For Mike, and everyone considering self-publishing: 

My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents.  I was a lawyer.  I was female.  I was from Chicago.  Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottolini.  But I let them down.  I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed—I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer. 

Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience.  When I had the chance to speak with agents  at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”  My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was like, especially in the early years of women in law.  (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.) 

“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.” 

One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers.  You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power.  You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottolini and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.  You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels. 

On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted.   You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.  Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan  in the fall of 2007, and going on to write nine more novels, several of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of San Francisco.  (OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters—a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town.  My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure:  How many street musicians are there?  Surely, not even half a million.  And small towns?  Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they?  And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)

Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every week and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.  I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered; a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.  So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “professionals.”  Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for.  If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to those who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.”  In marketing the book, I concentrated there.  Only recently have I taken up the marketing cause again, this time engaging a professional, Shari Stauch of Shark Marketing, to help you realize the potential of social media to reach new and broader audiences. The nice thing about self-publishing:  nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before:  having now  glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it.  I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character, they should rush off to amazon and buy now—either paperback or Kindle!

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1 Response
  1. Marlena Corcoran

    Bravo, Mary! One observation: the readership consists not necessarily of people who are just like your protagonist, but people who want to read about such a protagonist. That said, I’m not surprised that many readers are grateful to you for both documenting and validating their experience. This is a very worthwhile endeavor. Congratulations on forging ahead with all your writing projects! I’d be interested in hearing more from you about the technical nitty-gritty of your publishing experiences.

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