The Honest Truth About Self- Publishing

Expect the unexpected: delights, rewards...and costs

Posted May 02, 2015

AKern, used with permission

There is a psychology to self-publishing, as there is to all creative acts. And, surprisingly, the challenges we anticipate may not be the ones we encounter and the rewards we find not the ones we expected. Self- publishing can mean playing hide-and-seek with the unexpected.

The changed publishing world

Last year, I decided to self- publish a novel. In my writing career, I’d published six well- received nonfiction books with major publishing houses. However, about a decade ago, I decided to try and write a novel exploring a topic and a time that had come to occupy my attention: the complexities of becoming a psychotherapist. I had been thinking a lot about my own training and the impact of early experiences—particularly supervision—on my sense of competence and identity as a therapist. Since I came of age as a psychologist during the Vietnam War, I set the novel in 1968-69 and created a young psychiatrist trying to come to terms with the flood of vets returning from Vietnam before there even was a diagnosis of PTSD.

The novel started as a short story, and, as a result of several writing workshops and seminars, grew into a novel: The Stethoscope Cure.

The difference between writing nonfiction and fiction was immediately apparent: agents and editors complimented me on the story, but said that it wouldn’t sell. Not in today’s market. “Ten years ago, you’d have no problem getting this published, but times have changed. It’s a hard market for first time novelists, no matter how many trade books you’ve written.

Just a vanity project?

Times have changed in other ways, too. I had the option to self publish.

The central question for me was: is this just a vanity project? All publishing is partly a vanity project, of course, but I needed to know that the book had enough value as a piece of fiction to justify publishing it. That’s why “workshoping” the novel at several writing conferences, plus the give-and-take of writing seminars, was so important.

Still, I hesitated. I hired one of the excellent editors who had been let go by her publishing house in the great corporate publishing “adjustment” of the early 2000s. In the “old days,” we might have been working together through a publishing house. Now, I paid her out of pocket.  What this means is that there are many excellent, experienced editors available out there to help you think about whether and how to self- publish.

So, the conversation about self-publishing deepened and I had an experienced, skilled editor to help me with revisions. Over time I came to believe that the book had merit as a story and that the telling of it might be of interest and help to a variety of readers.

Escape from production hell

Still, I had my computer files of agent emails and addresses and I continued to knock on doors. If the book was good, certainly someone would take it. I heard the stories of successful authors who went through 50, 100 agents before they found The One.

“It only takes one,” I kept hearing. Friends would read the novel, they’d suggest an agent. “You really should try so-and-so, let me give you his email.” I’d follow up, get an enthusiastic welcome and invitation to sent the manuscript over and then nothing further would happen. Truly, as one of my writer teachers observed, it takes rhinoceros skin to be a writer.

And then I was sitting with a colleague at a conference, a successful filmmaker and writer, who asked me how it was going. I told him about schlepping my manuscript to agents here and there, hither and yon. Finding an agent felt like a full-time job. There are other projects I wanted to get to.

My colleague looked over his cup of coffee and replied: “you are stuck in what film people call, ‘production hell.’ You’re knocking on agents’ doors and if you finally get one, what will happen? They’ll have to knock on publishers’ doors. You have to get out of this stuck place.” He advised me to self-publish. “You need to get the book out there, get feedback, get on with the other things you want to do.”

I decided he was right. What followed next was unanticipated

Naked In The Marketplace

I thought that the logistical process of self- publishing would be nerve-wracking. For me, it wasn’t. I had an advantage. The same colleague who urged me to move ahead, offered to shepherd my manuscript through the CreateSpace process via his production company.

Having a production company was a godsend, not because CreateSpace is necessarily all that hard to navigate, but because I had access to an experienced art and editorial staff at a reasonable costs. Make a note: the book cover is a crucial part of the self-publishing effort. I was given an excellent graphic artist, who designed a beautiful cover and book layout. The logistics of getting the book to press went very smoothly.

What happened next is what surprised me:  I felt very naked and alone without the “cover” of a well-respected publishing house. What I had was only myself to promote my book, to invite friends to the launch party, to approach bookstores, to deal with media outlets. Which I have done, to great satisfaction: bookstore readings, conferences, invited talks.

(I am indebted to friends who have gone to their local bookstores and told them, you gotta have this guy do a reading. Bookstores listen to their customers.)

Let’s talk, though, about the launch party, and my temporary insanity.

Who was I to invite people to a launch party that I was giving for my own book? If Harcourt or Ballantine had been publishing the book, that would have been a different story. After all, I would have had the their imprimateur to prop up my self- esteem.

Who’s the publisher?  One of the first questions people ask when you tell them you’ve got a new book coming out.

A madman at the launch party

I went slightly psychotic around the launch party for my book. I was convinced that no one would come. Every time I got a “regrets” email, my heart sank. I was alone. Everyone would see that my novel was just a big ego-trip. Everyone could see that and so no one would come to the party, because why go just to witness someone else’s narcissism?

No amount of reassurance leading up to the launch party could dissolve that sense of shame. I felt angry at close friends who had real, understandable conflicts about the date and couldn’t be there. I worked hard to tell myself it didn’t matter if three people showed up.

Of course, the launch party turned out to be a wonderful experience. The room was packed and the party was truly a great success. For me, this was a lesson in allowing yourself to feel loved by those who love you.

Still, the nakedness persists. I’ve gotten much better at approaching bookstores and arranging readings and am a pretty good self-promoter, but it still feels basically like what it is: self- promotion.  Some people are very good at that, others not so much. I yearn for days when the publishing house functioned like a sturdy battle shield against self- doubt.

How much is enough?

Once the book was out, I stopped hearing about the writer who approached one hundred agents, and I started hearing about the authors who loaded the trunk of their car to overflowing with books and travelled cross-country handing out copies at conferences and malls and, possibly, hot dog stands. The take-away, I suppose, was: the more you promote, the more copies you will sell. I had moved from the full-time job of finding an agent to the full-time job of finding people to buy my book.

I also heard about the authors who worked Facebook and Twitter and Linked In and now had thousands of followers.

After all, the other question people are often curious about is: how many copies have you sold? (So far, I’ve sold close to 400 copies, and still counting.)

Which raises the question: how much is enough? And, more importantly: how much of what?

Who do you love?

“Are you disappointed?” a friend of mine asked when I mentioned to him that the novel hasn’t sold like my nonfiction books. Yes and No.

The question led me to reflect on how we think about success in our lives.

We live in a quantification culture. So many aspects of our happiness are measured, and the more the better. So of course, the success of the book could be measured by the number of copies sold.

And here was one of the big lessons—and gifts—of self-publishing: you get clear about what matters. My sense of what I was doing began to shift—from how many copies I’d sold to deeper aspects of satisfaction.

The book has connected me to many networks of veterans, therapists, people I never would have met. There are the reviews on Amazon from strangers (and from friends-- which counts enormously, too).

There is the satisfaction of having done something that all my life I had wanted to do. (As had my mother, a successful short story writer, who never got the chance to write the novel she wanted. I trace my abilities in part through her, so there is a sense of completeness to working in fiction. But that’s another story.)

Different Ways of Knowing

And there is what I learned from writing fiction: that there is a truth different from non-fiction. There are topics that I explore in The Stethoscope Cure that I have come to understand in a very different way than I did when writing about the same things in a non-fiction modality. Topics like: the complicated emotional experience of becoming a psychotherapist, the impact of war on those of us who do not serve in the military, and the ways in which therapists are healed by the very patients they work with.

I have come to understand the special power of fiction as a way of knowing and I encourage my graduate students who claim they are “just too busy to read a novel” to make sure to build time into their week to give themselves over to fiction. Doing so is a way of taking care of themselves and becoming better therapists. A healthy two-fer!

What? I didn’t win the National Book Award?!

This is not to say that I didn’t want to sell a million copies. When the National Book Awards were announced this year and Phillip Klay’s Redeployment won, my first reaction was: how come I didn’t win the award?

I realized with a shock that the fantasies of best-seller-dom were alive and well in my mind. Still, though, the overall trend in my psyche is toward gratitude for what the book has brought me. Self- publishing may be part of a process, part of learning a new way to write and a deeper sense of what to write.

“This book will help you with the next,” a writerly friend pointed out. Stayed tuned: I’m working on my next novel.

Dr. Sam Osherson is a Professor of Psychology at Fielding Graduate University and author of The Stethoscope Cure