sustain greater periods of intense concentration when writing. Call it inspiration, grace or a state of flow, but when I’m burning hot and the fingers are flying over the keys, stopping is not an option. I can’t just stand up and walk away in the middle of a scene that flows. Flow, I’ve found, is a delicate thing, and once the brain leaves that elevated state of consciousness it becomes extremely difficult to go back to. Maybe this is just a personal quirk, but all I know is that I can’t limit myself to merely 90 minutes of work. Not when the words are overflowing, when the conscious mind takes a step back and my hands do their best to deliver a scene, a character, an action, a concept from the fuzzy mists of unlimited uncreated potential into the page.  I do my best work simply by sitting down and ignoring the clock and writing and writing and writing until I’m done.

But when the work is done, it leaves me spent. Writing is bleeding your soul all over the page, and there’s only so much you can give at a time. You need time to rest, to regenerate, to gather up what is left and allow your body to replenish its energy stores. 20 minutes isn’t enough, not for me. 30 is a more realistic minimum rest period. As a bonus, it makes life easier to schedule.

Flow doesn’t come every day, though. It’s the exception, not the norm. More often than not it’s just sitting at the desk, banging out words, trying to string ideas together. It’s the mental equivalent of laying down bricks to build a wall. I may not like the work, but I still have to get the work done. Especially when I’m on contract with a deadline to meet. Days like that, the 90 minute limit comes into play. It’s the chronological version of a piston in a pressure cooker, sealing off time and concentrating one’s willpower on the task at hand. It’s also a promise that the brain only needs to slog out the next 90 minutes before it can go do something else, making it easier to focus exclusively on the task at hand.

90 on, 30 off looks good, but throw in working with a flow state and the neat boundaries of time break down. That;s when 8/10 comes in.

Hara hachi bu is an Okinawan concept, meaning eating until you are 80 percent full. The Okinawans believed that filling up the other 20 percent merely nourished the doctor. This combination of caloric restriction and excellent dietary choices have contributed to the long lifespans the Okinawans are famous for. Yet hara hachi bu isn’t just an eating plan. It’s a life plan too. Work up to 80% of your capacity, leaving some energy in the tank. That prevents you from burning out, so you can come back to work refreshed.

And, if you’re under a tight deadline or if you enter a state of flow, you have sufficient reserves to see you through.

For eighty percent of my scheduled working time, I adhered to the 90 on, 30 off schedule. For the other twenty percent, I burned through scenes, paragraphs and sections until the state of flow finally stopped. I was working an average of six hours a day, leaving weekends free.

The result: a short story, a novella, two blog posts, a series of research notes and concepts, and eleven contracted articles. Enough for a short novel, just over 50000 words. That works out to roughly 2500 words a day. I also spent less time going back to make minor edits and correcting mistakes, freeing up brainpower and energy for more important work. My previous writing goal was 2000 words a day, no matter how long it took. With a productivity increase of 25%, plus less time lost to recovery and fatigue, these rules seem to be a keeper.

I can’t say for certain if this will work for everyone. I know full-time writers who live and breathe the written word, churning out 4 to 8000 words a day and regularly producing bestsellers. I know other writers who are happy spending their workday writing however much they can write, or shooting for a couple thousand or hundred words a day. They have their goals and their methods, as far as they’ve let on, seem to work for them. For me, 90/30 8/10 seems to work best.

Concentrate when working, take time out to rest, leave energy in the tank, and occasionally go all-out. I think these principles are universal, or at least apply to a broad spectrum of activities. The trick is figuring out the right proportions. And that means experimenting, quantifying and honestly examining the results. If you’re a writer looking to increase output, a worker interested in doing more, or just someone interested in productivity, maybe 90/30 8/10 may work for you. Or maybe not. The devil may be in the details, but the details don’t matter so long as they work for you. It’s your work, nobody else’s, and that’s the only goal that matters.