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They’re your ideas. Who else could bring them to market?

They’re your ideas. Who else could bring them to market?

Allison O'Neill

[Publishing]

In 2006, TVNZ broadcast a homegrown version of Dragon’s Den. A bunch of hopeful designers and inventors put their ideas in front of a panel of the rich and privileged. Most who showed up were scorned. Some briefly had their dreams encouraged before quickly, perhaps inevitably, being left to their own disappointment.

The show hasn’t returned and nobody seems to miss it. In retrospect, Dragon’s Den wasn’t a symbol of something new—reality TV—so much as a leftover from the days when every idea needed a patron.

Today, the creative person’s first step is not to find funding and professional help, but to find a customer and make an impression. If it doesn’t work and your product is a flop, go back to the drawing board and try something else.

The best ways to publicise your products are now free: blogs, YouTube, viral marketing and crazy stunts. More than ever, success now accrues to the best ideas—and not the biggest budget. Word of mouse is king.

Going direct to your customer is also a much more pleasant way to do business, as I found this year when deciding to self-publish. I wanted to put the knowledge I’d learned doing staff surveys into a book, but couldn’t be bothered being told by publishers how dumb my idea was. Given that Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, Chicken Soup for the Soul and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl were all rejected, I didn’t much fancy my chances of a publisher spotting my ever-growing literary genius. Many popular books were originally self-published, such as What Colour is Your Parachute, In Search of Excellence and The One-Minute Manager.

Self-publishing felt in tune with the great Kiwi DIY ethic, too. Artists and budding clothing designers are selling on Trade Me. Designers can sell their wares through Ponoko.com—cheap, easy, low-risk and based in Wellington. No longer do rock bands have to play roof gigs opposite Capitol Records to get noticed. They just upload their tunes to MySpace and YouTube and let them sing for themselves, no airfares required. Authors can self-publish their own print runs or use print-on-demand services like Lulu.com or Amazon’s Booksurge.com. Freedom is grand.

Sure, it does mean we can stumble into our creative ventures a bit naively, not really knowing much about the industry or what we are in for. But isn’t that what DIY is all about? Many successful people say, “If I knew how hard it was going to be I would have never done it”, so naiveté can be bliss. The best thing I did when self-publishing my book was to spend time with who that had already done it. I got so many tips, short cuts and insights—things I had not even considered. After all, we don’t have time to make all the mistakes ourselves.

I tested whether people were actually interested in my book before I printed it by getting media coverage and making pre-sale offers. In retrospect, though, I discounted my pre-sales too heavily. I’d hoped to build word of mouth, but it makes a big difference to get a bit of dosh early in the process. Since I only printed 150 copies the first time round they cost (yikes!) $18 a copy. Soon I’ll do a second print run, but first I’ll need to find a spare $7,000 lying around in the wardrobe somewhere. It pays to cut deals with people—discounts for being mentioned on the inside cover or, as a friend of mine did, hire a university student as your designer. That worked out cheaper for her and it was fantastic for the student’s portfolio.

DIY isn’t scary, and many of the things you’d think would be difficult for an amateur turned out to be straightforward. Getting a barcode made and an ISBN number was easily done online and only took about 24 hours. I was surprised at how easy the whole process was. You have to market it yourself though, so need to be good at getting free publicity [ahem. –Ed.].

Expect a few headaches, however. Getting onto Amazon is difficult as you need a US bank account. A ‘real’ publisher bestows some extra credibility, but this is less of an issue as more people self-publish. It’s just like YouTube for bands—if you’ve had two million hits your popularity speaks for itself, and extra credibility is not required.

My best advice about DIY is:

  • Grill lots of other DIYers in your niche.
  • Test your marketing message in case nobody is interested. It happens.
  • Carefully plan to get publicity.
  • Invite lots of people into the process. Ask a mixed group of people you respect to critique your product. The more eyes the better. Asking your husband or mother is not outside help.

There is support out there for self-publishing authors at sites like lulu.com and booksurge.com, but if you’re doing it yourself you’ll usually be doing it alone. Collaboration would be helpful. That could make up for the fact we aren’t working with the ‘professional’ publishers, agents or record companies. Sounds like a Facebook or LinkedIn group just waiting to be created.