Q&A with Danil Mikhailov

Danil Mikhailov is an instructor at Fujian White Crane kung fu club in London, and has recently self-published his book on the subject, The History and Philosophy of Kung Fu: An Introduction. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions from Brighton Plot Bunnies about the process of DIYing, why he made the choices he did and how he has been marketing the book.

PB: Why did you choose to self-publish rather than using POD?

DM:I actually did both. I used POD as the printing method to cut my up-front cost and avoid having to hold too much stock, but decided to publish myself rather than contacting a small publisher because I was aware that my market is very niche and I already have good contacts within that market to help in my marketing (through the FWC Club, through my academic contacts at SOAS, and thanks to my time as editor of the Wushu Scholar [online] magazine). Since I have good contacts and [the] ability to generate sufficient pre-orders it seemed to make more business sense to set myself up as a publishing house – Philosophers’ Circle Limited - and take higher profit on each copy of the book sold than I would have done had I gone with an agent and a publishing house.

PB: After your first print run, will any subsequent print runs be cheaper per unit than the first batch?

DM:Because I opted for the POD approach, there is a set cost per book printed from the digital master copy, so subsequent print runs (I have already had to order a second print run because the first 250 copies sold out within a couple of months) are at the same cost. The only difference is that I no longer have to pay the one off digitisation fee.

PB: Did you have a ready audience who would buy your books?

DM: Yes, as per above. I managed to get around 100 pre-orders for the book, which covered the costs of typesetting and printing it.

PB: Was it easy to find the right printer to produce your book?

DM: I was lucky to know a good printer – CPI Antony Rowe – whom I used before for producing corporate publications for English Heritage. In fact, my work at English Heritage, where I started in Corporate Services, producing their Annual Accounts and other corporate material, and eventually ended up sitting on their Publishing Board, was a great help. It meant I knew a fair bit about the printing and publishing process.

PB: Apart from the research needed in the first instance, how long did it take to write the book once you had started?

DM: Writing the first draft of the book took 3-4 months, and then twice as long again editing and rewriting it.

PB: As a kung fu instructor yourself, as well as having a full-time job, were you able to write regularly or did you have to fit writing around everything else?

DM: I had to fit writing in around other things I was doing. I did a big chunk of the first draft while on a two-week holiday in Hong Kong and then finished it by setting aside a couple of evenings each week working in the library. Then the re-writing was done in the evenings, whenever I had free time. My trick for making myself knuckle down to it was to announce when the book [would] be finished and available before I even started it, and that meant that I had to meet my own deadline to avoid embarrassment. It certainly worked as a way of motivating myself.

PB: In what way do you think lessons drawn from the history and philosophy of kung fu can be applied to the practice of writing?

DM: That is a great question! Kung fu is a way of self-cultivation and self-perfection through the practice of a skill, and that skill could be writing as much as martial arts. The same insights apply: perseverance, focus, self-confidence, continuing desire to improve, etc., all will help you hone the skill. Eventually, given enough time, the methods you use will be internalised and writing will just become part of you, rather than something that you do.

PB: How do you market your book as a self-published author? How difficult is this?

DM: Marketing is the most difficult thing, as you do not have the power and reach and networking of a publisher / agent behind you. There is no set formula, I think. You just need to do a lot of different kinds of marketing: 1) use your existing networks of friends and contacts, so in my case the club, for example, 2) make sure you have an ISBN number to allow your book to be registered by Nielsen and automatically entered into key [wholesalers'] databases, 3) make sure you take full advantage of technology, by selling via Amazon, which gives you an international reach, 4) build a website for yourself, 5) encourage people to review your book, wherever it appears, 6) create an ePub and Kindle version – these are cheap to do once you have the digital file you need for POD, so you may as well do it. Again, it widens your reach, allowing you to sell via Amazon Kindle store, iTunes, Barnes & Noble ereader etc., 7) finally, just keep mentioning your book in any way you can, for example, I run advertorials for my club in a local magazine every month, so I make sure my byline for the advertorial says “Danil Mikhailov, author of ...”

Also, do not forget that there is nothing to stop you, if you so choose, to later release a second edition with an established publisher and agent. In this way the success of your first, self-published edition can be used as evidence that there is a market out there for your book... Just make sure you keep the digital rights yourself...

PB: What suggestions do you have for anyone deciding to self-publish?

DM: You can only be successful if you approach this as a proper business. Think, what would a new publishing house need to do to get themselves established, and then do the same things as a self-publisher. In fact, think of yourself as a publishing house rather as a writer who has self-published. That is why I created a limited company, Philosophers’ Circle Limited, to separate myself as a writer, from the entity of the publisher.

Also, invest in quality: editing, typesetting, design of front cover, etc. The worst mistake is to cut corners, which makes your book look unprofessional – that undermines all the effort you put into writing it. If you put your book next to a professionally published one, an independent observer should not be able to tell the difference.

PB: Obviously, writing nonfiction differs from writing fiction, as you have to stick to the facts. Given you were writing about a subject so steeped in myth and legend, how difficult was it to get to the truth?

DM: Very difficult, it took over a decade of research, but in a way that was the USP of my book. There have been plenty of popular books about kung fu, rehashing the old myths, but very few attempts to seriously research it, at least not in the West. From the very beginning I approached the project with a clear objective in mind: my book should present the evidence for every claim I make, as if it were an academic work, but it should be written, as much as possible, in non-academic, accessible language. That is a difficult balance to strike, but it was always clear to me that I should err on the side of fact and research as much as possible in this first book. Then later books can be written in a freer way, referencing this first book where required, without having to present all the evidence again. That way the foundations are secure and can be built on. It also means, I hope, that the book has something truly original to say. That combination of facts and being original were very important to me throughout.

Thanks very much, Danil, for lending us your valuable time. If you want to, you can buy a copy of Danil's book here.