If you click on the link to her TED Talk, you'll notice one thing right away: this is how desperate TED was to get Anne Lamott: they let her have a lectern.
Nobody gets a lectern at TED. Brene Brown does not get a lectern at TED. Glennon Doyle Melton does not get a lectern at TED. Anne Lamott got a lectern at TED.
I make note of this now, because I want you to realize how important Anne Lamott is. This will become critical quite soon.
So I'm watching this Live session, and the second or third question, as always these days, is about self-publishing. Anne says what she always says: that if she were starting out today, she'd probably self-publish.
Then she went on to say something that blew my mind. (She always reminds us that no amount of books sold will ever fill our souls or make us well and whole, which is something we need to hear over and over and over. Also, she says all authors now have to work on pot farms to make ends meet. Not true for me, but tempting some days.)
She was talking about how tough it is to sell books, and how we fall into the trap of thinking that if you didn't make the New York Times Bestseller List with a million copies sold, it's just more confirmation that you're not much of a human being.
Here's what she said:
"If you did GREAT--if you sold like 15,000 copies--it's like, oh well, better luck next time. Well, 15,000 COPIES OF ANYTHING IS AMAZING."
Guess how many copies of As Soon As I Fell are circulating out in the world?
Perhaps we haven't hit the "amazing" threshhold just yet.
But SUCCESSFUL, you guys.
By Anne Lamott's standards.
Lectern and all.
The average self-publish sells 150 copies, because there are literally millions of books out there and selling lots of books is tough.
Cat memes are easy. Books are hard.
I remember my friend Katrina, my long-suffering editor, asking what my goal number was. I said, "Well, if it ever sold 1,000 copies that would be awesome."
So I've looked at the numbers and said, "WOW" lots of times.
But until I heard Anne Lamott say, "15,000 is amazing," I didn't quite understand that I've been pretty successful.
I'm a successful writer, y'all.
Lately I've had a few questions about self-publishing. Since the lady with the lectern made me feel successful, I think it's okay to say what I know. (If you have more questions, the comment section is your friend. I'm happy to chat with you there.)
I need to preface all of this by saying that every good thing in my life has happened by accident. It's a bumble. I don't sit down and prepare a business plan and then execute it perfectly. That's not how things go around here, AT ALL.
I started this blog during my counseling internship, in a fit of frustration, when I couldn't find enough counseling work to keep myself busy. I'd spent all this time and money on my master's degree, and I felt like I could probably help people, only I couldn't find a place to do that. So I started blogging.
Pretty soon, the blog drifted away from information and advice (which bores the heck out of me) into personal processing. I made a few forays into story-telling, got good responses from that, and decided it was finally time to take the bits and pieces I'd had floating around for 20 years, and get my story into a book.
I'm now going to give some advice, which I find boring, but people ask these questions. So for anyone who's thinking about dipping their toes into the self-publishing world, here you go.
DON'T SKIMP ON THE PREP WORK.
- Be an English major. (First time any of us ever heard those words, huh?)
- Read Anne Lamott's wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird.
- Read it over again.
- And again.
- Read a ton of great books in the genre you want to write in.
- Start a blog and write regularly.
- Join a writers' group in your community. Invite them to critique your work. Make edits.
DON'T SKIMP ON THE WRITING PROCESS.
- Anne tells you to write a ton of shitty first drafts. Do it.
- Anne tells you to put your butt in the chair and write. Do it.
- I saw clients two days a week and wrote three days a week when I was in the process of putting As Soon As I Fell on paper. I went to Target for school supplies in August 2013 and didn't go to Target again until it was time for stocking stuffers in December. I wrote and revised that entire school year, until the kids got out for the summer of 2014. Andy did all the production work over the summer, and we launched in September 2014.
- Get a good editor.
- Listen to your editor.
- Make revisions as your editor tells you.
- Make more revisions.
- Make more revisions.
- Make more revisions. (At this point you'll hate your life. Sorry. Part of process.)
- Let your writers' group read it, and take their comments under advisement.
DON'T SKIMP ON THE PRODUCTION PROCESS.
- Hire someone to create a wonderful cover. Call us shallow, but this is who we are: we judge books by covers, and a bad cover will kill your good book.
- Get help on the formatting. If you use Amazon and Create Space, there are services available. Order one paperback copy of your book and check to see that everything turned out okay. Make changes as needed.
GET HELP WITH PUBLICITY
- Don't listen to any of my advice on publicity. My advice sucks. People say "build a platform;" I say, "I need a nap." Twitter parties, thunderclaps, it's all way too overwhelming to me. (This is why publishing houses exist and self-published books sell an average of 150 copies.) There are lots of great blogs by people who've built amazing platforms, like Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey. I think they're probably incredibly helpful for those who don't get panic attacks while reading them (I'm yoga breathing right now). Google and enjoy.
HOW DID WE GET TO 10,000 COPIES WITH SUCKY PUBLICITY?
I'm not sure. When in doubt, sing a Disney song.
These things might have helped, though:
- We gave a bunch of books away before the launch and asked people for an Amazon review.
- We got connected with the target audience.
- Once the book was out and people were liking it, I got connected with the initial target audience (missionaries) through two blogs, Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas. Both these blogs were built by teams who probably listened to Mary DeMuth and Hugh Howey. God bless them. I used to feel a little bit guilty about using the platforms they built, but I've given away a ton of my writing in those spaces, so I think it's okay that they did what they're good at, and I do what I'm good at.
- We gave it away a whole bunch of books, and we keep giving books away.
- After the first year or so, we figured we'd played out the missionary platforms, and book sales were slowing. When I turned 50 last year, Andy wanted to give the book away for free for my birthday. I said, "Cool! I bet we could give away 50 copies for my 50th birthday!" He said, "NO! I bet we can give away 500 copies for your birthday!" Somehow we ended up giving away nearly 5,000 copies in three days. Like most things with big numbers, it's a mystery to me, although I'm sure Google analytics could help us out. It got seriously shared someplace, that's all I know. We did a giveaway again this year for Andy's birthday. It's fun!
- A funny thing happens after every giveaway: a sales bump. It's no longer free, but a bunch of people will buy it anyway. Go figure.
HERE'S THE BOTTOM LINE.
Writing is my jam, I was trained as a writer, and I've been writing in one way or another my whole life.
Everybody worked hard at their tasks. It's a well-written book, well edited, well formatted, with a very pretty cover.
People liked it. They shared it. Here we are.
I think the time had come for a book like As Soon As I Fell, which told stories that have been kept secret in the missionary world.
I wrote As Soon As I Fell because I needed my book when I was going through hell in 2003, and it didn't exist. I didn't want anyone else to feel as alone and abandoned as I did. I'm still getting letters all the time from people who tell me that As Soon As I Fell helps them feel less alone. Mission accomplished.
I continue to write because I love to write.
This gig is NOT about money.
For me, self-publishing is about writing a book that needs to be written, and getting it out into the world in a way that doesn't slay my soul in the process.
I remember telling Katrina, "It's fine if this book changes somebody else's life, but I don't want it to change mine. I love my life just the way it is."
Almost four years later, this is still true.
And that feels like the truest kind of success.