Posts Tagged ‘self-publishing’

Creativity: A Burden Of Choices

January 15, 2016


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When we feel the need to embark on a new creative project, we don’t always have a firm idea for it in mind. Even as we consider possibilities, these can overwhelm us to the point of inertia. At such times, surrendering to indecision is tempting but not necessarily the endgame. Then, when we least expect it, life makes decisions for us. The following is a reflection on balancing the burden of choices from a personal and creative perspective.

As a freelance illustrator, indecision regarding the subject of an artwork was rarely an issue because I’d grown accustomed to working on assignment where the parameters of a project were usually stated upfront by my client. Instinctively, I felt that I might not always be doing assignment work, but couldn’t know why. Perhaps health issues or other unforeseen events would determine that. It wasn’t until after the US economy tanked in 2008 that I was compelled to begin the next phase of my career.

At that time, I’d been working on a long-term dream; a unique personal book project called Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary. Following its well-received publication by Pomegranate in 2009, I was invited to offer many presentations and book signings. At these events, I was surprised to find enthusiastic demand for more of such projects (Books of Psalms, Prophets or a Passover haggadah, etc.), but I was also haunted by the frequent question: “So what will you do next?”  

For me, this query provoked some anxiety because after devoting five + years to Between Heaven & Earth, I was too physically and mentally exhausted to consider my next endeavor. Yet I had the feeling that my work in this genre wasn’t finished. I had casually entertained the idea of building a personal and professional legacy around books that would explore several Biblical tropes, but doing so seemed a daunting and distant goal since it wasn’t yet clear what that legacy should comprise or how it should be framed. I only knew that whatever I did would have to reconcile my own spirituality with my secular worldview. As I wondered whether an idea for a book, a series of drawings or a synthesis of both could teach me how to do this, I remembered an aphorism attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius that might yield a clue: “Study the past if you would define the future.”

So I decided to re-visit the notes and sketches in my collection of journals. These little books span decades, but for a strange reason, have gathered no dust. While regularly writing and drawing in new journals, I occasionally re-read old entries and add new insights to them, flattening time as I maintain a ‘dialogue’ with my younger self. This virtual orchard of back-burner ideas has often been amusing, thought provoking and full of choices for potential projects.

However, the process of choosing one among them was far from simple. It would be impossible to predict whether the idea I chose would become viable or have any market value without investing serious time, funds and effort. So at this stage, all I could rely on was my intuition.

On one of these forays, I came across a note that was made during my research for Between Heaven & Earth. I had been looking into incunabula (early printed books and came upon a reference to a 17th century miniature prayerbook. This was a Me’ah Brakhot (100 Blessings) and contained Hebrew blessings that originated in the time of the Biblical King David. According to my journal, I had searched for and found a copy of this beautifully illustrated little jewel and noted that I would like to try my hand at a modern version of it.

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Back in the present, I decided that such a project would not only employ all of my skills as an artist, writer, editor, designer, it would also fit the requirements of my legacy; and so I began to envision the book that would become An Illumination Of Blessings.* At this point, I was faced with making two other choices. One would determine the book’s fate upon completion; the other would be germane to its essence. 

First: should I submit this book to mainstream publishers or self-publish? Both were risky in their own ways. The former, with its often-lengthy approval or rejection times, traditionally offers a financial advance but it also entails editorial and marketing caveats that could entirely change the nature of this project. The latter would require fundraising skills (which I hadn’t yet developed) but it would also allow more creative freedom. Ever the sucker for a new venture, I chose the latter; a choice that would let it become a successfully funded Kickstarter project. 

Second: since I initially planned to self-publish this book and wanted it to include all 100 blessings, I did not set a timeline for its fulfillment. However, when I looked into the requirements for a crowdsourcing project, I learned that for a fundraising campaign to maintain momentum, the optimum timeframe would have to be no more than a year. So in a sense that choice was made for me. Of the 100 blessings (which were both mundane and obscure), I decided to select 36 that were more universal in nature. Guiding this decision was the notion that if this book were successful, it could generate two more volumes that would complete all of the blessings.JournalScans-2009

During the learning curve of my Kickstarter campaign, many other choices presented themselves and I was often intimidated to the point of discouragement. Still, I chose to forge ahead for the reason that will conclude this reflection.

As I became immersed in creating the illustrations and text for this project, the blessing for wisdom offered a subtle insight. It was originally called ‘the wisdom of the rooster’ because we are not thanking God for our own wisdom per se; we are acknowledging His wisdom in creating the rooster with the ability to recognize the difference between night and day. This told me that blessings are more than ritualistic behavior. They are a call to mindfulness of both body and spirit beyond the environs of a place of worship.

Because I had always recited blessings nearly by rote in synagogue services, this idea was an eye-opener; it helped me to understand that we are truly blessed by our ability to choose. By paying close attention to each choice before us while considering its multi-layered consequences we can learn to counter indecision. In this way, our choices become less of a burden and more of a way to achieve a nuanced balance in our lives as we decide how to frame our own personal and professional legacies.

*Images and detailed essays from it were posted here at Imaginarius throughout 2014. 

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Publish Or Perish? Yes and Never!

January 13, 2011

This month, with the release of Stitchburgh from my imprints, Imaginarius Editions and TatterTale Press, I’ve brought an old dream to life. While the majority of my posts here have highlighted individual images, I’ve often been asked the eternal question: where do you get your ideas? The short answer is from everyone and everywhere. But today, I thought you might like to know the story behind Stitchburgh which in itself is a clue:

One day in 1979, when my children were young, I attended an exhibition of handmade quilts. Created by a Pittsburgh craft guild called The Quilter’s Triangle, their intricate colors and narrative quality moved me to research the history of this unique and personal form of expression. As a mother and an illustrator, I was inspired to create a work of art for my children. It would reflect my new interest in quilts as it enriched awareness of our neighborhood and daily lives. So I created an illustrated alphabet that I decided to make into a quilted wall hanging. First, I drew and painted everything onto a large canvas. Then, I chose the stuffing and fabric backing materials that would be needed. Since my skills do not include needlework (except for the occasional darned sock), Mrs. Fava, an elderly Italian seamstress in my neighborhood helped me put it all together. At bedtime the next evening, I told my children the first of many stories about Stitchburgh, an imaginary world where everything is made from the colorful patches of an old quilt. In this original tale about a little blue goose named Fanny Featherbottom and her beloved Aunt Madras Goose, a writer, Madras’ stitchwriter suddenly breaks. Her story, now tangled into knots, is lost. You are invited to follow the writer and her niece as they adventure around Stitchburgh in search for it and discover where good ideas are really found!

After that quilting exhibition, it would be eighteen months before I finished the first illustrated version of Stitchburgh in 1980, but this version would be far from the last. After countless submissions and revisions of the illustrated manuscript by editors who were probably wondering what it would take to make me go away, I was sitting on a thick stack of rejection form letters from dozens of mainstream publishers and had reached the bottom of my proverbial barrel. Suddenly it hit me. Why waste my energy staying mad when I could put it to better use?

You see, I remembered a story about Beatrix Potter, the renowned children’s author. Though she came from a comfortably wealthy English family, she was harboring stories that begged to be let out to play. She too experienced rejection from several publishers at the time. So, she gathered up her pluck and determination, printed a small edition of them privately and simply distributed them as gifts to friends and family. The printer whom she retained for her project was Frederick Warne & Co. who soon came to understand the potential value of her work. In time, they went on to turn Peter Rabbit into an international media and merchandising star for generations to come. On the tail of this memory, I asked myself, ‘why accept rejection as the last word?’

So with renewed hope, I gathered up one of my illustrated manuscripts and made an appointment with a local commercial printer to see what was involved in publishing my ‘masterpiece’ on my own. When I explained to the print salesman what I wanted, he looked at me incredulously. ‘Just a small run of a full-color, 32-page children’s book? You have to be kidding; are you aware of the costs? I was beginning to get nervous as he listed everything necessary to publishing a book, from layouts to finished art, from films to plates and paper, to press time and bindery charges. I was sinking into my chair when he gave me the final figure. At the time, the minimum press run for a picture book was 5000 printed, bound copies of my book: $18,500. The huge quantity was necessary in order justify setting up the gigantic four color press and to establish a fair market price for each copy sold.

In 1980, this was equivalent to a down payment on a modest home! ‘And,’ he added ominously, ‘that’s only the tip of the iceberg; what about the costs of marketing and distribution? How are you going to handle that? Stunned into silence, I imagined myself buried under a mountain of 5,000 books and quietly thanked him for his time. I slunk out of the office, feeling like a complete idiot.
Never mind pursuing other bids on the job; they were all in the same ballpark. As I packed away my dreams and resumed my life as wife, mother, teacher and freelance illustrator, I was again discouraged, but still hoped that I could somehow, someday make it happen.

Myriad other projects kept me busy over the years and in time, even as I illustrated other writer’s books for mainstream publishers, I cooked up some new ones of my own. During these years, print technology was advancing so that my early self-publishing experience would become an anachronism. While there had always been small private publishers snootily referred to as ‘vanity presses’ or ‘subsidy publishers’, authors who retained their services were not taken seriously. Rather, it became a stigma as their work was presumed to be substandard by the mainstream industry and therefore unpublishable.

However, early in 2000, as I began to explore the growing self-publishing industry, the mystique associated with mainstream publishing became more transparent. With major changes in the tax laws and the decline of the world economy, authors were no longer treated as celebrities unless they were entertainment media stars or prominent political figures. We could no longer depend on publishers to cover the expenses of heavily promoting our books. With a few exceptions, it looked as though mainstream publishers were not much more than glorified printers with the presumed aura of ‘marketing caché. To make matters worse, the giant bookstore chains on whom they depended for their marketing and distribution venues were struggling financially. These began to close many of their brick and mortar establishments and not surprisingly, corporate mainstream publishing is quaking in its boots. In addition, self-publishing, with ‘print-on-demand’ technology at its core is a rapidly growing industry that, partnered with the vast online merchant network is proving to be their formidable competition.

Happily, the vanity press stigma was being obliterated by the developing print technology because authors who became literate in its techniques could now publish their work with the newly emerging “print on demand’ industry. Though it would take me years to feel comfortable with the tools of computer aided design and sophisticated graphics software, I was fascinated to observe how these were driving a paradigm shift in the way books are produced, marketed and distributed.

Last year alone (2010), 764,448 self-published titles appeared – an increase of 181 percent from 2008. That compares with 289,729 titles from traditional publishing houses. These numbers come from the R.R. Bowker Co., the agency that grants ISBN numbers and compiles the bibliographic data that must appear in your book before you can release it for distribution. Such information is necessary for booksellers and libraries to catalogue and identify your book in the vast publishing marketplace.

Online companies such as CreateSpace, AuthorHouse, Blurb, Lulu, iUniverse and XLibris have made it relatively easy and affordable to put your ‘masterpiece’ out in the market. There are gigabytes of information out there comparing profit and loss to authors in both self and mainstream publishing, and you might want to look at these as you decide whether to self-publish or continue to submit your manuscripts to mainstream publishers. But numbers can be overwhelming and can do much to squelch your desire to venture into this market as an author.

As a typical artist and writer consumed by their art, I gave these figures a cursory nod, shrugged my shoulders and became absorbed in my fantasy of self-publishing. I worked to enhance my technological skills and happily imagined the fame and fortune my efforts would generate. I published my first effort, The Alchymical Zoodiac: A Celestial Bestiary in 2009 under my own imprint, Imaginarius Editions.

Though my sales of The Alchymical Zoodiac to date have just covered my expenses, I decided that after 31 years, Stitchburgh was still begging to become a reality. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Star Trek’s Captain Jean Luc Picard, I decided to “Make it sew!” Maybe at some point, if they still exist, a mainstream publisher will become interested in what I have done and consider producing a subsidiary edition and ancillary products. Maybe even, some bright star at Pixar might see animation film potential in it. You never know. But most encouraging are the kind words and support from all of you! Both Stitchburgh and The Alchymical Zoodiac may be purchased @my webfolio via PayPal: http://www.winnlederer.com