All the signs were there.
As a teenager, when I pictured my someday home, I imagined a cottage in the woods. Peaceful and serene, with a typewriter, a piano, and a cat. No children running around; no husband interrupting my concentration. Just me, on my own, writing books.
My parents’ plan for me included a course at Katharine Gibbs, followed by a nice job as a secretary until I married and had children. Instead, I went to college, became an English teacher, and earned a graduate degree.
When I was twenty-three, my college roommate and I planned to go to England. She backed out; I went anyway.
At divers times, I fell in love with men whom I ultimately could not bring myself to marry. He’s just not the right one, people told me. Perhaps.
When I was working as a paralegal in a corporate firm and wanted to change jobs, I invited a trial lawyer I knew to lunch. As he was driving me back to work, he commented that it was good I’d caught him, because he was about to leave his job to become a prosecutor. I asked why, and he said, “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of.” I thought, Why does he get to do what he always dreamed of, but I don’t? In the next instant, my mind answered: Who says you don’t? A year later, I started law school.
After law school, I worked at a small firm. It was excellent experience, but I was not happy. A friend who owned a graphic design company suggested going out on my own, a notion I pooh-poohed with, “I’m not the entrepreneurial type.” I left that firm 23 years ago, launching my own tiny legal research and writing practice with nothing more than one client, an outdated computer, and a box of business cards. To this day, that’s the job that pays the bills.
Despite this history, it never occurred to me that my path to publication would be anything other than traditional: get an agent, sell the book to a respectable publishing house, and live happily ever after as a novelist who turns out a new book every year or two and goes on the occasional publisher-funded book tour.
What a cute little naïve writer-wannabe.
The original plan
I was in my early 50s when I began writing with an eye toward publishing. I submitted stories to journals and contests, and I met with just enough success to be encouraging. Mind you, these stories didn’t garner anything near a living wage, but gradually, my list of credits grew longer, and I became more confident that I was on track for a traditional publishing career.
Over the course of several years, I wrote, rewrote, edited, and polished my first novel. When I felt it was ready, I submitted the manuscript to the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, a contest which evaluates unpublished works on, among other things, how close they are to being ready for publication. My novel was a finalist.
While I awaited the Faulkner-Wisdom results, I devoted my summer evenings to researching agents. In the fall, I attended a writing workshop which offered query critique and a chance to meet with an agent I felt was a perfect fit. She invited me to submit the first fifty pages, which I did when I got home that night. I never heard from her again, not even after I sent a follow-up email four weeks later in accordance with her submission guidelines.
This, I came to realize, is how many agents operate: if they’re not interested, they don’t respond–which, in my opinion, is breathtakingly rude. Seriously, how hard is it to send out a damned form email (“Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, it’s not right for us at this time. Wishing you the best in your publishing journey!”)?
On the other hand, some agents are generous, responding with much more than a boilerplate rejection. One responded literally overnight, explained why she was passing, and suggested that I query others in her agency which, to me, was at least a sign that she didn’t think the book was fatally flawed. (Since she owns the agency, this seemed a reasonable interpretation.) The others in her agency also passed, but they responded with equal promptness and graciousness.
I knew, of course, that the length of the book was problematic. Anything over 100,000 words is notoriously hard to sell. In the midst of my querying, I attended a workshop taught by a well-known agent. At break, I asked him how I should handle this issue. I told him about my efforts to pare it down, including having a developmental editor and a knowledgeable writer friend review it with the sole goal of identifying material that could be excised. What, I asked, could I do with this behemoth?
“Maybe the book needs just to be that long,” he replied.
I resisted the urge to shoot back, “Great! You can represent it!” Later, when I queried a younger agent in his agency, I quoted him. (She passed anyway.)
And then came the rejection that started me thinking. Like many authors, I followed a number of agents on Twitter to see who seemed like a good fit. One day, I saw a tweet from an agent whose name I’d heard before. Her tweet said flat-out that all writers should delete their prologues. Her directness appealed to me, and so I queried her. At the least, I might discover a clue as to why I wasn’t getting anywhere.
Three weeks later, she responded with a straightforward email stating, “You’re a good writer but I’m afraid the combo of the seasonal premise (requiring a big jump of belief from the reader) and the hefty wordcount here would make for an incredibly tough sell.” She wished me well, adding, “Please do query me again if you find yourself with a less seasonally-limited story!”
In other words, the issue wasn’t the quality of the writing. Rather, it was the marketability of this particular work.
Revelation and reassurance. I supposed it was encouraging.
But what in hell should I do about it?
I was already deep into my second novel and a handful of stories, so I left this manuscript to languish on my hard drive. In idle moments, I considered the book’s path so far.
Last summer, before I queried the straightforward agent, I took an online course on query writing in the hope of getting past the first hurdle. Throughout the class, we posted our queries for each other to critique. My classmates were unfailingly enthusiastic about my story, telling me how much they were looking forward to reading it after it was published. It occurred to me that while they weren’t agents or publishers, they were readers, and readers are the people for whom I write.
While I was busily focusing my attention elsewhere, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, in the midst of all the other crises, I began to hear two things.
The first was that the publishing industry was in a quandary. Some agents said it was business as usual, while others closed to submissions. Tweets, articles, and podcasts bandied about questions such as which publishers were buying books, what kinds of books they were buying, and what the industry would look like two years from now when those books were finally published. Maybe I was reading too much into their comments, but it seemed to me that this was not a time when the publishing industry was going to gamble on projects that might not be huge sellers.
In May, Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer, did a webinar on paths to publishing. In addition to reading her book, I’d had the good fortune to attend one of her in-person seminars in New York. Jane is straightforward and business-like, neither sugarcoating nor discouraging. More importantly, I trusted her not to favor one approach over the other, but simply to lay out the pros and cons so attendees could make their own decisions—and this was precisely what she did.
Among the takeaways for me was the inordinate amount of time it would take to get traditionally published: if I were to secure an agent today (not possible since I had no queries outstanding), it could reasonably take two to three years before I held my book in my hand—assuming, of course, that the agent was able to sell it at all.
Not long thereafter, I had a phone chat with a friend, D. Margaret Hoffman, known to friends as Dawn. She published her first two books through her own micropress, Davanti & Vine. She listened patiently as I talked out my choices. Then, without really thinking, I said, “Hey, would Davanti & Vine want to publish my book?”
And just like that, the traditional publishing option was off the table.
But what about. . . ?
There was still the possibility of hybrid publishing, a fairly recent development. Fortunately, another friend, author Susan Schoenberger, is in the midst of doing precisely that after having published her first two books traditionally through her agent. We set up a phone meeting, and for more than an hour, she graciously answered all my questions, sharing her experiences and decisions as well as her impressions of the pros and cons of various publishing paths.
I already knew my manuscript’s length was substantially outside Susan’s publisher’s stated limits, so submitting there would be pointless. Of greater concern to me during the pandemic work slowdown was the cost of hybrid publishing. Obviously, when a book is traditionally published, the publisher bears those costs. Hybrid publishing requires the author to bear certain costs in exchange for services such as editing, design, and marketing assistance.
On the other hand, Dawn reported publishing her first book for a surprising low sum. Online research revealed a wide range of fees for the services provided by the traditional and hybrid publishers. I’d have to do more research, but on my own, I could better control costs—an important consideration in the current times.
Another factor was how long it would take to get from where I was to publication. Susan signed her contract in 2019; her book will be published in 2021. In other words, hybrid publishing is not significantly more swift than traditional.
Some people might say speed shouldn’t be the factor that drives the bus, but here’s the thing: I’m already 60. I don’t currently have an agent; getting one could easily take months, assuming it happens at all. It took Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, five years to land an agent.
But let’s assume I find an agent. From there, we’d have the process of getting through the agent’s proposed edits. Even after the manuscript was ready for submission to publishers, there’s no guarantee it would sell. This happens every day—agents send out a manuscript to ten editors, and when those ten pass (which could take months), they send to another group, and possibly even a third. I could arguably be toggling between research on Medicare and emails from my agent that begin, “I’m sorry to tell you, but. . . .”
There are reasons to gamble on traditional publishing, such as qualifying for literary awards. On the other hand, there’s reality, which tells me that those awards are for literary works. My book isn’t literary, which means it doesn’t qualify anyway, so publishing it myself wouldn’t affect its eligibility any more than being short is the reason I won’t be playing in the WNBA next season.
As I took a hard look at my options, I acknowledged again what I’d long known: the primary reason I wanted to publish traditionally was for the imprimatur afforded by an agent and a publishing house. I wanted someone who had the right to reject my work to accept it, to tell the world it’s good enough. I didn’t trust my judgment or that of my readers.
Secondarily, I wanted the assistance of the agent and the editor to make it the best book it can be. I wanted their experience and expertise, as well as that of the marketing and publicity teams. No one will dispute the value of these teams; on the other hand, that kind of expertise is often available for hire on a freelance basis.
Last winter, I listened to the audiobook of Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal. I’ll be honest: it was incredibly depressing. Don’t get me wrong—the book is excellent, and I’m certain her goal was not to discourage writers. In fact, after listening to it, I bought the hard copy precisely because I knew I’d want to go back to it as a reference (which I have). Maum pulls no punches about any aspect of the author experience, good or bad. She speaks candidly about things nobody talks about, like the size of an advance, as well as things nobody thinks about (there’s a section entitled, “What if I die before my book comes out?”—and she answers the question). She even includes a very brief section about self-publishing that focuses on why you want to publish your book in the first place, which is definitely a valuable question every author should ask themself at some point before committing to publication by any path.
In the end, the decision was one I should have seen coming long ago: when in doubt, do it myself.
Fast forward to now
So here I am, about to join the world of indie publishing (formerly known as self-publishing, except some people feel that disparages the works). To that end, I am simultaneously editing (yet again) my manuscript, setting up my micropress (Tuxedo Cat Press), and researching book cover designers. I also need to set up my email list, recruit a launch team (especially since there won’t be a physical launch party), figure out ads and preorders and everything that goes with them. Oh, and since the book does indeed have a seasonal component, I plan to launch it in late October or early November—in case you wanted to plan.
I expect self-publishing to be quite a journey, especially since I’ll be juggling day-to-day life at the same time. In any case, I plan to be writing about it here, if only because I think that someday, I’ll want to look back and see how it all began.
Consider this your official invitation to come along for the ride—read, like, comment, make suggestions. As you can see from this post, writers learn from each other’s journeys. Let’s keep that trend going.