Self Publishing and the Literary Writer:
an essay

by Barbara Shoup

Appears in Other Voices #44

Describing the fairy tale experience of having Oprah pick The Rapture of Canaan not long after the book had been dropped by Putnam, novelist Sheri Reynolds, said, “I knew that the quality of the writing didn’t improve just because Oprah picked it, and I knew that my value as a writer didn’t change either. I might have more readers and more money, but I was the same person who’d been in trouble just months earlier, with no money and no readers, and no publisher, either.” This is a cautionary tale—though, sadly, in reverse—for any writer contemplating the difficulty of getting her work into print. To try to find a logical explanation for why one novel or short story collection (and not another, maybe even better, one) is picked up and given big marketing dollars by a New York publishing house, let alone becomes an Oprah pick, will make you crazier than you were to set out to write fiction in the first place.

Increasingly, serious writers—like Chicago writers Pat Rahmann and Laurie Levy—are just saying “no” to the frustrations of commercial publishing. Rahmann recently published her novel, First Reveille, with Trafford Publications; Levy published her collection of stories, The Inland Ladies, with Syren Books. Both Trafford and Syren are among the many companies offering writers the option to “bypass the onerous, lengthy, and chancy route of finding a publisher to accept [their] work” and publish it on their own.

First Reveille, vividly evokes life on a military base in Missoula, Montana just prior to World War II. Left in charge of the household when her mother is hospitalized, eleven-year-old Maggie Blanchard tells her story in a voice that is fresh and compelling and has running beneath it a kind of wondering tone, as if she herself cannot quite believe the events that unfolded that summer. Rahmann is brilliant at creating tension on the page by letting the reader see what Maggie cannot see herself. Maggie’s father, Captain Timothy Cogswell Blanchard, springs fully to life, as does his striker, Dukes, a handsome young Cherokee Indian, Maggie’s first crush. Maggie’s mother, though physically absent, is present and powerful in the way Maggie depends on all she’s learned from her to puzzle her way through the decisions she must make to keep the house in order and make sure that she and her siblings present the right picture to the military community.

Levy’s collection, The Inland Ladies, poignantly explores the lives of Midwestern women who wanted more from life than the world seemed willing to yield to them, in stories that are set from the 1950’s through present time. Her characters struggle to balance the fulfillment their own dreams with obligations to families, lovers and friends. In one of the best of them, “Stills and Still Shots,” first published in Story Quarterly, the main character, Liza, is a film director recuperating from pneumonia under the controlling attention of her mother. The language and imagery of the story wonderfully reflect the way she sees (and avoids) the world in terms of moviemaking, at the same time underpinning her obsession with the craft and letting the reader see that the life-threatening pneumonia that’s taken her off the set and cost her the directorship of a movie may be the least of her problems.

Both of these authors have been writing for years, and they’re good. Rahmann’s short fiction has been included the Best American Short Stories series; Levy’s has appeared in the best small magazines. But it’s hard times for writers, generally, and especially for writers, well, over forty. Still, Rahmann originally felt hopeful about finding a New York publisher for First Reveille when she attended the Sewanee Writers Conference and novelists Diane Johnson and Margot Livesey recommended her work to agent George Borchardt. The Borchardt Agency did represent the First Reveille, but in two years found no takers. Engaged in work on a new novel, Rahmann did not want to take the time to research small press options for the book. She was ready to accept that the book would never find its way into the world until her children took matters into their own hands and put it out through Trafford Publishing. Levy turned to Syren Books for The Inland Ladies when a top agent responded, “The stories are gorgeous. But I don’t do stories.”

“I would never have done this myself,” Rahmann said. “I was very resistant. I mean, vanity publishing. What surprised me when the book came out was that, instead of being defensive, I was really very pleased.”

Levy is happy with her experience, as well. “I just wanted my stories published fast, in one collection,” she said. “Maybe it was stupid, or wrong, but I did it and was thrilled with my little collection.” She liked having complete control over what the book looked like, and has drawn on her own expertise as a journalist and public relations writer and that of professional friends to give it a successful launch. Favorable responses from successful writer-friends have encouraged her to take the book to New York, with the hope that an agent or editor will react positively to the finished product.

“You do have to do it all yourself,” she said, adding that this was probably the most important thing a writer needs to know when contemplating the self-publishing option. “If you can afford it, hire a publicist,” she said.

“Know the pitfalls,” was Rahmann’s advice, and recounted some of them.

Generally, companies require the author to buy a minimum number of copies, 250 is a common quantity, and the author is responsible for selling them herself. They also offer the book on a print-on-demand basis, which is great for the single reader, who just has to go to the website and order it. But it’s not so great for bookstores, which pay the same price per book. First Reveille sells for $24, which is pretty steep for a paperback even before the mark-up that would allow the bookstore to make a profit. A partial solution to this problem for Rahmann has been to buy books at the author cost, about $10 per copy, and provide them to bookstores willing to stock it.

Authors are responsible for preparing their manuscripts for publication, including doing the copyediting. Levy’s extensive experience as a journalist allowed her to trust her own skills in this area, but Rahmann realized, too late, that there were a lot of little errors in her manuscript, and had to pay to have them corrected in a second edition. Some companies offer a copyediting service, but though both of these authors agreed that a writer would be smart to hire someone she was certain would do the job right.

Very few writers get rich on their self-published books, and it is good to be prepared for this at the outset. Rahmann shared the statistics she read in the promotional materials Trafford sent when she expressed interest in working with them. “Three of every twelve books lose money,” she said. “Seven of twelve break even. Two make money—though, they didn’t say how much. It might only be a smidge.” Both Rahmann and Levy have more than broken even on their books. After receiving a sample copy of Inland Ladies, an Iowa City bookseller invited Levy to make an appearance during this year’s Iowa Writers’ Conference.

“I think that the desire to be published varies enormously,” Rahmann observed. “Some writers are in a temperature about it, others are almost indifferent. The important thing is to be honest with yourself, to have realistic expectations about what self-publishing a book will mean.”

If you set your hopes too high, they will almost certainly be dashed—though, when you think about it, that’s not so different from publishing…anywhere.