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What I Wish I’d Known is a regular series where we ask some of our favourite writers to reflect on their writing and publishing journey, and share some of the unexpected and useful things they’ve learned along the way. In this instalment, writers share their experiences of going it alone to put out their work.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Winkler, Grimmish

Independent booksellers are your best friends. Distribution is problematic for self-publishers, especially in a huge country where postage rates are high. Don’t waste time trying to get major commercial bookstores on board. Instead, cultivate a relationship with genuine indies, invariably owned/staffed by passionate book people who can help you link with readers. Potential readers from across Australia (or theoretically the world) can then purchase your book through the indie store’s website, and you will be supporting one of the most important elements of the literary ecosystem. Also: good luck!

Alison Croggon, Newport City series, New and Selected Poems 1991–2017

I’ve self-published to some extent since the late 1990s (thank you internet!), because I like the freedom and autonomy it permits. For myself, I self-publish some books and traditionally publish others that publishers are better placed to market. My self-published books of poetry are steady sellers and I actually make a modest amount of money from them, but I do it mostly because I find it extremely satisfying to make a book from scratch—I really enjoy designing book pages. (Covers are hard and are better outsourced). But unless you approach self-publishing as a serious business and have the hours and money to invest—and even then, it’s a gamble—it’s very hard to make it work for commercial books.

Will Cox, Hyacinth

Self-publishing gets a bad rap—there’s a perception that it’s vanity publishing, or it’s for people who couldn’t make it with a proper publisher. But most of my friends are musicians or visual artists, where doing it all yourself is cool as hell, and ‘DIY’ and ‘punk’. I prefer that reading.

Hyacinth (a rewrite of British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances as a gothic fable) isn’t a very commercial project, but its niche weirdness is its strength. And as a full-on book nerd, I loved having control of every aspect. I wrote it, designed it, typeset it, promoted it, and distributed it. I made a book that I wanted to see in the world.

I’m still working it all out as I go along. I have to hassle everyone in my network to read it, and convince bookshops that I’m not a hack with an unsellable book. I have other ideas I’d like to self-publish, and others I’d like to go through traditional publishers. Hopefully the success of Hyacinth opens that up.

Eloise Grills, zines, comics & chapbooks

As many comics people do, I first started publishing my comics as zines. I came to it quite late for a comics person, probably around the age of 24/25. I’m not one of those people who read many comics as a kid but got more interested in it when I was studying creative writing in uni and realised you could make work about your own little boring life.

My friend Fiona, who is much more knowledgeable about the art world, introduced me to the Sticky Zine Fair and invited me to table with her, therefore I had to make some zines. I’ve created compilation zines of shorter works; I zine-ified my column for Scum Magazine many moons ago (Diary of a Post-Teenage Girl), and I created some with Glom Press before I was published by them more formally, one about a day at a Nude Beach. I love zines. I love how unwieldy and wild and unabashed they can be. I love making explicit, sometimes crude/rude work with lots of nudity, and with zines there doesn’t seem to be any boundaries around what you can/can’t do, so I love that. Genre-crossing, hybrid work is really embraced in these spaces and really encouraged me to play.

I’ve been pretty lucky transitioning to ‘traditional’ publishing in that I haven’t had my work edited in any way I’m not comfortable with. With my most recent book, big beautiful female theory, my editor Coco at Affirm Press was so helpful with shaping the book, but the content was my own. She didn’t try to form my particular rhythm of writing into traditional grammatical shapes, which I was really happy with. I know this isn’t always the case for other people, but I’m glad I’ve found people in the industry who appreciate my way of working and my inability to stick to a particular form. I love making zines and think I will always self-publish in different ways, particularly digital platforms like Substack. It’s a great way to test out ideas in a less daunting way than plunging right into a book project.

Kylie Scott, End of Story

Put out as professional a product as possible. Cover design, editing, and formatting all matter. To a certain extent, trad launches you to an established audience. They can get you into shops etc. With self-publishing, however, you’re on your own. Even before you’re published, you need a website (basic will do) with a sign-up for your newsletter. It’s the most direct method of reaching your readers and the one they can never take away from you. Grab your author name on social media platforms and start a conversation. Talk about books and interests and build a community.

Max Lavergne, Blue Night at the Cult, Infinite Gossip

I reluctantly turned to self-publishing but I found I liked what it did for me. I learned two good things: first, that while having unpublished drafts sitting around in a Google Drive folder is depressing, having a book rocks, and it’s not so difficult to make the conversion. And second, if you build an audience online and then wonder how you can squeeze some $$$ out of them—as I did—those nice people will be more likely to support you financially if they can buy a real book they can hold in their hands, rather than just transfer money into a fake internet tip jar.

Ellie Marney, Circus Hearts series

I guess I wish I’d known that there’s no ‘one path’ with self-publishing, that everyone finds their way through the morass of information available online and carves their own route. That can be daunting, but being able to individualise your strategy has benefits. It also means that as the technology shifts (and it does, frequently; when I started, audiobooks were tricky and expensive, but that’s changed. Lots of things have changed, including algorithms!), then you can adapt. Self-publishing teaches you to be flexible. So while it’s hard work, and print distribution is an ongoing issue, you acquire a certain nimbleness with self-publishing, and the ability to think outside the trad publishing box. That alone can be worth the price of admission, because the whole publishing industry is so cyclic and frustrating and (at times) chaotic that you often need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and think of new approaches.

Self-publishing also reminds you of the most important understanding you need to have if you’re in publishing: that ultimately your career, your book-creation business, is your own. Nobody—no agent, no publisher, no bookseller, no publicist—will smooth the road for you or take responsibility for making you successful. You need to take ownership of your own career, your own stories, and your own success. Getting hands-on with publishing your own books really drives that home.

Want to learn more about the ins and outs of the publishing process? Check out Getting Published with Rebecca Starford and Hannah Kent, or any other of our Online Writing Courses, available to complete in your own time, at your own pace.

Check out the previous entry in the series, on what writers wish they’d known about writing memoir.