Back in 2004, I wrote a novella. I thought it was pretty good. Of course, the problem was that novellas in the modern market (by which I mean the post-18th century market) are a really hard sell. In fact, from an unknown writer, they're an impossible sell.
So I shoved the manuscript into a drawer, hoping that happenstance would deliver me some idea of what to do with it. Happenstance was generous. I had a friend who was the proprietor of a successful local independent record label and events promotion company. I mentioned the forsaken novella idly one day in conversation. He asked if he could read the manuscript.
My friend, it turned out, also thought the novella was pretty good. "I want to print this," he said. "But I have no idea what's involved in doing so."
The arrangement we worked out was that his label would publish the book and I would come on board without charging a fee to help them make it happen. We talked some more, signed a contract, and then his label basically dumped a bunch of money in my lap and said: "Bring home a print run."
As a result, I did all the things that someone self publishing with money from their own pocket would do. I talked to dozens of print shops, meticulously comparing prices. I arranged for cover art, for editing and for internal design. And in the end I brought them a small perfect bound print run of 500 copies.
We had a launch event and I promoted the book online1. I took part in Jim Munroe's Perpetual Motion Roadshow, a reading tour that took me to a dozen cities in Canada and the northeastern USA. In addition to selling books online and at these readings, the label hawked copies at their events and got the book on shelves in a few dozen, mostly independent, bookstores in the USA and Canada.
We ended up selling out completely and having to do a second print run to meet demand. Eventually, that sold out in entirety as well. The label earned back their outlay and then some, and I too ended with some money in my pocket. All in all, the whole endeavour was a tremendous success. But more than any financial benefit or personal recognition, what I gained from the experience was a whirlwind tour through an entire microcosm of the publishing industry.
Books, I realized, were not brought into being by any arcane means. The entire process is something that people can just do2.
This seed of realization germinated in my mind for a long time before eventually sprouting in the form of AE.
1 - Though the book is out of print, you can still read it--in its entirety--online thanks to the Creative Commons license: Free E-Book.
2 - I remain leery of the idea of self-publishing and print-on-demand. My main reservations come from the fact that they make it too easy to skip essential steps in the process. A tragic number of otherwise meritorious books find their way into print in this way without a thought to promotion, distribution or even proofreading. That said, there are plenty of people who do it right: one example and another and another.