Alchemy and Self Publishing
by Joanne Lewis
I wrote my first book when I was eight years old. It was a book about the weather and it was called, of course, The Book of Weather. I took construction paper and drew the sun and wind and clouds, wrote instructional blurbs about lightning and thunder and fastened the pages between two pieces of cardboard taken from my father’s new button-down work shirts. I covered the cardboard with green and yellow wallpaper that had bright and bubbly orange flowers dancing along it. The wallpaper had been left over from decorating our 1970’s Long Island kitchen.
I was pleased with my book but nothing made me prouder than when the librarian placed it in my elementary school library. I visited it every day. I don’t recall anyone checking out my book, or if it was given its own listing in the card catalogue or even a Dewey decimal number, but I didn’t care. There it was on the shelves. My book. I was a writer.
And a writer I was determined to be until the day came when practicality usurped my dreams. I graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was considering what I would do next. I had to get a real job. My father’s words bounced around my head. You have to have a career so you know what you’re unemployed from. I went to law school.
I wrote my first novel when I was 24 years old and while a prosecutor working felony trials and sex crimes. I didn’t have an agent. A small press that has since gone out of business published the novel, a murder mystery calledThe Forbidden Room. While I did not sell many books, I was invited to speak on panels and did book signings. I got an agent. I was asked by an editor at Simon & Schuster to write a series featuring a young female prosecutor. She asked me to provide her with a synopsis of the first book and a general outline of books two and three. I was on my way.
Two months later, my agent presented my proposal to the editor who said, without further explanation, that she was no longer interested. Then my agent unexpectedly passed away. I was sad and wasn’t thinking about finding another agent when her associate called and said he was taking over her business and would not be keeping me as a client.
Opportunities continued to arise, at least for a short time. Another small press wanted to publish a book of mine, however things fell apart during the editing stage and the novel was never released.
At this time, I’m 29 years old and feeling like the height of my writing career would be traced back to my elementary school library.
I didn’t write throughout my thirties. Not writing gnawed at my brain but I was productive in other ways. I worked hard. I left the State Attorney’s Office and opened my own practice. I fell in love. But still, I didn’t write. I knew, however, that I would write in my forties. Don’t ask me how I knew this, I just did. What I didn’t know was how it would come about that I would write again.
Four days shy of my 41st birthday, I experienced a life changing event. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After a radical hysterectomy and six months of chemotherapy, I emerged cancer free and ready to write. And write I did. Like crazy.
Murder mysteries. Historical novels. A commercial novel that I co-wrote with my sister. I got an agent. A really good agent. You might have heard of him. His name is Donald Maass and he’s written some really good books himself.
He spent four years trying to sell my murder mystery without success.
Then my sister and I found a small publisher for Wicked Good, the book we wrote together. That didn’t work out either.
Soon thereafter, Don and I parted on good terms.
One day, as I was trying to decipher the secret to writing a successful query letter, I called my sister and told her I was no longer having fun. I was tired of writing query letters and hoping someone on the other end of snail mail or email considered me worthy.
She said, if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
I stopped. No more query letters. No more hoping to find an agent who deemed me marketable. No more praying for that editor to take me under her wing and make me the next big thing. No more yearning to call some well-known publishing house my home.
I decided to self publish.
Here’s what I’ve learned about self publishing, at least for us average folks (i.e. not famous). It’s better than traditional publishing. Way better. We still do our own marketing but we also have control over our product. The final edits. The cover. Where we publish. How much we charge.
Do you know who looks down upon those of us who choose to self publish? People in the publishing industry. Isn’t that odd? Shouldn’t they be cheering us on? Aren’t we all on the same team?
Do you know who doesn’t care if we self publish? The readers. All they ask for, all they deserve, is a good book.
What I don’t understand is how come self publishing, which is the same as being self employed, is given a bad rap? I started my own law practice with my own money and was congratulated for being an entrepreneur. I bought a house, fixed it up with my own money, flipped it and made more money and people were impressed. I have been self employed since 1997 and make a good living. Why do I have to work for someone else as a writer? Why is writing the only industry where being self employed is frowned upon?
Besides getting to rattle off Random House or Simon & Schuster as your publisher to impress your writing friends (because no one else really cares), why go traditional, even if you get accepted into the club? What’s the benefit? You wait two years for your book to be published. You lose control over your work of art. You make pennies for your effort. Unless you are among the famous and already have a built in fan base and get a good marketing budget thrown behind your work, then you’re back where this all started – doing your own marketing. Trying to find people other than your family and friends who will read your books.
The first rule of being a self employed and self published author is to sift out the liars from the truth tellers. All those writers I meet at conferences and workshops that tell me they are selling thousands of books, just stop it. I believed each of you.
But what about the self published authors that are selling, because they’re out there. What are their secrets? For the most part, their books are well written and well edited (the number one rules) and they work really hard to get noticed. But there’s something else.
Alchemy, I call it. Turning metal into gold. Magic. Providence. Good fortune. Covering cardboard with yellow and green wallpaper and placing it on the school library shelf.
Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to being traditionally published. John Locke was the first self published fiction author to sell one million eBooks on the Kindle. Recently, he inked a deal with Simon & Schuster. But don’t get all heady yet. The deal is only for distribution. He still owns the rights to his books. Thanks to the marketing muscle that is intrinsic within a behemoth such as Simon & Schuster, his books will now reach a much wider audience in brick and mortar stores. Can’t blame the guy for making this leap.
Then there’s Amanda Hocking, who writes paranormal young adult novels. Like Mr. Locke, she self published and sold a ton of books. It was enough to get her noticed by a large publishing house, which she signed with. Not a distribution deal as Mr. Locke did but a full out give away the rights to her novels deal. Ms. Hocking said she made this decision since marketing her books was taking an extraordinary amount of time and she needed more time to write. Can’t blame her for making this leap either.
Who am I to judge? Actually, who are any of us to judge another’s choice? Despite my cheers for self publishing, if a traditional house came knocking on my door and invited me to sit by their fire, I can’t say what decision I would make.
What I do know is that I am glad I followed my dad’s advice and went to law school. I am a family mediator and a guardian ad litem who represents children. I feel like I am helping people and I make a decent living, which allows me to pursue my passion of writing.
When I am not working as a lawyer, I am writing and striving to follow my sister’s advice. If you’re not having fun, don’t do it.
I am 47 years old now. I have self published two novels and have a third one coming out in the Fall of 2012. I do not sell a lot of books. I know that will change when I am in my fifties. Don’t ask me how I know this, I just do. Hopefully, this time the life changing event won’t be so drastic.
Joanne Lewis is the self published author of Wicked Good (co-written with her sister, Amy Faircloth) and Make Your Own Luck, a Remy Summer Woods mystery. The Lantern, a Renaissance mystery, will be released in November 2012.
Every day Joanne has fun trying to turn metal into gold.