Since EL James crashed the internet with naughtiness, more writers see self-publishing as fifty shades of fame and fortune. But what does it really take to thrive as an independently-published author in Singapore? Don Bosco told SWAG that the first step is staying alive…
DB: Think about Charles Dickens or Edgar Allan Poe. These guys were writing around the time when Raffles was just landing in Singapore. And yet their books are still sold in our book shops, we still read them, they are relevant. Like Dickens, you have to think about the long term. You have to live for a hundred years, if you want to do it properly! Seriously, you have to stay enthusiastic for a long time.
I’m not an advocate of self-publishing for everyone. We all define publishing differently. For some people, publishing means all the steps between manuscript and shop. The more I do it, the more I realise that it goes far beyond the day of publication – how do you keep current, how do you keep the book in stock, how do you place it in the cultural conversation? That is what it takes – getting the book in the shops is the easy part.
SWAG: How did you get started in self-publishing?
I tried being an author for a long time, writing thrillers and sci-fi. But SuperCoolBooks happened because I wanted to write something for my kids. I found a Japanese copy shop in International Plaza that would make one copy at a good price, so we did a family writing workshop. That’s how it started.
Then I started to use my contacts to print more copies, get some into bookshops. I own everything, so I could make compromises – if they needed to make the product cheaper, I could do it. Because of that, some things that seemed impossible became possible. A lot of times it’s just a small little thing to accommodate a request and then it works.
SWAG: What platform do you use?
I have my own e-store — it’s not that difficult to get something up. An ebook is just an html file. A website is publishing. But you have to think about how you will get people interested in your book.
You can’t approach it like homework – take a course, study, make sure your English is all correct – and then just put it out. Maybe people will say, yes, you have done your homework. They might give you an A. But they won’t give you their money because they know it’s just homework. There’s a lot of stuff like that – good work, worthy, professional. But still homework.
There’s another model I figured out by doing books for my kids: I wrote for my kids. I saw what works for them, what they want to share with their friends. I’m very open, I share manuscripts, so I developed that element of what I call ‘hospitability’ – they don’t just come in as a reader, they also want to live in your fictional world.
SWAG: Is that how you know when a manuscript is ready, without going through the filtering process of agent or publisher?
DB: That is critical. I release my stuff very early, with notices that it’s not ready. There’s a software development term coined in Silicon Valley called Lean Publishing…
SWAG: *quickly Googling it* “Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”
DB: So you make sure you focus on the impact you want to create and put it out there. You have to think about what you want to measure – interest, referrals, the speed with which it goes over. It’s like running a very sophisticated survey – you don’t think about what they say but what they do: if they click on the optional Chapter 2, then you’re doing good. It’s like an airline – you have to fill the seats before taking off. Ultimately, you have to reach many thousands of readers – with technology, that’s cheap – so you reach them first before you put the icing on the cake.
SWAG: Self-published writers have to wear a lot of hats: author, publisher, publicist, techie, social media guru. I find it daunting to think that I would have to develop such a rojak of skills…
DB: Do you own a laptop?
SWAG: I do.
DB: Do you know how to assemble that laptop?
SWAG: I do not.
DB: Exactly. I own an app, but I didn’t assemble the app. You don’t have to be the one to do everything. It’s ridiculous how this SuperCoolBooks thing came together – all the coincidences. People I worked with over the years as an editor and from when I was a musician, those people have also moved on – editors have become senior editors, for example – and they came in to support SuperCoolBooks.
SWAG: What about balance? How do you manage the business side and find time for writing?
DB: It’s like running a circus. The audience comes in and if they’ve got tired of juggling you have to give them elephants. I only started thinking like this because I’ve got two sons that I constantly have to entertain and impress – feed their imagination and give them something to be passionate about – and I realised that maybe running a circus is the right model for publishing.
DON BOSCO is an award-winning writer and publisher of thrilling fiction for teens and children. His stories are inspired by Asian legends and pop culture. He started the publishing studio Super Cool Books in 2011. In 2015, his Sherlock Hong series was acquired by Marshall Cavendish for international release. At the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2015, his Lion City Adventures series was awarded Best Book in the English (Children) Category and also Best Book Cover, English (Children) Category. He is a local co-organiser for StoryCode Singapore, which promotes transmedia storytelling across different media formats. He maintains an influential blog, and also runs 100 WRITERS, a publishing incubator.