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Self-Publishing The Hard Way: The Art Of Giving Birth

Dodie Cross
Nov 1, 2007
You know? When you publish a book and send it out into the world, it's like giving birth to a baby. Everyone checks out your baby. Is it breath-taking? Does it have ten toes and ten fingers? Is it pink and sweet or does it look like an extra from "Alien?" We writers are baring our souls, our deepest thoughts, and our feelings lay open like a cavernous wound. We can't hide anymore. They know us inside and out. Now they see our baby, and they get to pick it to pieces, bit by bit, until the only thing left is a fuzzy blanket.

Oh, hell, we know that and go right on writing, don't we? It's in our DNA. We can't help ourselves, we're masochists.

When I started this whole book-writing process, I had full intentions of finding an agent and/or a traditional publisher; they'd do all the work while I sat back and listened to "Ca-ching, Ca-ching." However my journey to that end has been long and stress-filled and I ended up doing just the opposite...I'd kept a daily journal while living in Thailand in the 90s. When I returned to the States, I copied my journal onto a floppy and had it printed, spiral-bound, and mailed it out to friends and family so they could read about all my trials and tribs while abroad. One of the friends who read it insisted that I make a book out of it.

"You know," she said, "like the book 'A Year in Provence.'" I immediately ran out and bought the book and was amazed at the problems that the author had endured in a short year. I just knew that if his book sold, then mine would also, however, life got in the way of living and I put it aside.

I joined some creative writing classes a few years later, and with encouragement from my peers I began the long road of putting the journal into book form. In 2003, when I finally thought I'd finished it, I entered it into the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego. While there, I read chapters from my story in the Read and Critique groups and the attendees laughed in all the right places and even clapped, (I'd hoped it wasn't because they were happy I'd finished). At the end of the conference I was notified that I'd won the Best Nonfiction award for my story and an agent asked for my manuscript. Wow! That just doesn't happen unless they love it! I knew I was ready for the Pulitzer.

Then I began to panic. What if it isn't perfect? I had talked to a "book doctor" at the conference who advised me that my story "...needed some conflict. Who really cares about a housewife who's having a good time in Thailand? Give them a reason to turn the page." Okay, that's what I'll do. There certainly was plenty of conflict in my life in Thailand, but I'd left it out; it was painful to relive and I wanted it to be a humorous book. I emailed the agent and told her I wasn't ready. Take your time, she'd said. It's not time sensitive.

So began the journey of "weaving" the conflict into my story. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. It was three years before I felt it was good enough to be a real book. But, those three years were not only spent rewriting. I took online writing classes and signed up at the local college for creative writing classes, I attended a critique group every week, putting my chapters up to their scrutiny as they tore it apart and helped put it back together. The rest of the time I was editing my life away. But as Stephen King says in his book On Writing: edit, edit and edit. And when you think it's perfect, edit some more. My husband had a name for my constant editing: "Paralysis by analysis."

When I felt I had everything in place, I looked for professional editing. I first paid the book doctor $500 to tell me that it needed help. He didn't give me any, just told me it needed it. I found a line-editor in Canada, who did a great job, and then I hired a freelance editor; total for both $600; quite inexpensive in today's editing market.

During those three years, I also did a lot of reading on the publishing world; agents, print-on-demand (PODs) and off-set printing companies. I attended conferences specifically on "How to get published." The more I heard and read, the more I thought: From all the conferences I'd attended, the agent panels were the most disillusioning. I learned that agents don't want you if you've not been published, and publishers don't want you if you've not been published, or don't have an agent, who doesn't want you either. Who needs 'em?

Publishers don't want you if you don't have a "platform!" A what? To my dismay I learned that I needed to have my own buying public. There was no publisher that was going to run out and sell my book for me, pay for my cross-country book signings and hotel rooms, unless of course I was a King or a Grisham or a Joyce Carol Oates. Then of course, there's the eighteen month wait for the book to appear on the shelves after the publisher accepts it (if the publisher doesn't decide to pull the plug at the last minute), and don't forget the two years that it takes the agent to shop around for a publisher who might decide to pull the plug at the last minute. Who has that long? I don't even buy green bananas anymore.

Wow! I remember my table mates and I frowning as we listened to the dire answers of this panel of agents and publishers. So how do we get published? Well, we have two options so it seemed: 1) have an agent living next door who loves your home cooked brownies or has a crush on your husband, or 2) know a publisher whose kid mows your lawn or has a crush on you. Not living in New York was going to be a definite drawback. Should I move? Okay, how about a POD? I was fortunate to have a friend who is a small press publisher of railroad books. He offered to put my manuscript into a Quark Express PDF file (which is the format printers prefer). He did an incredible job putting it together for me. He felt that if I had the print setup taken care of, I could approach a POD and save some money.

I signed up for the POD classes at the conferences I attended, where they explained everything I needed to know about their business -- except how they kept most of the author's money while they got big and rich and the author got $3.09 per book. Okay, well, $3.09 a book is not that bad. Maybe I could make it. But, wait, I had to pay them to print my book, and then pay them to buy my book back from them; too many "thems" going on here. Something didn't compute. Maybe I should chuck the book and go into the POD business.

Well, I succumbed. I bought a book called The Fine Print of Self Publishing by Mark Levine, an attorney, then sat down to do some homework. After going over all the PODs he listed with a fine-tooth calculator, I realized that I could pay as much as $30,000 to one such POD group, but hey, my books would be free. How generous of them. Or, I could choose a POD group charging as low as $299, but I'd still have to buy my own books back at about $8.00 each.

I finally settled on a firm I'll call "Dewey Cheatem & Howe" (name changed to protect the guilty), and thought I'd finally get on with this damn book printing. They sent me a sample of their work that was done beautifully. I signed on the dotted line, waited three more weeks and then my author's copy was delivered. And there it sat. On my desk. Opened to the first page, which I couldn't read. I started bawling. Where is my baby? The font was so garbled that it was illegible. There was a space after every capital letter and the other letters were so piled on each other you couldn't make out the words.

When I'd used all the Kleenex in my desk drawer, I called them. Of course, no one was on the other end, save for the automated voice of their mailboxes. But at least I got rid of my postpartum anger. I cried and said very imperiously, "HOLD THE PRESSES! I will not accept this book. I will call Visa (of course they already had my money) and stop payment and ..." I felt like an inner tube impaled on a sharp rock. Then I called my friend, the publisher. "Of course you can do this on your own. You have the file, just find a good printing company."

I inquired around and found out that I could get my book printed overseas at half the cost of stateside. I began to get phone numbers and surfed websites. There were some good deals to be made overseas; however, the problem was I needed a broker. So after the broker took his cut, and the shipping charges were added, a stateside printer looked better. Plus, the thought of having a problem and not being able to connect at once with your printer was worrisome.

I searched the Internet and found many websites where you could input the details of your book, number of pages, size of book, print run, etc., and within a week I got a bid from ten printing companies. After picking one printer (not the cheapest), I felt we had a fit. I spoke to the owner, who offered to throw in a hundred free books, which might have had something to do with my decision. He checked out my website while we were speaking, loved the site and the look of my book and of course, he had me. He also offered storage and order fulfillment. Now, all I had to do was put our house on the market and clear out our 401K.

I know what you're thinking. Sure, maybe she has it, but not everyone can come up with that much money. Yes, you can if you want to. We took an equity line on our home and as the money comes rolling in, I'll be making payments on the equity line. We authors must be optimists. Really! If you don't believe in your book, who will?

I ran off my own bookmarks and saved a few hundred dollars. I used the cover of the book, wrote a short synopsis on the back, and had 500 printed. I have handed out those bookmarks on airplanes and in airports; Seattle, Palm Desert, San Diego, Portugal, New York, Australia, New England... well maybe not personally, but I've given them to people who live in those places and they were happy to have them and said they'd pass them on. I've handed them out in restaurants to women sitting around me; two of them bought my book right on the spot. My friends call me "A self-promoting slut."

I have to leave you now, as that's where I am in this wonderful world of the written word, where the writing was easy... now comes the hard part -- marketing!
About the Author
Dodie Cross is a freelance writer who has received numerous awards for her writing and poetry. Dodie has traveled the world, writing about her life in foreign countries. Learn more at: A Broad in Thailand.
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