Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality

March 21, 2016

Ash Huang does a lot. She’s completely abandoned the idea that you have one title in the professional world and she's still managed to use her wide range of skills at companies like Twitter, Pinterest and Dropbox. At the moment, her multi-hyphenate title looks like this: novelist-essayist-designer-illustrator. She’s also teaching herself programming. 

And these are not hobbies. Ash jumps head first into each of her passions, one of the latest being her self-published novel, The Firesteel. It’s a book about a man who time travels to find lost love. What’s almost as mystifying as the protagonist’s journey is the fact that Ash decided to design, publish and market the book on her own. And she won the 2015 Writer Digest's Self-Published Book Award. No biggie.

We asked Ash to tell us about how and why she decided to get her hands dirty with every aspect of a gargantuan project like publishing a book and how she kept her sanity in the process. 

 Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality
 Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality

People often ask me what possessed me to spend hundreds of hours writing and publishing a book, especially when my main hustle is already creative and lucrative. I find I don’t have a satisfactory answer that appeases logic. I didn’t go into writing thinking I’d earn any money or fame, and being a novelist doesn’t capture any special cachet at cocktail parties. The only thing that drove me to write a book was that I love to read and I hadn’t found a book like this one yet. It’s against conventional advice to do anything without a strong reason, but as I had no tangible reason to publish this book, perhaps nothing could convince me to give it up.

I began writing The Firesteel while I still had a demanding full-time job. I worked in little snatches of time, sometimes just twenty minutes after dinner. Gretchin Rubin talks a bit about frequency in one of her essays. She refers to a creative couple she knows and says, “We talk about the ‘ten-minute rule.’ If our work is going well, we can sit down and get something good done in ten minutes.”

Through hundreds of "just ten minute" moments, I finished a few drafts. With the help of a few friends and a freelance editor I hired, I narrowed in on a last draft. Deciding I was finished with The Firesteel was a nerve-wracking decision. 

“​In a self-led project like this, it’s easy to pick and prod until the end of time.”

I had to sit myself down and come up with a list of themes and examine the story arcs of my characters. I told myself that once these arcs were concluded in a satisfactory way and that the themes were conveyed, I was finished. I like to think of lists like these as a contract with myself. Once the contract is fulfilled, the project has to be considered complete.

 Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality

Now I had to decide if I wanted to find an agent and attempt to get traditionally published, or to self-publish. The traditional publishing process is a long one. First, a writer tends to find an agent who believes in the work, and then that agent pitches to various publishers. I sent a few half-hearted inquiries to agents, but their replies (all no’s) took as long as six weeks to show up in my inbox.

“I have this rule with myself that I do not ask for permission to be creative.”

I was starting to realize that as an author with no formal education or resume, I was in for a long battle. From my time working at start-ups, I also did not want to wait years before getting feedback from real readers. Self-publishing felt like the right choice because I could publish The Firesteel in just a few months and get the book into the hands of real human beings.

I ran a Kickstarter campaign and got quotes from a few printers. I decided to only offer a hardcover and an e-book, optimizing for two audiences: 1) the people in my platform who know me as a designer and want an object, and 2) people who are driven by financial prudence or are minimalist with their belongings. The campaign itself was a lot of maintenance. I had a backlog of canned posts I’d written for certain milestones (first day! 50% funded! two weeks!) to keep up momentum, as well as prizes I had to fulfill. This ranged from bookmarks I printed at home and cut by hand, to calendars with photos from various locations in the book. If I could do it over again, I’d offer fewer tangible rewards (calendars! gift packets! events!) and more intangible rewards (a 1hr Skype critique! signed copies!). Between the printing costs, event costs, gifts, shipping and Kickstarter’s take, I was about $500 in the hole — not too bad a price to print 500 books!

 Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality
 Designer/Writer Ash Huang on How She Bootstrapped her Novel to Reality

There are certainly cons to self-publishing, especially if you don’t have a print design background like I did. Formatting e-books is very confusing and it’s a challenge to design a good cover, let alone set the text of the actual book. I don’t have an easy way to get my books into bookstores, and I don’t have people on the watch for opportunities to highlight my book. Any marketing The Firesteel gets is a result of me scratching my head and muddling my way through Facebook ads or Goodreads giveaways.

However, it’s been gratifying. The book started making profit just three months after I published it. Every few weeks an acquaintance, friend or stranger will let me know they’ve read it. Had I waited to be chosen, it’s hard to say if I’d have even published by now. Instead, I’m hard at work on my second book. Though I’m eyeing a more traditional route for this one, I’m so much better armed having gone through the self-publishing process: I’ve proven that I can write a book that breaks financially even and gained confidence in my writing abilities.

To see what Ash tackles next, follow her on Twitter.

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