My Roots Are in Written Word
When I was little, I dreamed of being a writer. I wrote my first novel in third grade. Longhand print in a Hello Kitty lined notepad with pink and blue paper. It was about a photographer in the jungle who caught some poachers while she was photographing wildlife. Conflict ensued! I don't remember what happened, but I do remember that I had a hard time filling in the blanks of details about things like what poachers did with animals, what the jungle was really like, and pretty much anything other than what I had seen in a movie or read in a book. Still, it was like 100 pages.
Mostly after that I wrote half-novels. I (still) get too excited about new projects and quickly dump one for another. (I do the same with paintings--my house is filled with half-done acrylics.) Whatever I was into at the time, that's what I wrote about. Horses, animals, the girl who wants to be popular and gets the girl in the end--that kind of thing. I have boxes full of these pre-teen stories. By the time I hit high school, I was too busy living for writing.
I came back around in college, writing here and there, but getting serious when studying under Claudia Emerson, fabulous poet and all-around lovely person. I'm pretty sure that it's because of her recommendation that I got into a super-competitive MFA program at UNCG in North Carolina a few years later. My goal was to graduate and have a novel ready to send out to publishers.
Which I did. Yay for accomplishing goals! I got an agent, who loved my book. She sent it to publishers, who loved my book. I waited for offers and my agent sent me cheery emails about the great feedback she was getting. And then...no one bought it. When this happens, you're at an impasse. There is no constructive advice or a fix-this-and-then-we'll-buy. It was a final no: they love it but not enough to buy it. Ouch.
My agent believed in me enough to stick around, so for a few years I've been slowly finishing my second novel. It makes me a little crazy--I'm a fast writer, but with kids I can't be fast. If I focus too much on my writing, I resent my kids. So I get these tiny pockets of time to write and have to be content with my snail's pace. I'm really close to being done. But I've been really close for some time now. I have reserved hopes. I believe in my project, but after having people love it and still say no, I don't have concrete hopes. I also hope my agent still remembers who I am. That remains to be seen.
Self Publishing? Insert Shudder.
One of the phrases that has always given me an involuntary shudder is self publishing. (Shudder.) What does this bring to mind for you? For me, it generally meant people who really couldn't write well enough to make it traditionally. You know how there are so many tone-deaf people who come to sing on shows like American Idol, only to have their dreams crushed? I've always considered those who self-published to be that equivalent. Refusing to listen to the Simon Cowells who tell them to find a new career path, they stick it to the man and Self Publish. (Shudder.)
Have I mentioned that I self published my first book this month?
Hey! I didn't shudder when I wrote that. A lot is changing, both in me and in the publishing world. The two are most definitely tied together.
For me, some of the struggle with self publishing was the whole validation. It's not to say that self-published works can't be stellar, but often, if publishers reject you, there is a reason. Many times agents and those in publishing don't read past page one of manuscripts they receive. Writing has always been serious for me, even when I was writing about ponies and magic and popular seventh graders. Whether or not I'm the best, I feel like I'm gifted in writing. So the idea of self publishing would mean, for me, a check in the pride department. I feel like it would be wearing a T-shirt that says, "I wasn't good enough to do this right, so I'm doing it my way!"
Again, I'm sorry if this offends some of you amazing self-published authors out there. I know this isn't true of all of you, and I also know that times are a'changing in the publishing world. In grad school I had great talks with my publishing professor about the way ebooks were changing the market. Back then, the e-readers were just coming out and had not gained popularity like they have today. There was no Kindle, no iPad. Traditional publishers were also not in the dire straits they are today.
The Brave New World of Publishing
There is a lot more to this story, but the traditional publishing houses have been in trouble for a while. The agent model is in question, ebook prices and collaboration and fighting Amazon and Borders closing and a lot of other things go into this. If you want to read details (I don't know them all--it's dizzying) then you can see a blog like Jane Friedman's for more information and great links. In the midst of the turmoil, Amazon has offered this amazing deal to its authors: self-publish and set your price within their parameters (between $2.99 and $9.99) and you can earn a 70% royalty on your book.
If you didn't know, that's insanely a lot of dough. Generally, authors get between 5-15% of the cover price when they publish traditionally. Of course, your book's cover price might be more than $2.99, and you might have an advance. But then again, you might not. You might think you'd have better help with promotions when you're with a traditional house. But...you might not. I know that many authors that have a house backing them are doing the same kinds of self-promotion that I am doing. The difference? I don't have to think about the fact that instead of getting most of my royalty, I'm paying it to a company that still expects me to promote. Yikes.
For me, the idea of self publishing meant adjusting my expectations. I still sometimes feel that weird judgment when I tell people I self published through Amazon. I still long for the validation of a real deal through a traditional house--yet a part of me really thinks that I could be happy if I did well on my own. If I can make money and find readers, why do I need a house? What can they offer me? They don't have editors the way they used to and they certainly don't promote the way they used to. Plus, have you been to a bookstore lately? I honestly cannot afford to buy new books. They are insanely priced.
We'll see where this takes me. So far it's experimental. I'm pleased with how many copies of Make Him Room sold in the past week--over 7,000. (Many of those free copies, so don't think I raked in the big dough. More on that free stuff later.) I like sitting here at home watching my book sell because people can find it on Amazon. I like calculating that 70% for the paid copies I've sold.
Most of all, I LOVE hearing from people who have read my book. While money is great, I think most of us know that very few authors really become rich on their work. Most real writers write because they can't help it. They have something to say, and they want to say it not just to their computer screen. They want an audience. Though this is a different way than I ever saw myself getting my work out there, it is out there in the hands of people.
Do I really still care what method got my book out there? I'm not sure. My attitude and expectations are changing, but so is publishing itself. We will see where we all land.