What I learned from self-publishing a friend’s book

When you lower the barrier for independent publishing, interesting things happen

Hey, this is Hamish. I wanted to tell you about my friend Justin.

Justin, who’s in his early sixties, is attempting to recover from cancer, along with a litany of other physical ailments, and lives in his son’s house in Colorado. But I first met him in Hong Kong, where I lived from 2006 to 2010, and where he lived in between stints in mainland China. He was one of the first people I got in touch with in Hong Kong because a friend had told me about his blog, Shenzhen Zen. Justin was working for a Hong Kong newspaper at the time, but he did some of his best writing for the blog, where he wrote meta-commentary about his day job as a reporter, cultural observations about life as an American trying (in vain) to make sense of the Middle Kingdom, and about his budding lovelife with a woman he called C, who was the embodiment of a new China: ambitious, determined, confident.

I was fresh out of journalism school and wanted to get to know media people in Hong Kong. Justin agreed to meet so I could interview him for a story I never ended up writing about a minor newsroom scandal. We sat in his cramped apartment on a sweaty summer night and drank beer from tall cans. It was the start of an enduring friendship.

Over the course of that night, I discovered that Justin had had a long and colorful newspaper career, which included writing not one but two columns under fake identities (as right-wing crank Ed Anger and as Serena “World’s Sexiest Psychic Advisor” Sabak) for the legendary Weekly World News. As a rock writer in the ’70s and ’80s, he had interviewed Yoko Ono, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, and James Brown, and, he claimed, shot up vitamin B12 backstage with Ted Nugent. In person, Justin was as compelling as his writing: a bit cranky, but kind-hearted and funny as hell.

In 2004, Justin had lost his newspaper job in the US and, on a lark, gone with his adult son to the emerging metropolis of Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong, to teach English to Chinese kids. More than ten years would pass before he reluctantly returned to the US to live. Over the course of that decade, he jumped from Shenzhen to Hong Kong to Beijing, with a brief, fraught interlude in Hua Hin, Thailand, where he roomed with a convicted murderer (“Depending on his level of sobriety (frequently low), he maintains a generally cheerful civility, punctuated with frisky knife play”). All the while, as he toured the newsrooms of China’s propaganda machines, he detailed his adventures on his blog, capturing a wild time not only in his life, but also in world history, as the global economy dipped in and out of crisis, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, Beijing hosted the Olympic Games, and globalization turned China into a superpower.

Last year, I started working with Justin to compile and edit that decade of writing into a book. We weren’t able to convince any agents or publishers to take it on, but I was determined to get it published because it provided an illuminating (and entertaining) view of China in its economic adolescence through the lens of a hard-bitten reporter’s second coming of age. The story had all the elements necessary for a rollicking romance: booze, drugs, sex, love, and Communism.

At the same time, it was also an opportunity to get familiar with the self-publishing process, which I knew had evolved a lot in recent years. It was suddenly possible to self-publish a highly professional book for minimal cost without needing any technical or design prowess. And so we decided to do the book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.

The book is now on sale in paperback and for Kindle. It’s called Shenzhen Zen: An Accidental Anthropologist’s Decade of Life, Love, and Misadventure in the Middle Kingdom.

Why am I telling you about Shenzhen Zen?

Well, for one, I’d love you to read the book. Justin writes beautifully and honestly, and I think you’ll like his work. But it’s also worth drawing a parallel between what has happened in the world of self-publishing and what we’re doing with Substack.

It used to be difficult to self-publish a book. As well as figuring out the writing and editing, you had to design the thing, pay to get it printed in bulk, and then figure out a way to get it into people’s hands. This process would cost many thousands of dollars.

However, with Amazon KDP and similar services, you can just upload a document to a template, offer it as an ebook and have it printed (and delivered) on demand, and sell it through the world’s largest bookstore. All up, Justin and I spent $500 on the project, most of which went to paying a freelancer to format and proofread the manuscript. A friend did the cover art for free.

With Substack, we are attempting to make it simple for a writer to start their own professional writing business, without needing tech or business skills, without having to handle administration or service, and without having to pay anything upfront. To start a subscription publication, you no longer have to cobble together a disparate array of tools like WordPress, MailChimp, Memberful, and GoDaddy and then figure out how to do everything from pricing to customer support by yourself. You can just sign up on Substack, start publishing, and, all going well, see the money show up in your bank account.

We believe that by dramatically lowering the barrier to entry for subscription publishing, we will see similar market-amplification effects to those seen in self-publishing since the advent of the Kindle. Before 2007, self-publishing was a niche activity available only to those willing to spend big money to get the job done. Since Amazon introduced the Kindle, the practice has bloomed into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Just as exciting, however, is that Substack, like Amazon KDP, can usher in work from independent writers that otherwise would not have seen the light of day. Without simple self-publishing tools, Justin wouldn’t have a book. Without Substack, we may never have seen publications like Kelly Dwyer’s The Second Arrangement, Caroline Crampton’s PodMail, or Rachel Cohen’s Notebook. For as much as there is an interesting business story here, I find the significance for individual people to be far more exciting. This shift is about giving independent writers the tools and support they deserve.

Shenzhen Zen has been selling well, but I don’t go to the Amazon sales dashboard to find satisfaction in its publication. Instead, I find that in Justin’s voice; in hearing his gratitude that a decade of his work could be enshrined in this miniature monument. Today, I pick up the book, feel its weight in my hands, and am simply glad that it’s a real thing.

Justin got the tools he deserved, and the rest of us got a story that deserved to be heard.

Buy Shenzhen Zen. Got your own story about self-publishing? Tell us: hello@substack.com.