I had a neat experience yesterday. I’d gotten an email from my school inviting students and staff to come see one of the instructors of English talk about writing and publishing. I was immediately curious, but wary. I did a little bit of research, which rocked me back on my heels and made me wonder. The author had only one novel out, 7 years earlier, and it had been published through Eloquent Press, which was, I discovered when I googled it, a notorious vanity press. I had three sites come up on the first page warning of it: the Writer Beware site, SFWA, and a popular writing forum. There’s also been a class action suit brought against them for not paying authors royalties, forcing authors to pay editors who were connected to the publisher, and forcing authors to pay reviewers who were also on their payroll.
I debated going at all, afraid of what it would be, and not expecting anything from it. Ow, my schedule, I said, looking at that hour. But yesterday was an odd day, so I walked in quietly as she started talking, and sat down with my notepad. I didn’t expect to say anything at all, I was just going to make notes and write it up for one of the blogs with the serial numbers scraped off.
I came away with an entirely different experience than I had anticipated.
The braveness of a woman, to sit down in front of a small crowd and admit that she’d done it wrong, she didn’t really know what she was doing, but she knew a better way was out there and she was going to learn how to do it better. I had the honor of speaking to her after the talk and hopefully I can help her with that learning, by pointing her at some resources, but she’s already had her trial by fire, and she still is willing and eager to write and fight for it to be published. I came away from that hour inspired by her, and more than happy I’d made the time.
Kathy Merman started out with “I am not rich and famous. Most people when they hear I’m an author, think I must be.” To an audience mostly of students, many of them the International students she teaches to write English papers for university, she unfolded her process of writing. She started off joking about how she had written her novel entirely by hand, only buying a laptop when she felt she needed to type the book if she wanted to get it published.
Once she had it formally written up, she started to send it to all the traditional publishers. Speaking with her after the talk, I asked her if she’d used an agent, and she looked slightly surprised. “I didn’t know I needed one,” she told me. The rejections came back from every place she’d sent the book. “I was a nobody and didn’t have a fantastic idea like Harry Potter,” she told her audience.
Finally, she found a publisher who said they would publish her book, with only three questions asked: does the reader like it, is it well written, and will it sell. She was so happy someone wanted her book that she didn’t read the fine print. First, they made her hire an editor “who wasn’t very good. I’m an English teacher, and I know better” and she paid that editor $1000 for their services. Then, the publisher let her know that they only wanted to publish it, not market it. They gave her some tips on marketing, and then they set the price of her book for her without asking her.
Kathy held up a copy of her book from the stack by her elbow. “The hardback doesn’t look right, and it’s $27.” Her friend told her they had ruined it. She couldn’t discount her own book, they told her the entire cost went to printing, so they couldn’t sell her copies for less, and she was making $2 a copy selling them out of hand. She had to buy all of her own copies, they didn’t provide any. She’s never gotten any money from the publisher, only a little from selling books that she had herself bought to resell. Then her publisher came to her with another scheme. They wanted her to take her book to other countries, where people who wanted to learn English would buy it. She would pay for all her own travel, and they could get her into book fairs. She couldn’t afford to do that. But she did pay to have her book featured in China. Nothing came of that.
Kathy looks back and thinks that her book didn’t do well because this was right at the time (2009) that bookstores were closing so she couldn’t get her books into stores. As she passed around her copy, I took a close look at it. The cover was created with Dreamstime art, stock images, as attributed on the back. Nothing wrong with that, but it is a very poorly done cover, which Kathy pointed out in her talk as well. I recognized the printing address – her book was created physically in LaVergne TN, the home of print-on-demand book printer Lightning Source. When the hardback sold poorly, she had it brought out in paperback, but the $15 trade paper version didn’t sell any better.
She sat back a little and asked the crowd in front of her, “Do you know about Amazon? About the Kindle?” and there were enthusiastic nods. She told them she wasn’t sure yet how to do that, to put out her book as an ebook, but she knew it was possible and she planned to research until she was confident she could do it. She hadn’t let this stop her writing, she told them. She’d already started work on a sequel, and she had been starting to write Children’s books, too. Her way of writing, she responded to a question, was to know what the end was, before you started writing a story.
She finished her talk with holding up her book. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started this. But now I know there must be a better way.”
Kathy put the book back in her lap and quietly told the students in the audience. “You should go for it, but have a backup plan.”