How I used crowdsourcing to become a self-published author

I never thought I would write a book, even though I have published books for well over a hundred authors in recent decades.

I have always loved writing and decided when I left my job as Publisher and Executive Director of MennoMedia in early 2018 that I would semi-vocationally write articles and shorter pieces on topics that interested me. I was not interested in authoring books, which would require pinning myself down to a single idea or topic for much too long of a time. I had known authors that had wrestled with a book for years and wasn’t sure I would want to do that.

When I left my work, I had decided to take a year off and, to fulfill a dream I’d had for decades, went to Spain for six weeks to walk 500 miles on the ancient pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, from the Pyrenees mountains in France to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. I was going to walk it for the experience alone, and it was indeed one of the most amazing of my life. Writing a book about it was not part of the plan.

When I was in Spain I had written letters, email and messages home to my family and friends I wrote about my experiences and posted photos on Facebook, and heard from many that they were closely following me and loved hearing what I wrote. It was gratifying, but I thought that was all I was going to do.

So, I was surprised after returning home from six weeks in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago that the idea of a book came to me.

The idea to write a book dawned on me during a bike ride, a few weeks after my return. I was developing a plan to start my own self-publishing service and the thought came that I should begin by self-publishing my own book. It was that simple. I was also pretty enthusiastic about my experience and recalled how my own desire to walk Camino de Santiago itself had been fueled by a book. I wanted to provide similar inspiration myself, which I would later call the “why” of my book.

My first step was gathering up everything I’d written home, emails, letters and WhatsApp messages, alongside my pocket journal. Included were many anecdotes that I had recorded and had shared with others. In the process of collating them—and simultaneously reflecting inwardly on my experiences—I developed an outline of about ten chapters on topics that jumped out at me. I began imagining something that was about 20,000 words in length—that’s a book of less than 100 pages—that I could simply write and get out in a few months. I had also taken over 2,000 photos and I wanted to share them in a book, as well.

My second step, simultaneously, was to read books about the Camino. I had a total of six to compare, and I noted that they were of three general types: 

  • simple chronological, personal narratives;
  • chronological narratives sprinkled with themes, supported by anecdotes; 
  • general themes, sprinkled with anecdotes and experiences, but not necessarily chronological

(There is even another book that doesn’t fit any of the above, a book so scattered in its structure that I have never been able to get into it)

My third step was to think about who my audience(s) were. What were the ages and demographics? Was there more than one audience?

Then before I could get much further, I set the whole project aside.

When I came back to it five months later, I was unsure how to proceed. To regain my momentum, I decided to take a “crowdsourcing” approach to my writing.

Deciding that I needed to zero-in on a structure, style and audience, I began to use informal networks of friends, former colleagues and other contacts to help me figure out my final product. Some of the contact was direct and personal, either face-to-face, or by email or phone, but a good part of was also done via social media, which, besides Facebook, included some online forums about the Camino de Santiago. 

As I wrote and developed the manuscript, I sought out groups of readers via these personal networks, Overall, I had over fifteen readers who read my writing at its various stages, starting with the first drafts of the earliest chapters, and they represented my broader audiences.

Crowdsourcing helped me hone my structure (which in the end is a rough chronology, focusing on themes) my content (a narrative, sprinkled with dozens of stories and anecdotes) and my audiences, (of which are two: people over 55 who are seeking again adventure in life, and people of any age who want to, or who already have, walked the Camino.) 

It was my readers who helped me to decide to create a rough narrative that takes the reader along all 500 miles of my walk—a journey is a story and a story is a journey. Readers told me they especially related to the narrative style. Looking back through my notes and journals, I selected anecdotes to go with certain themes, then placed these in narrative fashion along the Camino road, when and where the accompanying stories happened. 

The readers told me what in the narrative was working, where detail was lacking (or was too much) and which kinds of stories they appreciated. Some who had walked the Camino told me the kinds of things that I needed to be sure to include. This all helped me achieve a good balance and blend of personal experience, community, culture and history.

My first chapters are filled with the daily detail–which readers told me they wanted–while later ones dealt more with inner themes and lessons learned. My readers helped me know which themes were most important helped me to know where to fit them into the journey.

The final product was much like an assembled puzzle, with each part carefully positioned, and which, at 50,000 words ended up being more than two a half times longer than my original concept.

For the final draft, I also worked with two editors, and I combined their grammatical and prosaic expertise with the feedback of readers. My last group of readers got a chance to read the entire manuscript and were most helpful in telling me whether or not the book hung together as a whole.

When it came to the final title and cover designs, I also tested these with the “crowd.” For my title I chose key words which I found best expressed the content and created the most interest with my audience. As a publisher I also knew that they would be helpful for google searches, but my “crowd” indicated that they gravitated immediately to the title and helped confirm my choice.

For the cover, over 50 people gave input on a set of about six mockups which I displayed on Facebook, voting for their favorites. I was especially thankful for the input of a few who were designers which, ironically, led to me in a different cover concept entirely, minimizing the image in favor of a textual emphasis. I used two design professionals to help me with the final cover.

While many that self-published books are not as good as those done by a publishing company, I felt in the end that crowdsourcing helped compensate for my lack of an external editor and publisher who typically help develop an author’s work. The result is a book that I am pleased to hear inspires and holds readers and which I think stands out among similarly self-published works and which, more than anything else, was fun to write.

Two last thoughts about crowdsourcing:

First, this concept can be applied across a wide spectrum of creative processes, not just writing. It employs, in fact, a number of similar concepts to another process I learned over 25 years ago, something called “Stratgic Design,” which itself utilizes gathering stakeholders and markets in a feedback loop to help designers.

Secondly, always be sure that you don’t “use” unfairly your crowd. Social Media works best when those involved don’t feel they are being manipulated. Always be sure that people know what you are asking them, and what they are getting in return. Don’t leave room for misunderstanding. It will build trust and further community, vital for any artist or writer’s future.

What I learned from Walking the Camino de Santiago

In May of 2018 I finished walking the 500-mile Camino Frances. it took me five weeks to walk, but I was gone from home for a total of six weeks. It was the longest I had been away from my home and family since I had gotten married, nearly 38 years earlier. As the title of my book states, it was “the walk of a lifetime.”

I gave a presentation this past week on the Camino, and signed copies of my book. As is often the case, I was asked, “what did you learn from your pilgrimage?” My book is full of what I learned–writing is a good way to process such an experience–but the question got me thinking about how to put the lessons into a nutshell. In writing my books, I have intentionally taken a great deal of time in the past year to reflect on the experience and it deepens the farther it recedes into the past. Putting it into a few words is hard, but just today I came across something I had written just a few months after returning [now over a year ago] when the experience was freshest in my mind. It’s a pretty succinct statement and it came in a free-form sort of list, which I thought it said it well:

I learned that I love to step out into the fresh, cold morning air, strap on my pack and head west with the sun coming up behind me, a long shadow forming a guide down the center of the road in front of me.

I learned that I love the early morning solitude of the trail, where my head is clear and my senses sharp and I have no more cares than where I might stop later for coffee.

I learned that I could walk alone and like it.

I learned that I could meet new people and strike up conversations, with no effort.

I learned to listen for God in the smallest and least-expected of ways.

I learned that the red earth of La Rioja is beautiful in the month of April.

I learned that I could carry all I really needed in life in a 38-liter backpack that weighed only 16 pounds.

I learned that I could easily go to sleep in a room full of people, some of whom were strangers, but most of whom were strangers no longer.

I learned that to receive can be harder than to give.

I learned that when you have companions to share the road, you will really lack for nothing.

I learned that when the road ahead that day is long, you can really only focus on the next kilometer.

I learned that to wake up in the morning in a new place and to greet the day by saying, “it’s a great day to be alive,” is good for the soul.

I learned that I could walk 31 kilometers in a day and it didn’t kill me.

I learned the joy of meeting companions in unexpected places and unexpected times.

I learned that a person is only as rich as what they can afford to leave alone–which is why it’s good to have a small backpack. [that’s a paraphrase from Henry Thoreau]

I learned that in the long periods of solitude I could pray and sense the presence of God in my life.

Of course I learned much more–about the community of pilgrims, about the beauty of Spain, about the spirituality of a pilgrimage, about the simplicity of a clothesline and clothespins and a simple hot shower–there is so much that it’s hard to stop. But that’s why I wrote my book, to make the experience more than just something in the past, something that lives on and informs my present and my future.

A pilgrimage changes a person and we have a responsibility once we experience that change, to live it and to share it. That’s much of what my life is about now, and it is as fulfilling as the pilgrimage was itself. As a wise hospitalero said to us one evening, “Once you walk the Camino, you will walk it every day for the rest of your life.”

Trekking in Sandals

Last year I walked the Camino Frances, 500 miles (800 kilometers) in a pair of hiking shoes. Or, I should say, in a couple of pairs, since my Keenes gave out halfway and were replaced by a pair of Columbias. I walked it in early spring (late March to early May) and it was occasionally muddy from St.-Jean to about Carrion de los Condes. Not the entire way, but enough that I was glad to be wearing shoes. Lots of people walking create lots of deep mud… I also walked through at least one snow/rain storm. I carried along a pair of Birkenstocks (no backstrap) for the evenings, though I would have preferred to have taken my Chacos along. But my pair of Chacos weigh nearly a kilo and the Birkenstocks were half that, so the Birkenstocks made the journey.

I have feet that are nearly flat and I have had problems in the past with Plantar Fasciitis. The flat feet also exacerbated problems with my knees. I averaged 25 kilometers per day on the Camino and each evening my feet were sore. It felt good to put them up. Still, I wondered what it would have been like to have been wearing my Chacos when the weather suited? Now I know.

Chacos have a triple arch support, which includes the main arch and the metatarsal arch. A podiatrist told me that they were the best thing for hiking in general, but particularly for someone with flat, or nearly flat feet.

My wife and I just completed 150+ kilometers on the Via di Francesco in Italy, eight days, from Rieti to Assisi and I walked nearly the entire way in my Chacos, as did my wife. What a difference they make! No more sore feet. Except for a couple of points crossing some mountain passes, where I put on my shoes, they were perfectly suitable. This path has been a mixture of blacktop and dirt road. The weather has been warm (20 plus Celsius or 70 plus Fahrenheit) and no rain. I feel like I’m walking on a cloud. I’m even carrying a pack that’s slightly heavier than what I carried on the Camino (8 kilos compared to 6.) There is the occasional nuisance of small pebbles getting caught under my foot, which means stopping to get it out, but otherwise I find it preferable. There were even some people walking by in high-top hiking shoes who were shocked when they saw us. But I’m glad to say that there were no injuries. And when you descend, your toes do not push against the tip of the shoe, a great benefit.

Walking in sandals can dry out your feet, so use lotion at night to help moisten them.

If you are considering a long walk on the Camino de Santiago, or the Via di Francesco, or anywhere in warmer weather, I highly recommend Chacos, or something similar. My feet are very thankful.

(Full disclosure: this is NOT an advertisement for Chacos, or any other brand. I’m not paid by them. Just happens to be the brand I’m wearing and I’m sure pilgrims can also find something else suitable.)

And lastly, if you are interested in reading about my own walk on the Camino de Santiago, you can read about my book here.

Why self-publish a book? (part 2)

There’s a lot to be said for publishers of any kind. The word “publishing” literally means to “make public”. We tend to think of it as something printed, but that’s not the actual definition of the word. In the ancient world, it was an oral message. In our time it can include something published online that never appears on paper. The basic job of a publisher is to get a message to the broader public and a good publisher develops a reputation with its audience over time and works to keep a good reputation. Magazines, newspapers and online outlets all have publishers.

Trade Book publishers–i.e., those that sell retail–have a lot to offer an author. First and foremost, they provide credibility. They “vet” authors and give them a stamp of approval. A known and respected publisher has selected authors and books that fit its niche, its particular audience. (And this does not just include books, but also magazines, newspaper and online versions of the same.) Besides credibility, publishers provide expertise in editing, proofing, design, printing, marketing, promotion and distribution. If you as an author are accepted by a publisher, then you have all those services at your disposal. And the finished product can be outstanding. This is what I spent years doing, and I loved it.

But what if you aren’t accepted by a publisher, what can you do? This is common and something that I experienced quite often in my career–telling an author that we were not going to work with them. There are lots of reasons why an author might be rejected, but most frequently it is because of the lack of sales potential. I used to reckon that as a trade publisher a book had to sell at least 2,500 copies to break even and that number may have been low. Many times I spoke to writers that I thought had a good idea for a book, but the sales potential just wasn’t there. My advice was for them to go looking for another publisher, or to self-publish. Many abandoned their idea altogether, but some chose the latter.

Finding a self-publishing service can be a daunting task and the cost–anywhere from $1,500 to $10,000 is equally daunting. Where do you start and whom can you trust? The array of choices itself can be difficult to navigate. Even if you choose a service and lay out all that cash for a finished book, you still have to figure out how to market and promote. That’s still more daunting! What if you only want to print or sell a few hundred books? Who can show an author where to turn? Helping writers authors with those questions is behind my idea for forming The Walker Press. I wanted to fill the gap between traditional book publishing and the maze of self-publishing choices.

Similar to what is sometimes called “hybrid publishing,” the model I’m offering is a service guiding authors, explaining the process, a personal, cafeteria-style service in which authors can choose the amount of help they need and can do as much–or little–as they want. I’ll help you figure out what you need and offer as little or as much support as you need.

An additional service I offer to authors is to help them get a book into print, at minimal cost and risk. Print-on-demand technology, or POD, alongside the eBook, has made a huge difference in the ability of authors to self-publish books. I am a huge fan of the physical, printed book, so I especially want to help someone create a physical book. In the past, “vanity publishers,” as self-publishing services were called, would produce printed books for an author as the final part of their service. Authors might find themselves in possession of a few thousand books, with no idea how to sell them. They might sit in the basement until they end up being pulped. With POD, services such as Kindle Direct Publishing (used to be called Create Space, on Amazon) only print books as they are sold. Same with Ingram Spark, a POD service provided by the world’s largest book wholesaler, Ingram. With the digital files for a book in these two channels, an author can provide their book to most of the world, at a low-cost and almost no risk. This is what I did with my book.

My goal is to help budding or experienced authors put their dream in between the covers of a book, always the favorite part of my old job. Get in touch if you are interested.

Why self-publish a book? (Part 1)

Why did I self-publish my book? I get asked this a lot and it’s a good question. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Working with a traditional publisher would have taken a lot longer to get my book into print. I thought about going this route last year, but I knew that to get my book accepted I would have to first write an engaging book proposal, then send over a draft of writing, sample chapters, a table of contents, etc… If I worked with an agent that might have improved my chances, but then I would have needed to find the right agent. And an agent would have to accept me, too. Even if I got accepted by a publisher (and I was expecting lots of rejections; trust me, I used to be a publisher) I knew that it might take months to get to work with a good editor (which was what I wanted most.) All this would take time and I would be at the mercy of the publisher’s schedule. I finished my book at the end of July and it probably would have been slotted into a 2020 or 2021 release date. I wanted something out in late 2019.
  2. I wanted to see how much I could earn via the self-publishing route. A traditional publisher take on a lot of risk–they incur cost of editorial, design and marketing, though I would be expected to do my own promotion as well. If the publisher and I market and promote well, the book would have a chance of decent sales, but no telling how much they might be. One thousand copies? Two thousand? I doubt I would see any significant revenue from the sales. (Again, trust me, I used to be a publisher. Most books don’t break even.) Self-publish means that I take on the risk and cost, but also get all of the profits. My goal is to sell 1,000 copies in the first 12 months and I think I will break even at sales of between 400 and 500.
  3. The main reason by far is that I am starting a self-publishing service, called The Walker Press and I thought that the best way to start this venture was to write and self-publish my own book. All the cost and risk are on me and so are the headaches, but I have enjoyed every step of this creative process. To make a better product, I have worked with some professional editors and designers. That has increased the cost, but improved the quality. And I’m learning as I go! I also got to do my own interior design and layout, something I’ve always wanted to do and which I found fun. My book is currently available in both print and eBook formats on Amazon, Ingram Spark and Barnes and Noble.
  4. I have absolutely nothing against traditional trade book publishers; I used to be one and I loved my job! However, I am hoping to discover a cost-effective niche for people who want to publish a book, but have been either turned down by a traditional publisher or who have a smaller target audience. If you are interested in learning more about what I do, get in touch with me.

I will share about my experiences and what I’m learning, as I go. Next weekI will write more about the options for self-publishing that are out there.

What’s it like to write a book?

Last year I walked the Camino Frances, the 500 miles pilgrimage route from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It was a life-changing experience, something I’d dreamed of doing for 20 years. I had no intention of writing a book about it, but while I was there my inner life opened up and… out came a book.

I was interviewed this week for the Career Pivot Podcast and you can listen to it here: https://careerpivot.com/2019/russ-eanes-turns-the-walk-of-a-lifetime-into-a-writing-and-consulting-career-143-podcast/

Ever felt lost in Life? I have.

Getting lost doesn’t feel good. Most of the time, at least. But on occasion, it’s just the thing we needed, because when we are lost we may just discover something that we didn’t know we were looking for. This was my experience last year when I left my work and went on a six week pilgrimage in Spain. When I returned, I didn’t know where I fit anymore, and felt lost. It led me to a new vocation and I tell all about it in a guest post that I wrote for Career Pivot. See the post here