I had a very strong incentive to publish my novel, Co-opted. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and I wanted my book in her hands before she succumbed. I had tried traditional channels, but this was in 2009 when it had become increasingly difficult to even get the attention of a prospective agent, let alone convince a publishing house to take a gamble on a relatively unknown first-time novelist. My non-fiction agent friend put it this way: “An agent has to fall in love with the manuscript. And I mean LOVE. Then the agent has to make a publisher fall in love, to the exclusion of everyone else.”
I definitely had a story that I loved, and that my mother loved, but I couldn’t seem to find an agent who loved it to the exclusion of all else. I had run through every personal contact I had, and that was a handful—more than many would-be authors, thanks to my alumnae network and a couple of personal friends. My boyfriend at the time urged me to send the manuscript to 50 agents, so sure was he that I would ultimately find someone who would pick it up. Of course I wanted to project confidence in my abilities, and a fighting spirit and all of that—he was still a boyfriend, after all, and I am not getting any younger, but I knew that I was destined for the slush piles of those fifty agencies and with Mom’s diagnosis, I felt a severe time pressure. At around that time, I got spammed by a self-publishing company called BookSurge, a subsidiary of Amazon.com. For only $800 I could publish my book, and if I signed a contract right away, I would receive twenty free copies of it! I gave the idea under 60 seconds’ thought, for this was exactly what the doctor ordered—a book with my name on the cover in time for the holidays, possibly my mother’s last. And twenty Christmas presents ready to wrap.
There were additional costs, but they were of my own making—I paid my out-of-work brother-in-law to proofread the manuscript, what would have cost a lot more had I gone to a professional, and he is as thorough as any pro—and I paid a writing teacher of mine to read the finished product. I gambled that he would like it well enough to give me a quote for the back cover. His quote ended up being worth ten times what I paid him as a standard fee to read and comment on a student’s work: “A bright, insightful novel that is laugh-out-loud funny.” And this from a former writer for the Mary Tyler Moore Show! That’s like Moses telling you you’re a good person.
I already knew exactly how I wanted the cover of my book to look. I envisioned a pair of shapely legs decked out in a sequined hemline, standing barefoot in a sandbox. I even knew the legs I wanted to use—a perfect pair I admired in a class I was taking, belonging to a fashionable young woman who didn’t seem the least bit surprised that I wanted to borrow her legs for the cover art of my first novel. I paid her $80 for the time she spent on the photo shoot, and a friend took the pictures. Incidentally, the design team assigned to my book gave me an alternative idea for the cover as part of my $800 package that was actually much better than the one I had conceived. I love to be bested when it’s for my own gain.
So maybe I spent more like $1,200, but it was worth it. Not only have I have made every dime back and then some (I make $5.40 for every book sold on Amazon, and upwards of $8 for each book I sell out of my trunk), but you couldn’t put a price on my mother’s beaming face in every audience I addressed that first year after the book came out. I always introduced her as the original “Muth” — a humorous character who was a lampoon of the feisty old lady in the wheelchair in the front row. I continue to address audiences, having developed a talk on building community that I illustrate with choice passages from my “laugh-out-loud funny novel.” I miss Muth more than I can describe, but she lives on in her spirited, fictional counterpart. On balance, I would definitely call it a happy ending.