Self-publishing when you're broke

One of the problems when people give you perfectly sage financial advice like "pay cash for your car" is that it doesn't take into account the fact that, hello, you can't always afford it. And I don't mean that you can't afford it because you're dropping hundreds of dollars at strip clubs every weekend--I mean, you are careful with your money, but you just don't have enough coming in.

Why wouldn't you have enough money coming in? Well, gee, if you're writing a novel, you've got to make time for that somehow. And more often than not, you make time for it by not working a full-time job.

So, in the long years before I joined America's best-known secret society, the Illuminati, I looked at that sort of sage financial advice as an ideal. In an ideal world, I would pay cash for my car. Unfortunately, I lived in this world, and when the day rolled around that I really needed to buy a car, I had no cash--instead, I had a newly minted master's degree in journalism and a bunch of debt to go with it.

I borrowed money for the car, which allowed me to work my first journalism job, which won me four awards in 18 months (that editor was great), which allowed to me switch to a much better-paying journalism job. At that point, I paid cash for my car--or rather, I paid the car off early, saving a pretty penny in interest.

I didn't live in an ideal world, but I lived as close to the ideal as I could.

The problem with a traditional publishing contracts, especially these days, is that you can't make this kind of compromise--or rather, it's very hard. Both Rusch and Smith have tried to put time limits on their traditional publishing contracts so that they don't lose their rights forever and ever; both have tried to structure contracts so that the publisher is held accountable for failing to promote (or retail, or even produce) the book; neither has had any success. You can't make publishers behave in an ideal fashion.

So that leaves self-publishing, with its up-front costs. What can you do if you can't afford to hire an editor, hire a copy editor, hire a cover artist, produce a paper copy, produce an audiobook, buy ISBNs, start your own publishing house, and sell books on your Web site?

You start small.

Look at that list: How much of it do you need to do right off the bat? NONE OF IT. NONE.

A lot of that stuff is stuff you probably will want to do in the future--you know, after you've got a few books out. I am convinced that it is beneficial to have your book available in as many outlets as possible. That means I will have to buy ISBNs, produce an audiobook, start my own publishing house, and sell books on my Web site.

Have I done any of that stuff now? Dear God, no. Hell, I've hardly done any marketing, because I have only one book out, and it's the first book of a series to boot. That stuff is long-term stuff. It will happen eventually, not right now.

All you need to do to start with is to put an e-book up on an online book store, and that costs nothing. Sure, there's a little formatting to do, but it's easy.

But what about the stuff you need to produce a really great e-book? Like good copy editing? Clearly, I think it's really important! But of course, Amanda Hocking did just dandy with terrible copy editing. So, maybe you can get away with amateur copy editing, at least at the outset. I'd be as careful as I could be with that--and of course with amateur editing as well; as I've said before, you're going to have to invest something, and if it can't be money, it's going to have to be care, time, and effort.

What about amazing cover art? Like Joe Konrath has--his cover artist is really, really good! And Konrath saw an immediate boost in sales once he switched to this guy! "Sales went up 30%"! Which, um, means that Konrath was actually making money before the switch.

The point here is not to encourage writers to lazily throw up any old piece of crap. The point here is to not allow your inability to live the self-publishing ideal--you know, where every aspect of your book is at maximum perfection--to paralyze you, or to panic you into signing your work away to someone who promises to take care of you.

Start small. Scale up. It's doable.