The breeze off the Atlantic on Sea Island, Georgia at sunset carried the sound of bagpipes, a local tradition. In front of me, a lush green lawn fell away to the shore as Old Glory fluttered nearby and then was retired for the evening. I was sitting in an Adirondack chair in front of The Lodge at the posh and exclusive Sea Island Club, looking out at whitecaps and palm trees, a thousand miles from home and a jillion miles from reality.
I was barefoot at the moment, since my spike heels had sunk into the turf like fertilizer spikes, in the company of a handsome Southern novelist (William Rawlings), a charming publicist from Atlanta (Gay Watson), and a truly lovely friend of both (Tommye Cashin) who was both kind and patient enough to be our designated driver in her spotless buff-colored Cadillac Escalade. I was sipping a strong yet tasty tropical drink as we chatted about books and coastal Georgia and the Scribblers Retreat writer’s conference where Rawlings and I had been guest speakers. And somewhere through the tequila molecules, as it has so often since then, the grateful thought floated upward—gosh, I was so glad that I’d self-published that book.
There are a couple of revolutions going on in the publishing world right now. One is the rising popularity of e-books and what this is doing to the traditional three-dimensional model of book publishing and the act of physically turning pages in order to read. The other is the proliferation of self-publishing and the marketing of self-published books, and just what THAT is doing to the traditional publishing industry as well. Author Neal Pollack (Stretch, Alternadad) recently wrote an essay that appeared in the New York Times making a thoughtful and clever case for self-publishing his latest book, Jewball, as a Kindle edition. A limited run print version may follow.
These publishing revolutions are spawning an incredible amount of earnest debate in the news and the blogosphere, which hinges on and weighs things like marketing, and exposure, and royalties, and production costs, and readership, and distribution and competition. I’m actually teetering on the cusp of both these seismic publishing changes, since I’ve now self-published three books, and I’ve also just recently begun to appreciate the fact that all three are available on Kindle. No, I don’t own an electronic reader (nor do I own a phone that’s smarter than I am), but I’ve been starting to broadcast the e-book availability from every rooftop I can find.
Still, there’s an element that’s been missing from the debate as far as I can tell, and that’s the intangible rewards that have come my way from deciding to just forge ahead and put my words in print without the obligatory year or two of bowing and scraping for a traditional publisher. I doubt that Neal Pollack has ever considered putting a dollar value on autographing books in an Italian restaurant while wearing a pink feather boa. (And if he did, would we really want to know?) Likewise, how would I possibly quantify the smell and creak of saddle leather as I rode a pretty copper-colored mare on the Atlantic shoreline?
Or the stage fright I felt the first time I took part in Chicago’s “Essay Fiesta” reading series, reading aloud to a crowd in a Lincoln Park bookstore from my first book, Running with Stilettos. Or, for that matter, the excitement of selling and autographing my very first book at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest a few years ago.
The past three years and three books have been an incredible journey and adventure, with conversations and friendships and experiences and invitations and speaking engagements that I absolutely never foresaw…but have savored and marveled at repeatedly. Call it serendipity, call it that point where preparation meets opportunity and turns into “luck.”
Whatever you call it, it sprang from the simple decision to quit seeking someone else’s approval and marketing muscle to publish my words, and to do it myself. Impatience played a part, immediate gratification played another. And after a couple of very close calls, one of which involved wearing a body cast for three months, I was acutely aware that life’s short and there are few second chances. When one comes along, carpe diem. When all was said and done, I had a book that I not only dedicated to my children, I was able to hand them their copies about a year and a half earlier than if I’d been traditionally published.
And so to the debates that are swirling over the merits and drawbacks to self-publishing, I’d like to add my voice as a perky reminder that not everything in book publishing revolves around money, or placement on best-seller lists, or royalty rates, or promotional plans. There are intangibles to be tapped that involve confidence, and fun, and gratitude, and occasionally travel, and the absolutely, phenomenally unexpected. And you just can’t measure those in the language of a publishing contract.
Mary T. Wagner’s third essay collection, “Fabulous in Flats,” was released in May, 2011 and is available in both paperback and e-book versions at iUniverse.com and on Amazon. Her earlier books, “Running with Stilettos” and “Heck on Heels” have won several national awards for humor and inspiration. "Fabulous..." was recently named published "Book of the Year" by the Florida Writers Association.