Why I self published my third book on philosophy (and yoga) — and what it’s taught me
I’ve just published my third book myself, at minimal expense. (Please feel free to buy it — it’s relevant to what we’re going through right now). As someone focused on what we’re doing to ourselves, one another and the planet, I was deeply depressed by the lack of interest in philosophy as a practice that could help us understand. But I’ve been at this for some time now, so I decided I would forego the usual wooing of publishers, via long detailed demographic analyses of who might read the book, for how long, and why. Instead, I launched into publication, got a cover painting by a brilliant artist friend, and stuck the thing up on Amazon to see what might happen. Amazon. Environmental philosophy. There’s an internal cognitive clash there right away.
Actually, this is only my second book to hit the shelves, virtually. The one that was supposed to be second, that I started writing chapters for, and editing (it’s a collection) about two years ago — is yet to come out. It’s been stuck in limbo while my publisher waits to get feedback from one of the contributors, but that’s another story. Someone asked me what it was like to self publish, when I’d already been through the process with a couple of publishers, and I thought it might be worth sharing the experience.
The first book was published by a relatively small academic press. It has sold, very, very modestly, and it continues to garner minimal attention. That’s no one’s fault, really. The call for deep dives into environmental philosophy is faint and rare and my following is … specialist, and select. I didn’t know anything about promotion, and an academic press assumes that the writer will have some fall back position, an academic post, at least. I had neither. I live a precarious life on the edge of the global North’s monstrous maw. I have no permanent income and no academic position. I create my own courses and sell them to ones and twos online. I’m very, very lucky. I live in a way that is paradoxically both profoundly insecure, in the Alan Watts sense, and amazingly, beautifully, free, adventurous, fun and hedonistic. On almost no income (I’m sitting beside the sounds of the wind through palm trees, about 300m from a warm sea, with the hot sun and hoopoes overhead).
Sales weren’t the reason I wrote the first book. I wrote it because I wanted to get a conversation going about why we could respond to the ecological emergency in a way that was intellectually water tight. Not much interest in that. It’s a hard read. So the second book was an attempt to be more inclusive, more accessible. I pitched it to another publisher — Palgrave Macmillan — because I thought they might have a wider reach. It’s a series of chapters by various philosophers on the subject which is closest to my heart: the ecological emergency. I see this as an emergence into our own consciousness of the fragmentation and collapse of external systems. But I also think and want people to understand that this process mirrors internal systems. We are the emergency, so we need to get ourselves better integrated. The pandemic hasn’t helped, but the long, drawn out process, all for no pay (so far) has been exhausting. And it’s still not over.
So in the meantime, I wrote a third book, based on three online courses — six months each — I taught over lock down. I did send it off to a couple of potential publishers, but although there were mild expressions of interest, I didn’t get the kind of big bite I’d hoped for. I sent it off to people I was teaching, and got lots of help from them. And I sent it around some close friends who helped to edit and proofread it. As I say, I don’t really have an income (I mean, I earn about 100 euro a month from online sales. And I live in western Europe. I don’t have savings. I don’t have a house. I live, as they say in Ireland, under the protection of others. This is precarious, by the time you’ve reached your mid fifties. It’s good for humility, though).
In the end, I managed to get a couple of hundred euro together — a couple of months’ income — and went to Fiverr and got help uploading it there. It was an interesting experience. I’d tried Fiverr a few times, always with mixed results. The people who advertise their services there are at the budget end of the market, on the whole, and there’s a reason for that. But that’s been a learning process too. If you can find someone you can work with, in the sense that they are willing to listen to you, and you’re prepared to be patient and polite and to offer more than maybe you originally intended, then it becomes a learning experience for both of you. And that’s not a bad thing. You have to benefit them, and they have to benefit you. Prepare to make mistakes, to admit them, and to renegotiate. Not unlike life, or yoga, itself, there’s a definite relationship between the effort you’re prepared to make, and how things turn out. But it’s not linear. As the Bhagavad Gita says, you have to be prepared to do something because it’s worth doing, not because you’re going to be a success.
Self publishing was, I thought, a quicker way forward. I thought I’d have more control over the finished product, and over how the thing was promoted. I’m not much of a saleswoman, so we’ll see how that side of things go, but I was surprised that the average effort taken to publish each of my books has worked out at around two years. The average financial return for the first, which is the only one I have statistics for so far, is around 100 dollars. A year.
The books have really taken much longer than that to write. I’ve written all my life — and I am now in my fifties. I’ll keep writing for the rest of it too. It’s what I do. Discipline is a difficult word. Skill is a better one. I have painfully developed the skill of swerving away from one activity to put words on a real or virtual page each day. And then there’s research and thinking time.
To publish a book is a huge achievement, whether or not you have a publishing house to back you up. My experience of the self publishing route is that it’s like launching yourself into the ocean without a map or knowledge of how to operate the sails. You’re bound to find yourself at sea, and you’ll no doubt regret it when you find you’ve left a bung out. Bail. Hard. But the process of writing is a practice, and so is the process of publishing. I would encourage anyone who wants to explore the possibility of producing something people might benefit from to get their words out there.
It helps if you have a background — mine comes from working in the fields of forced migration, social care, philosophy, yoga — and as everyone always says ad nauseum, it helps if you read. I did a lot of reading and thinking (and practicing) to see what stuck, what connected, what resonated.
The bottom line is that it’s an ongoing process. Writing is never finished. You never feel as though you’ve done enough and you have to fight hard not to be smothered by the voice that says you’re not good enough. You’re good enough alright. You learn by doing, by practicing. Publish, then, and be damned, but
Never give up.