Well, this discussion stemmed from my mixed emotions surrounding my new novel, And So We Die, Having First Slept. It’s been both glorious and, frankly, really hard. As I got to tell Dave Abrams in November, This is the book I wanted to write. How many people get to say that? But, along with this joy, I can’t quite get past a certain stench. The Stench of Self-Publishing. I might urge you to check that link out to get a bit of the backstory.
So here’s an opportunity for two self-published writers to talk. It’s an honor to converse with Laraine Herring. The very first thing that attracted me to Laraine was her beautiful, apparently sick, orange kitten who she nursed back to health. Facebook Writers Sharing Cat Pictures. And, well, one thing led to another. She’s in Prescott; I’m in Phoenix. We’re both professors. We’ve both published traditionally. We both have orange cats. We both have degrees in unrelated fields, besides the ubiquitous MFA. And, unhappily, it turns out that we’ve both had cancer. Admittedly, it’s tough for me to not turn this into a big Cancer Talk. (It’ll just be a little talk.) Without further adieu, we’re going to have a chat!
Laraine Herring is a fiction and nonfiction writer. Her nonfiction work includes Writing Begins with the Breath, and her latest, On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block. Her novels include Ghost Swamp Blues and Gathering Lights: A Novel of San Francisco. She’s currently working on a speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts: A Fabulist Memoir with Ravens. She directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, where she also teaches psychology and lives with five amazing cats.
Jennifer Spiegel: So my self-publishing saga is in that link above. What’s yours?
Laraine Herring: My first traditional book was Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal From Adolescent Father Loss. I acquired my agent based off a novel submission, but she wasn’t able to sell it, so I figured I’d try other genres and then it would be easier to move back into fiction because I’d have a sales track record. After that book, three more nonfiction titles were sold to Shambhala, and although I’m grateful for all of those, I still kept returning to fiction and I still kept having difficulty.
JG: Like you, I published traditionally in the beginning. The Freak Chronicles (short stories) was with Dzanc Books, and Love Slave (a novel) was with Unbridled Books. My third book has a disastrous history. It was just out when the publisher went under. The completed files were returned to me. I had bad choices in front of me. I self-published. In all honesty, this publisher took on my novel and let it be known that she thought I was better suited for a medium-sized publishing house (i.e. she was too small).
So, among my many questions, is this one: why did this book not sell to a medium house?
And, really, most of my own thoughts are centered around these issues: What makes a good book? What sells a book? Who reads these days? Why should we read? What is the future of books and fiction and readers? And how are our reading habits connected to cultural shifts and quagmires?
(I have to quietly admit a weird thing, and I have no clue where you stand. For whatever reason, I closely associate the election of Trump with Colson Whitehead winning the Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad. I don’t know why. But, in my crazy head, I associate a cultural shift taking place around the time that this great book was lauded—by a shrinking but devoted group of avid readers. Are books out of style? How is the lack of reading the “important books” connected to our cultural mood?)
So I’ve been thinking about these things. For me, personally, I want to write books worth reading, books that really say something. This is brazen, I know. And my abilities may not live up to my expectations.
Maybe my bottom line is that I’ll write to meet my own expectations, market be damned.
I’m curious about why you think you had this difficulty. Is there something off with the fiction market?
LH: Your correlation with Trump and Colson Whitehead is fascinating. I remember when we had a President who visited indie bookstores and frequently posted his reading lists and honored and recognized Arts all over the place. I think (and I see this from within the higher ed system where I work too) that it’s becoming less cool to be educated, and that education is equated with ‘‘elitism.” We see a lot of pushback at the college from students toward our “agenda,” and students seem less able to be in contact with anything that they don’t agree with 100%. This is going to make life very difficult for them. I think we’re in Upside-Down Land in so many areas.
My first novel, Ghost Swamp Blues, was the one I acquired my agent with. We were shopping it when 9/11 happened. The publishing industry, and the whole country, changed then. Books that were picked up were canceled. People’s reading shifted and fear entered. I don’t think things have recovered from that, though I do see a lot of renewed interest in fiction and reading in young adults and teens. They even seem to like actual printed books. The collapse of the economy forced many publishing houses to close, and many others to merge, which shrunk the pool, and the risk to publish new voices, coupled with loss aversion (most published books don’t make money) have contributed to sort of an idea that the book has to be a guaranteed seller before it even gets acquired, which certainly feeds into existing authors (Stephen King, etc) who don’t need the big machines behind them anymore.
JS: I guess I’d like to hit upon those questions that I end that original blog with. Some are questions, and some are statements. Are these truths, misnomers? How have you met the challenges of self-publishing?
- Libraries will not carry me.
- I am not in normal distribution catalogues.
- Most bookstores are skeptical, and they can’t order it from the usual places.
- Who wants to write a review of a self-published novel?
- What about AWP?
- Am I still a real writer?
- Should I just teach 101?
LH: I had designer friends from high school, so I was able to get professional design work for free, which was huge. I was also able to trade editing services, so that was also a big benefit. I made the decision that I was tired of waiting on other people to make things happen for me, so either some of these books were never going to have a home, or I was going to have to make one. When I thought about it that way, it was a no-brainer. I published under a friend’s imprint, The Concentrium, so I didn’t have to deal with UPC codes, etc., and they contracted with Ingram, so distribution to bookstores wasn’t as challenging as when you only use Amazon Create Space.
JS: I used Amazon, incidentally. And I think they call themselves something different now. Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I have to give a shout-out to indie author, Avily Jerome. She really set me up. Like my former publisher closed her doors and Avily IMMEDIATELY opened them up again.
LH: I do think that had I never sold anything traditionally, this would all feel differently. Because I have four traditionally published books, and many other essays/stories in magazines, self-pubbing just feels like a different model. If I’d never been able to sell anything, I do think I might struggle with some of the issues you’re bringing up much more because I would question my talent and skill. Certainly, I know I can always improve and that no piece of writing is perfect, but I don’t doubt that I’m a strong writer and storyteller. I can’t say I’d feel that if I hadn’t had some success in the traditional field.
I’ll be totally honest and say I am not attached to sales. I see how people struggle with this and push against it and try everything from standing on their heads to giving away kittens (not really!) to sell a single copy of a book, and I’m not willing to do that. I see friends literally having anxiety attacks over negative Amazon reviews and I won’t play there. I don’t even look at reviews. I always go back to the question: “Will knowing this (whatever this is) help me write the next thing better?” and if the answer is no, I turn away.
I say this with zero judgment about other people’s choices about how they promote, and I do a lot of promoting of other people’s work on my feeds. I have lots of hustling friends—both traditionally and self-pubbed, and I’m frankly in awe of them. I’d read your blog post on The Stench of Self-Publishing back when you posted it on FB, and I identified so much with it. You’re doing the hustle. You’re fighting in a way that I don’t seem to be able to do. I learned from my attempt at freelancing that I don’t have the temperament to sell, and to try and force myself to have it does me a disservice and increases my anxiety, which harms my ability to write.
I do tell people what I’ve written. I don’t hide it. I occasionally post about it, but I don’t try to push it. I’ve honestly tried to be the person who can do that, and it’s failed because it’s not authentic to me. Maybe one day I will find a way to promote actively that feels organic, but I haven’t found it yet. This choice takes a lot of the questions you have off the table for me (libraries carrying it, reviews, etc) because I don’t worry about that. I guess one of my life practices has always been “release attachment to outcome” and if I get attached to sales numbers or Amazon rankings, I’m not serving myself and I’m certainly not making space for me to write anything new.
With my traditionally published books, the publishers had very little marketing support for me. I could have been more involved with them, but I wasn’t. Those titles sold okay, but not great. For me, a good thing is if my book finds one reader who appreciates it. Yes, I’d certainly love an end cap in a bookstore, but I know that unless I’m willing to do something different on my end, that will not happen with the self-pubbed titles, and since I’m not, I can let that go, which makes all of this smoother.
JS: Yes, I’m doing the hustle. Which is to say that I’m a hustler. I’ll tell you this: I doubt it works much, and I find myself, well, unbecoming. I don’t like the self-promo stance. I have tacit suspicion about marketing, and it leaves a bad taste in mouth. That said, I find myself really wanting to get it out there, like I really believe in this book. And what does that mean? How is that expressed?
I do like what you’ve said about finding the one reader who appreciates it. I know that that often means the most to me. And I’m writing, mostly, for them.
I’m also, however, crazy enough to say that I’m motivated by the Art of it. I want to further the Literary Arts! Cuckoo!
Will you talk more about those bullets above?
LH: I admire that hustle that you have. I see it online. Maybe this is part of the “after cancer” thing, but I have just gotten very protective of where I spend my energy, and I’m not going to spend it where it drains me. My sister is a great salesperson (and she’s an attorney). I don’t have that gene. Regarding the other bullets, you’re not wrong at all—libraries won’t carry (unless you have an arrangement with Ingram), it’s hard to get a reputable review, it’s hard to get in bookstores—but those things are knowns up front, so I view them as things I was willing to accept before making the decision to self-pub, not as things to fight with after the choice.
JS: Good point. Again, I do have to say that I really didn’t know much of this as it was sort of thrust upon me.
LH: I will probably always teach psychology 101. It pays the bills and the health insurance. I never set out to make a living from writing. I guess I always had too much need for security. I did try freelancing for a few years, but I don’t have the stomach for it. I was too worried about the next gig and got no writing done. I am far more productive as a writer with a full-time job.
I don’t struggle with the “am I a real writer” question.
JS: I can tell you’re more mentally healthy than I.
LH: Ha! A lot of my teaching is focused on helping people own that writer identity, and I began considering myself a writer at age five when I wrote my autobiography, the brilliant My Name is Laraine. I have never felt like being a writer or not was about responses from outside forces. It was always about my relationship to my work and the source of that work. That’s always been both a spiritual guidepost and a literal one for me in my life. When I am in harmony with creating, I’m well on all levels. When I’m disconnected, I’m ill (either psychologically or physically).
Because I’ve also worked as a therapist, I know how many people struggle with the imposter syndrome no matter what field they’re in. It’s hogwash (though in therapy I don’t present it quite that bluntly). People tend to feel like they’re imposters if they don’t believe their work is up to some external standard, and that approach gives all personal power away to others—which we can never control. I totally get that there’s stigma around self-pubbing (but there’s also stigma around writing cozy mysteries, or graphic novels, or pantoums, or YA, or fill-in-the-blank). The stigma-game changes with the seasons.
JS: Another good point.
LH: I have many friends who are artists in other areas, and they’ve had to do the DIY thing much longer than we have. Visual artists produce their work and go to fairs, try to book themselves into galleries, try to get representation. They use online sites to sell their work for a fraction of what they could sell it for 1:1 so they have online presences. They publish zines. Musicians record their own albums and upload them to iTunes. Writers are just a little late to the game that started decades ago.
Now that it’s relatively inexpensive to self-pub a quality product, we’re taking ownership of an area that traditional publishers have left in the dust. I think there was a whole rush of people who weren’t writers (but wanted to be content creators … not the same thing, in my opinion) who self-pubbed to KDP because they could and they generally produced crap. They didn’t respect the art or the craft. They didn’t understand the need for developmental and copy edits, of good designers, of a marketing plan. And since they were chasing the elusive millions that didn’t come, a lot of them have fallen away and we’re seeing now some amazing, powerful shifts in this area (think She Writes Press as an example). Also, the average reader pays no attention to where a book was published. It’s just our insular writing world that knows what the imprints mean and we often tend to use that knowledge to separate rather than connect.
JS: I agree that the average reader isn’t quite as into the publishing house news as we might be. And I hope you’re right about that falling away business—because the degradation of the art and craft concerns me. I really believe in the work of editors. (I’ve had great editors.) I also believe that there’s good stuff, and there’s bad stuff—and publishers can potentially separate the wheat from the tares, so to speak. That said, they can miss the wheat! What I’d say, then, is that self-publishers should respect the art and craft of it. Completely.
LH: And AWP—it’s just a big gathering of people who like books and words. It only means something scary if you make it mean something scary. It’s just a bunch of people—many of whom will be grasping and panicked and over-extended trying to land that job or find an agent or make that connection that they think will change everything. But those things, even when you get them (and I’ve had them and you have too) don’t change everything. Think of the power we have knowing that. So I recommend enjoying the panels you want to see and hanging out with the people you want to visit with. Find things that fill you up there, not drain you. I’ve already mostly filled my time with friends and off-site gatherings, with just a few panels. I haven’t been in about ten years ($$) and was able to get my college to pay for it this year, so I’m going to just enjoy Portland and Powell’s and seeing what new things people are making and standing right along with all of them celebrating their work and sharing mine.
JS: So, yeah, I’ll see you there! Closing words? Are there benefits?
LH: Absolutely! I have two novels that I’m very proud of that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. They’re a part of my CV and now an accessible part of my body of work.
I just finished a draft of a speculative memoir, which I sent off to my agent. We will certainly try the traditional route first. It’s easier on all levels, no doubt. She’s got a novel that we still have out to a few houses, but it’s looking like I’ll have to make a decision on that within the year. If no one picks it up, I’ll absolutely self-pub again because these stories were given to me to write, and so I have to do what I can to bring them completely into the world. I’m glad that it’s an option today with all the digital services that weren’t available twenty years ago. It’s a win either way. I will have a book.
JS: Finally, does cancer play a role at all in this, or in your writing life?
LH: Interestingly, illness and a short life have always played a role in my life because my dad died when he was forty-six of a heart attack, and I have always been acutely aware that we all don’t get ninety years. I’ve always felt an urgency to create what is in me to create. I was 48 when I was diagnosed with cancer, and in some ways, it felt inevitable. What didn’t feel inevitable was still being here, so I’m even more motivated to not spend the remaining years of my life waiting on some New York entity to say yes to me. I have this chance to say yes to myself in all areas of my life, and I’m not going to waste that. I can’t deny the benefits of being in the New York “system,” but there’s also benefits to taking ownership of what you want.
Because my focus when I was a practicing therapist was grief counseling, I spent a lot of time with people in hospice or people who just lost a loved one. The cliché sentiment of “on your deathbed no one wishes they’d spent more time at work” can be applied to this. If I were to get a recurrence of cancer (and let’s be honest, something someday will ultimately get me), what would I regret not doing? I would regret holding back my work, so I won’t do that. When I die, and I certainly hope it’s well into the future, I want to die empty. I want to have spent all the gifts I have and done all I can to do right by them.
JS: I definitely feel the urgency. And I very much wanted to publish this book for my husband before I died. This is no lie. And a similar urgency is pushing me forward with my current book. I’m into the final draft of a memoir, Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide to Breast Cancer, or Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: How to Get Your Ba-Da-Bing Boobies On The House! I will self-publish if I have to—because I want it out there for my kids (this time) and also for other women.
In fact, I may purposely seek to self-publish this one. I still haven’t decided. I think the audience might be very particular, and I think I may also want to allocate some of its (tiny) income to particular cancer-related institutions. I’m still thinking!
For more information on Laraine Herring, please visit laraineherring.com
For more information on Jennifer Spiegel, please visit jenniferspiegel.com
Jennifer Spiegel is mostly a fiction writer with three books and a miscellany of short publications, though she also teaches English and creative writing. She is part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing gig, with Lara Smith. She lives with her family in Phoenix. And So We Die, Having First Slept, a new novel, is about marriage, youth, middle-age, Gen X, and fidelity. Currently, Spiegel is working on a memoir, Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide to Breast Cancer, or Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: How to Get Your Ba-Da-Bing Boobies on the House!