When you’re involved in self-publishing, whether you’re putting out your own books, running a small indie record label, doing a webcomic, etc, you usually don’t have a boss, editor, art director, or producer. It’s just you. You may have friends, partners, or assistants helping out sometimes, but the final call on what goes out the door or online is yours alone.
And because it’s just you, things like deadlines, schedules & meetings, things that most employees hate, tend to disappear. At first glance, that might seem like a good thing but, as usual, the first glance is always wrong.
As a self-published author, visual artist, or musician, it’s up to you to handle the creative side of things and the management side of things. You have to be your own promoter, and your own taskmaster. Even though you work for yourself at the front end, you still have to be aware of the final part of your marketing chain, your loyal fans. And most importantly, you have to make sure that everyday (or almost every day) is a productive one.
One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that there can be a real psychological disconnect between the mindset of a creative artist and the mindset of a publisher. As a creative artist, it’s important to you that your work is as great as you can make it. You’re concerned with high production values; you don’t want your work to appear amateurish. And so you can become overly critical, always inspecting and polishing, trying to make each release perfect.
But as a publisher, you have to be a business person and you have to always keep your eye on the bottom line. You have to weigh the amount of time you spend on each project with how much money you can potentially earn from it. You have to think of your return on investment. So sometimes, the deadline is more important than perfection.
In traditional publishing, where there is a larger company at the helm, there is an established workflow for each project. Book publishers have editors, record labels have execs and producers, and above it all are the investors and lawyers. As artists, we usually picture these guys as MBA types, in suits, only concerned with raking in the dollars. But in reality, they serve another, very important role. They view the project objectively, from outside the creative part of it. And, they set the schedules, meetings, and deadlines.
When you choose to go it alone and put your own material out yourself, you have to wear all of these hats, at one point or another. Although you still have to get a lawyer, you’ll probably find yourself reviewing a contract or two on your own, and you’d better understand what you’re reading. You must insure that you meet deadlines that you often set yourself, and you must arrange the meetings with the various teams that you build.
I’ve developed some useful tips on keeping all of these hats sorted out.
1. Do your best to leave your house or studio each day.
Some people are lucky enough to have their own dedicated studio when they start out on the self-publishing path. Most of us don’t and we work out of the same place that we eat, sleep, and don’t work. This is great because you can work in the same PJs that you sleep in. This is horrible because you can go days without shaving, showering or worse.
Make a point to get out of your house, apartment or studio each morning. Go for a run, or go for coffee with another lucky telecommuter. I read about one guy who simply drove around the block each morning and then went to work at his own house. Do anything to make sure that you have to change into a clean shirt and get a haircut. It’s important that you look professional in order to act professionally. Also, you never know when you might get a sudden opportunity to network your projects. Don’t be looking like a scrub when the opportunity knocks.
2. Set a specific daily schedule and stick to it.
This can be more difficult than it sounds. It’s not like I can just say “Be self-disciplined” and Bob’s your uncle. But it is important.
Artists sometimes get inspiration in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or while driving. It’s difficult to tell an artist to work on the same thing at the same time each day. But, it is a good idea to make sure that you list the specific things that you need to accomplish on each project, and knock some of those things off the list each day.
For example, if you write books, you can make sure that you write a specific amount, say 3000 words each day. Or if you’re an artist, make sure that you do sketches, inking, and color each day. Don’t skip a day of color.
Whatever medium you work in, it’s incredibly useful to focus on specific tasks each day so that you can see yourself moving toward completion of the project.
3. Set strict deadlines for sections of each project.
It can’t be overstated how important deadlines actually are. Companies don’t establish them just to mess with creators. When you stick to deadlines, the release cycle of a publishing company goes up. It means you put more stuff out. When you put more stuff out, your chances of selling it, hooking people on it, and improving the next release increases exponentially. I hope that this impresses upon you the importance of having some semblance of a drop-dead date for each part of your project.
It goes without saying that you’ll miss some of the deadlines. Perhaps you’ll miss most of them. But, just having them in place will help you to focus on, and eventually finish each project.
4. Think of each project as having a creative phase, a post-production phase, and a marketing phase. Don’t mix the phases.
It can be useful to break your projects down into parts. The first part, the creative phase, is where you’re actually producing the work, e.g., writing the book manuscript, drawing, inking & lettering the comic pages, rehearsing and recording the songs, and so on. Then there will be a point where that phase is over. After that, you go into the post-production phase: editing, clean-up, mixing, formatting, typesetting, cover art, etc. There’s a short phase of administrative junk, copyright, ISBNs, whatever — finally, you become the promoter and marketing guru.
This is where you start thinking more like a business person and less like an artist. You have to have a thick skin because not everyone will like the work, but you have to ignore it and seek publicity for the project. It’s not called publishing for nothing!
You can break your project down into whatever phases you like. The point is to make sure that the creative phase has a definite end. Set the deadline to finish whatever files you work with and stick to it. Do your best to do A+ work by the deadline, but if you have to hand in B+ work, so be it. It’s more important to your editor (that’s you!) that the files are in so that they can be pushed through and turned into a finished product. Stop being an artist, let go and get it out there. When in doubt, think of this great quote by Neil Gaiman:
“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
And here’s another great article about defeating perfection. It’s about writing, but it applies to any creative endeavor.
These insights aren’t from a guy who thinks he knows it all. Modern digital publishing is a moving target and grows more complex every day. I definitely don’t know it all. I’m writing this because I’ve made a ton of mistakes by not being self-disciplined and I’ve had projects sit on my hard-drive and not get finished. Or even worse, they were finished and weren’t released or distributed. It took me years to break through that and start to release stuff with any regularity. I’m just trying to save you guys that stress.
In self-publishing, the only source of discipline is you. You wanted to go it alone, to be in control and to be your own boss. Now that you’re in that position, take it seriously and your projects will reflect that discipline and professionalism. Blow it off and you’ll get nothing done and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.