By Goddard alum, Katharine English (2008)
Self-publish? Mon Dieu! and Sacre bleu! Never! After all, we students in Goddard’s MFA Creative Writing program aim to hone our writing to such an elegant point that we assume agents and publishers will beat down our doors, right?
Wrong. The assumption, for me, was woefully false. The agents and publishers did not come a-calling. I appear before you humbly, eating cake. I confess that while the cake I’m eating is not my favorite Mandarin Orange Chocolate Marshmallow Fudge cake, it is at least Angel Food.
Because I just self-published my book – Salvation – A Judge’s Memoir of a Mormon Childhood, the birth of which occurred at Goddard, and the experience was entirely rewarding. For some of us, I recommend it.
If you choose the traditional route of seeking an agent and a respected publisher, I urge you to give it your all, and best of luck. But if you unsuccessfully travel the long, difficult road (for most of us) of query letters, lengthy proposals, chapter-by-chapter summaries, platform developing, and plastering your walls with rejection slips, you may want to take the shorter plunge off that very long pier.
But what about the independent bookstores we love so deeply—everyone knows big box retailers and their self-publishing minion companies are putting the neighborhood icons out of business, right?
Not necessarily. As it turns out, self-published books are not the keystone of either big box or independent bookstore success, nor the foundation of the tragic demise of some of our beloved independent bookstores. In fact, many IBs are now adapting rather successfully to the trend by stocking self-published books.
A “writ large” argument against self-publishing: you will probably make less money and have a smaller audience. But some published writers complain that their agents and publishers did little to market the book, they made little money, and the book slid to the remainder pile like a greased potato.
So what, in my experience, are the pros of self-publishing?
1. You may be unsuccessful at securing an agent.
I graduated from Goddard in 1998, convinced that I held in my trembling hands the thesis that would become the masterpiece for an age.
I tried to get an agent for two years. For awhile, I took pride in agency rejections (“Wow! I’m really a writer!”) I even ironed them to straighten the folds, then placed them lovingly in a scrapbook.
I went to conferences, met with consultants, speed-dated agents, and rattled off my 3-minute pitch so often it sounded like a commercial voiceover about side effects of Celexa.
Several agents told me what was wrong with my story: from “The child abuse is too raw,” “The incest is shocking and will put readers off,” and “Your legal views are out of the norm,” etc. to the more discouraging “The writing is rather pedestrian, mediocre.”
Only one agent asked to see the manuscript (Carol Houk Smith) and then she tragically died.
Many of our Goddard students try and fail to publish, not always because the work isn’t excellent, but because the uncertainty of sales often drives a publisher’s decision to avoid the risk. So we writers often give up and allow our work to languish in the dark—in my case, in my bottom drawer.
2. Self-publishing is a trend, however disconcerting. My writing groups debated: one “pro” colleague said “This debate reminds me of how we fought using email instead of hand-written letters.” Self-publishing is happening, like Twitter, and it’s going to keep happening. We have Kindle and Nook and Google, whose users may buy e-books for the raised fonts, or for long travel trips. Others buy ebooks for the convenience or the lower cost. Many of my high school students, where I have now taught for seven years, won’t read a real book, but they’ll happily sit in the corner for hours with their Nooks! We want people to read, no? What to do?
3. Agents now troll the self-published books, so it is possible to get “found” once you have self-published. The authors of I’m Still Alice and The Martian sought agents unsuccessfully before they self-published, and were subsequently discovered.
4. I wanted to publish. I believe in my book. I want it to be read, even if only by my friends and colleagues. (I’m reminded of my mother’s delight in forcing me to perform for her friends—we want to show off our children! )
5. So I chose a company. I made my choice based on the services needed and offered—editorial and copy-editing reviews, 12-hr a day, 5day a week contact for help, marketing resources, and cost. (Self-publishing can cost anywhere from free to $6,000.)
7. I was in control!!!!. I accepted or rejected any editing suggestions and helped design the interior formatting, the covers, the placement of photographs, the summary, the
advertising, and the Kindle conversion.
8. I own all of my rights. At any time, I can withdraw the book or sell it elsewhere.
7. Independent bookstores are taking self-published books on commission which gives us a way to help sell through them instead of on Amazon, CreateSpace, or B&N.) And the stores will often set a reading for you, at which they sell your book.
I was in So. Korea recently and Costco displayed a table of self-published books! Perhaps, soon in America …
Remember my Goddard classmate Shanti Bannwart? She published Dancing on One Foot with Sunstone Press. The book died after minimal marketing marketing, and she no longer has control of the rights. I have two other author friends who have agents and publishers who have served them poorly, as well.
With Amazon, I am my own publisher, and retain all rights – I can even withdraw the book with two weeks notice if I find a “real” agent. I can’t express well-enough how energizing and self-fulfilling this was! I was not ordered to change a thing. It was suggested throughout the line-by-line and summary editorial letters and textual comments. I could accept or reject changes, and I received many excellent ones. I helped design my interior and my cover, hand in hand (phone call by phone call) with my “editorial teams.” It hasn’t been a short process (I started in January) but it has been thorough, encouraging, and a terrific boost to my confidence as a writer. and publisher.
9. Finally, think about who we serve at Goddard. It seems to me that our first obligation is to ourselves, the students, who come with such long-held dreams of publishing. We struggle for years to improve our writing, to “be” writers, and when we graduate, we feel such a thrill of of hope. Shouldn’t our MFA program be the first to educate students about self-publishing as an option? Nearly every conference I’ve been to since I graduated in 2008 has presented a panel or workshop on the subject.
So, colleagues, If you can’t find a publisher, don’t despair. To bring your book to the light, consider self-publishing.”
Katharine English graduated from Goddard’s MFA program, Pt. Townsend, in 2008. She recently self-published Salvation—A Judge’s Memoir of a Mormon Childhood. She served on the Multnomah County Oregon Circuit Court bench, presiding for fourteen years over cases of child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, and mental commitment. She then served as chief judge of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Oregon, for another seven years. For more than twenty years, she was an invited faculty member for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. After retiring, she was a substitute teacher and tutor for seven years at Rowland Hall, a private school in Salt Lake City, until 2015. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.