I gave myself a book for my birthday this year: my own novel.
It's still tough to admit that I'm self-published, despite the fact that the publishing world is now a Wild West of rogue indie presses and bowlegged cocky ebook publishers firing their Twitterfeeds in every direction.
Perhaps it's tough to admit because I've been a writer for such a long time, always with the goal of having an editor and publishing house to call my very own. In fact, three years ago, I achieved that goal when my first book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir, was published by a division of Random House. It was a great experience. I had a savvy, smart editor, a darling and energetic publicist, and great reviews in all the right places.
After 25 years of working in the trenches as a journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and humorist, I had finally succeeded. My career as an author was launched! Hooray for me!
I didn't get a huge advance, but a reasonable one. Apparently, though, the publishing house paid me too much. I still haven't earned back a penny on that advance, despite selling more books than I ever dreamed possible. That was okay, though. I figured I could build my platform from there and do better with the next book.
No, no, Nanette. Publishing doesn't work that way anymore. These days, if your first book doesn't earn out, that's probably the end of your career -- unless you come up with a Really Big Idea, and hardly anybody knows what this is, except that it probably sucks blood.
Over the next three years, I wrote a series of nonfiction book proposals and two novels. Everything was rejected. One novel came close, however: Sleeping Tigers is an upmarket women's novel that my agent and I hoped would appeal to readers of Eat, Pray, Love. The book tells the story of a woman who starts her life over after a breast cancer scare. She decides to join her wildest childhood friend in San Francisco and track down her drifter brother, who harbors secrets of his own. And, when her brother flees the country, she follows him to Nepal, determined to bring him home.
This was a book with both plot and emotion. It had to make it, right?
Nope. After rejections from editors who were enthusiastic about many aspects of the novel, but "not getting enough support here to make an offer," I put that book in a drawer. A really deep drawer: In despair over one particular rejection, I actually deleted the entire book from my laptop after consuming half a bottle of Grand Marnier and a box of dark chocolate truffles while watching that creepy movie, Moulin Rouge.
Unlike my other "epic fails," as my skateboarding son would call them, however, this novel refused to lie quietly in the dark. I suppose that's because this novel had so much of "me" in it.
Like the main character, I survived early stage breast cancer and felt, as my narrator does, that I carried a sleeping tiger inside me that could, at any moment, wake up and use its claws to tear my life apart. I had lived in San Francisco when I finished graduate school and am still enamored of that city, so I sent the main character there to begin her spiritual and emotional healing. And, because I have two brothers and love them dearly, and because I once spent several months trekking in Nepal, I gave my character a brother and took her on an adventure in Nepal that would change her life forever.
When I reexamined Sleeping Tigers, enough time had passed for me to see it in a cold-blooded, critical way. I understood why the editors had turned it down. There were places where the plot dragged or became derailed by side characters who really had nothing to do with the story. There was some strained, self-conscious writing. Some of the images weren't as fresh or funny as I wanted them to be.
Decades ago, editors might have taken a chance on this book and bought it, then worked with me to rewrite it. That hardly ever happens anymore. Now, publishing houses are short-staffed, editors are harried, and money is tight.
After tearing apart the novel and rewriting it, I had to figure out what to do with my new draft. Take it back to my agent? He's currently sending another novel of mine around to publishers, plus I have a third novel nearly complete that I'd like him to send out as well. I didn't want to overload the poor guy.
Plus, having been through the traditional publishing process before, I knew that it would take two or three years after the book was accepted for it to be published. Did I really want to wait that long? No.
Finally, a good friend of mine, Terri Giuliano Long, who published her own well-received novel, In Leah's Wake -- a book that falls into the same basic category of commercial women's fiction as Sleeping Tigers -- convinced me to try publishing the book myself using CreateSpace.
I went on the CreateSpace website, saw that designing and publishing the book on my own could cost less than taking a class at the local community college, and clicked the necessary buttons. If nothing else, I thought that doing this would be tantamount to giving myself a crash course in digital publishing, social media, and publicity -- a course that could be valuable no matter how I publish more books in the future. The reality is that every writer now has to be her own publicist.
Publishing Sleeping Tigers through CreateSpace was easy, cheap, and efficient. The staff was remarkably helpful and willing to stay on the phone for as long as I had questions. The process was as user-friendly as sitting in your friend's living room and drinking tea. Or maybe even Merlot.
Still, when my first box of books arrived -- a scant seven weeks after starting the process -- I immediately got cold feet. Who am I to think that my novel is good enough to be published? Am I now as pathetic as those street poets I used to see in Berkeley, peddling their sappy, mistake-laden chapbooks for a dollar a copy? And how the hell does a writer act as her own publicist?
To make matters worse, it wasn't until after clicking on CreateSpace that I started to think about my good friend here in town, who owns Jabberwocky, one of my favorite independent bookstores. She held the book launch for my memoir, and it was as grand a party as I could have hoped for; she does an incredible job of hand-selling authors she likes. For many years, Jabberwocky has provided a lively space for readers and writers like me to enjoy each other's company, but Amazon has hit her hard. CreateSpace is an Amazon company.
On my website, I offer people a button that will take them to the independent bookstore of their choice if they want to buy my book locally. Still, I worry that, by publishing Sleeping Tigers with an Amazon company, I've hammered yet another nail into the coffin of my favorite indie bookstores.
At the same time, I'm thrilled to have this option. The characters in Sleeping Tigers refused to die because they had a story to tell -- a story I love, and one that I hope readers will love, too. And, in the end, that's why writers write, isn't it? Not for money or glory -- admittedly nice perks -- but for this simple reason: we want to share our stories.
Follow Holly Robinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollyrob1