Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Self-Publishing Route

Susan Wittig Albert, Guest Blogger

Susan Wittig Albert has been a fulltime professional writer since 1985. She is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, The Darling Dahlias Garden Club series, The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian-Edwardian mysteries, coauthored with her husband, Bill Albert—over fifty books in all. In addition, she has written two memoirs, two books of nonfiction, and over sixty YA novels.

I’ve been in the book business for three decades—more, when I count the books I wrote during my academic career. But recently, I’ve been seeing this business from a very different angle. I’ve had the interesting experience of self-publishing my latest novel, a standalone entitled A Wilder Rose. The book tells the true story of Rose Wilder Lane, who transformed her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, from an occasional writer to a world-famous literary icon—the author of the Little House books.

I knew that A Wilder Rose would stir up controversy with Laura’s dedicated fans, since the book reveals just how large a part Rose played in the writing of the Little House series. But when the proposal and sample chapters began to make the rounds of the publishing houses, I was surprised to discover that editors were put off, rather than intrigued, by the controversy. One editor rejected it with the comment, “Laura’s fans won’t like this one.” Another wrote that Rose was “too prickly.” A third asked the burning question, “Will Little House fans want to learn that their beloved hero didn’t actually write (at least not on her own) the books they’ve loved for decades?”  But the story I had to tell is a true story. This biographical novel is based on Rose’s diaries and the characters of both Rose (indeed a prickly person!) and her mother are based on the facts of their lives. I didn’t want to alter any of it to fit an editor’s idea of what the book should be.

I sat back for a while, thought about it, and decided that this was the opportunity I had been waiting for to explore the world of self-publishing. If I published the novel myself, I would have full creative control over the controversial story. What’s more, I wouldn’t have to hang out for a year or more after the novel was finished, waiting for it to go into production and finally launch. And I could be sure that the book was marketed to its best audience, however small it might be. And I wanted to learn what the new author-publishing technologies are all about.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I’ve been learning—and learning a lot. Here are four of the things I’ve learned in the past nine months, since I made the decision to author-publish A Wilder Rose.

Write your best book, then have it beta-read and copyedited. When Bill and I were writing our Robin Paige mysteries, we used to tell each other that we never really finished a book, we just ran out of time to make it better. When you’ve written your best book (or you’ve run out of time to make it better), find some beta-readers who will tell you what else needs to be done. For A Wilder Rose, I asked four very good readers to give me feedback. One was a Laura Ingalls Wilder researcher, the other three were book reviewers. All four gave me exactly what I needed: specific ways to make my best book better in terms of its coverage, content, and style. Then I sent it to the copyeditor with whom I had worked on my two memoirs, and she made it even better. With a team like that behind the book, I could be confident that what was between the covers was the very best it could be.

Cover it, front and back, professionally. While my readers and copyeditor were doing their thing, I began working with a professional cover artist. Most of A Wilder Rose takes place at Rocky Ridge, a hard-scrabble Missouri Ozark farm that is now a museum. Thousands of visitors have toured the house, and its image is iconic. That was what I wanted for the front cover. I also wanted the book to look enough like my traditionally-published mysteries so that readers would see a connection.

The artist gave me the design I wanted, in a series of four different color combos. We put these online and asked readers to vote for their favorite. I loved the white cover, and so did they. And on the back cover, I put the most important of the endorsements I’d been collecting.

Collect those endorsements. A Wilder Rose tells the true story behind a long-lived literary deception. For very good reasons (at least, that’s what they thought), Rose and her mother deliberately and carefully concealed her participation in the writing of the Little House books. I was confident that my fiction was very close to the facts of the matter—the true story of the collaboration. But I also knew that it would be more easily accepted if respected scholars and well-known authors endorsed it. From my research, I knew who these people were. While the manuscript was being copyedited, I sent it to six people and asked them for their endorsements. Cheeky and impertinent, yes. Brazen hussy, that’s me. But all six came through, bless ‘em. You’ll find their endorsements on the book’s website.

The endorsement that means the most to me personally? It’s from Carolyn Hart, who endorsed my very first China Bayles novel, twenty years ago. Thank you, Carolyn!
Give yourself plenty of time. It’s quick and relatively easy to publish an eBook or to go for print with CreateSpace or one of the other self-publishing presses. I wanted this book to be available to libraries and indie bookstores, so I opted to go with Lightning Source, because of its distribution partners, Ingram and Baker and Taylor. That part of the publishing process has taken much more time than I expected, and I’m not sure I’m going to make the announced publication date for what I think of as the “library edition.” If I had it to do over, I would have announced a later date.

If you’ve been down this self-publishing road, you probably have lessons to share, too. Or maybe you’re considering it, and you have a question. Leave a note here and I’ll do my best to respond.


Katy Pye said...


Thanks for sharing your story. I'm excited to read A Wilder Rose, in large part because you stuck to telling the truth as you learned it and didn't worry about the background fan base.

Having recently self-published my first novel, I echo your experience as being the larger part of the effort in so many ways. I especially second allowing lots of time to prepare for the launch. And a year to write the marketing plan. :)

Best wishes on the book--

susanalbert said...

Katy, I think it was very helpful to get the editors' reactions. I saved them, and as I reread them now, I realize (all over again) that editors's opinions are usually shaped by their house's requirements, by the opinions of other editors (maybe with more seniority), by the bottom line, and even (dare I say this?) by their own career trajectories. Their opinions may have little to do with the quality of the book itself. Once I decided to publish ROSE under my own imprint, I had an overwhelming sense of freedom. Not having to toe somebody else's line was a very real relief.

BookLover said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for this article. I'm planning to publish my book after I finish it but, since I live in Croatia, I'm already preparing for rejection from big publishing houses and the problem is there are no smaller or indie publishing houses here in Croatia so this article helped me, encouraged me to think about self-publishing it. I wwant to thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. :)

judyalter said...

Susan, you're right. It's a story that needs to be told, and I'm glad you told it with all its warts. Also appreciated very much your words about self-publishing. I have a half-done manuscript that I'm considering self-publishing once I write the books I owe my publisher. Thanks. As always, you're an inspiration and help to me.

Anonymous said...


I started out thinking I would go the traditional route, then after 6 years writing, 6 professional edits, and tons of revising I realized some of the topical aspects of the book would be diminished if I had to wait another 2-3 from agent-hunting to finally on the shelf. Then, 6 months later the book could be dead, pulled, and returned to the printing house, never really getting off the ground. The marketing isn't easy (I'd rather be writing), but it's good practice, makes me own my book all the more deeply (though I do anyway). And yes, key word, FREEDOM!. Cover, to insides, to a few more pennies in the till at the end of the day.

Diane said...

Susan, as Sandra Parshall can tell you, I've been for self-publishing for quite a while, and am glad the ebook is out, because it makes it easier for authors to self-publish.

I'm not a writer, but am a big reader and have been most of my life. A couple of decades ago I began to realize what little support most authors received from their publishers, unless they were already big names. Which isn't much help to a new author getting their names and works out there. So I've been delighted that authors can now put their works out there on their own and get at least some attention and readers. And there are many whose work, even if they do have a publisher, can not be found in many bookstores. I've discovered a lot of authors whose books I enjoy that I would never have known about otherwise. To be sure, there have been a couple of duds - poorly written or with a lot of typos/mistakes, but in over 2 years with my Kindle, I've only come across 3 or 4 of those.

As for Rose co-authoring her mother's books, what is the big issue? She had the writing chops and her mother had the stories. Even if they did embellish them, they were still based on a time many knew little about and good stories. If that bothers the Little House fans, then maybe they need to grow up.

I'm looking forward to reading your book.

susanalbert said...

Booklover, yes, I'm so glad you made that point! Wherever we live, we can now get our books out there for readers--without depending on New York.

Judy & Diane, I think this is the first time (in my long career as a writer) that I've ever felt actually compelled to tell a story. In fact, it's almost as if the story chose me as a teller, and although I kept putting it off, it finally had to happen.

Katype, the timing was a big issue for me with ROSE. I simply did not want to wait, and as you point out, the traditional process can easily take 3 or more years. Better to get the book out there and then write another one. And another.

Sheila Connolly said...

A Wilder Rose is on my TBR list.

I have a very small connection to the saga. When I was in fourth grade, we were reading the entire Little House series. Our teacher decided to write a fan letter, and I was elected to do it on behalf of the class. Some weeks later we received a nice thank-you note and an autographed photo. It was many years later that I discovered that Laura Ingalls Wilder had been dead for some time by then. But the machine ground on!

susanalbert said...

Sheila, I had to smile at your comment about the machine. The Wilder machine kicked into high gear after Rose died (10 years after Laura's death). Roger MacBride, Rose's legatee, inherited the literary estate and quickly marketed a version of it to television(Little House on the Prairie). Then there were the spinoff books, dolls, toys, paper dolls, etc. It was (and still is) a PR juggernaut.