For the past few days, I’ve been chatting with recently self-published authors Mary Hutchings Reed and Beren deMotier about what prompted their decisions to bring their books out themselves, rather than pursing the traditional agent + publishing house path, and what a writer who was considering such a step might want to know going into the process. Yesterday, I veered off from the roundtable format in order to ask Beren about the challenges particular to private publication of nonfiction.
Today, I shall be speaking one-on-one with Mary about what the publishing industry would regard an even more daring move on an author’s part: self-publishing fiction.
Why more daring? By any standard and at every stage, fiction is significantly harder to sell than nonfiction, whether you’re talking about landing an agent, approaching a major publishing house, or attracting a buyer’s attention in a bookstore. (That’s the reason that the major publishing houses kept looking at unagented nonfiction book proposals for many years after they stopped even considering unagented novels, in case you’re curious. Now, of course, the big five have policies that preclude reading either unless an agent hands it to them.) The prevailing wisdom has always been pretty adamant that novelists who self-published would have, to put it politely, a significantly harder time selling their books.
So from a traditional publishing point of view, Mary’s not just attempting a dive from the highest board; she’s doing a quadruple backflip during the Olympic trials while simultaneously holding lit sparklers in her teeth and playing The Star-Spangled Banner on the Sousaphone.
Which is why I was so eager to hear what she had to say on the subject. Self-publishing today is a very different thing than it was ten or even five years ago: author-financed books sell side-by-side with those produced by major publishers on Amazon and on bookstore shelves alike. Since it’s now possible to do short runs at very high quality for relatively low cost, the purchaser of a privately published book may not even be able to tell the difference between it and any other well put-together trade paper book.
And that, my friends, may mean a whole new ballgame for those of us who write.
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.
Again, in the interest of full disclosure: I should make it clear that Mary is a very good friend of mine– in case my ill-concealed enthusiasm for all things Mary had not already tipped you off — and, as I did with Beren, I offered her a blurb for the back jacket of her book. (I’m not entirely sure that she could have stopped me.)
Anne: Welcome back, Mary! You’re an incredibly prolific writer — musicals, short stories, legal texts, fiction — but Courting Kathleen Hannigan was your first novel, right?
Mary: Yes, it followed on my memoir, CAPTAIN AUNT, about blue water sailing and childlessness.
Anne: You have a tremendous eye for the story that has not been written before. When you first told me about COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, I couldn’t believe that an insider’s view of sexual discrimination at a major law firm hadn’t already been written. It seems like such a natural.
But when I went looking, there just wasn’t much out there written by anyone who wasn’t just guessing — as your book jacket puts it — what goes on behind those beautifully-veneered doors. What did you say when agents asked you to compare it to the current fiction market?
Mary: I tried, and still try, sometimes, to compare it to ONE L, Scott Turow’s novel about being a first year law student at Harvard.
Anne: But that’s pretty dated, isn’t it? It’s based upon Turow’s own experiences at Harvard Law — and given that he was already quite well established as an attorney before he wrote PRESUMED INNOCENT (1987), I tend to think that he didn’t graduate yesterday. It’s more up-to-date than THE PAPER CHASE (1970), I suppose, but in both novels, the subject is law school, not legal practice at a high-powered firm, and the protagonists are men.
Which is why COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN isn’t like what was already on the market about the best of the best young lawyers.
Mary: And yes, to our minds, it’s a good thing, but to “them,” it’s proof no one is interested. What a strange business!
Anne: And yet it’s hard to imagine that there’s another writer out there who would be better qualified to tell this particular story with authority. As one of the first women to make partner in precisely the kind of fims Scott Turow likes to write about, you have a platform for this book that should have made agents and editors fall to their knees and weep.
Mary: I really detest the whole platform discussion. Makes it sound like all fiction is really just sugarcoating a lesson in something-or-other.
Anne: That’s very true. Fiction writers are asked — no, make that told — all the time that their work MUST be autobiographical, as though none of us had any imaginations at all, or as if every novel were automatically a roman Ã clef. Last year, an editor at a publishing house who was considering buying a novel of mine asked, in a tone of great trepidation, “Will your mother be angry when the book comes out?” Apparently, it hadn’t even occurred to her that my female protagonist might not be a thinly-disguised me, any mother in the book my mother, and so forth. It made me laugh at the time (and my mother laughed even harder), and of course, it’s a compliment to the realism of the novel, but it did bug me.
Have people been assuming that KATHLEEN is just a fictionalized account of your own life?
Mary: Oh, yes. Of course the book draws on my life experience, but there is no one to one correspondence between me and Kathleen Hannigan or any other character and any of my present or former partners or associates.
Anne : Do you think the autobiographical assumption discourages insiders in your profession from writing about it?
Mary: Because everyone who reads it looks to see if they are in it or if someone they know is in it (they think it’s a “tell-all”), there probably is a disincentive to want to publish a work like this.
I’ve stolen a line from a cartoon I saw, “Be nice to me or I’ll put you in my next novel!”
Anne : I always think: be nice to me or I’ll use you as a negative example in the blog.
But seriously, the autobiographical assumption is something I’ve been dealing with for my entire life: my mother and I regularly meet would-be Philip K. Dick biographers who positively refuse to believe that anything Philip wrote wasn’t completely autobiographical at base. He HATED that question.
Authors get it all the time, though. I read somewhere that long after Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had established as a major novelist, journalists kept showing up and asking of her first book, “So, who was the REAL Victor Frankenstein?” as if she had just been sitting in a corner while a friend of hers raised people from the dead while she took notes.
Mary: It only so happens that this particular novel derives from my personal experience, which speaks for itself: I’ve been a partner at two of Chicago’s largest firms, and I get some instant credibility because of their names (Sidley Austin LLP and Winston & Strawn LLP) , and I’ve been named a leading lawyer in my field by several publications, and I’ve won some awards like a lifetime achievement award from Lawyers for the Creative Arts. I also have a fairly high profile in the pro bono legal community, including service on the Legal Assistance Foundation Board, the largest provider of civil legal services to the disadvantaged in Cook County.
Anne : (laughing) That’s not just a platform; that’s an entire building. With all you do, I’m continually astonished that you find TIME to write.
Mary: I’ve written one memoir, six novels, two musicals. and one play plus some short stories and essays since I started trying to learn how to do this in 1993. People think I’m terribly prolific.
Anne : (laughing again) I can’t imagine why they’d think that.
Mary: Here’s what I tell them:
1) I write every day, at the same time, first thing because this is my first priority.
2) If you write a page a day, at the end of the year, an agent will say you have 65 pages too many.
3) I like to write a few pages a day if I can and revise something every day. I’m constantly going back as much as I’m going forward in the process of writing any given novel.
Anne : With that schedule, how long did it take you to write COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN?
Mary: It probably took a year and a half to write the first draft — 450 pages, and another year plus to reduce it to 300 and revise, revise, revise it. I’m a fast writer of first drafts and a constant reviser.
Anne : Me, too — and I have to say, it’s been my experience that a willingness to accept that one’s baby SHOULD be examined with an eye to revision tends to be one of the differences between writers who make it and those who end up giving up. Almost nothing we see on bookstore shelves is a first draft, after all, and agents and editors think of a book as a work-in-progress until it’s actually in the hands of the distributors.
With a writing schedule like yours, how do you handle writer’s block? Or are you one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get it?
Mary: Not really. I have times when I get my priorities screwed up and don’t put my butt in the chair first thing in the morning.
But I’m a firm believer that if I show up, so will the muse, even if I have to type
“I don’t know what to write” a hundred times. Something comes. But it doesn’t come if I’m not ready at the computer to receive it.
Anne : I wish more aspiring writers realized that; I know so many really talented people who keep saying, “When I have a month free, I’m going to tackle this.” But in most of our lives, those months don’t happen that often. If you keep putting off starting — or continuing, or finishing, or revising — books tend not to get done all.
At what point did you start to think of yourself as a writer who happened to be a lawyer, rather than a lawyer who also wrote?
Mary: Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do. When we were in my early forties, my husband said one day that we would hate to die without having sailed across the ocean.
That got me thinking — what was it that I could say that about? And the answer to me was real clear: I wanted to write a novel.
Anne : AND you and Bill sailed across an ocean, or at least across quite a bit of one.
Mary: Bill took a year off from working (he’s a doctor) and Winston gave me an unpaid sabbatical — I took 3 months–and in 1992 we sailed from Norfolk, Virginia to St. Thomas in our 32-foot sailboat, just the two of us. We covered 1600 miles and spent 22 days and nights off shore.
We had 3 very bad storms, and it kind of put things in perspective for me. I understood priorities. I was never going to be able to write a novel and do all the other things I wanted to do if I continued to practice full time as a partner at Winston. I left the partnership and became Of counsel.
Writing my first novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There’s so much to learn, craft-wise, even simple things like getting your characters up and showered and fed every day, moving them across the page!
Anne : That’s another trait that authors who are in it for the long haul tend to have: a willingness to keep adding to that writer’s tool bag. You participate in a couple of critique groups, don’t you?
Mary: It’s where I’ve learned the most. Weekly with Enid Powell, an Emmy award-winning writer, and a monthly novel-writing workshop with Fred Shafer of Northwestern University. It is extremely useful to get feedback from other writers, and to have readers tell you what they take away from what you’ve written.
Anne : So you got a great deal of feedback on COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN.
Mary: I had several professional editors and writers comment on it, and I rewrote and rewrote. Finally, Chicago literary agent Jane Jordan Brown accepted me as a client, and she had a year’s worth of revisions, including getting it down to 300 manuscript pages. She died in 2003, about a month after she declared it ready for the marketplace. I then put it aside for a while and began working on other novels.
Anne : That’s so hard, figuring out when to stop revising your first book and move on to the next. Most writers don’t really plan for that possibility, but you and I both know many, many writers who didn’t land agents until the third or fourth book. Which must seem insanely masochistic to non-writers.
Mary: I think people think you write a novel and then it gets published and then you go on Oprah. Truth is, it’s a very long process, and while agents and publishers and publicists consider your work, novelists write. If you do it every day, and if you write a page or half a page a day, every day, at the end of the year, you have a couple hundred pages, at least.
Anne : And in five years, when you have hit the big time, you have a few projects already drafted for future revision. Successful authors seldom have much breathing space between promoting one book and being expected to produce the next.
As someone who did successfully land a very good agent indeed, what would you say was the best advice you ever got on approaching them?
Mary: Probably from you, Anne. (What did you say?)
Anne : Now, now, my readers are constantly inundated with my advice — and in any case, you had already signed with Jane Jordan Brown before we met.
(Readers: obviously, I did not say this to Mary, as that would have been Hollywood narration — if you don’t know what that is or why not to use it your novels, please see the MANUSCRIPT MEGAPROBLEMS category at right — but she and I met at a writers’ conference years ago. It was the very first panel of the very first day, a discussion of great first lines for books, and as often happens with poorly-organized panels, the moderator had asked the panelists each to come up with an example — and then apparently failed to check before the panel began that they didn’t all pick the SAME example. So we in the audience were presented with a half-hour discussion of the first line of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE. After 20 minutes, I couldn’t resist raising my hand and asking, “Do you have any examples that were originally written in English?” Mary was the only person in the room who laughed, so I knew that there was at least one kindred spirit there. The moderator, on the other hand, looked blank and asked me what I meant, so I actually had to explain that the copy of A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE she held in her hand was a translation from Spanish. Naturally, during the next break, I tracked Mary down at the coffee table and introduced myself. Here endeth the digression.)
So what do YOU say?
Mary: I’d have to say the best advice I ever got was to send a lot of ‘em and keep trying. Don’t get discouraged.
Anne : At the risk of annoying you by bringing up platform again, what was the best thing you’ve ever done to build up your writing resume?
Mary: The actual production (12 sell-outs) of my musical, Fairways, at the Steel Beam Theatre, St. Charles, Illinois, on February 24, 2006.
Anne : I love the idea of a musical about golf — again, once you told me about it, it seemed like a natural. You’re reworking it for television, right?
Mary: Yes, as a series, which will require some rewriting of the plot. The pilot will be filmed in April/May of 2008.
Anne : You’re a very gratifying friend to have, you know: you give me so many opportunities to boast about you.
Speaking of which, have your writer friends been supportive of your decision to self-publish? What about your non-writer friends and relatives?
Mary: Absolutely. Both groups are truly excited for me. Non-writers really don’t know the difference between Ampersand and Simon & Schuster. They just see the product, love the cover, and are so happy for me. People do seem to be in awe of someone who can actually write a whole book!
Anne : So you haven’t been encountering the stigma one hears about with self-publishing?
Mary: I think non-writers don’t know the difference, especially since they can buy it online.
Anne : If you could give only one piece of advice to a fiction writer considering self-publication, what would it be?
Mary: Okay, here are two:
1) Invest in a manuscript editor so that you will have the confidence that your work is ready and deserving of being in print.
2) Do an honest assessment of all your contacts who can possibly help you and their willingness: prepare your mailing list, all the groups with whom you have a real relationship, all the groups with whom having a relationship would be useful and how you might connect with them. Decide that you can afford to lose your entire investment but that you’ll work like hell to break even and will be thrilled if you do. Don’t do it if you have to do it on the cheap.
Anne : I have a few more practical questions about the self-publishing process, but I’m going to save them until next time. Thanks, Mary, for sharing your insights!
Happy holidays, everyone, and keep up the good work!
Ever since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 56, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.
For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties
Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.