Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Self-Publishing Decision

My book, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, based on monthly letters posted on a website over the 40-month period that I was in the Peace Corps, was written off-and-on between stints with my failing elderly mother, working as a Spanish interpreter, and volunteering for an array of causes, as well as making several return trips to Honduras and elsewhere, including to Mexico, Sudan, and Germany for humanitarian activities . I’d leave the book for a while, then pick it up again and send out queries to agents. All first-time authors I knew had managed to obtain a personal referral to an agent or publisher, something I lacked, but I continued to doggedly pursue mainstream publishing options. The author of several best sellers recommended self-publishing since, she said, author payments were shrinking and authors had to do all the promotion themselves anyway. A number of successful self-published authors also recommend I try it, but, for a while, I stubbornly held out.

I did get responses from a few agents (some of whom moved around agencies or left the business) and also comments from editors and other critics. All said “Shorten your manuscript,” which I did. But other advice was not so easy to follow: “Don’t discuss the deaths of your son and foster son—too morbid; it sets the wrong tone for people expecting more of a travelogue and detracts from the main story.” Well, I didn’t see how I could eliminate that most impactful and searing experience of my life and be in any way honest. So, I ignored that recommendation, but tried to warn readers in advance in promotional materials and the preface and introduction.

Likewise, some critics opined that Triumph & Hope was a clichéd title, notwithstanding that the title pays tribute to the two towns where I was stationed. (Try telling Barak Obama that “Hope” is too clichéd to be included in his book’s title or campaign literature.) “Write in the present tense,” “write only in the past tense,” “include more dialogue,” “forget about photos, a complication for publishers,” “create more of a narrative arc,” these and other comments had my head spinning. Finally, I brushed everything aside, writing in both past and present tenses, including photos, and keeping the contents pretty much the same. After all, this was a narrative of a segment of my life as I had lived it. I had to stick to the facts.

As mainstream publishers began laying off staff and the recession deepened, I knew that continuing to seek an outside publisher would be an exercise in futility. Besides, my book was aimed largely at baby boomers who are retiring now. At this point, quite fortuitously, TJ, a young graphic designer moved into my house, referred byan acquaintance, as with all my housemates. Together, we laid out the book and sent the pdf file to Amazon’s printing arm and the result is the book you have before you.

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