Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Files off to the self-publishing house

It was three years and three months ago – August of 2007 – that I started thinking about a book I wanted to write. I’d written a Boston Globe story the year before about people who run every single day without ever taking a day off – “streak runners,” not to be confused with streakers – and I thought the topic merited far more than an 800-word newspaper feature. Plus my 8-year-old son and I had started our own running competition, challenging each other to see how many consecutive days we could do together. Tracking our “streak” might make a good appendix to my book about these men and women who run thirty or forty years daily without a day off, I thought.

Three years, three months. Yesterday morning I made my last edit (catching yet another critical typo; they seem to be never-ending when I don’t have the Boston Globe’s copy desk watching my back), converted the 250-page word file to a PDF, and sent it off to a self-publishing house. Final production stages are now under way.

Self-publishing was not my initial hope. I wanted my first finished full-length book to get into print the traditional way, through a commercial publisher. And I did come close. I did my due diligence, identifying literary agents who might be interested in this project, sending off proposals and sample chapters. And plenty of them responded positively, asking to take a closer look at the manuscript. It wasn’t long before I found one who seemed like the perfect match for this project: she liked the concept, she liked my writing, and she definitely had the professional acumen to give my book its best shot at publication.

Still, it didn’t quite work out. Signing a contract with an agent was a thrill, but once I’d done that, I realized that the many unpublished writers who see getting an agent as the Holy Grail are missing the bigger picture. She tried really hard, but we just couldn’t quite get there with a commercial publishing house. By this time, what I thought would be a book about runners had evolved into a memoir about parenting, and how I tried to strengthen my relationship with my growing son through undertaking a running streak. What I thought would be an appendix had turned into the crux of the piece; now the other runners were mere footnotes. “I’m just not sure there’s a big enough market to carry this book” was what most editors told my agent.

And the thing is, I couldn’t disagree with them. A commercial publisher wants to feel assured that a book will sell well into the five figures. Twenty thousand copies. Fifty thousand copies. It depends who you ask. And it’s one thing to say “Yes, I believe in this project of mine; I wrote it to the best of my abilities and I firmly believe it has a market,” but I know enough about the reading public to not be certain at all that there are twenty thousand individuals out there who would part with $24.95 for the privilege of reading my memoir. I’m sure there are inspirational speakers who would say “If you don’t believe in your project one thousand percent, you’ll never succeed with it,” and maybe they’re right. I believed in the value and strength of my project; I just didn’t believe it had twenty thousand potential readers.

On the other hand, if it never saw the light of day, it would have accrued all of five readers, the five friends I specifically asked to give feedback on my work in progress. And that didn’t seem like the right way for this project to end either.

Hence, the decision to self-publish. I’m not out to make money off of this; I’m out to validate a creative endeavor on which I spent three years by finding people who consider it worth reading. Not twenty thousand people. Two hundred. Maybe even five hundred. Five hundred sounds great to me.

I worked on this for three years, and in another couple of weeks it will be in print. Not everyone who reads it will like it; confessional memoirs about parenting, whether or not they take place against the backdrop of recreational running, are not everyone’s cup of tea. But maybe two-thirds of my readers will consider it a really worthwhile read. In my opinion, that would validate my efforts. It’s not the glory of a traditionally published work, but it’s the joy of having something I labored over be read. And at least this time around, I’ve decided that’s good enough.

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