There are tens of thousands of us around the globe. Most of us spend solitary hours alone in our rooms doing it. We arise before dawn, forgoing the delights of pre-alarm congress with our lovers, to sit pen-in-hand or at a keyboard and write. For most of us those word-crafting hours are golden, each one dearly bought at the expense of time we could be doing the “normal” things that make life good.
The words we craft may please us in our solitude, but frequently they are never seen by others. The number of us who count ourselves as serious, if not truly professional, writers is growing. But the number of those who read is shrinking. There is far more product that there is the market to absorb it.
I am a short fiction writer. Those of you who are wise in these matters know that I will never feed myself by writing short fiction, even if I am very good at it. That fact of life must have been in my mind when my wife asked the seminal question: “What would you like for your 70th birthday?” Marguerite was seated across from me in the Jackson Mountain Café, a popular Cape May tavern.
“I’d like my book to be a best seller.” I blurted. It was out. I don’t know where it came from. I had told everyone that I had given up on submitting stories to magazines and literary journals. In the year that I submitted work with any serious regularity, I had succeeded in getting only one story into a national magazine. It was, in my view, a waste of time and postage.
I had reconciled myself to being obscure. The year before, I set a goal of collecting the best of my stories and self-publishing them for friends and relatives as a short paperback. I had no illusions that I would sell hundreds of copies. I would content myself with the satisfaction of having a book on my shelf that I had produced. My daughter and sons would get copies and thus I would become a published author in the eyes of those closest to me.
Marguerite smiled. After a moment she said, “Okay, let’s make it happen.” Marguerite is a professional Life Coach with the certification and credentials, as well as a life of accomplishments, to prove her competence. She is used to helping people realize the impossible. “We’ll have a book signing party and invite everybody we know.”
“I don’t know, do you think…”
“Sure. We’ll call it a birthday party, and everybody will come and buy a book,” she said.
“Sounds expensive,” I said.
“You’re worth it. People will love the idea.”
“I guess we could call it the ‘Buy the damned book’ party.” I said.
She had the bit in her teeth and was running. What evolved, as we brain-stormed how we could do it, was a dinner, book signing, and reading to be held at a local fire hall. It would be catered by a guy who did barbeque. We’d give the book profits to local charities, so it would also be a fund-raiser.
I had about six weeks to go from manuscript to delivery of 325 copies. The book’s launch became very real in the space of an hour over lunch. I needed a very good copy editor. There were three volunteers, but when the manuscripts came back, they had conflicting corrections. One had used the Associated Press book of Style, another used the Chicago Manual, and the third the Times Style Manual. In the end I had to decide what looked and read best.
Marguerite sent pre-publication manuscripts to our writer friends who were asked to read the stories and write a blurb for use in promoting the book. My daughter, a graphic artist, produced a huge promotional poster. Marguerite had the book cover blown up to poster size and made a collage of photos of me for another. These would be the backdrop for the book signing table.
As the day drew near, I asked friends who were actors to do readings with me. I would read one story with my friend Jim Fisher speaking some of the dialog. Gail Stahlhuth and Lee O’Connor would dramatize another one. By this time a second signing party was evolving for our former neighborhood 120 miles away – same concept, but different players. My daughter was the planner and organizer and friends whom I had not seen in years were invited to come.
The weeks flew by, and getting the books in time became a matter of considerable anxiety, but everything worked and CreateSpace.com delivered. The parties were a huge success. I had the never-to-be-equaled experience of having folks lined up out the door to get a signed copy of Lost River Anthology. I got to hang out in the back of the room and watch as my friends sat listening with rapt attention as my story was dramatized by professionals. For an author, it just doesn’t get much better.
The two parties raised $3,000 for charity and, in fact, made me a bestselling author, at least for a day. Marguerite had made my wish come true in ways neither of us imagined when the idea was conceived.
In the weeks that followed, congratulatory notes poured in. People were actually reading the book. Some of the notes only thinly masked the sender’s amazed disbelief that he or she had actually enjoyed reading my work. My wife’s aunt, outspoken and often bluntly critical of others, actually ordered extra copies to give to her circle of friends. Other friends offered to record readings of their favorites so that I might publish a CD version. I basked in my moment of fame.
For many of my friends, the event transformed the way they see me. The intimacy of reading my work brought them closer to a hidden side of me that they had not suspected was there. I continue to bask in the light of this new dimension to friendship. Fiction is always painted with the palate of the author’s own experience. So it’s hard not to read autobiography into even the most fanciful of pieces. The characters can’t think thoughts or say words that weren’t born first in the author’s head.
Notes on Self-Publishing
The emerging publishing-on-demand industry has added a hitherto unavailable path to authorship. Previously and author had to pass work through the filters of an agent and a publishing house to make it into print. In traditional publishing, book selection is determined less by literary merit than by commercial prospects.
A few authors have resorted to the vanity press and purchased a quantity of books which usually end up collecting dust in the attic because only the products of large commercial publishers are promoted and distributed through chains like Borders and the book wholesalers that supply the independents.
Amazon.com owns two subsidiaries that publish books on demand. One is a do-it-yourself publisher, Create-Space. The author uses their website to upload the text and the cover, and a proof is returned without the text ever being read by the publisher. The other on-demand subsidiary is BookSurge, a fee-for-service publisher where writers can get copy editing and book design services. Both subsidiaries list the final product on Amazon.com as well as providing a storefront web page where the author can sell directly to the public.
Amazon.com also offers programs to authors to list and sell books on consignment. Consequently, an author who is able to do his or her own promotion can bypass the literary agent and the commercial publisher, as I did. The book does not need to be commercially successful to be profitable to the author and the on-demand publisher. Community groups publish calendars and cookbooks they sell as fund raisers. Viet Nam vets publish memoirs bought by their network of war buddies. Professors publish textbooks for their classes.
It is no longer a vanity to self publish. It allows writers to exploit the niche markets close to home.