Last time, after I took one more romp through the well-ordered fields of standard format, I concluded with a sentiment very familiar to long-term readers of this blog, and certainly to those who regularly peruse the comments: one of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision. The vast majority of my blog posts are, in fact, either direct or indirect discussions of various nuances of this balancing act.
Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. Everywhere I go, I meet aspiring writers who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of traditional publishing, are at least toying with this increasingly attractive option.
And with good reason: self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means.
Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.
Despite some notable recent successes, agents and editors still remain, at least overtly relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), and desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself).
Rather than just tell you what I think about the benefits and challenges of self-publishing, I thought it would be a good idea to ask authors who have first-hand knowledge — and recent first-hand knowledge at that. Intrepid on your behalf, I tracked down our guests for the next few days, both of whom have successfully self-published their books this year and have graciously agreed to share their insights with all of us here at Author! Author!
Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.
Oh, and it’s a great read, too.
The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage is a lesbian bride’s eye view of marriage at a moment’s notice, with a bevy of brides, their coterie of children, donuts, newspaper reporters, screaming protesters, mothers of the brides who never thought they’d see the day, white wedding cake, and a houseful of happy heterosexuals toasting the marriage. But that was only the beginning as these private declarations of love became public fodder, fueling social commentary, letters to the editor, and the fires of political debate, when all the brides wanted was the opportunity to say “I do” in this candid, poignant, and frequently funny tale of lesbian moms getting to the church on time in Multnomah County.
Couldn’t put it down, either.
As my long-term readers know, I am definitely not one to convey praise lightly; I don’t recommend books here unless I feel quite passionate about them, and believe that they should be widely read. For my money, these are two of the best self-published books to have come out this year — and what’s more, books that I was genuinely surprised were not embraced by the traditional publishing market, in light of the exceptionally quality of the writing and the obvious timeliness of the stories (of which more below).
These books, in short, are best-case examples of the fiction and nonfiction (respectively) being self-published today. Let’s hear what their authors have to say about the process.
Anne: Many thanks to both of you for being here today. Let’s start with the question every writer faces about her own work: what made you burn to tell THIS story? Did it jump up and down in your head, demanding, “Write me now!”
Mary: They say “write what you know.” I didn’t know much of much interest to very many, but I knew law firms and I knew the experience of trailblazing women in that field, and that gave me authentic background for the story while I figured out how to write a novel. In many ways, writing this novel was a way of organizing for myself how I felt about my own experience. At the time, the “glass ceiling” was a big topic, and feeling the bump was depressing for many of us who realized that all the changes we’d worked for couldn’t be accomplished in a single generation of women entering the legal profession.
Beren: It kind of bit me on the leg and didn’t let go. After getting married at a moment’s notice, I wrote a column about it called “They Can’t Take This Away From Me”, which ran in about a dozen GLBT newspapers across the country. As the story continued, and I wanted to document it for our families (our own and the friends who also married that day alongside us), I wrote a longer story about it, which was also published and reprinted on the Internet. Around that time I heard that a local activist (and fellow Bride of March) was planning on writing a book about the Multnomah County marriages, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, I should be writing a book!” I’d been wavering on the edge of a longer project for some time, unsure if it was the right time to leap into one with a one-year-old at home, and articles to write, and then this happened and I couldn’t stop myself.
Anne: So in both cases, it was a story that deeply needed telling — and yet, if you don’t mind my putting it this way, there aren’t all that many good books out there on either of these topics. While one does hear theoretical discussions about hostile work environments and same-sex marriage, the average reader is unlikely to stumble accidentally upon a book on the subject upon walking into the bookstore down the block. With such meaty material, that seems odd to me from a writer’s point of view. Why do you think there are so few books on your respective topics?
Mary: One, there aren’t that many of us who know that world — my class of lawyers at Yale was a whopping 20% (24 women, as I recall) and not even half of us went to large firms; fewer yet stayed there. Two, not everyone is crazy enough to want to write a novel!
Anne: So it’s more a case of writers not writing what they didn’t know, eh? What about you, Beren?
Beren: I think partially it is exactly why editors and agents kept telling me why my book wasn’t “right” for them: money. There was an article in Writer’s Digest recently on the state of gay & lesbian publishing, and places to publish books by GLBT authors, and while the writer of the piece considered the current state positive, I have to disagree. As small publishers of gay & lesbian material folded in the eighties, there was a feeling that the mainstream publishers were picking up the ball, and there have been many successful and not-so-successful gay oriented books put out by mainstream publishers — but the formula became more rigid. There is a large market for gay and lesbian romance and mystery, novels, porn, and a small flourishing academic market, but there is little room for non-fiction unless it is by a famous sports star or a highly public figure.
Anne: One hears that about memoirs in general right now.
Beren: Lesbian non-fiction in particular is hard to place. Most lesbian publishers want fiction, and mainstream publishers will say openly that there is not enough money to be made publishing a book that will likely appeal to lesbian readers — though I hope that my book will be read by a wide audience.
Anne: Which brings me to a question vital to both of you: timing. Since you took the vital step of self-publication, you clearly felt that the world needed this story NOW. Having read both books, I have to say that I think you were both right about that, but for the benefit of those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, can you tell us why this story just couldn’t wait to come out?
Beren: Yes, I felt it couldn’t wait. Same-sex marriage is an extremely current issue, and it seemed like I could miss the moment if publication took too long, and the public had either had enough of hearing about the fight for civil rights, or society had changed enough that the issues in the book had become moot (that would have been a happy ending!). There were at least four books published about same-sex marriage while I was writing The Brides of March, but none of them were from a really personal point of view — the human factor — and I felt that was an important missing element in the debate that I could offer, as well as making people laugh.
Anne: Which is largely what had been missing from the public debate on the subject: a human face. I think there’s an immense difference between an abstract discussion of principle and a down-to-earth, practical understanding about how the issues of the day affect real people’s quotidian lives. I remember reading the passage where you talk about what it means to a person — any person — to be married in her own home town, and feeling very shaken, because it had never occurred to me to think of the issue in those terms.
That sense of taking a political issue down to the concrete, personal level so the reader can feel it from the inside comes across very clearly in your book, too, Mary: Kathleen’s dilemma feels very real and complex. But you had an even more specific reason for wanting the book to be out this year, didn’t you?
Mary: The time was right in part because this is the story of women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Kathleen Hannigan’s world is the world Hillary would’ve entered had she come home to Chicago to practice law straight out of Yale. (She was class of ’73, I was ’76.) Michelle Obama worked for me in her first legal job, when I was a young partner. Courting Kathleen Hannigan covers that time period as well, when Ann Rose is trying to make partner and is denied based on her “unfeminine” style. Women of my generation are beginning to think about retiring or taking early retirement. They’ve worked exceedingly hard. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is, in part, an homage to them.
And — I just thought of this — there are so many women lawyers on TV these days, and some of the images are just so unreal! Their lives are unreal! Their behavior is unreal. It bugs me to see cleavage in the office. I hate to see young women throwing away the progress we “elders” think we’ve made!
Anne: I feel that way when I see super-sultry grad students and professors in movies and on television. I can’t imagine having strutted into class in 4-inch heels and a miniskirt as a student, much less as the professor. Yet the pop conception of a woman working in a traditionally male profession is so simple: either put up with discrimination without seeming to notice it (which is miraculously supposed to exempt oneself from it), fall in love with a co-worker, or (as always seems to be the magic solution in the movies) slug the offending party. None of these strategies ever seem to have any repercussions in the fantasy versions, but that’s certainly not how it plays out in real life.
Okay, off my soapbox and back to practicalities. Since traditionally-published books hit the shelves at least a year after the author signs the book contract, and agents often spend years marketing their clients’ books (that roar you just heard was my readership’s collective sigh of recognition), did having a book with such current events appeal render it harder or easier to pitch to agents? Did they seem to understand the window of opportunity for your book?
Mary: Agents didn’t seem to think that people cared much about women lawyers (unless they were in thrillers, à la Scott Turow or John Grisham).
Anne: Funny, I know a lot of women lawyers who are people. And almost without exception, they have a lot of friends who might conceivably feel the same. It’s strange how many relatively large segments of the reading population are commonly dismissed as niche markets.
Did you encounter a similar reaction, Beren?
Beren: I think both agents and editors appreciated the timeliness of the topic; it was an easy pitch, not only because I believed in it totally, but because there was clearly a need. I had agents and editors take the manuscript, and received lovely personal letters about the manuscript and a lot of encouragement — but it wasn’t “right” for their house or agency.
Anne: Ah, that never-failing industry conviction that a really great book will always find a home SOMEWHERE — just not in my house. And yet it is almost invariably meant as a compliment to the book in question.
Okay, we’re running a little long, and I still have a million and twelve questions in front of me. Since I’m going to be milking your wisdom for my readers over the next few days, I suppose I don’t need to toss them all at you right off the bat. But to whet everyone’s appetite for tomorrow’s post, I’m going to leap straight to the jackpot question: why did you decide to self-publish, rather than go the traditional agent + publisher route?
Beren: Two reasons: while I believed that I could get the book traditionally published eventually, I wanted it to take part in the public debate NOW, and then my spouse told me she was going to write a technological manual and self-publish it. I thought, “The hell you’re going to have a book out before me,” and immediately started researching presses. Incidentally, her book never came to fruition and she has admitted this was a clever ploy to get me moving.
Mary: The combination of factors — lack of success finding an agent for this particular work, feeling the timing was right, having a personally compelling reason to want to have a book for my mother, believing that the book had an audience and something important to say.
Anne: I’m going to want to come back to all of those issues next time, when we will start to get into the nitty-gritty of how one goes about self-publishing intelligently. For today, let’s thank our guests and sign off.
Keep up the good work, everyone, and happy holidays!