When I typed the first words of "Her Lost Year" into WriteRoom back in 2012, I had no thoughts about how and when this book would be published. I wrote out of sheer necessity—to process the trauma and loss our family had experienced in the hands of modern psychiatry.
As time went on, I realized I was also writing the book I felt was missing from the world. It was a book born from passion and a desire to spread the word to other parents and caregivers that our children's psychiatric diagnoses do not have to be life sentences. There is so much we can do to optimize our kids' mental health—at home, at school and in our communities. It was a story of hope!
Indie Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing
I continued writing, every Tuesday and Thursday morning before work and all-day Saturday. The manuscript started to take shape. Inevitably, publishing thoughts filled my head. I read Shawn Welch and Guy Kawasaki's "APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur" and was inspired to pursue what they call "artisanal publishing." (Sounds a lot less like "nobody would publish my book" and a lot hipper than "self publishing.") Another term is "indie publishing," which is how I choose to describe the process.
Then thoughts of doubt set in. What if I can't do it? Will anybody read it? Will my garage be filled with boxes of unread books? So I started looking at traditional publishing. I read the book "The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published" by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. It is an excellent book. In it, I learned that there is no harm in indie publishing. It doesn't preclude future traditional publishing. And unless you're Stephen King or Elizabeth Gilbert, you're not going to have a PR machine to help you promote your book—even if you have a publisher.
I also learned that in order to even pitch a book to the big publishing houses, I would need a literary agent. It could take years to find an agent willing to take me on. Then it could take months to years for the agent to sell my book. I didn't have that kind of time. I had to share our story as soon as possible!
I decided to pursue indie publishing.
The Project Team
I had learned from "APE" that there are a couple of aspects of the publishing process authors themselves should not attempt. These are:
- Graphic design
I set out to find experts to help me with these things. Katherine Sharpe, author of "Coming of Age on Zoloft," agreed to copy edit. Kaethe Schwehn, an English prof at St. Olaf, helped with some basic content editing of the memoir parts. My sister, Priscilla Åhlén-Sundqvist, created the artwork for the cover, our friend Samuel Sander designed it, and Aaron Lurth (yes, the Aaron Lurth) snapped our author portrait. Erik Berg took care of the very tedious job of laying out every letter and word and sentence and paragraph and chapter and part into a beautiful interior design created by his mentor Terry Rydberg. And I produced the eBook using Adobe inDesign (which I learned on the fly using lynda.com).
When you condense it to a paragraph like that, it sounds very neat and organized. And for the most part, it was a fairly smooth process. But we certainly had some hiccups along the way, and I was grateful for my project management background when managing the many moving parts.
Crowdfunding: Highly Recommended
While I certainly got the "friends and family discount" from some of these talented folks, it still added up to a lot of dollars. So before I got started with any of it, I ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project.
I got estimates from the project team, calculated cost of printing and marketing, and determined that I would need around $6,000. I decided to contribute half of it from my own savings and ask friends, family, and strangers for the rest.
I knew we had a compelling story (and great friends!) when we met our goal within 48 hours and ended up with just over $4,000 in total contributions. And that was a good thing, because the total spend ended up closer to $8,000 (including Kickstarter rewards, launch party and multiple printing rounds for events).
Beyond getting the funds I needed to publish the book, the Kickstarter campaign served several other purposes:
- It created buzz. I had more than 100 people with skin in the game who wanted to promote the project when it was done.
- It provided accountability. I had promised the books would be delivered in June 2015, so that was my deadline.
- It validated our story. We received so much support from friends and family after kicking off the campaign. Many people had no idea what we'd been through, and some shared their own stories of mental distress and recovery. This gave me much-needed energy to finish the project.
Finding a Distributor
Remember my fear of having a garage overflowing with unread books? Turns out that is a thing of the past. In the era of print on demand, author entrepreneurs can print only what they need. Even better, there are distributors who service indie publishers and take care of shipping your books to retailers who request them (for a fee, of course).
After doing some research and talking to my go-to source for publishing industry info, Kate Rattenborg, owner of Dragonfly Books, I signed an agreement with IngramSpark, the self-publishing arm of Ingram Content Group (the world's largest distributor). For a small setup fee, I added my print book and my eBook to their distribution network. Within days, "Her Lost Year" was available not only on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major online booksellers, but independent bookstores were able to order it—and it was available for purchase in Australia and Europe!
Getting the Word Out
I am a communicator by trade, so naturally one of my favorite parts of the indie publishing process was marketing! I started by jotting down ideas as they came and then organized these ideas into three phases:
Pre-launch included a serious social media blitz to create some buzz for the launch. I also tried tagging influencers, including folks I referenced in the book, with minimal success. The same week the book launched, I was fortunate to have a guest post on Mad in America. To date, it's received over 8,000 pageviews. This really helped get the word out to "the choir."
Based on my experience one month beyond the launch, I think the most effective way to get the word out is guest posting and word-of-month. So far, events have not been overly successful (but really fun!) and reaching out to bloggers is like throwing undercooked spaghetti at the wall.
To date, I have sold over 400 books and 17 eBooks in the United States alone. It's not going to make the New York Times bestseller list, but I feel good about it. People are passing the book on to friends and family, which I love. And every few days, I get a note on Facebook or via email that "Her Lost Year" has touched someone's life in a profound way.
And that makes it all worth it.