Friday, April 12, 2013

Why I’m still happy—six months later—I self published my debut novel, Here Among Us.

When I think back to how I felt when I finished writing Here Among Us, one word comes to mind— and it isn’t elated, gratified or proud.  It’s depressed.  
Let me explain.
I’d spent years writing the book, had it professionally edited… twice (and there were still typos!). Had it read by two of my most respected writer friends (one a well-published poet, the other a published and award-winning novelist), let it sit for six months and then went through it again. I believed in it deeply. When I asked myself if I was sure I’d written the best possible book I could write and the answer was yes, I knew I was ready.  I began looking for an agent.
I set about compiling lists of agents, reading every “how to find an agent” website I could and generally trying to determine what to say in my query. I felt reasonably confident about writing the query. I’m a working copywriter, so writing sales copy—essentially what a query is—was pretty much second nature.
So why was I depressed?
It took me a while of feeling down to figure out that after more than four years of writing and refining this novel, I was deeply unhappy that the second leg of the journey involved completely giving up control of my work. It wasn’t that I felt I deserved an easier path than other writers before me, and I certainly didn’t resent the idea of jumping through hoops until I signed with an agent.  My depression had to do with time; the entire process could take anywhere from several months to a full year or more and even then, there was no guarantee that my agent would find a publisher.
I was chastened by stories like a gifted writer friend lived through. A few years back, after months of sending out queries, she’d found a well-known New York agent who was excited about her beautifully written memoir chronicling her years in the circus. After a valiant, twelve-month effort to place the book, and despite serious interest on the part of several publishers, not to mention significant praise for the writing style and story, the agent came up short.
When I thought about the possibility of investing that much time for zero results, I felt depressed.
Do I want to compete with Snooki?
I asked myself to be realistic about the likelihood of an agent placing my book. I was an unknown who had written a literary novel (not easy to sell under the best of circumstances).  I had no platform and no track record of previous sales (anyway, even if I had been published, without adequate sales, I could still be passed over). 
Depending on the month, the NY Times bestseller list brimmed with books by celebrities like Snooki and Kris Kardashian. Looking at the list of bestsellers, I got even more depressed, because let’s face it, if the big publishers were looking for ROI, they weren’t going to publish me.
It looked to me like traditional publishers were only interested in reality tv stars, sports figures and the Dan Browns or Stephen Kings of the world.  In short, high powered public figures with well-established platforms (and in the cases of King and Brown, well deserved) that would justify a serious marketing effort. And of course, all but guarantee a healthy return on their investment.
Sure outliers slipped through.  But again, I could be looking at years of trying to find an agent and publisher. And even if by some miracle a publisher decided to take a chance on me, I’d be giving up complete control over the novel, including—but not limited to—all the rights to the work.  In the stories I’d heard from published friends, this always seemed to be their biggest regret.  When the book didn’t sell and the bookstore returned their books to the publisher (generally a short six weeks after they arrived on shelves), they couldn’t turn around and sell the leftovers on Amazon because they didn’t own the rights to their own books. 
So I decided to go the self-publishing route, understanding that I, not some deep-pocket publisher, would be the one footing the bill for the cover design and lay out. In the process I’ve learned a few things about the pros and cons of self-publishing literary fiction. 
Let’s start with a pretty big con. I gave up the prestige of the big publishing house.  Prestige, the admiration of ones peers means a lot to most people and authors who write literary fiction are certainly not immune.  Let’s face it, we’re obviously not doing it for the money (other genres like sci-fi, romance or suspense/thriller are far more likely to pull in the big bucks).  We’re doing it purely for the love of creating a multi-layered, beautifully written story that attempts to tackle the big questions. Whether we succeed is quite another matter.
And the pro?
Having said that, I was surprised at how little my readers seemed to care who published my novel.  In fact, I’ve only had a few people ask me who the publisher was and when I tell them “Straight On True Publications,” they just sort of nod fake sagely and crinkle up their eyes like they’ve heard the name but can’t think where (typical human nature; people don’t like it when they don’t know something and especially don’t like to admit they don’t know). 
It seems that the only thing my readers care about is whether or not I’ve delivered on my promise (unspoken but still, it’s there in the cover design, in the product description, in the first pages available for reading before they buy) to write the best book I could write.  In my case that’s meant a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and a whole lot of other readers who have sent me emails saying how the book impacted them.  Most ask when I’m planning on publishing the next.
So while I may have given up some prestige by self-publishing my novel, I gained control.  If I hadn’t done it, I’d be checking my email everyday, wondering why some faceless, voiceless, overworked mid-level publishing person in New York didn’t think I was quite good enough. Instead, when I’m not working on my next novel, I’m reading positive reviews on Amazon of Here Among Us, putting checks in the bank, scheduling public and book club readings, developing a solid fan base and most importantly, writing, writing, writing. If I hadn’t done it, I’d still be floating in limbo.
I’d still be depressed. 
Instead I’m happy. 
And grateful.  Very, very grateful.

Something Like Faith

Years ago I was talking to me sister and somehow the subject of faith came up.  I don’t remember exactly what she said but it was something like, “you don’t have faith because you stopped going to church.”  We were raised in a strict Catholic household and her comment spoke to the fact that she had maintained her faith by continuing to attend church, which she does to this day.  Her faith helped her through some very tough times (the death of a child for one) and she seemed genuinely perplexed and even saddened by the fact that, as far as she was concerned, I had tossed my belief out the window as an adult. I was floored by the comment but having made a conscious decision to leave the church years before, couldn’t think why.
Now I know.
I never once lost my faith. It just morphed into something that had less to do with organized religion and more to do with a larger context of how I lived my life.
I’ve always been a writer, was a writer long before I published Here Among Us and the act of sitting down to write everyday (something I was doing on that day when my sister and I had that conversation) required a level of faith I was ill equipped to describe, much less defend. But it was there as real and true as anything that my sister experienced. 
I suppose I would answer today that it took enormous faith to continue pursuing my dream of publishing a novel while I had small children and a husband who counted on me to help with his business.  Later, it took faith to put down those first sentences—after two other failed attempts to finish a novel—and to refine them into lyrical prose that enticed and hopefully at times, even delighted. 
It took faith to throw out whole sections because they weren’t quite good enough and faith to wait for some better idea or circumstance or plot twist to rise up from the ether of my mind.  The simple act of sitting down to write every day and creating believable characters – who really do become at some point more like your children or best friends—requires great faith.  It takes faith to bring them into your heart and faith to let them go.
The nice thing about getting older is that life wears you down and in spite of yourself experiences—either good or bad—soften the hard edges.  You develop a patina, a sort of “pride cometh before a fall” knowing glow that not only shuts your mouth but simultaneously makes you profoundly grateful.  I seriously doubt that my sister would ever accuse me of not having faith today.  In fact, my guess is that she’d freely admit that her own faith has been tested all too often to the limits of its endurance, that she’d even thrown it away at times, only to retrieve it with a new, deeper understanding of her own nature.
She’d happily agree that there are all kinds of faith.  And since I love my sister with all my heart I will freely admit that the faith required to kneel week in and week out in a pew, trudging out in all sorts of weather even when you don’t feel like it, when you’d rather—just this once—stay sleeping is of a powerful sort, especially if like her, you live a life that is word and deed.   But my sister would also agree with me that there’s the faith that encourages you to step out onto a stage, to bear a child, to admit that joy still exists even in the midst of great tragedy, to move to a new city where you know no one, to take a job that stretches you beyond your current limits, to believe that you’re not too old or too young to make your mark, to say yes to love, or to life for that matter.  
There is a simple yet profound faith that comes from creating something out of nothing; from staring at the blank page and knowing that soon there will be life there and a story worth telling.