It was my high school friend Peter who told me to get rid of my “but.”
He was impatient with the way I kept saying “Yes, I finally finished writing my book, but I ended up self-publishing it.”
“No need to keep saying ‘but’ as if it’s something to apologize for,” he told me. “You’re in fine company. Virginia Woolf, e.e. cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau were all self-published authors as well.”
Though some of those claims may be apocryphal, Peter’s comment opened my eyes to the need for me to stop apologizing for my failure to garner a contract with a big-name publisher for my recently completed running/parenting memoir, The Mother-Son Running Streak Club. The important thing, as he pointed out, was that I’d gone to the effort to write a book.
I’ll be up front about this: self-publishing is hardly any author’s first choice. What writer doesn’t dream of publication through a grand commercial press, or even a small but highly respected literary press? When I signed with a literary agent 18 months ago, she filled my head with visions of the publishers she was accustomed to working with: Random House, Putnam, Algonquin, Hyperion.
But things didn’t pan out. After a year, although my agent and I had received reams of encouraging feedback from editors, we still hadn’t found a match. As I came to realize, a publisher isn’t just someone who thinks you’ve written a worthwhile book with literary merit; it’s someone believes there are at least 20,000 members of the reading public who would willingly part with $24.95 to read your book. That’s a tall order, no matter how hard you’ve worked on it.
And there was no question in my mind that I’d worked hard. It was August of 2007 when I suggested to my then 9-year-old son that we set a challenge for ourselves of running a mile or more together every day for a year. Only a few weeks into the project, I began to think about writing up the experience as more than just an essay or two but into a book-length memoir. First I’ll see if we actually manage to run every day for a year; then I’ll concentrate on the book, I told myself.
Tim and I did run together every day for a year, and writing the book took me another whole year. So when it was done, I felt like I’d completed two huge challenges: the running and the book. It wasn’t so important to me to have 20,000 people read it; any readers at all would be an increase over the number who would see it if it remained stashed inside a desk drawer (or, more accurately, stored on a memory drive).
And that was ultimately what led me down the path of self-publishing, an arena that has changed significantly in the past decade. In the 1980’s, my mother self-published the first of her two cookbooks, and I knew well what this had entailed: making a ballpark estimate of number of books to print; storing cartons of books until they were sold; packaging books as orders arrive by mail; countless trips to the post office to fulfill customer orders.
Today, the new print-on-demand companies have eliminated all of these steps. Using companies such as CreateSpace, writers simply submit an electronic file that can be generated in high-quality paperback format whenever an order is submitted online. Readers who want a copy of my book order it directly through Amazon.com, CreateSpace.com, or my own website and it gets mailed to them by the printer just as any other online order would. I don’t have to wrap, bundle, warehouse, or make trips to the post office; nor do I even know who is doing the buying, unless they opt to ask me directly for a copy, since I also keep a small supply on hand.
Once I’d decided to call off my search for a commercial publisher and take the plunge with self-publishing, I had no regrets. Ultimately, I just didn’t want to wait any longer to get my book into print. The year depicted in the book ended as Tim was turning ten, and he’s twelve now. If I was going to be enthusiastically promoting the work, I felt like this needed to happen while Tim was still at least a minor, if not exactly a child.
So I went back to the manuscript and did some more revising. I sent a draft to about ten colleagues for review and feedback, and then did yet another round of revisions. I solved the problem of how to create an eye-catching cover by asking a friend who is a talented professional photographer to take some action shots of Tim and me running; for payment I made her a chicken pot pie, and after a little graphic design help from my husband, the manuscript was off to press.
And now, the book is out. I like hearing from friends and acquaintances that they’re reading it, and I appreciate the critique it’s attracted so far. If some of my friends recommend it to some of their friends, I’ll reach that target of selling a few hundred copies. That hardly makes me a great success from a publishing standpoint, but it means that I’ve met my goal of writing and publishing an account of the parenting experiment I undertook, and for now, that’s enough of an accomplishment for me. Someday perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to work with a “real” publisher, whether on this same project or a different one. But as my friend Peter suggested, for now it’s time to get rid of the “buts” and just take satisfaction in a project finally executed.