Saturday, December 10, 2011

What I Got Out of Self-Publishing

I pulled off a few firsts in 2011. Last month, I grew my first moustache. In June, I had my first daughter. And in April, I self-published my first chapbook of poetry. Then, I did it again in September. (Tomorrow, I'll have a new first, but I'll leave that for tomorrow.)

My first chapbook--fresh out of the box.

The process of self-publishing my first poetry collection was scary. Since I limited my print run to 101 copies, I wasn't worried about the financial part, but I was very afraid my announcement of a self-published poetry chapbook would be met with the sound of crickets.

The Announcement
Without a title or an official line up of poems, I made the announcement a year ago. As you can see in the link, I did have a publication date, price, and a way for folks to pre-order a copy. And then, crazy enough, people did start pre-ordering copies. I could breathe a sigh of relief.

A week after the initial announcement, I sent along some updates (the line up of poems). A couple weeks after that, the collection had a title: ENTER. Each new announcement brought in more pre-orders, which is so much cooler than crickets.

The Release
I'd been considering self-publishing a collection for a few years, but the time just never felt right. Then, a perfect storm of events conspired to make April 1, 2011, the perfect time to release a collection. First, April is when I run the April PAD Challenge on Poetic Asides (my poetry blog on, which is when I prompt hundreds of poets to write a poem a day through National Poetry Month.

At AIPF, I read poems and made great connections.

Second, I had two events scheduled for the beginning of April. On April 1-2, I spoke at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference in Northern Georgia. On April 7-10, I was a National Feature Poet at the Austin International Poetry Festival in Texas. For both events, I led workshops and read poetry.

So like I said, it was a perfect storm of events to promote the collection right from the release date.

The Results
The collection officially released on April 1, 2011. Before May 1, 2011, all 101 copies had been claimed. Two were lost in the mail, but the rest found their intended targets. I earned a little money, but more important were the connections I'd made with readers--one connection even led to me reading for the Houston Poetry Fest's "Out of Bounds" event in October.

I loved hearing from readers who received their copies. Some sent simple notes that said they loved reading the collection--and that meant a lot. But then, some sent detailed comments about specific poems they liked best and why. At the end of the day, it all added up to a huge helping of validation--and that's the number one thing I got out of the self-publishing process.

In September, I followed up ENTER with ESCAPE.

Lessons Learned
After publishing my second collection in September, I think I have learned a few lessons about self-publishing, though I'll add that every self-publisher has a unique situation. For instance, not everyone is publishing a limited edition poetry collection.
  • Develop an audience first. I've always felt the urge to share my work. In high school, I would fill up composition notebooks with poems and pass them around for fellow students to read (and let me know which they liked best). But I had to exercise extreme patience--almost 20 years worth of it--before the time felt right for selling out a limited edition poetry chapbook. If you don't have some sort of audience, you may be facing crickets.
  • Get the word out before publication. For both collections, I started getting the word out as soon as I knew I was going to move forward on them and hit a specific publication date. This helped motivate me as I went through the process of formatting the manuscript, finding a printer, and other activities. Plus, I could use pre-orders to motivate others to pre-order and/or purchase copies.
  • Keep excellent records. Since I had a limited edition collection of 101 copies, I simply made a list with 101 entries. Each entry received a name, an e-mail address, payment received, method of payment, and mailing address. This came in extra handy with the second collection, because I could give return readers the same number for ESCAPE they received the first time around for ENTER.
I plan to have at least one more limited edition chapbook self-published in 2012, though I don't have a publication date set for that yet. Then, I may try experimenting with self-published e-books--and, of course, sharing the results here.


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Brandee Shafer said...

Curious: how many poems are in each chapbook?

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Both have 22 pages of poetry. The first had 21 poems; the second had 22 poems.

Anonymous said...

Nice! What I got out of your self-publishing is two cool and really original chapbooks of poetry that makes me go, "Hmmm!" :) Thanks for all your tips, all the time!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Thank you, Colette! I'll take "cool and really original" any day of the week. :)