18 May 2016
...or an impatient person's guide to publishing a self-help ebook and paperback, and launching a support group.
"Making Friends with Anxiety means I'm not alone anymore, like-minded people are always available on my mobile. People that I now consider friends...”
“:)It's somewhere I can be myself, where I'm understood, nobody will judge me or call me a nutter or tell me I'm being stupid. People are so warm and caring – it's like a big fluffy comfort blanket!”
“This group makes me feel not so insular. Never have I spoken completely honestly about my anxiety or what it has caused me to do or feel. I have a voice, I am not alone and everyone on this site is so supportive and kind which is exactly what you need when you feel low. It is like a little supportive family when you don't have your own to turn to.”
These are just a handful of the responses when I asked the 3000 members of the Making Friends with Anxiety Facebook group what they get from being part of our online community, yet a few months ago the group didn't even exist. Here’s the story behind my self-published book and the group that goes with it - or the story so far, anyway.
When I was launching my novel Another Night, Another Day (which focuses on three people who meet in a psychiatric clinic) I wrote several blogs for a mental health website called Moodscope about anxiety. Anxiety was the theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2014 and, as someone who’s suffered from periods of bad anxiety over the years and tried various treatments, I felt I had something to contribute. Each day that week I explored a different element that can lead to excessive worry and panic, starting with ‘A’ for ‘Adrenaline’ and finishing with ‘Y’ for ‘You’, so that it by Sunday I’d spelt out the whole word. I researched each subject carefully and had the content checked by a GP to make sure the advice I gave was responsible.
The blogs led to the ebook
The reaction to those blogs was heartfelt - it seemed there were a lot of people out there who were as desperate as I've been. It led me to believe there was an opportunity to offer anxiety sufferers something more substantial and informative; something more permanent that they could turn to whenever the need arose. As a former advertising copywriter I’ve had plenty of practice at writing non-fiction, so I set my hand to penning Making Friends with Anxiety, a little self-help book where I drew on my own experiences and learnings over the years in order to help others help themselves.
The title reflects the simple premise that befriending anxiety helps we sufferers manage our condition far better than fighting it and that doing so enables us to regain control of our feelings and physical reactions. And like my original blogs, the chapters of the book spell out 'A.N.X.I.E.T.Y.' which I hope makes the content easier to remember. I am aware that whilst medication and therapy can be extremely beneficial, they’re not usually immediately effective or available straight away - I believe the book can help plug that gap. Because make no mistake, being in the throes of bad anxiety in any form is absolutely vile. It can be paralysing mentally and physically, and whatever form it takes (panic attacks, OCD or a phobia, for instance), sufferers often need all the support they can get. I also hope by keeping the book relatively short, simple and affordable, it will reach a wide readership and speak to people from many different walks of life.
I decided to self-publish – both out of curiosity (I wanted to find out what the world of self-publishing was like) and a desire act fast (with mental health services having been cut so extensively around the UK, I didn’t feel there was a moment to waste). I tapped bestelling author of The Thief Taker, Cath Quinn, for advice on self publishing (despite the title of her book she didn't seem to begrudge me stealing her insights) on a train up to London. After that the book took me a couple of months to draft and another few weeks to edit, design, get proofread – including by two doctor friends – and upload online; but overall the project took less than three months, which is one heck of a lot a faster than writing and publishing a novel via the traditional route.
I launched the book in the autumn of 2014 and soon found it was reaching its audience. Since then it has sold thousands of copies and currently has 80 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.8*s.
“Sarah Rayner, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your book is amazing and gets me through the day.”
“The reason I am emailing you is that I bought your little e-book a couple of weeks ago and it has helped me TREMENDOUSLY!!!! It may just be the right timing, but it has enabled me to put so much of what I have already been told and read into context and I finally feel like I really understand the relationship between anxiety, negative thoughts and the 'vicious circle'. I've joined your Facebook group, and I'm really hoping that I can use my understanding to give positive advice to others.”
In forming the Making Friends with Anxiety Facebook group I was following the example of my friend Kate Harrison, who’d had great success with her book The 5/2 Diet Book, Feast for 5 days a Week and Fast for 2 to Lose Weight, Boost your Brain and Transform your Health, and 5/2 Facebook group. I joined that group in 2012 when Kate set it up – today it boasts over 35,000 members - and her 5/2 books have all been bestsellers. Talk about inspiring!
I decided to make the group ‘closed’ from the outset, so only those in it could see posts. This means anyone can apply to join, but once they’re accepted it leaves members free to share in confidence, often posting stuff they don’t feel able to express elsewhere in the daily lives, either with friends and family, or on their own personal Facebook pages. So far the Facebook group seems to work in a similar way to the book – these days we carry our mobiles with us pretty much everywhere, which means members can access support 24/7. Members say:
“It’s a little 'go to place' when feeling overwhelmed with negative thoughts where you will receive reassurance and peer support during the difficult times. Without fail humour creeps in – the perfect antidote. It’s also a place to share our positive experiences which keep the motivation wheel turning, and hopefully inspire and motivate others.”
“Since joining the group I have had more good days than bad.”
“The group has made me feel more 'normal'. Before I felt like a freak as my family isn't very understanding or clued up on mental health issues. So for me the group has been a great comfort. I now know that I'm not alone!!”
“I have joined other anxiety groups, but this is by far the friendliest, most personal and positive one I've found.”
To see such openness and generosity in people has been heart-warming. I’ve long held a belief that humans are basically more good than bad, but with everything that’s in the news currently it seems especially hard to hold steadfast to such optimism.
In the weeks that followed the launch of the ebook, I had dozens of requests for a print version of the Making Friends with Anxiety so decided demand warranted the launch of a paperback – and now this too is available on Amazon. And whilst I can’t sell the printed version at quite such a low price as the ebook, there’s something about holding a book in the hand that is so much more sensual and comforting than a digital version that I'm delighted that approximately 1 in 3 purchasers opts for it. I wasn’t quite sure how good the quality of a self-published paperback would be, but I couldn't be happier; moreover it is the perfect size to slip in a handbag or carry with you - another comfort blanket, if you like.
There are drawbacks to this whole venture, obviously. Some people are very distressed and in the early days of the group I used to feel responsible for each member. The group grew fast, however, so I rapidly realised I couldn't possibly respond to each post personally, and now I have a team of over a dozen Admins helping run the group. They are a wonderful bunch of people and give lots of their time to help moderate the group. Without them the online support simply would not be possible.
We've had hiccups, obviously, but overall I remain confident that both the book and the group are helping others just as I’ve been helped myself in the past, so I remind myself of the old adage: you can’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs. And as I watch word of the book and group continue to spread, I’m excited (if also a little anxious) to see what the future holds.
If you're interested in reading more of Sarah's blogs, she also writes for Psychology Today, and you can find her articles here.