HELLO, MY NAME IS DYANNE A., and I’m a self-published author.
I come by it honestly. My family has a history of print-abuse: both my grandfather and my uncle published their own books. Grandpa Harry wrote an autobiography, Life’s Journey, to edify our family about his odyssey from Russia to the United States, and Uncle Morrie penned Tale of Two Planets, a science fiction novel from which my aunt excised some sex scenes, which could not have been worse than the ones she left in. Over the years, copies of both of these tomes drifted from one dusty pile to another until they landed in my garage. I haven’t been able to toss them, not yet, and especially not now. It might be bad karma since I just published my own book, The Edge of Finalia written by my alter ego, Delores Hawk.
What my relatives did was called vanity publishing, and it carried the stigma of not being worth a real publisher’s time. These days, however, self-publishing no longer bears such a taint, thanks to a succession of fairy tale (but still very rare) stories about authors whose self-published books become runaway best sellers (or, at least, ebook best sellers). Witness Amanda Hocking who self-published a whole bookshelf worth of supernatural suspense novels until St. Martins Press came calling with a $2 million deal. Barry Eisler had published a string of spy novels before he opted for either publishing entirely by himself or in a hybrid agreement with Amazon (Eisler controls the packaging, Amazon the marketing). The great advantage of this arrangement, since traditional publishing has not yet adapted to the technological shifts that are redefining everything, is that Eisler’s book would be published within a month of his finishing the manuscript.
When Penny Marshall self-published (with Amazon) her memoir My Mother Was Nuts this year, the arrangement was so common that The New Yorker didn’t even mention it in its piece on the author.
“Good news,” I thought. “I’ll practically have the same publisher as Penny Marshall.”
Publishing has gone democratic, and masses of writers gamble on themselves, hoping they’ll hit a readership vein and mine financial profits, not to mention fame and glory. Some go it alone, others circle the wagons and form support groups, read each other’s blogs, offer tips. Some achieve at least one of the things they hoped for. Others don’t.
Like them, I heard the siren call. “Dyanne Asimow,” it said. “Time to take the power into your own hands.”
The Edge of Finalia began years ago when I volunteered as a “writing partner” at an elementary school and was paired witha young girl named Julia who loved to read and write. Her favorite kind of book was fantasy, so as she wrote her own stories I blithely set out to write her a chapter or two. We read each other’s pages. I waited expectantly for her response.
“Add wizards and swords,” she advised.
While Julia sailed on through the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, my progress with wizards, swords, and the dark forces of evil was more of a struggle. I had previously only written for adults. Without her to guide me, I relied on feedback from a biweekly writing group and my own cache of preteen contacts. After many delays, I finished. An amiable agent gave me notes. I rewrote. Another agent nicely rejected me, with more notes. My trustworthy copy-savvy friends edited further. Finally, Pseudonymous Bosch, a “tween” series writer, who also began as a volunteer “writing partner” at the same elementary school, suggested I post a few installments on the website he hosts.
This was my first taste of Internet exposure. His fans read the installments. They commented. And, when the last section was posted, they responded with passion — or if not passion, then a lot of exclamation marks:
Nooooooooooooooooo! This can’t be the last installment, It can’t! It’s too awesome!
Noooo!!! Too awesome!!! lease ut out more!!! As you might notice my P key isn't working very well on the keyboard it’s very sticky.... Mrs. Hawk lease write more stories!! I will buy this if I have to!!! lease tell me what book this is!!!!
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No! I refuse to believe it! This will not be the last installment. If it is, this whole thing might just have been a dream...
— AP Spy
Wow. Instant feedback. Very energizing. All along, I had assumed I would follow the traditionally arduous route taken by writers who desire to be published — submit, wait, resubmit, wait, re-resubmit, etc. But now I knew I did not want to spend months waiting for publishers’ reactions and then rewriting, only to receive a contradictory new set of reactions. I’d had plenty of that when I was earning a living as a screenwriter.
And there was a more urgent reason not to wait. I had left those youthful readers out there in cyberspace wondering what happened next. I couldn’t abandon them. They could be raising children by the time The Edge of Finalia, was published, if it was at all.
The siren call grew louder.
Forget your pride.
This is not the vanity press of yore. It’s the way to go.
What do you have to lose?
Turns out, these weren’t the right questions. The right questions were in fact more mundane.
The right questions begin with: Are you ready to entirely shift gears? Are you able to switch from constructing a new universe to the job of choosing precise margin widths and weights of paper, ISBN numbers (the acronym for International Standard Book Number — a commercial book identifier), and cover art? The question should have been: How do you intend to handle the multiple reins of writing, publishing, and, especially, distribution and self-promotion, when all you ever distributed were Girl Scout Cookies, and the last thing you promoted was yourself for student body president in high school?
I am not a salesperson. Nor am I a computer maven. I have zero IT skills. I do not have a Facebook habit. I do not tweet or LinkUp, nor do I have a smart phone or a ton of apps, or even one app. I am a de facto Luddite who uses the computer for writing and emailing and researching.
No matter. I would leave my comfort zone. I would not, could not, disappoint my cyber-readers. I would become part of a brave new world of self-publishers.
Day One: Exhilaration quickly vanishes as I surf dozens of sites, taking in a plethora of information. I stare at the computer screen. POD. Casewrap. Bleed. Gutter. The jargon defeats me.
Days Two, Three, Four, and Five: Anxiety builds, producing extreme self-doubt. Why am I doing this? Don’t “real” writers have “real” editors and get “real” contracts with “real” advances? Who am I to think I will be fine without that kind of professional validation? Procrastinate by rewriting — a task I actually know how to do. Have vodka with an extra shot of self-pity.
Day Six: Talk to a friend who self-published. Wrong friend. Jargon is his native tongue — he writes instruction manuals for computer programs. I proclaim helplessness. What I really want is for him to drive up from San Diego and do it for me. He ignores my subtle hints and recommends CreateSpace as easy and user-friendly.
Easy for him, I think.
Day Seven: Tough talk in mirror: “Nobody is forcing you to do this. Make a decision. Either mail out inquiries to 20 publishers or commit to this process. Be the heroine of your own tale. Any decision is better than no decision.”
Gemma, the heroine in my novel, is only 13, out of sync with the unnecessary and mind-numbing rules that govern her life in far away Finalia. Unbeknownst to her, she is the chosen one who will battle the dark void, the Maw, that seeks to devour her universe. She will save the world. She is thrown into adventure. Though full of doubt, time after time she exhibits grit and determination. If I can imagine it for her, why not for me?
I google CreateSpace and jump in with eyes closed, much like the time I had no choice but to cross Melrose Avenue during rush hour when the signals were out; I revved the engine and careened across the boulevard with eyes tight shut. This time my eyes are open. I made it. I am inside CreateSpace.
I sign up — no fees, no hidden costs — and log in. I enter the book’s title. I type the author’s name, my alias, Delores Hawk, and worry I will derail the process since I’ve logged in under Dyanne Asimow. I obsess about this. The issue stays unresolved while I proceed.
I choose “Extended Guided Setup for First-Time Users.” I select “Get Started.”
Immediately the site wants a description of my book. Should have seen it coming. This brief description, I’m told, will be a selling tool. Brain freeze. Can’t think of a single adjective. Postpone task by clicking Save and Continue.
Catapulted to the next step — a request for ISBN information. ISBN? Don’t books just come with it in a barcode on the back? I bail, thinking I’ll put the novel in a drawer to fossilize, like my Uncle Morrie’s.
Day Eight: I flail. In desperation I call the Contact Help number. I expect a computer voice that will annoy and frustrate me until I decide that this self-publishing thing might work for Penny Marshall but not for me. It turns out that CreateSpace uses real humans on their hot line, available 24/7 to answer questions. A very nice, English-proficient responder talks me off the ledge and helps me decipher procedural terminology, such as PD (Public Domain), altogether different from POD (Print on Demand).
Bolstered by such encouragement, I go back to Book Description, ready to take it on.
The description tells potential customers about your title. The description displays in your e-Store and on your book’s Amazon.com detail page, and may be used as your book’s description in other sales channels you choose. Your description can have up to 4,000 characters, or about 760 words.
Summoning years of professional writing discipline, I finesse a description, reassuring myself that the paragraph is not permanently etched into cyberspace. I can rewrite it anytime I want, like at three in the morning when I’ve run out of the magnesium and zinc my friend lent to me.
With a bit more confidence, I continue to the ISBN page. I refuse to be intimidated by an acronym. When I am directed to a place where ISBNs can be purchased, I ignore the used-car-lot tackiness of the website and follow instructions. I buy ten ISBNs for $200 rather than one for $99. Since the American market requires one, and Europe requires another, and another may be required for Kindle, I am saving money. But even if I don’t sell books in Europe, or write more novels, I embrace having my very own ISBNs.
As I surmount one obstacle, another looms.
Margins, for instance. To my delight, I comprehend the phrase “gutter margin,” and, better yet, I am able to format the suggested margins that ensure space on either side of my future book’s spine, where the pages form a “gutter.” I am downright giddy after I upload a draft of the book, and CreateSpace displays how real pages will look by creating shadows along the gutter.
Triumph soon fades. The side margins are fine, the bottom one is fine, but the top margin is skimpy. I take paperbacks off a non-virtual shelf and check. None have top margins as skimpy as mine. The humans at Help can’t help; apparently it’s a Mac problem. I have an option: I can manually manipulate each top margin in my Word Document so that it matches the bottom margin. This reeks of tedium, not to mention disaster. All I want is for my book to be published. However, I also want it to look like a “real” book. I submit. Page by page I add extra space at the top. (All of which, god help me, I will have to undo when and if I create a Kindle version.)
I know better than to trust myself with the cover. I could pay extra money to use the art and graphic assistance offered by CreateSpace, but first I ask Catherine Goodman, whose art I have admired since we were in fourth grade, to be my illustrator. And I turn to a couple of friends who can arrange title and blurbs so that they make visual sense. We make a team. This is fun. If I ever do it again, and now I’m daring to think I will, I’ll involve others from the beginning. There are last minute glitches as I become confused about whether it’s better to upload a pdf file or a doc file (again, Mac anomalies) but I call Help and muddle through. My team delivers. I have a cover, and I feel an unusual sensation — it’s called satisfaction. I order a proof.
Days later, sent through snail mail, it arrives — actual pages inside an actual cover. A real book, with PROOF stamped in caps on the last page. I am triumphant. I read through, finding typos and errors and excessive commas. I make corrections. Everything becomes easier now that I have the actual hard copy in my hands. I upload for a second proof. I see and correct more errors. When I get the third proof, I let others read it. I correct the errors they find. I deem it done. Really done — the final upload — ISBN in place.
I inform Amazon.com.
Abracadabra! Delores Hawk’s The Edge of Finalia is available for purchase. Peruse the Amazon page and read some words. Click on the book cover and the illustration gets bigger. The paragraph description sits as though it was meant to be there. Soon there will be reviews. Select it for your cart. Proceed to check out. You’ve got yourself a book.
No time to congratulate myself on such an amazing accomplishment. The hard part is still ahead. Now I have to — shudder — sell my book.
I email friends. I join Facebook and, once I figure out how, I insert a picture of the cover on my timeline. I have cards printed with Delores Hawk and the name of the book. I give one to my dental hygienist.
Grandpa Harry, Uncle Morrie: I am happy to join you, and I hope to surpass you. At least when my family members find my book sometime in the future, it will not be dusty.