Publishing makes a writer an author

March 29, 2013
By Mary Hutchings Reed
This is my 12th column in this space, the month when those who’ve been following the page-a-day program are finishing your first drafts (you are, aren’t you?) and dreaming of your appearance on Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and The New York Times Best Sellers list.

And why not? The whole point of writing your novel is to get it published, isn’t it?

Yes and no.

If “getting it published” means publication by a traditional publisher paying you an advance and sending you on a glitzy book tour, that’s a pipe dream for most of us writers of literary fiction.

If publication means producing a finished product that looks like a book and reads like a book and is publicly available like a book, then today’s author has a number of low-cost, reasonably satisfactory ways to complete the process of writing a book by publishing it.

When I self-published my first novel, “Courting Kathleen Hannigan,” in 2006, I did it because of the timing of the subject matter with the primary and presidential elections. I didn’t have a literary agent looking for a traditional publisher, but I thought I knew my audience for a coming-of-age story for women lawyers, and I had an experienced publishing professional on my side, Susie Isaacs of Ampersand Inc., here in Chicago.

Self-publishing was relatively new then, and I was both surprised and gratified by the number of readers who weren’t aware of any difference in how it was published.

Next month, my second novel, “Warming Up,” will be published — that is, made available in paperback on and and from independent bookstores. It’s already in print — four boxes are sitting in my living room, and I have a publicity agent drumming up reviews and bookstore appearances.

I wrote the first draft in 2008, rewrote it in 2009 and sent it to some contests and editors in 2009 and 2010. At that time, I had a literary agent who was shopping two other novels of mine, and I didn’t send it to her until it had been named a short-list finalist for the William Faulkner — William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition in 2011.

In 2012, when SheWritesPress announced its self-publishing program for agented and selected fiction, my literary agent recommended I give publishing with that press a try. She says I write “quiet fiction” — literary fiction about real women facing real life issues — which in the glory days of traditional publishing was often the stock of the “mid-list,” the non-blockbuster but well-reviewed fiction that was featured in publications like The New York Times.

Very little of that sort of fiction gets published these days by traditional publishers — and what does is seldom a first novel from a 60-plus-year-old Midwestern lawyer.

So I signed on to SheWrites, which selects writing based on merit and acts like a publisher, except that it takes no financial risk. Editing, design, production and printing are at my expense, as is promotion. (I also get the bulk of the profits, should there be any.)

Self-publishing (or private publishing) offers me certain advantages:

  • Greater control over cover and content.
  • Greater return on each copy sold — a potentially bigger upside than any advance which may be given, if at all, to first-time literary writers.
  • Faster acceptance-to-print turnaround.

The disadvantages:

  • There’s still a presumption that if it were worth reading, a traditional publisher would’ve bought the work and published it by now.
  • My ego doesn’t get to brag that the traditional publishers held a bidding war over my work.
  • I can’t say to potential readers, “Read me because this famous publisher says you should.”
  • It’s harder to get reviewers in traditional media to review “self-published” work.
  • I pay all the expenses out of pocket and everyone — editor, publisher, cover designer, printer, literary agent, publicity agent, bookstore — makes a buck before I do.

With self-publishing, there is a little less excitement the day your books arrive and a bit more trepidation. Will I make my money back? Was it really good enough to publish? Will anybody read it? Dare I ask my friends to read it?

Reading a 300-page novel takes a commitment, even for speed readers. I envy artists who can ask friends to cruise by a gallery opening, grab some free wine and take a glance at their work. Most friends could manage that, or could have a beer at a local tavern where your band is playing.

But asking them to read is asking them not to read something else, not to watch a favorite TV show, to miss a movie or a dinner out. But if no one reads it, what’s the point of writing it?

We writers always say we write because “we have to,” or “for our own enjoyment” or some such other platitude about writing for its own sake. That’s true for writing, as far as it goes, but for a writer to become an author requires readers. Readers complete the writing process.

Preparing a manuscript for publication changes writing into craft and craft into art. It doesn’t matter to the reader whether the author got a six-figure advance or paid every penny of his or her savings to get into print.

From the author’s point of view, the process of critique and revision and polishing is the same — painstaking and time-consuming. From the reader’s point of view, the process is the same — totally dependent on the craft of the writer.

But I think that for the writer, the act of publishing a book, by whatever method, is uniquely satisfying. It’s what makes a writer an author.


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2 Responses
  1. Carma

    Speaking of art openings, tonight I was at an art opening, and my friend said the point of painting is to communicate by getting the work seen. Then I came home and read your insight, “Readers complete the writing process.” Seems like that is true of all creative endeavors.

  2. Getting a literary agent can be the first vital step towards getting published, but here at we understand that, as a writer, you want to be spending your time writing – not spending hours trawling through reference books searching for that one agent in a hundred who sounds like they might be interested in your work; or hunting through hundreds of sites on the Internet for days on end just to scrape together a handful of out-of-date leads.