When I started Bacon Press Books, I needed to re-issue a real book to make sure I knew how to do it.
Judith Podell, wonderful writer, friend and neighbor generously agreed to let me use her book – Blues for Beginners: Stories and Obsessions - for my first trial.
The title story –“Blues for Beginners” – had worked its way into national consciousness as a story so smart and familiar it seemed to have written itself.
Nice for Judith that the story was so popular, not so great that she didn’t receive credit every time it appeared. Blues for Beginners was included in the humor anthologies Mirth of a Nation, and May Contain Nuts. Susie Essman recorded it for the CD..
Judith gave readings. Won coveted places at all the prestigious writing retreats. Got an MFA. Made friends around the world and then her small publisher went out of business. Her work was only available to the lucky few.
So, yes, she was willing to let me learn the independent publishing ropes with her book. She even did the cover art.
I made a few mistakes. Did a few things right. Still, we were both pleased with the results.
I wanted to hear Judith’s thoughts 10 years later.
I knew Blues for Beginners: Stories and Obsessions deserved to stay in print, so when my original publisher, a well respected small press, went out of business,
I recognized that it would be up to me. I’d always envisioned myself as one of those cult favorite type writers, like Eve Babitz and Lucia Berlin, but didn’t want to wait to be rediscovered.
Actuarilally speaking, time was running out. I’ve been thinking about the marketing and publicity angle and conclude that burden is always on the writer. Short story collections like mine do not receive the same kind of in-house support as self-help books written by celebrities and never did.
I had the resources for a low-key l DIY campaign of readings in bookstores and writers conferences, namely a blog http://www.memphisearlene.com, 900d Facebook friends and lots of spare time.
Better Than This is a story about finding the strength to break free from old habits, to dream with purpose and to believe in happiness. Life, and love, doesn't have to be perfect but sometimes everything depends on knowing that it can be better than this...
Rebecca Darley is a full time historian, currently working at the University of Leeds. Her academic specialism is the world of the Western Indian Ocean in the first millennium CE. In 2022, she also began publishing fiction under the pen name Rose Marzin. As an indie (self-published) author, Rose Marzin writes contemporary and historical romance, with a focus on the emotional complexities of human relationships.
Why did you decide to self-publish? Did you have any doubts?
I publish through traditional presses as part of my job. Academic publishing isn’t designed to pay, so in that sense it is different from being a commercial author with a traditional press, but it does mean that I know quite a bit about how the editorial process works, pitching ideas etc. And it can be fun - I’m not against traditional publishing! But, because it is what I do for work, it feels like…work. And it is slow. It can take months or years to get even a 10,000 word article through the publication process.
When I decided to publish my first novel I knew I wanted an experience that felt different from my day job, I wanted more control over the process, and I had done my research with respect to remuneration. It isn’t easy to make money publishing fiction whichever route you take, but the numbers seemed to stack up better for indie publishing for what I’m looking for (a steady, scalable income and lots of control about when and how I work).
I’m naturally quite an indecisive person, so I spent quite a while looking into all of the options and asking advice. Once I’d made my choice, though, and was happy with my reasons, I got stuck in. When I choose a path, having the doubts before I start out means I don’t have to carry them with me!
What did you like best?
I absolutely love the writing process. My favourite stages are probably writing first chapters (often from the beginning and the end, then I work out what happens in the middle) and the editing process. I go over my drafts over and over, until I’m happy with every word, and I lose myself completely in the story.
To my surprise, though, I also ended up loving the cover design process. My brain is definitely a word brain, so it always intimidated me and I had a bit of a false start with one designer, but then I found Jacqueline Abromeit at goodcoverdesigns.co.uk. I saw her portfolio and just knew she was the designer I wanted to work with, and when I saw her first draft of the cover of Better Than This it was incredible. My book suddenly seemed real, and Jacqueline brought out colours and shapes and textures that made me see different things in my own text.
What was the hardest part?
Coming up with a title! The manuscript had a working title throughout the writing process, but I always knew it wasn’t quite right. When it was done, I spent about a week throwing titles out to my partner. Mostly he winced and I knew it wasn’t quite right. He would suggest something and it wouldn’t feel right. It got quite frustrating. Then it appeared and I knew that Better Than This was the one I’d been looking for. (And he agreed!)
The other very hard part of indie publishing, as I’m sure every indie author out there agrees, is marketing. I’ve never really done any marketing and I didn’t have any form of social media except LinkedIn until a few weeks before my book was released. Now I’m working with a professional marketing specialist and I still don’t feel like I’ve got it figured out, but it’s a skill, like any other, and I’m willing to give it time and effort. As my parents always taught me, that’s all we can ever do.
Would you do it again?
Absolutely. In fact, I will be indie publishing my second novel this Easter. The process has been complicated in places and I feel like I’m learning new things at every stage, but I’m looking forward to going through it the second time around and doing it better. It is also exciting building up some momentum. Control is one of the key things that drew me to indie publishing and I really enjoy the direct relationship between putting in work and seeing changes, whether that is in marketing, editing or creating new stories.
What advice do you have for authors just starting?
Start with your story. I did a lot of research while I was writing but whatever decision you make about how to publish, it all has to start with a story that is as good as you can make it and that you really believe in. All publishing involves putting a piece of yourself into the world. It is always scary. Indie publishing means that you don’t have a lot of the support and encouragement or the sense of a safety net that traditional publishing gives you. If you make a terrible decision about your cover or editing, nobody will necessarily be there with years of experience in the industry to tell you. That makes it even more imperative to trust in your own work and to know that you have made it the very best that you can.
I also found The Creative Penn podcast by indie author Joanna Penn truly inspirational. The podcast has been going for over ten years so there are hours and hours of content, including interviews with authors, editors, designers, marketers, etc. as well as reflections on different kinds of publishing, genres and reader groups and building a fan community. There is so much information out there, and there are so many people offering advice. The Creative Penn has become my final checkpoint for everything. I read widely, but in the final analysis, if Joanna Penn says something is a good idea, then I trust that she knows what she is doing and has tried it out herself.
15 books later - I'm ready to teach
Did you ever start out meaning to do one thing, but then life becomes its own kind of rabbit hole, and you do something else?
If you’re lucky, sooner or later, you end up back where you started.
And you get to try again.
About 12 years ago, when I heard about independent publishing – I thought it was amazing. The idea that you didn’t have to get approval and didn’t need permission to get your book published and into the hands of readers. You could do it yourself, your own way, on your own timetable.
I learned as much as I could about how to do it and where to get help on the technical parts I couldn’t do myself.
I had two plans. One was to take already published books and make them available in paperback and eBook.
The other – the one I rehearsed over and over in my mind – was to teach people how to publish their books. Most of the writers I knew didn’t have the time or the interest to learn how to do it on their own. So I would do a class. Maybe at The Writer’s Center or Adult Ed or . . .
Old habits die hard. I’m definitely part of what I consider the Beauty Queen/Teacher’s Pet generation. Even though I loved the idea of publishing my own books, I never thought of giving my own class. I wanted permission, approval, and validation.
It’s taken me 12 years to realize I can just give a class on how to become an author-publisher.
What I wish for every writer is to get – a wonderful agent who answers in a week, a fabulous book deal that leads to fame and fortune, and maybe a five-part TV series and a slot in a celebrity book club.
But if that doesn’t happen. Then I wish you the pleasure of seeing your book in print just as you imagined it.
More about the class as soon as I have dates.
In the meantime, I’ve put together an easy-to-follow guide on the basics of Self-Publishing for Authors. It’s free.
You will end up on my email list but I promise I won’t inundate you with emails and offers. I’ll be lucky if I figure out what to write about every couple of months.
In the imagined idyllic former days, writers would write – feverishly, secretly, devotedly – thinking of nothing but their work. Only when they finished after months or even years would they consider sending it out to an agent or publisher. Until that time they threw crumpled pages at the wall, drank too much, neglected their health, their friends and their families. But it was worth it because in this idyllic world they would send out manuscripts and receive letters back that they’re manuscripts had been accepted! Days later a box of their books would appear.
It only happened in the movies.
Right now – meaning this very moment in the middle of a pandemic when no one knows how any industry will come out at the end of it – there’s no need for that fevered pitch. You still need to give your work your full attention. You may still neglect health, family and friends – but honestly, there’s no rush.
Which is a good thing. You have the freedom to take your time.
You can wallow in your character’s misery a little longer; realize that good guy has some sinister layer you were in too much of hurry before to see. You have time to add descriptions that engage the reader’s senses. You have time to make the dialogue sparkle and eliminate all the small talk stuff people say to each other which becomes even more tedious when it’s down on the page.
You have time to see if your book makes sense. And most important, if it’s interesting.
With these long days that run into each other and endless weeks that never quite add up to what we used to call a month – you have time to sit down with your characters, with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and really get to know what makes them tick. Not just the side of themselves they showed you on that first draft, but what’s really driving them.
You have time to try different plot twists and change out the ending as many times as you need until it feels right.
In other words, in the middle of everything that’s going sideways, you have the time to enjoy writing.
I’m not saying it’s easy when there are so many worries and distractions and so many kids at home for what seems like forever. And spouses who want company. And somehow twice as much laundry to be done which makes no sense since no one is going anywhere. And trips to the market that feel a little risky.
But if you keep that drive to write, lose the sense of urgency, you might give yourself permission to enjoy the process. Room to roam a bit in your book. Stop thinking the book must be finished in time for – well does it really matter at the moment if it’s out in time for what may or not be the holiday rush?
People want to read even if they can’t seem to concentrate. There’s something about the promise of a new book that can brighten an otherwise dreary weekend.
So what I’m saying is – don’t stop. Don’t give up. Just don’t be in such a hurry that you take all the pleasure out of writing. It’s one of the few luxuries we have right now.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
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