Blazing the Self-Publishing Path
An indie pioneer looks to the future of self-publishing
Long before self-publishing, crowdfunding, or e-books became buzzwords in the media, Hogarth was reaching out for new, often technology-based ways to create and maintain relationships with readers.Since the beginning of her writing career, M.C.A. Hogarth has been an innovator, not only because of the many worlds her aliens, spacefarers, and lawkeepers cover but in the way she gets stories to the people who want to read them. Long before self-publishing, crowdfunding, or e-books became buzzwords in the media, Hogarth was reaching out for new, often technology-based ways to create and maintain relationships with readers.
Hogarth’s online presence extends back to the early days of the Internet. Her website stardancer.org was launched in the early ’90s, to share original character art and background information about her created worlds—but, although she’d completed several shorts and her first full-length novel by 1994, the site didn’t contain any of her actual stories because she still had hopes of having them published. “It was the kiss of death to put any fiction anywhere except through the traditional model, and I didn’t want to destroy my career before it started.”
It took until 2000 for her to make her first story sales, to pioneering online sci-fi and fantasy magazines like Strange Horizons. “I was super-excited. The people who had been reading my website forever were going to be able to read all the stuff they’d been asking about. But after those first few sales, Hogarth hit a wall. Not because people were not enjoying her work—her story “Unspeakable” won second place in the 2002 Strange Horizons readers’ choice awards, another story had been put on a Tiptree reading list, and readers of online forums were begging to see more of her work—but because the editors at Strange Horizons were no longer sure her stories jibed with the magazine’s mission: publishing work accessible to new audiences.
Hogarth became frustrated, and her new fan base became impatient. “It’s one thing to write work and hope that it finds its audience. But it’s another thing to have people saying to you ‘Where can I buy your stuff?’ and having to say ‘I’m sorry, I can’t convince an editor to publish more of it.’ In every other business, when you have demand, you should be rushing to fill the demand. And yet I could not convince anybody to help me fill that demand.”
She decided that although it might wreck her future career, she would share a bit of new material directly via the Internet—“something that I was never intending to publish in any other way, to keep fans occupied until I could find someone to put out the rest of what they were asking for.”In 2004, she offered “Flight of the Godkin Griffin,” a sword and sorcery fantasy diary, directly to her audience via LiveJournal, then a popular social blogging platform. (Hogarth still actively connects with fans there, at haikujaguar.livejournal.com.) Each entry ended with a question about a minor thing that could happen next, and readers who donated could vote and have an effect on the upcoming scenes. Years later, once prior publication on the Web no longer necessarily jeopardized a project’s print prospects, Hogarth sold this piece to the small press Sofawolf as a two-volume novel. Although Hogarth may have chosen to blaze the self-publishing path as a response to a traditional publishing industry that did not want her on her terms, she’s well-suited to a flexible, entrepreneurial approach to authorship, combining perfectionism with drive and marketing and management skills honed in the corporate world. “Self-publishing is more agile,” she says. “You can put things out faster, make decisions faster. It’s very rewarding for people like me, who write quickly and respond to change very quickly. There’s no set path anymore, even if you are traditionally publishing. You have to find weird opportunities and try them.”
Hogarth sees her business orientation not in opposition to the dream of being a successful writer, but as critical to it. “The childhood dream of being a writer is ‘this is your career,’ and that implies that you are running a business. I had legal books on finances and freelancing and taxes even before indie publishing was a thing.” Although her work might not be easy to market to the mainstream—a small press editor once tried to pressure her into a contract by saying her work was nearly unsalable—she’s got her fans, whom she clearly sees as customers to be satisfied, and she’s careful to listen to them. “My bestselling books right now are those where I asked my readers, ‘What do you want more of? What do you wish I had written and I haven’t?’ I wrote them their asexual romance. Those books sell like hotcakes.”
Thinking through the business implications of creative choices can make for strange outcomes. For her business webcomic Three Jaguars, Hogarth says that although she is a visual artist as well as a writer, it isn’t cost effective for her to paint her own book covers. “For me to do a work of art that’s sufficient for a cover takes about 30 to 40 hours. If I spent that 30 to 40 hours writing, I will make money. It’s more economical for me to pay someone to get me the art.”
Hogarth advises that creators deciding when to do something themselves and when to hire someone else to do it, look at two criteria: whether they are enjoying themselves enough for that piece of the work to be worth the money and time, and whether they can get the quality outcome that they need on their own. “The person I hire [for layout], that’s his career, and he has decades of experience. I could do my own layout, but I don’t want serviceable results, I want excellent results.”
When the idea of crowdfunding started gaining traction, Hogarth was ready to make the most of it. Patreon, a platform that allows individuals to make small, regular donations to creators, eliminates the bookkeeping that was associated with Hogarth’s PayPal tip jar. She’s also thrived at Kickstarter, having successfully funded eight projects there since 2012, because she knows how to use the platform in a way that makes readers respond: “Some people using Kickstarter to publish books were asking for a ton of money, for things that they weren’t done with yet. About 70% of them failed. My intention when I use Kickstarter is not to fund a project. It’s to infuse capital into my business, to be distributed as I see fit. I don’t ask for much money, but I ask for it more frequently. I make sure there’s profit rollover, so I don’t have to ask for a lot to get what I need done. I run lots of microprojects. Two thousand dollars, that’s easy. Do that five or six times a year, and you have a ton of capital.” Hogarth’s Kickstarter success also launched her into nonfiction, with a book and audiobook on how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign.
But Hogarth is still willing to reach out for new solutions. When she could not afford the lump sum to hire the narrator she wanted for her Jokka audiobooks, she worked with him, and the Screen Actors’ Guild, to which he belongs, to buy an hour of his time each month. The monthly chapter release has become a livestreamed party where fans listen together, talk about the story, and offer tips and donations, which pay the narrator’s fee.
Hogarth is also advocating for authors as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s fledgling Self-Publishing Committee, which is working on a set of membership criteria for authors who have self-published but have no traditional publishing credentials.
“We did our best to make [the terms] equivalent to the existing traditional ones,” she says. For example, instead of showing an advance, an author must prove that a particular novel has netted $2,000.
Hogarth says that initiatives like these help guide difficult discussions about what it means to be a professional author in an industry where the terms are rapidly changing. “We’re in this painful place where we’re talking about legitimacy and money.... It’s less about whether something is better because it’s curated, and more about everyone being uncomfortable because they’re trying to figure out, ‘How do I prove that I’m okay, that I’m a writer, that I’m a good writer?’ ”
With self-publishing just beginning to settle in as part of the industry, Hogarth sees these growing pains continuing for a while. “There is still a lot of resentment and pain, and people not understanding each other. We’re not writers right now; we’re traditional writers or hybrid writers or indie writers. When we’re just writers, then we’ll have finally gotten there.”