My first adventure in self-publishing dates back to the mid-1990s. Under heartrending circumstances (more on that later), my fiancé at the time offered to pay for printing a small book of my poems. I had written several poems for him, addressing his sorrowful circumstances, which partly motivated his offer.
Even so, his generosity blew me away.
In a whirlwind of action, I reconsidered all the verses I’d ever penned that remotely fit the poetic topic of loss. I contacted a printer in the nearest town of sufficient size to have a printer. Prevailing on friendship, I recruited a local artist to create illustrations and advise me on stock, color, fonts, illuminated letters, and all such visual elements. Within weeks, I had selected a manuscript of 20 poems and made plans for a 64-page perfect-bound chapbook to showcase them.
With eager anticipation, I showed these plans to my fiancé, Jaak (pronounced Yahk, it’s a common name in Estonia, where he was born). He smiled and nodded until I whipped out the printer’s quote. This marked a shift in attitude, almost like a sudden drop in temperature. I had kept him up to date on every step of the planning process. But now, he seized a handful of paper from his inkjet printer and proceeded to demonstrate how efficiently one can fold several 8.5 x 11″ sheets and tape or staple them by hand. Voilà! A nice little booklet! Illustrations? How convenient they’re pen-and-inks—a cinch to photocopy! No, no, sweetheart—you didn’t waste time driving 50 miles to the printer to pore over expensive papers. It’s always worthwhile to see how professionals operate.
But let’s be reasonable, can’t we?
I’m afraid not. First, you urge a hungry writer to picture her name on the cover of a perfect-bound book, then you break the news that what you really meant was a home-assembled saddleback?
I’m afraid the scene wasn’t pretty. Language was used that I prefer not to remember as I accused Jaak of backing out after he—and he ALONE, with no wheedling on my part!—had raised my hopes to the lofty level of 64 pages and a card stock cover. That was an especially bitter pill: in order to keep the price down to (what I took as) a reasonable figure, I had foregone the fancy C1S (coated 1-side) cover, virtues of which my salesman refused to shut up about. AND NOW YOU’RE SNATCHING THOSE PRETTY DREAMS AWAY, LEAVING ME TO STAPLE LOOSE-LEAF COPIES FROM THE XEROX SHOP?!!
How could I claim that the book was really even “published” if it were a mere mock-up like I often made for my children, decorated with crayon drawings? How could I put an ISBN on that?
So my first self-publishing venture was marked by painful conflict.
This being a true confession, I must return to the fact that Jaak was deeply bereaved. At the time I’m harking back to, a couple of years had flowed under the bridge since the terrible night when his teenage daughter, Tiina, was killed on the highway south of town by a drunk driver. But the death of a child is a blow from which a parent never fully recovers, so that dreadful night was still fresh for my man, and my poems were meant to aid his healing. Instead, there I was putting vanity above compassion as I protested his stinginess after the fact.
(In my defense, I had sacrificed my eyesight, going from 20/20 vision to my first-ever pair of prescription glasses, helping Jaak put out his book, which I edited developmentally over a period of two years, then helped copyedit and proofread. Please bear this in mind before judging me harshly…)
Heaven sent down a few mercies, and as it turned out, a small grant materialized. I got my perfect-bound booklet of 64 pages with 2-color cover and professionally photographed illustrations. The end result was quite lovely, and Jaak declined to hold a grudge over my petulant outburst. In fact, as my husband, he remains willing to this day to support my further adventures.
Nonetheless, that early foray still provokes nightmares. I mentioned the difficult decision of turning down the C1S cover, despite the claim that it would lead to “reliably brisker sales.” How embarrassing to admit that I, a sane and relatively well-educated adult, believed my poetry book would sell! Everyone familiar with self-publishing in that pre-electronic era knows my next confession: I have nightmares of posthumous embarrassment, imagining how my descendants will find those cartons of books stacked in the garage. Oh—and here’s another pile in the attic! And, my gosh—even more in the hall closet!
You mean they didn’t fly off the shelves, after all?
Self-publishers used to hock hard copies of books from the trunks of their cars. Now there’s been a revolution with the advent of e-readers and online retail bringing costs down and boosting accessibility. Has this solved the problems of sales and distribution? Tell me what you think—please feel free to comment on these or related matters.