Adventures in Self-Publishing

mimeograph

I made my first book when I was 4-years old.

I saw it again for the first time just a few years ago. My mom had kept it safe all those years, tucked away in the bottom of her jewelry box.

It was a tiny thing made from a single piece of paper, cut down into tiny pages, folded over and “saddle-stitched” with a sewing needle. Appropriate for something spawned from the brain of a 4-year old, it was the story of a frog. A picture book. The captions were written in my mother’s handwriting.

I continued writing books and drawing comic books throughout kindergarten and the early years of elementary school. Several wire-bound notebooks were filled with horror stories and the adventures of an assortment of super-hero characters. The kids in my class particularly loved LASAR MAN.

5 notebooks of Lasar Man stories later, somebody finally told me I was spelling laser wrong.

I wasn’t into sports so I spent elementary school making up stories and kissing girls in daily playground wedding ceremonies at recess. I wrote more stories and got more action in second grade than I did in most of high school. Life was good. The notebooks got passed around at recess and on the bus. It was sort of a ghetto lending library. We were all all lower-middle class kids so nobody could afford many real comic books.

Then one day I was killing time at my mom’s office waiting for her to wrap up work for the day when I saw her make a photocopy.

This was the first time I’d ever seen a XEROX machine. She put a paper filled with typewritten words against the class and pushed a button. The machine rumbled and seconds later spit out an almost perfect replica of her original document.

I was blown away. My mind reeled at the implications of this miracle machine.

Once my mom agreed to make copies for me, I was no longer limited to filling up a spiral notebook and putting it into circulation into school. The major downside to that set-up was that there was only one copy and the inevitably ended up not getting returned. In fact they all eventually disappeared. That business model simply didn’t scale.

But now I could make copies.

Now I was a publisher.

No longer content to continue the stories of Lasar Man, I quickly developed an entire publishing line. One superhero was not enough because I wanted them to cross over in a Marvel-comics style universe. Sensing a void in the marketplace, I even created series chronicling the adventures of popular characters like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. E.T. was hot at the time so he got his own title as well.

Feeling pretty solid about my publishing line-up I made up a catalog offering subscriptions. All of these series would release new issues monthly, just like the professional publishers. I passed out the catalog at school and even took them door to door in my neighborhood. To my surprise, people actually subscribed and even more surprising – they gave me CASH. My next-door-neighbor subscribed to every title I had listed which I thought was awesome until I realized I now had to draw 12 different comic books every month.

But I was 9. I had nothing but time on my hands. I drew the comics during school and after school. My mom would secretly make copies at work. These copies would then be distributed by hand to subscribers. I always made sure to get a few extra copies to sell single issues to the kids who couldn’t afford to subscribe.

The comics were a hit both on the playground and in the neighborhood. As predicted The Further Adventures of E.T. was my top-seller. I probably don’t need to mention that these comic books SUCKED. But I was 9. And I was selling them for 25 cents each.

By the second or third month, it was clear that I had bitten off more than I could handle. The workload was too much. I started to fake stomach aches so I could take “sick days” to stay home and draw more comics. Eventually, even I realized that my ambition had outstripped reality.

My publishing company went “out of business” and I refocused my energy on marrying more girls at recess.

The years passed but I never stopped writing and drawing and making things. I have always been fascinated by how creative things were made. Especially movies. I always looked at comic books as movies on paper. We were too poor to afford a video camera but I could usually always get my hands on paper.

I drew lots and lots of comic books on sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper folded over to make “mini-comics”. I thought I was the only person out there doing this, but I slowly began to discover there were other people out there making them, too. It was common to trade these by mail with people you’d never met before. It was like pen-pals taken all the way to the end of the geek spectrum. I tried to sell them at local comic book stores, gave them out at school and occasionally turned them in as art assignments.

One day, when wandering through a bookstore, I discovered a thick magazine printed on newsprint filled with columns of tiny type that looked like a catalog made by junkies. It was called FACTSHEET FIVE. The columns of tiny type were reviews of hundreds (if not thousands) of homemade publications.

They were called “zines.” And there was an entire subculture of people out there making them.

zines

It’s hard to imagine, but this was still in the very early days of the internet. I’m sure people were already making content-driven websites, but I didn’t have a computer, so I had no idea. Factsheet Five exposed me to a whole new world.

The dots were starting to connect.

I began to order zines via mail order and discovered a whole new world of underground comics and amazing zines like Boing Boing, The Tiki Times, The Imp, Film Threat Video Guide, Craphound, Damaged and Hitch: The Journal of Pop Culture Absurdity.

The big revelation: there were actually people out there who loved the same things that I did.

I started up a zine called Eyeball. I didn’t have much to say, but I loved making magazines. These were cut-and-paste jobs. If I wanted a photo enlarged, I blew it up on a Xerox machine and put it onto the page with tape. I drew comics that ran in the back and had a letters page and interviewed Z-level musicians and celebrities. I mailed them out to other zine publishers asking for “trades” and I submitted issues to Factsheet 5 in hopes of a review.

When I got the first review of my zine in Factsheet 5, I felt like I had finally made it. I was over the moon.

And then, in college I took a computer class and learned about a thing called Adobe Pagemaker.

In college I went deep into the worlds of filmmaking, advertising, graphic design and things I could make with computers.

I got a job right after graduation working in graphic design. While I was excited to quickly find employment it ended up consisting of mostly boring and tedious production work.

By this time the internet had spread its web and begun to change everything. I was fascinated by all the potential, but from my cubicle in Oklahoma City, I wasn’t aware of the how massive the impact really was. I learned to do the work projects as fast as possible and then started using my downtime to learn HTML. My thinking was that if I could figure out how to make websites, I could publish whatever I wanted and I wouldn’t be burdened by the cost of paper. This was before I had ever heard the world blog.

Despite the fact that the production work was easy and left me with lots of spare time, I had an itch that wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t see the career path I was on really leading anywhere that I would be happy. The gears started turning faster than ever.

newspaper press

Before I knew it, I had started a bi-weekly newspaper.

It was actually a cross between a newspaper and a zine. It was magazine sized, but printed on the cheapest newsprint with two colors of ink: black and red. I called it OKAY MAGAZINE. It was basically a local arts and culture rag. At the time, all the license plates in Oklahoma had the tagline “Oklahoma is OK” which I thought was pretty lame and reflected the sense of low self esteem the city and its residents had at the time. (This is no longer the case).

I didn’t have any money, so I cobbled together a volunteer staff from friends and members of the local zine community. I went to a printer and asked for a 30 day line of credit. Amazingly, they gave it to me. This meant I was in the hole from day one. The ad sales for the third issue would have to pay the printing bill for the first.

I printed 10,000 copies of the first issue. I dropped them off around the city at bars, clubs, restaurants, college campuses etc.

The paper was intentionally weird, funny and counter-cultural and it was designed to promote local art, music, and lifestyle. It was a free publication obviously put together by a group of people who were very passionate about it and the voice was something people in the area had been waiting to hear. It became really popular, really quickly.

Ad sales for the third issue paid off the printing bill for the first one with a little profit left over.

I was in business.

For the next year and a half, I lived and breathed newsprint. It was an exhilarating time. Readers either passionately loved or rabidly hated the magazine. We had some amazing experiences, forged life-long friendships and even got a couple of pretty serious death threats!

The downside was that I was always chasing down more advertisers. I spent a lot more time on this aspect of the business than I did on the creative part. I tried hiring advertising reps, but could never get one to actually work out. I was STILL a month behind and could never quite catch up. Psychologically, it was way more taxing than an 80 hour a week job. My brain was racing 24 hours a day. It was a rollercoaster that wouldn’t stop.

To further complicate things, I was now much more excited about publishing online. The online version of the paper was increasing in popularity, despite being hand-coded and incredibly rough around the edges. I found myself spending more and more time improving the website as opposed to working on the actual print publication.

And I was always BEHIND on the printing bills.

We had reached a point, where it was time to either find outside money and hire an actual staff or turn out the lights. After a few weeks of talks with potential investors, I decided to put myself out of my misery.

I turned off the lights. And I felt great about it.

Even though it ultimately failed as a business, I still consider it a massive success. Publishing something on that scale had forced me out of my comfort zone. I had never had to put in such long hours and I had never had to hustle so hard.

But the internet was calling.

And I went.

That was over 10 years ago. After washing the ink stains off my fingers, I dove headfirst into into the world of new media and have been creating online content ever since. But recently, I’ve recently found myself right back where I started: publishing an actual book.

I’ve been producing Hilah Cooking for almost three years now. My strategy has always been to have multiple income streams and one of those streams has been e-books. Although the e-books have sold really well and been received positively, we’ve had one common request: “I’d really love to have this as a print book.”

We have resisted. E-books are easier and the overhead is lower. They’re pretty much pure profit. And everybody has an e-reader nowadays, right?

Wrong.

For some types of books, print has huge advantages. I think cookbooks in particular have a pretty long lifespan when it comes to print vs. digital. Plus, it’s what our people want.

So for the past few months we have been hard at work on a new print edition of Learn To Cook (our first e-book). We have completely revised, expanded and re-designed it and today it goes on sale. We’ve probably worked harder on this project than anything we’ve done since launching Hilah Cooking, but it’s all been worth it.

Now that it’s finished, I’m left with a jumble of feelings, but primarily a sense of satisfaction that I was able to utilize talents and experiences from my past that I’d felt disconnected from until now. I’ve come full circle.

I’m really proud of the book and very excited to see what happens next.

learn to cook ad

Comments

  1. Wow! The only difference between your story and my story is our last name. I even still have the first book I ever made in grade school (thanks, Mom). 🙂

    • I think once it’s in your blood, there’s no point trying to avoid it. BTW, Northhaven news looks really cool. Great idea and you’re doing a killer job of executing it. I love the hyperlocal stuff.

      • Thanks! Talk about it being in your blood – my father was a high school yearbook advisor for 40 years.., then I was my high school yearbook editor. Now I’m the yearbook advisor for my daughters school!

        I launched North Haven News 5 years ago as a bi-weekly video blog, but it has (unfortunately) evolved away from that. You’d have to go back a ways to find examples of what the show used to look like. Trying to figure out if producing the videos is worth getting back into.

        I also love to bake and shot a couple of test videos to see if I could pull off a cooking show. Admittedly, they run a little long – but I was pretty happy with the results. If you an Hilah need a good laugh…, watch the one with my daughter in it – she steals the show! 🙂

  2. Dude, what’s with all the Chrises? LOL

    Former comic-book-artist-Jim-Lee-wannabe right here. When I clicked on your TKA profile link to this blog, I was SO glad to see what the site is about. I’m just starting to wet my toes in this video thing. I mean – SUPER newb. I used my iPhone last night to shoot my first video clip for my HubPages article, and I don’t even know how to finish it. I may have to delete and start over.

    Anyways, it’s good to read your story. I am looking forward to having my own little success story in the near future.

    Aloha, Chris

    • Ha! There are ton of Chrises. I was a big Jim Lee fan, too.

      Let me know how it goes with your video. iPhones are great for video these days. Just start small, get it out there and keep improving!

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