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August 1, 2017
By Rob Salkowitz
A look at why Jessica Abel turned to self-publishing for her creative self-help book.

Jessica Abel, a respected cartoonist, educator, and graphic novelist, has been running a successful seminar on creative productivity since 2015, helping would-be authors, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and other self-directed creators get past the self-made barriers that keep them from seeing their projects through to completion. Now she’s distilled what she’s learned from her students and her own life into a unique self-help book called Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Daily Life. And, true to her do-it-yourself ethos, she’s taking it straight to readers by self-publishing through Amazon’s KDP Select.

Powering Through Roadblocks

If you look at Abel’s career and bibliography, it’s hard to believe that she has a problem with productivity or creativity. She started in comics by writing, drawing, and distributing handmade minicomics in the early 1990s. Her award-winning series Artbabe was picked up by independent publisher Fantagraphics, followed by an original graphic novel, La Perdida, published by Pantheon in 2008. She has taught comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York, published two how-to books for teaching cartooning, and followed those with forays into graphic journalism, including a graphic look at the rise of podcasting in 2015 (Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio). This year, Papercutz, a publisher of graphic novels for children, published Abel’s fun YA graphic novel, Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars. Along the way, she traveled, raised a family, and developed workshops on creative focus.

For over a decade, Abel, who is currently chair of Illustration at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, has developed an online course to teach practices that can help dispel the demons of distraction and self-doubt. She says Growing Gills and its accompanying workbook are intended to bring that message to a wider audience.

Despite generally positive experiences with editors and publishers throughout her career, Abel decided to self-publish Growing Gills for two main reasons: speed and control. She says she wanted to get the book to market in time for her next video seminar and workgroup. It is intended to be a resource for students and to raise the profile of her coaching and consulting practice. That meant managing the writing, editing, design, marketing, and promotion processes on a demanding six-month timeline—a scenario that gave her ample opportunity to practice what she was preaching in terms of time management and focus.

"I’ve been doing creative work for 25 years and been teaching creative focus for 15. I don’t need anyone’s stamp of approval."
“I was good at the writing,” Abel says. “I hit my landmarks and deadlines.” Indeed, she notes, writing a prose book was a relief compared to the time-consuming effort required to draw, ink, letter, and color a work of graphic literature.

Design and production, however, created problems. “I realized I knew how to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to be a publisher,” Abel says. She applied the techniques described in Growing Gills, such as breaking down daunting and complex tasks into a series of doable steps. “The big lesson? Don’t set the launch date without a firm understanding of how long all that other stuff takes.”

Advantages of Independence

The official publication date for Growing Gills was in June, but Abel conducted a soft launch starting the month before to get the book into the hands of influencers and reviewers, including former students. That was another reason she chose to self-publish.

“With a traditional publisher, you have a window of six to 12 weeks where the publicist is really working to get your book out there,” Abel says. By putting Growing Gills out herself, she was not bound to the publisher’s timetable or promotion budget. She gave away 2,000 digital copies of the book in the month ahead of its launch and is currently pricing the e-book at 99¢ on Amazon. (The e-book is currently priced at $2.99; and print copies, produced via print on demand, are $9.99.)

Abel says her goal is not necessarily to sell millions of copies (although, she admits, that would be nice), but to build her brand as a coach and expert with a unique message. Like many other nonfiction authors, she aims to use her published works as platforms to garner interesting (and lucrative) speaking, teaching, writing, and travel opportunities. By self-publishing, authors like Abel can manage their own needs and expectations and use their books to keep the focus on their own work for as long as it takes to gain traction.

The tradeoffs of self-publishing and traditional publishing are familiar to many creative professionals. Traditional publishers offer prestige and credibility. However, in Abel’s case, her expertise is validated by her experience. “I’ve been doing creative work for 25 years and been teaching creative focus for 15,” she says. “I don’t need anyone’s stamp of approval.”

Abel also has a fan base for her critically acclaimed comics work, and there is a growing cadre of creative professionals who have been helped by her seminars and coaching. There are, in other words, lots of fish in the sea. And if she can find them with Growing Gills, Abel will be in a great position for continued success.

Correction: The length of time Abel has conducted her seminar was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.