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Webchat 3: How Can we Make a Living Outside the Mainstream?

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We are always hearing that music and publishing are changing beyond recognition; that now is a time of opportunity for anyone with talent, perseverance, and an original idea. But most of us still rely on day jobs to pay the bills whilst we do what we love by twilight.

There are all kinds of ideas out there, from Chris Anderson’s “freemium” with its poster boys like Cory doctorow and Trent Reznor, to Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans. Everyone is using the rather distatsteful term “monetisation” – how do we actually turn talent into cash without a mainstream contract behind us?

It would be great to have a debate, because debate is good. But most of all, this is a place to brainstorm ideas, to come away thinking “yeah, I’m going to try that”. hosted by Dan Holloway, a founder member of Year Zero Writers, and blogger on this topic.

We will not approve comments from new users until the day so as to save debate for the day itself, and to give the hosts time to formulate initial responses.

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Written by danholloway

November 24, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Posted in webchat

63 Responses

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  1. I notice a lot of artists are having “car boot” sales. Galleries seem to be becoming a thing of the past. I also notice that a lot of urban fiction writers treat their books like any other product. They get out there on the streets and sell them. It’s a method that seems to be working for them.

    As consumers, we were told that we’d be buying everything online in digital format, but for people like me, that doesn’t really work because I don’t have money for things like kindles or Mp3 players and I hate credit cards. I’m very much a cash in hand person.

    Because of this, I’m more likely to buy a novel on a whim from a guy behind a card table on the street than I am to buy one from amazon.

    Marcella O'Connor

    November 30, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    • My situation is similar to Marcella’s. I don’t have the money to buy a kindle. Even if I did have the money, I would be uninclined to do so. My eyes can’t take staring at a screen (even a reader friendly screen). I want a book in my hands.

      In the last few years, almost every book I have purchased has been used. I can’t handle the price of new books — especially SP books, which seem to be more expensive than editions from publishing houses.

      This said, I am putting my work out through ereaders and POD publishers. Next summer I plan a book selling tour — book fairs, festivals, etc. I am working up some street theatre/storytelling to help promote my writing.

      It will cost me a pretty penny to stock copies of my books. Maybe I should look into running off some punk-style chapbooks as well.

      But the question still remains: will I be able to make a living at this. It is especially pertinent as I currently have no income.

      pdallen

      November 30, 2009 at 4:43 pm

      • You know my other reservation about new technology is that it changes so fast. People say you spend the initial few hundred quid on a kindle, but then you only pay a tenner for each book, so in the long run you save money. But I don’t buy it. I think by the time my kindle has paid for itself, something new will have come onto the market and the kindle will be obsolete.

        This happened to me a few years ago when I bought a minidisk player. The next year, IPod came out. I honestly just don’t listen to music anymore because I feel so alienated by the changes. The CDs you buy in shops are all pop as the industry hedges its bets more and more on the lowest common denominator and I feel so apathetic about having to get a credit card just to download the indie music I would like to listen to.

        Of course, my other reservation with kindle is practical. I live in a region where I’m lucky to have any broadband and mobile broadband simply doesn’t apply here, so I can’t see the kindle functioning properly out here.

        Marcella O'Connor

        December 1, 2009 at 3:49 pm

        • I agree with you here.

          As for music, I play music myself, so I rpactice throughout the day. I do listen to some recordings, either on the computer or in the car.

          Most of this new technology I don’t bother with. I’ve never owned an mp3 player, or a cell phone. I wonder about the addiction of technology. I wrote a short essay about the subject http://allenpd.blogspot.com/2009/07/technology-addicts.html

          I often spend time in remote areas where these technologies don’t work, whether as a geologist or from personal inclination.

          pdallen

          December 1, 2009 at 5:00 pm

      • When I was working for a small pub alot of the sales came from doing talks including schools, old people homes etc… of course depends on subject but its worth thinking about.

        Most of the poets I know sell at the poetry slams and evening they do.

        I’m planning on selling my children’s books at craft fayres but then there are things I make to go with stories – sort of already do this with the Wiggly Pets http://www.wigglypets.co.uk/

        My plan is to sell via e-books, and POD – but I give away most of my stuff the books will be the polished, compacted and packaged versions. Once I have enough capital from them get an actual print run done to sell at events and local book stores etc..

        Sarah

        December 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm

  2. So does that mean we should be running up punk-style chapbooks and selling them wherever we go? I know some people like to sell books at music gigs, and festivals. I think you’re right there’s an underground to be exploited that deals in real objects and not just downloads – the same kind of appeal as vinyl records. The question is whether that can ever support a livelihood or whether it’s an adjunct

    danholloway

    November 30, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    • I think its something like a return to a cottage industry – this is a trend that the internet and advances in publishing tech have allowed.

      It means that most people who try will get pocket money/make a loss at this but there is potential there and unlike the old cottage industries we have tech that allows your business model to easily scale – if your careful that is.

      I also think this is the beginning of the curve still so only time will tell about some of the finer points.

      Sarah

      December 1, 2009 at 4:23 pm

  3. I do have to wonder what our goals are. Are we really trying to build an independent career? Consider honestly, if you managed to attract the attention of a major publisher, would you give up the independent thing?

    pdallen

    November 30, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    • Personally, yes. If a publisher came knocking my fist call would be to Max Clifford saying what’s a story worth about an indie turning down a six-figure deal. Certainly, the question at the heart of this thread is whether it’s possible and if so, how. Of course, the answer may be no, but I’m not convinced

      danholloway

      November 30, 2009 at 4:53 pm

      • Nor am I. I would rather be independent. If I built a following that provided a comfortable living, I would have little reason to accept an offer from a major publishing house no matter how lucrative. But at present, living on foodstamps and lacking any health care, I could not refuse such an offer.

        Now, maybe after receiving a six-figure deal, I could then turn around and use the money to establish an independent business, but that’s getting way off the point.

        pdallen

        November 30, 2009 at 5:15 pm

      • I’m likewise broke, PD, and fully ubderstand the exigencies, of course. Sad fact is siox-figure advances don’t happen, but if they did I’d wager one could make as much from turning it down. I’ve actually found what, if anything, pays is journalistic articles – and if one picks one’s niche it’s surprisingly easy to find some work, which leads to more.

        danholloway

        November 30, 2009 at 10:05 pm

        • I think that the publishers would be akin to the venture/vulture capatilists who head hunt/are applied to the tech industry.

          If you want quick growth, and investment then they are a good way of moving ahead – it means a project is out there much quicker than if you have to build it up alone.

          Obviously there are pros’ and cons’ – I want to be independent for many reasons but I need money so if someone where to offer me the cash I need in the here and now – for my families sake I could not turn it down even though I could potentially make more in the long run by doing so.

          Sarah

          December 1, 2009 at 4:37 pm

          • I have no anticipation of making anything other than pin money from my vocation of writing.

            marc nash

            yearzerowriters

            December 1, 2009 at 9:30 pm

  4. i’m glad you put this debate out there, dan, because we seem to gloss over the “making a living” part. putting our work out there independently requires just as much marketing on our own had we had the big-time contract. apparently, and i have to do the research to back this up, but i’ve read in a number of places that mainstream print books sell an average of 500 copies. i can do that on my own, thanks, and take all the revenue myself. can i make a living? no fucking way. i’m not quitting my day job. i did that once to run my record label, which left me in debt and shambles after a relatively successful run.

    i’m not hopeful that all artists and writers who believe in their work can subsist on their art alone. it has nothing to do with mainstream print publishers concocting a higher barrier to entry; it’s just the way the world has been for thousands of years: people have necessities that they must fulfill before they indulge in art.

    ~jenn

    jenn topper

    November 30, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    • That’s the point isn’t it – art is quiet high up in the pyramid of needs (I will stop comparing everything to business shortly honest!).

      We may ‘need’ art as a culture or as an individual to develop and grow and not stagnant, to keep thinking and innovation alive but…

      Food, shelter, clothing will always come first for the majority (I was one of those students who faced with last £10 spent it on books and not food).

      The main issue is going to be reaching your target audience and even working out who they are. And yeah quiet a few books only sell a couple of hundred books and I think I could muster that just through people I knew to be quiet honest. Plus the ‘industry’ is increasingly expecting you to do your own promotion so… I start to think – what is they are actually taking the cut of profits for?

      Sarah

      December 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm

      • (Nod’s head emphatically.)

        pdallen

        December 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm

      • average POD novel sales are 75 – for me that means author hasn’t reached more than about 2 degrees of separation -friends & family and virtually no one unknown to them. They’re simply not trying hard enough in my mind.

        marc

        yearzerowriters

        December 1, 2009 at 9:33 pm

  5. Plus, NO ONE is getting six-figure signing deals. I tried to find out how much the film option rights for New Moon were and they were in the low six figures. That film was #1 globally and Meyer’s books are, well, we don’t have to go there.

    jenn topper

    November 30, 2009 at 7:42 pm

    • I don’t expect a 6-figure book deal. That’s a dream. I did get a $10,000 advance for Eating Fossil Fuels. We lived on that for a year. It would be nice to receive another such. I think $10,000 is a reachable target for an independent writer.

      pdallen

      December 1, 2009 at 1:04 pm

  6. Jenn, believing in your work is all well and good, but it takes, as you say, a lot more than that to succeed. And never EVER quite the day job till you can already live on your art alone.

    Can I throw some ideas out there for discussion.

    1. the “gigs & merch” model – is this something that’s exclusively for music, or can it work for writing too? I’veme a LOT of scepticism about it but on a recent trip to London I met a bunch of people who didn’t say “oh no” but rather “sounds great, how can we make it work?” – it’s that second attitude we need as indies (as opposed to strand three (“oh great, I’ll give up my job and sell T-shirts”)). I have some thoughts, but I’d like to hear what people think.

    2. freemium – this is what I want to talkabnout tomorrow, but what do people think of the idea of giving something away for free and then charging for a premium or somehow value-added version of it?

    Remember, we’re not debating the morals of giving stuff away or whetehr being indie is a good or bad thing on this thread – we’re after some concrete ideas.

    So, my ideas:

    1. Mix the arts up at gigs – cross-pollinate fans that way.

    2. Don’t be afraid of selling merch

    3. Build your audience first before you try and make money BUT if you ARE going to then make money, be honest about that from the outset – transparency and loyalty to your fans are key.

    more ideas for discussion later.

    danholloway

    November 30, 2009 at 7:46 pm

  7. I’ve got no problem with the gigs & merch idea. That may partially be due to my background as a musician and storyteller. And also my own history.

    In the 80s I put out a zine about the Detroit music scene. It was full of literature, poetry, and surreal reviews. It was very well-received, especially by the musicians.

    And, as I’ve mentioned to a few of you, I am working on a one-man show with monologues and stories interspersed with music. Looking over the material, the entire thing would probably be difficult to play before street audiences from beginning to end. So I am beginning to think about filming it and offering it on dvd, along with my books.

    As for leaving my day job, I didn’t really have a choice. The University I taught at cut my wages to the point I had to go on foodstamps. Then two years ago they cut the teaching staff.

    It wouldn’t take much for us to live comfortably. $10,000/year would be doable. With $20,000/yr we could live like kings. So is that within the realms of what is possible for an independent artist? I’ll certainly let you know.

    pdallen

    November 30, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    • I like the DVD idea – we often see people busking and selling CDs, but busking & selling DVDs is a logical progression for writers to take.

      Do you find street performing more or less satisfactory/rewarding than playing venues like bookshops. I can see a lot of advantages in terms of crowd numbers, and the fact you can go back to the same place/have less need to travel & run up expense that way, but I always imagine there’s a culture of pitch-guarding and that it’s not just about getting a performer’s licence but fending off vested interests. How much is that a reality?

      danholloway

      November 30, 2009 at 10:08 pm

      • It’s been a few years since I busked, and back then I strictly played music, though I did mess around with some mimes a couple times. I am a storyteller and have worked with libraries and other forums.

        This venture will be a new experience for me, mixing the music with verbal performances, and tabling instead of busking. I do worry that I will loose my audience if the spoken segements are too long.

        I want to try it on the street, but my best venue might be booking into libraries where you have a regular audience instead of passers.

        Regulations and reception varies from place to place. Always check locally about licencing requirements.

        As a rule, you’re better off avoiding business districts. DON’T try to perform in malls without first setting it up with the administrators. To be honest, don’t even try it if you intend to busk. They won’t let you.

        College towns provide good audiences. Airports used to be potential venues, but that has changed since the ‘war on terror’. Bus and train depots are still a good possibility. City parks will usually allow performers. Festivals can be quite hospitable.

        One of the most receptive places for street performers is farmer’s markets. Always enquire among the administrators before setting up.

        pdallen

        December 1, 2009 at 1:31 am

  8. I agree with your three points, especially building an audience first (what I’m trying to do now).

    I think the problem with the freemium is that if there is an advanced/deluxe edition that you do have to pay for, the people might feel a little jilted. Like what they have is a “demo” and they certainly won’t feel as valued as readers or fans. Even though this isn’t the case and the free versions are complete. It has a taste of a scheme to it, too. (Oh, sorry this is for tomorrow. Then again, you already are in tomorrow, or very late today).

    I think it’s almost ridiculous to think you can really make a living in this industry. That’s not to say you can’t try — some people will and do, but if you go into it expecting certain things . . . I think the safer goal is to just get your work out there and keep your mind off the money.

    I agree with Marcella and pdallen about the ebooks and whatnot. There’s nothing quite as glorious as a real book in your hand bought with cash. Of course, I have to be a proponent of real books because I want to keep on doing covers for them, but even if I weren’t in this position, I’d say yes to real books over ebooks. Ebooks aren’t bad, they just aren’t real.

    S. Melville

    November 30, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    • yes – I think it’s vital not to let fans feel jilted – that’s one argument in favour of gigs & merch – you’re paying for something different rather than a “better” version of the same. With Year Zero, I made it a policy as soon as we started up, that my BEST work would be the stuff that was given away free for this reason – I know some people I approached said, basically, you can’t have x, but I’ve got this old thing knocking around. I think that’s 1. disrespectful to fans and 2. shows you’re not going into things giving 100%, making it much less likely to succeed.

      Sarah, I certainly will always make real versions of my books – and you will always be my cover artist of choice

      danholloway

      November 30, 2009 at 10:12 pm

      • That’s funny, about giving away the best stuff for free. I actually hoard and hide the work I love. If we were back in the day and I had actual pages and manuscripts, I’d be putting them in a safe. This is why no one online has really seen any of my novels.
        The public and I disagree drastically on what of mine is good.

        smelville

        November 30, 2009 at 11:55 pm

      • I intend to give out some short stories as free samples. Some stories I really like too. And of course sample chapters from the stuff I am selling.

        pdallen

        December 1, 2009 at 1:34 am

        • I like writing on blogs but that doesn’t translate well straight to book form so for me the production of the book will be about changing the medium. Having said that I do have stuff out there that isn’t spell checked and as I can’t spell for toffee it is pretty horendous.

          But its out there because people keep prodding me if its not – with the longer projects like that I plan to have the stages of editing on view so people can see the changes – this is pretty much only my nanowrimo projects and my personal blog – all else I try to remember to get my editor to look at before it goes up for free.

          She got herself promoted which is why some of my blogs haven’t been updated for a while – I don’t want un checked work on them.

          Sarah

          December 1, 2009 at 4:51 pm

  9. Just get a McJob and sell whatever art/writing you can in your free time…

    I think this idea of being able to make a living goes deeper…you have to change people’s idea of what an acceptable future is…you know, not just family, safe job, house etc. Depends on the person obviously, but the thought leads to the anxiety, if that makes sense?

    So if you can look people in the eye and tell them you work a shitty job, even when you’re 40 or 50 then making a living isn’t so important. Or making a good living…actually, maybe that is the real question here?

    So, to clarify the mess above, you can make a living from a regular job, and do whatever you want to do with your art/writing on the side. It might not be a great living, but it’s something.

    Oli

    Ordinary Joe

    December 1, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    • When you’re in your fifties a Mcjob just doesn’t cut it anymore. And what about the fact that your job supports the system & injustices you are striving to change. No, I made the decision a few years ago that if I would have to make a living through the system, I would do so on my own terms.

      Now that my children are grown, I will give it a few more years to build the life I want to. If that doesn’t happen, I will retire to the wilderness and become a hermit. I’ve done it before. The worst thing about it is that it gets lonesome. But that seems not to bother me as much as I get older.

      pdallen

      December 1, 2009 at 2:07 pm

      • I think Rudy Wurlitzer did the wilderness thing too. He’s 70 something and living among the trees in Canada.

        Ordinary Joe

        December 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm

        • I accidently did the wilderness thing too soon – it certainly increased the amount of writing and art I get done.

          Though its alot of extra work and when those phones go down – which happens alot I’m stuck without the internet – same with the power cuts though we have a gen.

          I find that I’m happy with the money I have until my family and friends come along and go – ‘What are you doing with your life – are you ever going to go out and get a real job?’

          Even paid contracts don’t appear to count – illustration/writing = not real job and that’s mainly where my unhappiness with it lies.

          Sarah

          December 1, 2009 at 4:56 pm

          • It doesn’t take much to live well. And the fact that so many can’t even manage that while a small percentage control most of the wealth is a travesty.

            That’s why I say Eat the Rich.

            pdallen

            December 1, 2009 at 5:03 pm

          • That’s what i said before somewhere…the thought [usually suggested by family, friends, etc] that you should be doing something “real” leads to the anxiety…

            If you can conquer this then you’re set.

            Ordinary Joe

            December 1, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    • Hi Oli – I have a very regular job and that suits me fine because I can leave it at the office and then go home and write. But do you not feel you would write more or better if you had more time? Or are you saying that somehow the time claustrophobia of having a regular job PRODUCES creativity?

      danholloway

      December 1, 2009 at 2:17 pm

      • I’m not sure. I write on my breaks during the day, so there are times when the rhythm is broken…but the deadline aspect makes me write instead of just staring at the screen. And the depression of going to work makes the writing better, i think.

        Ordinary Joe

        December 1, 2009 at 3:02 pm

        • When I taught in college I had plenty of time to write, both on campus and at home. When I worked as a substitute teacher at public schools, I would write while the students watched movies (after you’ve watch a movie with them for one period, it gets terribly redundant).

          When I worked in factories, as a typesetter, as a proofreader, as a bookseller and all the other countless jobs I’ve had, I would escape to my writing when I returned home.

          Now I spend 8+ hours per day writing, editing and polishing.

          pdallen

          December 1, 2009 at 3:25 pm

          • there is a set of jobs round here that the writers queue to get – they are desk person at a quiet alternative medicine place with internet access and self storage desk/security.

            Even I’ve coverted them – when I worked as a steward I’d write at quiet events in a little notebook – got several shorts done that way.

            Sarah

            December 1, 2009 at 4:59 pm

      • it can be either. I work with number during the day, leaves my head clear for words at night.

        On the time thing – I NEVER have writer’s block, because I am always playing catch up with my own material. Sometimes the time pressure ensures productivity, sometimes I can’t find sufficient windows to write – but I no longer beat myself up about it. That may represent some sort of maturity. After bumming about for X years post Uni trying to write stage plays, I made myself a promise that in order to start a family I would no longer play the artist card, but uphold my end of bringing in a living into the household.

        marc

        yearzerowriters

        December 1, 2009 at 9:54 pm

        • I’ve never understood writers block to be honest – I get fatigue ie can’t get my fingers to to actually type or mind to process stuff and I get bored but ideas and the visuals are always there.

          I have note books and notebooks of ideas incase I forget them.

          But yeah family’s need supporting and being an ‘artist’ first is a no go at that stage. Having a partner can be enough of a challenge as you are no longer a seperate entity and resources are shared.

          Sarah

          December 2, 2009 at 1:59 am

  10. I want to share this in full, submitted by Paul Tomkins, a twitterbuddy. Do check out his website http://www.paultomkins.com/HerDisappearing.html

    My Independent Story

    I started writing about football in late 2000, as a hobby, after having to give up my job as a designer at The Guardian due to ill health (ME/CFS).

    I’d never had any interest in writing or literature while at school, but had started reading novels in my twenties, and was drawn into the world of words.

    I love football, and enjoy writing about it, but fiction has always been my main interest as a writer. However, the chance to counter the Neanderthal musings of the mass media (hoary ex-pros spouting clichés) with what I saw as a bit of intelligence, logic and common sense was too tempting.

    For years I wrote for various independent fan sites, building up a small but fairly loyal following. I wrote a lot of articles, but didn’t receive a penny for any of them. However, I honed my craft, and over time, improved in all senses as a writer.

    I approached one publisher in early 2005, about the football book I was just completing (about Liverpool FC’s season, written as it unfolded). I had no reply. Within a few weeks I was in Istanbul, for the Champions League Final, which Liverpool, having beaten the odds to even get there, won in the most dramatic fashion. Fate had provided me the perfect final chapter, and an extra selling point.

    I contacted the publisher again, knowing that I was onto a winner. Again, no reply.

    (I later discovered that they were working on a similar book, by their in-house author, which came out later in the year; I’d stolen a march, because mine was ready to be released less than a month after the end of that historic match.)

    So, after a reader contacted me suggesting I use his print company, I published ‘Golden Past, Red Future’ myself. They offered a self-publishing service, and sorted the ISBN numbers, etc.

    It has to be said that I made a lot of bad commercial decisions along the way, not least with the decision to plump for expensive saddle-stitch binding for what was essentially a paperback book. However, I wanted to provide a quality product, and as a graphic designer, I could obviously make the book look fairly professional.

    I was hoping to sell 1,000, and had been told that sports books rarely sell more than 2,000. I set up a website, and expected most sales to be via mail order. Some readers had even agreed to pre-pay for the book, so that I could afford the initial print run.

    Before I realised it, the book was listed on Amazon (an automatic occurrence, I soon came to understand), and I was getting a few orders each day from Bertrams and Gardners, the UK’s main wholesalers. I was also in the process of setting up a direct trading account with Amazon, as neither wholesaler wanted to take the book as stock at that stage.

    I sent copies to a few publications, and FourFourTwo, the country’s main football magazine, gave the book a one-line review, but a very pleasing four stars.

    By this time, the book had made the Amazon top 100, and was the no.1 football book for July 2005. I was soon shipping hundreds each week to Amazon, and all was going wonderfully well.

    That was, until they mislaid a delivery of books. All sales stopped dead. They wouldn’t order more until they located them, and they couldn’t sell any, because they didn’t know where they were. At the peak of the book’s success, I was helpless. It dropped down the charts, lower and lower each day, and it took weeks to resolve.

    Not only that, but Amazon were taking 60% of the cover price from every sale, and when printing and couriering costs were included, it meant that I was losing money on every copy sold. Still, it was a thrill to have a successful book.

    The next disaster was Sportspages, a chain of sports shops with big stores in London and Manchester. They ordered loads, made a big window display (the only use of all the posters I’d had printed!), and copies shifted quickly. But payment was dragging on and on. Soon after, I got a letter in the post, explaining that they’d declared bankruptcy. I never saw a penny.

    But it wasn’t all bad news. Thanks to a reader who worked in Waterstones head office, the title was made ‘core stock’, meaning it would go into all of their major branches. I didn’t know this man; I just got an email telling me he’d read and subsequently recommended it to his superiors, and it was taken up.

    But this meant signing up with Gardners, the wholesalers Waterstones put their independent trade through. The terms were 52.5% at the time, meaning that I was now making a small profit on each copy, and only had to send to one place; they would forward on to Waterstones and Amazon, and beyond. I also didn’t have to deal with the independent book stores directly, and get my fingers burned with non-payment or chasing loads of different invoices.

    Despite the success of the book, I could get little response from Borders or WHSmiths, and to this day, several releases later, have only made it into a handful of their shops, in small quantities.

    On the plus side, I had a brilliant contact at Gardners, who really understood my business, and who gave me loads of advice along the way. Then, the official Liverpool FC website contacted me, offering me a regular column; it would be unpaid, but I’d get to promote the book.

    The book went on to sell 15,000 copies, but made me little money. However, it was a start, and I’d enhanced my reputation. Above all else, it had given me an enormous sense of pride and achievement, at a time in my life when I needed a boost. It was never a profit making venture, but it could lead to other things.

    The follow up, a year later, brought me back down to earth; despite the success of my debut, I couldn’t generate any advance interest from the trade. It still sold relatively well, but I had to rethink my strategy.

    In order to get costs down, I had printed 5,000 copies at the outset, rather than the 1,000 at a time I’d plumped for with its predecessor; and while they eventually sold, it was a much slower process than anticipated.

    Still I wasn’t really making any money, and by this time I had given up my Incapacity Benefit. To make matters worse, whenever Liverpool had a bad result, sales would plummet. My health suffered due to the stress, and I ended up selling off the final thousand-or-so copies to the wholesalers at cut price, to draw a line under it and close my business.

    Fully rested, and with an obsessive-compulsive inability to leave things alone, after a six month break I gave it another go.

    My next book made the Amazon top 40, but problems behind the scenes at the club meant I decided not to order a reprint when it quickly sold out; I felt I could no longer stand by what I’d written, and it seemed to have quickly dated.

    But the next book, “Dynasty” a history of the past 50 years of the club (which therefore gave it a longer shelf life), spent a whole year in the FourFourTwo/Amazon Football Top Ten. It was the third book I’d submitted to the magazine for review, and completed a hat-trick of four-star ratings.

    A new problem was that the book had 80 more pages than my previous tomes; which, of course, added to the print bill. I’d had loads of complaints that the type in my first book was too small, so I couldn’t compromise on my new larger font size. Even so, I make a small but satisfactory profit on each copy sold, and it continues to sell, and a Danish publisher has recently expressed interest in a translated version.

    Following the success of my debut book, I’d had interest from some small UK publishers, but for the royalties on offer, I felt it wasn’t worth giving up creative control; I’d be no better off selling a greater quantity for a smaller return, and I didn’t want to have to dance to anyone else’s tune.

    By this time, I’d established a lot of contacts – although the excellent account manager at Gardners had left, leaving me to deal with a selection of fairly frustrating replacements – and I’d had worked out how to get my printing costs down without the books looking tacky and falling apart upon opening. I’d bought my own batch of ISBN numbers, and was keeping it small scale but professional. I even published someone else’s book this autumn.

    However, for my own latest book, I decided to sell it directly via my website only; lower volume, but sold at a higher price. This worked fairly well, but sales were still too heavily affected by results, especially after a bad start to the season. It was driving me insane. Every time the club I supported lost, I was not only left miserable like any other fan, but also hit in the pocket. I was at breaking point.

    Producing each book is an exhausting process, not least with designing, typesetting, publishing and marketing them myself, undertaken with a partially-debilitating illness and part-time custody of a young child. The money I had from my latest book would not last until I could write another, and no regular jobs were open to me, given the unreliable nature of my condition.

    So in September I moved in a new direction, and launched a subscription-based website, The Tomkins Times, in the hope that it could break the cycle of having to constantly write and release books just to make a basic living. I had a name, and I thought it was time to trade on it.

    The site came about very quickly; I informed my mailing list that I was thinking of quitting, and within a week someone had not only suggested this new route, but built me a great site using WordPress. (The power of the web knows no bounds.)

    A month later, I was invited by Rafa Benítez, the Liverpool manager, to meet him at the club’s training ground and have lunch, in appreciation for the effort and insight on the club’s website since 2005.

    It was a unique opportunity; in the previous five years, he’d done no one-to-one press interviews, and although I was not invited there to create a story, I ended up with heaps to write about. In the end, much to my surprise, I spent four hours in his company, and we discussed all manner of issues.

    At the time he was under serious pressure, after four defeats in a row, and just days before the vital clash with Manchester United, so all eyes were on him. (The meeting had been scheduled a couple of weeks earlier, before the bad run started.)

    Upon my return, and fuelled by an sickness-inducing amount of Red Bull (to go with my own adrenaline overload), I feverishly wrote a 5,000 word piece for my website ready for the next day. Unable to sleep, or switch off my brain, I wrote through the night.

    The article got so many hits it instantly melted the server; a quick technical revamp and the site, which was already a success in my eyes, had loads more hits, and brought in lots of new subscribers.

    The day after, given the interest surrounding Benítez, several national newspapers mentioned the meeting, but only one – The Independent – name-checked me, which they did several times in a long and accurately reported piece. Others, however, were quite sneering about it, and it showed how little outsiders can understand about a situation. A few days later, the Sunday Mirror called me simply as a “star-struck blogger”, which I found amusing, given my record as an author.

    Now the site has approaching 1,000 monthly paying members, some at £2 a month, but most at £3.50.

    At long last I feel that I have some stability and something approaching a regular income, although instead of checking the position of my books on Amazon on an hourly basis, I’m fretting if I have a day when I get more cancellations than new subscribers. But on the whole, it’s increasing in numbers, gradually but surely. And even if it doesn’t, I’m already well beyond my desire for 500 paying members.

    The next aim is to get my novel finished (nearly there) and find a publisher; I don’t feel that I have the knowledge or contacts to go it alone, although will happily do so as a last resort.

    The one publisher I sent it to, earlier this year, was very positive, and eager to read the rest. But when I pointed out that it wasn’t finished, they asked me to resubmit when it is, which is fair enough.

    And so, despite the ups and downs, I’ve had some great experiences as an ‘independent’ in the last four years. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone, but I certainly would to those with sufficient dedication, and maybe one or two loose screws.

    danholloway

    December 1, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    • Wow that’s sounds like lots of ups and downs – how did you find the stress/flare-up interaction of your illness?

      Sarah

      December 1, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    • Wow. That’s an interesting story… Those are good sales figures too. Did you ever consider going overground and publishing mainstream?

      Sam Jordison

      December 1, 2009 at 8:07 pm

  11. Oli/Dan/PD: I agree with Oli on this one, I have a day job (ok, not a McJob), it pays the bills and makes sure I can see a doctor when I need to, and I still have enough time on the side to write (oh yeah and have a life and spouse and friends and all that). It’s hectic, it’s stressful, yeah… but the pressure does light a fire under my ass to write. And I also do think that dealing with the frustrations and drama of real life make me a better writer.

    Yeah, I could spend a lot of time worrying about submitting to editors and publishers and agents and literary journals and yaddah yaddah yaddah – or I can just submit online, be happy that anyone at all reads my stuff, and spend my time writing and focusing on other things important to me. I mean seriously, I have no delusions – with the stuff on right, I’m not holding my breath for the phone call from Oprah any time soon.

    Sarah: speaking personally as a fan/consumer, I never really mind when an artist I like uses the “freemium” model. I’m happy just to get the free download. If you want to charge some other sucker $50 for the deluxe signed gold-plated 2-disc set, that’s fine. Hell, if I like the free edition enough, there are times when *I* am that sucker.

    Car boot sales, chapbooks, gigs & merch, cross-pollinate arts – all great ideas and we should all be doing them, let’s get our work into people’s hands and have face-to-face human interaction. But just be realistic, as Jenn said, you’re probably not going to subsist solely off these things. Knowing that, if you’re still mad and passionate and irresponsible enough to do, then you are a real artist – and you don’t need any book deal or record contract to validate that.

    Moxie Mezcal

    December 1, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    • hee :)

      I felt guilty enough putting google ads on to be honest but I need the writing to at least pay for itself :/

      And I like mixing things up so I will do anything and everything – only time tells what works and what doesn’t.

      Sarah

      December 1, 2009 at 6:48 pm

  12. I still contend that it is possible to make $1,000/month as an independent writer.

    Certainly it takes a commitment, and a good deal of time promoting your work online and out in the real world. It also requires a steady output of work that will appeal to a large audience.

    pdallen

    December 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    • If I’ve got the exchange rate right then that should definatly be doable but you do have less of a buffer for illness and stuff – my issue has been trying to stabalise income to cover the down times.

      Sarah

      December 1, 2009 at 6:51 pm

      • Yeah, I buffer would be nice. But I haven’t had a buffer like that in years. Not even when I was teaching at the university. The last time I had insurance was about 20 years ago when I worked as a typesetter. We really do need single payer health care in this country. I may have to move to Canada without it. Of course us Yoopers always felt closer to the Canadians than the trolls downstate.

        Anyway, I was pulling in at least $1,500/month for three years writing nonfiction. So I figure I can do $1,000 in fiction. And be happier at it.

        pdallen

        December 1, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    • Is this fiction writing? Where does the income come from?

      Sam Jordison

      December 1, 2009 at 8:00 pm

      • The base pay of $1,500/month came from nonfiction. Mostly exploratory articles about energy issues, particularly energy depletion. I worked for From the Wilderness news services and freelanced as well. I also did a little speaking and garnered some nice honorariums. Then I published a few books, The End of the Oil Age, Grassroots Initiatives to Survive (GRITS), & Eating Fossil Fuels.

        Eventually I tired of all the research and yearned for a return to fiction. There were other dynamics that led to the turn away from nonfiction and back to fiction.

        I have four novellas to publish over the next year, and five novels. Three of the novellas form a series, Tales of the Yoopernatural, leading up to one of the novels, Fiddlesticks. Three of the novels also form a trilogy, Under Shattered Skies. The fifth one is the first book of yet another trilogy, Giants in Their Steps.

        I also plan to release some music books. Classical guitar & fiddle tunes for fiddle and banjo. I don’t expect to make too much from those.

        And then there’s the one-man revue & DVD I hope to have out by the summer.

        pdallen

        December 1, 2009 at 9:17 pm

  13. On the flip side: someone who is doing a very good job making a living as an independent artist (yes, she has a label, which has all but abandoned her, leaving her to take a DIY approach to her own marketing and sales):

    http://blog.amandapalmer.net/post/212321239/virtual-crowdsurfing

    Also happens to be one of my favorite singers of all time. Also the crowdsurfing pic on that page from Coachella 09 – yeah, I was there. Best performance ever.

    Moxie Mezcal

    December 1, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    • Musicians seem to be way ahead at this game, be they post-punk, folk, jazz, blues or whatever. That’s one reason why it helps to ally yourself with a music scene. This worked well for the Bizarro writers.

      pdallen

      December 1, 2009 at 7:26 pm

  14. Howdy!

    Sam Jordison

    December 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm

  15. I believe I’m scheduled to talk here… Turning up a bit early as I have to leave early. Am going to read the debate now… But in the meantime, do drop me any questions, hints about what you’d like me to say and etc.

    Sam Jordison

    December 1, 2009 at 7:49 pm

  16. Hope free e-day is going well.

    I’ve been out all day (earning a living outside the mainstream, as it happens) so haven’t had chance to look at everything that’s been happening but this thread looks lively.

    Sam Jordison

    December 1, 2009 at 7:50 pm

  17. Hmmm. Bit quiet at the moment. Why not drop me any questions / things you’d like me to talk about and I’ll check in again in an hour or so… Or if I fall asleep (not impossible – tiring day), I’ll tune in tomorrow morning.

    Sam Jordison

    December 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm

  18. I’d like to ask about building the mythical platform does not necessarily turn into sales. I’ve had 1600 views of my opening chapters, how many sales will that translate into? Less than a handful I’m guessing…

    marc

    yearzerowriters

    December 1, 2009 at 10:09 pm

  19. I expect you’re probably right marc… But it’s hard to guage without knowing about the kind of feedback you’re getting. Have you asked people if they’d be prepared for more?

    Sam Jordison

    December 2, 2009 at 11:42 am

  20. Sam, I’d like to update on last night’s Free-e-day live because it illustrates a point people just don’t seem to get. We had three readings and three bands, and the fantastic crowd were every bit as rapt and into the readings as they were the bands. When people say that “gigs and merch” just won’t work for writers they way they work for musicians, that just isn’t true.

    danholloway

    December 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    • I fully agree with you, Dan.

      When I put out a literary zine in the music clubs of Detroit 20+ years ago, it was well received by musicians and audiences. The people at these shows are hungry for lit. My zine was high on verbage low on illustrations., and it still quite popular.

      One suggestion. If you are tabling an event, have something free to give out along with all the purchase merchandise.

      pdallen

      December 2, 2009 at 12:44 pm

      • yes – just like bands in fact – even if it’s only button badges or a CD of some readings

        yearzerowriters

        December 2, 2009 at 1:11 pm


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