[This is the first of four excerpts from Jonathan R. Husband’s essay about his publishing experiences as a first-time indie author, written for the benefit of other BAIPA authors. In BAIPA, he is known as John Cammidge. — BAIPA blog editor, Linda Jay]
By Jonathan R. Husband
Marin County, CA; April 2014: It occurs to me that sharing my publishing experience gained during 2013/14 as a first-time indie author may help other megalomaniacal types like me navigate the turbulent seas of authorship. My 250-page historical fiction “An Unplanned Encounter” has just gone on sale.
The motivation that caused the following disclosures arrived during an early spring 2014 day in Northern California. The sun shone, the birds squeaked, and the smell of jasmine hung heavy in the air. I had just received my first reader’s review of my book. It was complimentary. It included the statement, “It was a great, amazing story and I could easily see it as a movie.” Once again those grandiose delusions were beginning to take charge of my mental health. Soon I would be under treatment for narcissistic personality disorder. Writing this short story is part of the therapy that I have imposed on myself to try and avoid the disorder. My story is not intended to give solutions; rather it is intended to offer ideas and to encourage confidence in others to become authors.
Writing the novel is the first challenge. What type of book should it be and how and when will you write the book. My novel could easily have been a memoir. But this was too narrow, stilted my creativity, and risked upsetting certain members of my family. So quickly it became historical fiction but “based on a true story.” I was fortunate to be retiring so that I had ample time to devote to writing the book. It took me three months to complete the first draft. I was helped by materials already written, and I had a rough idea of the theme for the story. Some colleagues I have spoken to are still crafting their composition after three years. But that is fine.
I decided to give my imagination total freedom and not to lock down any aspect of my creativity. I wrote what I thought and then began to piece together the story. Certainly there are coaches out there to help you with content development and who will assist you overcome writer’s block. In my case I didn’t want any constraints imposed on my thinking and any form of censorship imposed on my ideas. But yes, there were gaps in my narrative. Huge ones. But by talking to friends and acting on impulse from ideas that came to me at 3.00 in the morning, the jigsaw was soon filled in. On occasion it felt like the people I was writing about – long since dead – were contributing to my story through telepathy. Soon my first draft of close to 70,000 words was ready. Earlier research had prompted me to write at least 65,000 words, and 80,000 would have been fine. Many novels being published today are well in excess of this 80,000. So now I had written my novel. I understood it, but would others. It was review time. And I wanted the book to be of the highest quality from a literary perspective. The first action was to engage a copy editor. During a two week period my locally-sourced editor offered many content improvements and helped me with grammar, punctuation and spelling. Since my story was set in England and California it was frequently a problem in being able to decide whether to use an English or American term and spelling. Should it be “truck” or “lorry”, “gasoline” or “petrol”? The American prevailed over the British!!
Next was to have the novel reviewed by friends. The intention here was quality control. The desire to know that the book is interesting, complete, and understandable. This is a difficult process. The closer the relationship the less willing the person seems to be to give candid, honest feedback. I reached out to about a dozen people. Not all were close friends. I heard that you could purchase this type of review online but decided to rely on the people I knew. And sometimes their feedback hurt. The instinct was to defend my writing; absolutely the wrong thing to do. Feedback generally is not intended to be malicious; so I overruled my instincts and listened carefully. Often several reviewers would offer the same advice. And so I returned to the novel to rewrite several chapters and to add an Epilogue. As a result, the length of my book grew to nearly 80,000 words.
And then there were endorsements. You are told to have other authors endorse your book. None of the authors I approached have so far responded. In consequence I approached people I knew and was more concerned with the content of the “blurb” than the status of the writer. Thus I used a librarian, a medical doctor, a writer photographer, and a University faculty member. Each received from me a signed copy of the novel as appreciation for their contribution.
And so the novel began to take final shape. The end of the beginning, so to speak. The manuscript was ready. Ahead lay the publishing and distribution process, and beyond that, publicity and marketing. My first action at this stage, based on a recommendation from the local librarian, was to join BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Association). Not knowing how long the next part of the process would take, I purchased a three-year membership!! Learning what you don’t know is important, especially when the success of your book rests more on publishing and marketing than on the writing.
I confess to being a traditionalist; maybe it’s my age or the fear of computers. It seems very sensible to have an Agent take on your book, provide you with an advance, and arrange for printing and distribution, and maybe a little marketing. You just sit back – maybe after revising your text at the request of the Agent – and watch your novel climb up the New York Times Best Seller list. At least in theory. Thanks to several publications it is easy to track down the names and addresses of Agents who may have an interest in your literary genre. It’s natural to want to try and use a traditional publisher. All you have to do is write a query letter and wait (and wait, and wait)!! To be fair, virtually all the Agents I contacted replied to me, but none of them was prepared to take me on. Some answers reassured me, like “You have a unique and interesting story to tell but I don’t feel that I can offer representation at this time”. Another stated “We pass and wish you better luck in placing your book with an agent who will make us look shortsighted”. Maybe I gave up too soon but after a few weeks I decided to explore self-publishing and its derivatives. Experts advised me that I might be acting too quickly, but the time taken by Agents to get a novel into the bookstores, and my learning that only about 1% of Agent-sponsored books are from first-time authors, helped turn my mind towards a different solution. As I began to look at alternatives the question of “defining your audience” or knowing who the readers are for the book took center-stage. This is a part of the process that probably should be addressed earlier than I chose to do. It is important because if you are unclear on your audience, you may end up making the wrong choices as you decide on the best way to publish, to distribute, and to market.
The moment you reach out into the self-publishing world you seem to encounter conflicting stories, a multitude of firms to choose from, author packages that vary in services and price, and sales jargon that leave you bewildered over what type of firm you are talking with.