Frustrated with long-term projects which will see public outputs next year at the earliest, I opted to set myself a challenge – in September 2015 I wrote, collated, edited and published an eBook in seven days. Now the wonderful world of Kindle Direct Publishing is an amazingly egalitarian development in the difficult world of publishing allowing anyone, as it does to use their platform to self publish their own book providing that it is longer than 2000 words and the author has the legal right to publish that work.
Now I have no experience as a historical non-fiction author. I’ve written countless reports as a museum professional, written a couple of dissertations and had a few peer-reviewed journal articles published, but none of these things makes me a writer – I was aware of that before the challenge and I’m blisteringly aware of it afterwards. I am currently 23,000 words into a new archaeological introduction to Roman York but what form that particular labour will fruit in is some way off yet; this one is currently vanity project to see if I can write a suitable amount of text about York. The topic I chose for my eBook challenge was a relevant topic on which I knew I could bash out several thousand words – the Tombstone of Lucius Duccius Rufinus, now in the Yorkshire Museum. Rufinus was a standard bearer in the 9th Legion and died at the end o the 1st Century AD at Eburacum. His tombstone is unique in the city and quite rare in the imagery that it portrays – enough, I thought, to produce a specialist 6-7000 word document. I had two main sources of inspiration for writing a short archaeological book, one is the stack of the damnable things that frequently falls off my bookshelf – included amongst these bite size beauties are a number of the ‘Shire Archaeology’ series (sadly discontinued), some English Heritage guidebooks to Hadrian’s Wall sites and a couple of the self-published Vindolanda mini books by Robin Birley which every visitor to the fort there purchases. The second source of inspiration was the indomitable Mike Bishop – Roman military archaeologist, digital maestro, open access advocate, and publisher of a series of Roman eBooks – his Per Lineam Valli series.
I did this in my spare time, outside of work (and yes I work full-time) and with a free weekend to play with. To cut a long and coffee-fuelled story short I did manage it and ‘ Rufinus: Standard-bearer of the 9th Legion‘ is available to purchase for Kindle.
The whole experience was a learning curve, a fascinating insight into a world I knew little about. The crux of this blog post is to highlight five things I learned about self-publishing a Kindle eBook in a week:
1) That Amazon and the Kindle platform is a technological revelation: The speed by which I could convert a simple word documented into a .mobi file format and have it for sale was phenomenal. Publishers take months, Kindle took minutes. Mind blowing stuff and a pleasure to be part of. I’d hate for this kind of technology to be even bigger in future decades and not to have tried it already.
2) Peer-Review and publishers are still King: Friends and colleagues laughed, didn’t believe it could be so easy, questioned my general sanity and how I spend my spare time, or considered the whole thing quaint. An eBook lacks the gravitas of a hard-bound paper edition. A paper book is a THING, it is a thing that not many people (certainly outside of academia) have written, published and been paid for. Books are sacred, curated things in many of our lives and we are party to the perpetuation of their physical importance. We need publishers to make this a reality. Friends congratulated me on publishing a book and my Kindle-owning mother was ecstatic, but the formal ceremony of purchasing a book and having it delivered and worshipped will always be lost for eBooks (my late discovery of CreateSpace, Amazon’s paperback self-publishing arm which works in exactly the same way as Kindle except it prints on-demand version of paperback books has, however, certainly peaked my interest.)
3) The reality of Kindle sales is disappointing. I knew fine well that such a niche book would always be a hard sell and has quite a finite audience base, but it is currently lost within the miasma of 4 million books available for sale on Amazon. It is currently only available for Kindle, I hadn’t yet reformatted it to be published with Smashwords (the other big eBook publisher). After 2 weeks of it being available at £1.99 I had sold 6 copies and I knew exactly who each of those sales went to. As a first published author on Amazon I am untried, untested and without the hundreds of positive book reviews enjoyed by the hard-working and successful independent authors and this reflects in sales. It’ll be an uphill battle to build on this base, but thankfully eBooks can live online for years.
4) A book is NEVER finished: Yes I had a finite time to complete my self-indulgent challenge and a maximum word count to play with, but since its publication online I have updated the text 4 times already. The first two aimed to deal with (very) minor formatting errors which has slipped by my addled square-eyes, the latter two expanded the text. It’s now 1700 words longer than the first edition. Updates take minutes to upload and hours to become live – it must be agonisingly frustrating for paperback authors who spot a missed comma or apostrophe before a new printing can be produced. I’ve had to force myself not to mess with it for now, to let it be out in the commercial world to live or die on its own.
5) I’m going to do it again: It was addictive. Like peer-reviewed journal articles it’s a massive ego-boost to know that people have read something you have written and have learned and can take something away – even if one of them is your mum. It is also a lot of fun. The nitty gritty of page formatting for file conversion wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d envisaged. Ultimately the whole experience has made me empowered and let me do something I had no other real intentions of doing at this time. My plan moving forward is to make myself a lot more work and create a series – the ‘Abridged Roman York’ (the latest updated to Rufinus added this into the title screen). More books which link to each other, in my mind, could potentially generate more sales and a lot more fun.
There isn’t a moral, message or real conclusion to this post – just a suggestion to go and give this a go, write something down and send it out into the world to read. Like blog posting, but the formatting is easier…
On the 25th May 2013 York’s eponymous visitor attraction, the Minster, has reopened its undercroft – the archaeological museum displaying many of the in situ remains to be found beneath the building proper. Dangerous levels of weathering and structural stress nearly led to disaster 50 years ago, but a continued series of repairs and investment has ensured the preservation of this historic landmark. As part of a £20million redevelopment. titled the ‘York Minster Revealed’ project, most of the gallery space is redeveloped and the visitor experience generally is expanded.
The Minster itself sits directly atop the Principia of the legionary fortress. Whilst the physical remains of the Basilica SW wall are minimal in their survival, they constitute one of the very few remains visible at all from Roman York. The Legionary Bathhouse (now under a pub) and the Multangular Tower (the SW wall tower used continually from AD70 onwards and part of the City Wall).
The Basilica Wall
The Undercroft revealed is a beautiful little visitor attraction now (its predecessor was looking a little dated). The small finds are well displayed, nicely interpreted and have some intriguing touches. Using a moulded hand to hold the stylus on top of a tile graffito was a particular highlight. The displays are all representative of the time and money spent on this gallery – its worth it. To my mind, the rest of the Roman experience of York is really well developed; there is a slight obsession with the Basilica.The display obviously follows on into the Anglian, Norman and Medieval periods. A cinema at the end runs three short films – one of which is a very well produced piece lasting 3 minutes identifying the Rise of Constantine in York in terms of its Christian significance.
The Undercroft is free as part of an Adult entry ticket (£10, valid for a year) or entirely free if you are a York resident. Enjoy