by Terry Sue Harms
Now that my novel, Pearls My Mother Wore, is on the market, I’m satisfied that self-publishing was the right path for me to take. Four years ago, though, when I started writing the book, I felt certain that I’d go the traditional route. Although I didn’t think too much about a publisher as I toiled over my manuscript, I’d occasionally drift into a fantasy of being taken under the wing of one of the venerated publishing houses. I imagined the acknowledgement page in my beautiful, hardbound book where I would thank a team of folks who had worked tirelessly to shepherd my novel into the world. Together we would have tackled all of the behind-the-scenes aspects of literary success: contracts, manufacturing, marketing, placement, touring, reviews, awards, etc. I would be taken care of. I would be part of a team.
When my novel was completed and well-polished, I sent the first chapter to my number-one pick for a literary agent. The agent requested the full manuscript, and I was elated. A few weeks later I got the call. “Congratulations, you’ve written a really good novel. I’ve got to go to New York, but when I get back we’ll get together to discuss how to present it to publishers.” I was over the moon. I’d been taken on by the agent of my choice, first time out. I was golden!
Two weeks later, I got an e-mail taking it all back. I don’t know what happened in New York, but the e-mail basically said that times had never been harder to sell fiction, and my work wasn’t good enough to try. That was tough, especially after bragging to all of my friends that I’d reached this amazing milestone.
I took a few weeks to consider my next move. During that time I was soothed by a number of woeful tales about agents and publishers that made my experience pale by comparison. The establishment wasn’t looking so great. Writers seemed to get dozens of rejection letters, if they were lucky. A more common experience was to be totally ignored. I was cautioned about contractual traps that could leave me empty-handed. Even if I made it in, I was told not to expect any concentrated editing efforts. I wouldn’t be allowed to design the book cover. I couldn’t set the price. I wouldn’t be able to control the release date. I would have to create and fund my own book tour. Marketing Platforms, I get it about marketing platforms, but the hustle/reward ratio seemed heavily slanted in the publishing house’s favor. I do most of the work, agent and publisher collect most of the profit. At least this is how I heard it in casual conversations.
All of this presented me with a heart-sinking dilemma — continue to pursue other agents in the hopes that they could find me a publisher, or go it alone, self-publish.
My 180 came when I acknowledged that everything about the writing phase had been fun. I had enjoyed the classes I took, the people I met, and the deep emotional places to which my story had carried me. Writing had enriched my life and was incredibly rewarding. So why, I asked myself, would I want to subject my positive writing experience to the ego bruising ordeal of traditional publishing? The answer was, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t have to. Self-publishing had come a long way during the years I’d been writing and perfecting my novel, and it was absolutely a viable option.
I did a little more work on the manuscript and hired an editor to make sure it was as clean as it could be. My husband and I designed the cover art, I worked with a book designer to put everything together in the most professional looking layout, and off it went to Lulu.com for self-publishing. It was the perfect solution.
Lulu didn’t require any up-front money, and in some ways, you get what you pay for. The customer service was seriously lacking. When problems loading my PDF arose, it was like writing to an ATM and asking for tens instead of twenties. My help e-mails were answered with pre-made, generic solutions that didn’t apply. The fix required several re-downloads, several test-copy orders, and several agonizing weeks. My other complaint is that the paper stock for the cover is pretty flimsy, although the glue binding seems to be holding up well. If I had to do it again, I would try another self-publishing company. Live and learn.
Nevertheless, self-publishing has allowed me to hold my book and to share it with others. I continue to have great enthusiasm for my characters and my plot, and I have plenty of energy to do my own promoting. I get to do that in my own way, on my own time. I don’t have to worry about answering for any quotas, and as a print-on-demand operation, I’m not haunted by thousands of unsold books.
I don’t actually know what working with a traditional publisher would be like. I guess I gave up before even trying, a case of “contempt prior to investigation.” Nevertheless, I’m holding out hope that sales of Pearls My Mother Wore become so impressive that some publisher does a 180 and comes courting me.
Terry Sue Harms received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Mills College. In May of 2005, she was inspired, in response to the new reality TV craze, “to write a story where the losers were the winners.” Pearls My Mother Wore was born of that inspiration. Her Left Coast Writers Book Launch will be on August 21 at Book Passage, Corte Madera. Meantime look for Pearls My Mother Wore on Facebook, or visit her website at www.pearlsmymotherwore.com.