My negative views on self-publishing were entrenched. They came from an expert source: the chat room where I hung out in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Self-publishing was the punchline, and the lead-ins were all our countless stories, the myth-making we did around the dream of getting published. Of those who hung out there during those years, one of us got a big deal. One. The other 500 or so regulars consoled ourselves with the fact that at least we weren’t self-published, right? I was one of that 500.
We used to tell each other that if you just got an agent, you would sell a book. Well, I’ve had four agents. I’ve been shopped to all the big houses by agents who worked on my behalf. I have gone to committee, I’ve been this close, and I didn’t sell a book. Close, oh-so-close with one of them, but the house went with another book. That one was turned into a movie with Laura Dern. Mine went back in the trunk.
Some of it, I am sure, was timing. Books are products, and products are produced to tie in with trends. My books were not in sync with the literary trends of the day; memoirs and chick-lit. I will never write a memoir, and my poignant, odd literary novels featured no shopping, no expensive shoes, no urban locations of note. Absolutely no one worked at a magazine, in PR or in publishing. The closest I got to chick lit was a novel about a bunch of housewives. One of the editors who read it wrote to my agent, “This book is hilarious, but who wants to read about a bunch of housewives?”
This was three years before “Desperate Housewives” hit the air.
If I were devoted to the idea of being published, I suppose I’d have dusted off that novel and tried again once the TV show aired. But I was never writing to be published. I was writing to write, not to fit into a commercial category and get on the product offering of a publishing house. I liked my stories and I wanted to tell them, even if no one wanted to publish them. So I just wrote.
Somewhere in there, in the years when I was deliberately avoiding the hunt for another agent, the publishing world underwent a severe correction. Or maybe “bloodbath” is a better term. Houses closed, consolidated, pulled back. The mid-list author felt the pinch strongly. The best I could have ever have hoped for was mid-list, and those writers were starving.
So, I just went on with my life. Did I mention that as I wrote, I was also pursuing a career that I enjoy? A career with stability, benefits, a 401K, and vacation time?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I wanted to be a writer, a full-time real writer. My favorite thing in the world was waking up, making a pot of coffee while getting the kids out the door, then slumping to the computer in sweats and bathrobe, where I would ignore the world and write and drink coffee until my legs were bouncing madly under the desk, at which point my kids would get home from school and I’d realized that I hadn’t showered, dressed, eaten or even brushed my teeth.
That was my ideal day, and instead I had to get up, get dressed, go to work, and come home every day. Somehow, I survived. I paid my mortgage on time. I could afford new tires, the vet bills for the string of rescue dogs I adopted. I put three kids through college. I took vacations. I’d have loved to be a real writer. But my life was good, solid, and stable. So was my writing output. I had, complete in the trunk, seven fairly finished novels and two not-at-all-finished novels, along with many, many essays, short stories and poems.
My views on self-publishing were challenged when my father decided to use Amazon’s Createspace to publish my late mother’s mystery novel. Mom and Dad ran a B&B, and she wrote down everything she observed about her more colorful guests, then strung it together with a putative plot. It carries my mother’s voice, her humor, her keen eye and keener wit. My dad then published one of his books, which is full of action and humor in the familiar setting of my parents’ home island. The funny thing is, these books sold.
So, flash forward some years. Dad was bored, but not bored enough to write another book. He was grousing about this to me, and we tossed around the idea of my writing a sequel to Mom’s book (which I have started, by the way—it’s in the trunk). But I had all these unpublished novels, and I said, hey, let’s put one of mine out. Let’s just see how that goes. So I hired a cover artist, scoured the book for typos, hired a professional formatter because I’m not an IDIOT and I don’t know how to do that, and published a book. We went with the trailer park murder mystery, Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park.
Listen, even if you don’t want to be part of Createspace, use them to make your physical copies. Use them as your printing press. Amazon has made it as easy as possible to upload your files and turn them into a book. You can also order your own (reasonable) copies to give away to friends and family, sell at readings, sell to Powell’s so you’re shelved there (heh), tuck into micro-libraries all over town, and hide under your coffee table, to be produced with a flourish when a friend says she’s been meaning to order it.
Did I have any troubles? I had a funny reading level assignment, which I had to make some noise to have removed. Also, I have changed the cover, and the Amazon page shows the old cover. Details, details.
Actually, I have two important pieces of advice. The first and most important is this: hire a professional proofreader. I didn’t, because I thought between Dad and I, we would catch them all. We are such literate people, we probably don’t even make errors. No need to pay some proofreader’s fees!
Except…here’s the book, after it had sold many hundreds of copies, with all the errors marked.
Nice, right? Colorful! Like one of Asa Strug’s Bibles.
I’ve since republished it without all those errors, but the majority of the copies sold in that edition. And I know that we all learn best from our own mistakes, but if in this one instance you could just please learn from mine, I’d feel like my time here has not been wasted. Thanks.
My second piece of advice is, please don’t have any life crises right as your book is coming out. It will stand in the way of the requisite marketing efforts. My brother went into the hospital and was in and out over the next nine months, near death. I never did have that Amazon giveaway.
Many people will warn you with great sternness that you will have to do your own marketing if you self-publish. And that’s true. If you want to make a living at this, you will work your tail off. But there’s also a myth that publishing houses do all your work for you as far as marketing and PR. They might if they have high hopes for your book. If not, you’re stuck doing all this yourself anyway. I speak from knowing writers who are published through the big houses.
Still, I don’t like marketing my own work, and I do a really half-assed job of it. It would be nice to have a publishing house doing a half-assed job of it, rather than me doing my own half-assed job. Then I could complain about the publishing house, and perhaps even blame it, rather than looking in the mirror and saying to my reflection, “Karen, you can do better than this in your sleep, so market your book already.”
And the truth is, if you’re not trying to support yourself, you do not have to market. When you feel like marketing, you market. When you don’t, you don’t. The sky does not fall in if you ignore your book, or don’t post anything on your blog or author page on Facebook. You’re not expunged from Amazon or publicly shamed or put in stocks. You just don’t sell any books.
Surprisingly, if you’re too tired to market your self-published book, it still sells. People find your book according to how you have it tagged on Amazon, they read it, they leave reviews, and more people do or do not buy it. I compare my numbers to friends who have deals with houses and sometimes my numbers are actually better than theirs.
The only true difficulty for me is that everyone I work with seems to have bought my book. I find this excruciating. I guess I only want total strangers to read my work, and carefully chosen friends and fellow writers. I have a hard time with casual work acquaintances peering so deeply into my dark and twisted soul. It’s led to some uncomfortable interludes in the company break room, with me squirming and cringing as someone says nice things, and my preemptively blurting out that I know about all the typos in the first edition, and the like. For a person like me, this feeling of exposure is uncomfortable. But I’ve survived this and I’m grateful for the support.
So, if you’re wondering if I will do it again, yes. I have big plans for this year, probably over the summer. I’ve already paid for professional proofreading, too. My goal is to empty that damn trunk, to get it all out. I have so many words, and I want those words in the world, even though people at work will probably be reading it all.