Sheer hubris is what it takes to publish without the gatekeepers of the publishing world saying yes, you’re worth reading.
I decided to start this press years after a number of agents told me that my work was quite good, but not something they could market successfully to publishers in a “very tough fiction market.”
Meanwhile, other folks were telling me they stayed up all night reading it.
Since then, I’ve watched some very talented authors get published, only to see their literary careers founder. The big publishers are under enormous pressure to return strong profits to their stockholders. They often feel they can’t afford to wait for new authors to build a readership over time. So most debut novels — especially those that didn’t win huge advances — simply get thrown up at the wall like spaghetti to see if they’ll stick. And many good writers, especially if they are not also great marketers, soon discover that their publisher is no longer interested in them.
I know something about how to market other people’s books. I worked for over 18 years as a project editor, acquisitions editor, marketing manager, and copywriter/creative director at various publishing companies and freelanced at an ad agency. Still, the thought of doing that for my own books was always kind of horrifying. So rather than persist — the number one requirement for successful traditional publishing — I moved on to other things. (It helps that I enjoy plenty of other things, especially teaching.)
In 2013 I considered hauling out the old rejection binder and trying one more round with agents and publishers, if only to cross it off my list of things to do.
Then I thought: Why?
Technology had made it easy to create your own publishing company. As noted above, I already had a lot of the skills required. It wouldn’t take a huge investment to e-publish. This way, I could afford to find my readers slowly, even if it took years.
And that’s what I’m doing now. This isn’t to say that I disparage traditional publishers or bookstores or any of the complicated, valuable work that they do. As a reader, I’m grateful for authors and booksellers who manage to prosper under the current system. That’s part of the reason I originally steered clear of a paper edition. But some of my readers only wanted to read paper, so I went ahead and did that, too.
Something new that didn’t work
Borrowing a technique from the world of fanfic, I started out offering a PG-13 edition for readers who would prefer to avoid explicit sex and bad language. I still believe this is a good idea in a perfectly digital world. Unfortunately, it led to trouble with Amazon, which didn’t consider it different enough from the original edition. It also created twice the amount of product management, while producing only 2% of the sales. So I abandoned that idea.
So how’s it going?
Not too shabby. Since publication in 2013, there have been over 50,000 free downloads during free days. I have to tally up the copies actually sold (mostly during promotions), but at this point I believe I’ve gotten past 3,000. I invested in a new cover by a real cover designer, which may or may not have helped. As of this update, “The Awful Mess: A Love Story” has over 100 5-star reviews at Amazon (4.3 average), made it into the five semi-finalists for general fiction in Amazon’s 2014 (and last) Breakthrough Novel Award, and was picked up as a highlighted selection in Library Journal’s SELF-e Program. In my second year, I actually turned a small profit on the business. For a first time indie author with no access to traditional bookstore channels, that’s pretty good.
My second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has not done as well in sales yet, partly because I never offered it free, and partly because it’s a literary coming-of-age story rather than women’s fiction that crosses over into romance. (Critically, it has done fine.) Still, I feel I’m on track to eventually do fairly well with this, either sticking with Sheer Hubris Press or crossing over into traditional publication someday when I’ve built enough of an audience. In the meantime, I get the pleasure of hearing from new readers who are excited about my work. Who can beat that?
No, I haven’t been able to quit my day job yet. But few traditional authors can, either.
This summer I took a 3,000-mile road trip inspired by…
The need to do some research for my next novel;
The desire to bring home some bulky items left over after I helped my mother clean out my grandma’s house (you would not believe how excited I get by free power tools I will probably never use); and,
The desire to check a few places off the bucket list.
That last one had felt more urgent after my last (plane) trip to my parents’ house. My folks now refuse to travel serious distances. (Ocala, okay. Tampa, no.) They also refuse to get on a plane. Dad isn’t comfortable sitting in one place for any length of time. But it’s not just that. At one point during lunch in Crystal River I suggested a visit to their recently renovated park, which was apparently a good place to see manatees. Their response: “If you’ve seen one manatee, you’ve seen them all.”
That’s when you know your parents are really getting old.
This suggested to me that someday I, too, might not be interested in manatees, or in getting out and doing anything that doesn’t revolve around a good cheap lunch. And you never know how soon that moment might arrive. So it was time to get cracking!
My first destination on this road trip was Niagara Falls. I always love waterfalls, yet had never gone there. Hadn’t even really thought of it. If anything, whenever I heard “Niagara Falls” I thought of what my ex-husband would immediate quote. (And he did it again, when I told him my plans.)
But because of the novel I was writing I wanted to better visualize a scene set there, when hero and heroine accidentally cross into Canada.
While it’s possible to google a location and read about various people’s experiences with it and maybe do some interviews and then fake your way quite through a lot (God knows I do plenty of that), there’s nothing like actually being there.
Also, I was puzzled by the number of people who claimed to have accidentally crossed the Rainbow Bridge to Canada. (That’s the real bridge to the real country, not the metaphor for pets who’ve died.) How, really, could that happen?
So I drove off to Niagara Falls as the first stop of a very long road trip west and then south and back — about 3,000 miles over 10 days. This first half would include one night in Canada, one with a friend in Pittsburgh, one with another friend in Berea, Kentucky, and one in a hotel in Tifton, Georgia, mostly because I didn’t want to arrive at my parents’ after their bedtime, which has moved earlier at the same pace as their interest in manatees has shrunk.
The trip did not start out well. I was not even halfway along I-90 towards Buffalo when I noticed a cloud of vapor billowing behind my car. Luckily, an exit appeared just then and I was able to coast through it to a gas station, where I discovered a long trail of liquid behind my car. Two hours later, after negotiations with my insurance company for a tow to a local garage that lasted nearly as long as the transmission hose replacement that followed, I was back on the road, hoping that was the last car problem I’d have.
I was pretty frazzled at that point, which may be why I didn’t even attempt to ask the officer on the Canadian end of the bridge if a lot of people REALLY arrived by accident. She wasn’t the least bit friendly, for one thing. (When I got to the hotel, I realized I’d left a big scary garden knife just under the front passenger seat — after telling her no, I had no guns and no knives. It can really pay to be a harmless looking white lady.)
Anyway, I was tired, but I walked down the hill anyway before the light was gone and, yes, the falls were amazing.
They tasted better than they looked.
I walked around, but it was getting late, and I was hungry, so I hiked back up to the hotels, hoping for a little comfort food before bedtime. Almost every restaurant in Niagara Falls, Ontario appears to belong to a huge tourist chain. I finally settled on oddly disintegrating pancakes at IHOP for $15.99, which was, apparently, the minimum you can pay for anything in that area unless you go to Tim Horton’s, which I hadn’t found yet.
The next morning I went down the hill early, before breakfast. It was worth it because of the beautiful morning light.
After a couple of hours of exploring and having a long conversation with a lady from Singapore who just wanted to talk and eating breakfast at Tim Horton’s, I checked out and hit the road and the Rainbow Bridge again.
I didn’t even try to ask the very friendly American official at the end of the bridge about people accidentally crossing. I’d already figured I’d need to change my plans there. Really, who could accidentally cross that bridge? There were plenty of signs. Even if it sometimes happens, people wouldn’t think it wasn’t plausible. (There are A LOT of things in real life that don’t seem plausible when you put them in a book.)
I figured I’d at least stop in at the Niagara Falls State Park, since it was easy enough to drive in and park. You don’t even have to pay parking if you stay for less than twenty minutes. And the falls are RIGHT THERE, so it’s easy enough to pop over and take a look.
This park has been renovated recently, apparently (renovations are still under way in some places), but it’s AMAZING. I had so much fun. I stayed half the day. The falls are one thing, but the river streaming towards them is beautiful in its many various sections, too. The park is beautifully laid out with walking trails and overlooks and, if you want, the Maid of the Mist and other attractions. The people-watching is great, too.
I decided to forego anything that would drench my shoes and leave me blinded by spray on my glasses for long stretches of time. Still, at moments I felt overtaken by sheer awe. It’s amazing to stand RIGHT THERE next to all that pounding power.
Above the falls
Also above the falls
You can see the plume of spray from most places
Three Sisters upstream
Time was passing, and eventually I needed to head for Pittsburgh. Once there, I told my friend Ann that I was going to have to change my plans for the book, because there was no way anybody was really going to go over that bridge accidentally.
She said, “Well, I’ve got a story to tell you.”
Turns out a few years back Ann was hosting an exchange student from Thailand when she and another host, Peg, rented a van and took a load of exchange students up to Niagara Falls. Just the American side, because the students were here on visas. Crossing the border would be way too complicated. So they left their passports at home.
After a fun day at the park, they decided they wanted to go eat dinner, and voted on pizza. (Or Chinese food. There’s some disagreement between Anne and Peg on this.) So they put that in their GPS, followed its directions and suddenly realized they were already on the approach to the bridge and could not back out (literally, their tires would be punctured if they tried).
So they drove into the duty-free shop, where the woman said oh yeah, it happens all the time, the Canadians will give you a sheet of paper to say you didn’t really enter, and send you back.
But what about all those students who might be denied re-entry without their papers?
Oops. So Ann walked them to an ice cream shop just off the bridge, while Peg went ahead and drove across with the van. The Canadian officer laughed and responded just as the duty free clerk said she would. The American officer, however, was suspicious. Peg got questioned at length, with the same questions over and over, and then he searched the van before finally letting her go on her way.
Oh, man. Never have I been so glad to hear someone’s GPS horror story.
So, Kathy and Diego get to accidentally cross the Rainbow Bridge after all, and will have to cope with all that follows.
I’d love to take this as a sign I’m being carried on to something good with this book. It could just as easily mean I’m heading for a fall. More likely, I’m just noticing something I hadn’t noticed before. And that is good enough for me.
If you’d like, comment with your own GPS horror story, or some of your bucket list items.
Next month’s blog post will feature another author interview (and a chance to win a free copy of THE FAR END OF HAPPY) with the talented women’s fiction author Kathryn Craft.