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Literary Alchemy

November 9, 2012

Guest post time! The lovely and talented Joanne Lewis graces our humble blog today with a story about how she’s made gold from nothing as a self-published author since she was eight (you know, like 20 years ago).

By Joanne Lewis 

I wrote my first book when I was eight years old. It was a book about the weather and it was called, of course, The Book of Weather. I took construction paper and drew the sun and wind and clouds, wrote about lightning and thunder and fastened the pages between two pieces of cardboard taken from my father’s new button-down work shirts.  I covered the cardboard with green and yellow wallpaper that had bright and bubbly orange flowers dancing along it. The wallpaper had been left over from decorating our 1970s Long Island kitchen.

I was pleased with my book but nothing made me prouder than when the librarian placed it in my elementary school library. I visited it every day. I don’t recall anyone checking out my book, or if it was given its own listing in the card catalogue or even a Dewey decimal number, but I didn’t care. There it was on the shelves. My book. I was a writer.

And a writer I was determined to be until the day came when practicality usurped my dreams. I graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was considering what I would do next. I had to get a real job. My father’s words bounced around my head. You have to have a career so you know what you’re unemployed from. I went to law school.

I wrote my first novel when I was 24 years old and while a prosecutor working felony trials and sex crimes. I didn’t have an agent. A small press that has since gone out of business published the novel, a murder mystery called The Forbidden Room. While I did not sell many books, I was invited to speak on panels and did book signings. I got an agent. I was asked by an editor at Simon & Schuster to write a series featuring a young female prosecutor. She asked me to provide her with a synopsis of the first book and a general outline of books two and three. I was on my way.

Two months later, my agent presented my proposal to the editor who said, without further explanation, that she was no longer interested. Then my agent unexpectedly passed away. I was sad and wasn’t thinking about finding another agent when her associate called and said he was taking over her business and would not be keeping me as a client.

Opportunities continued to arise, at least for a short time. Another small press wanted to publish a book of mine, however things fell apart during the editing stage and the novel was never released.

At this time, I’m 29 years old and feeling like the height of my writing career would be traced back to my elementary school library.

I didn’t write throughout my thirties. Not writing gnawed at my brain but I was productive in other ways. I worked hard. I left the State Attorney’s Office and opened my own practice. I fell in love. But still, I didn’t write. I knew, however, that I would write in my forties. Don’t ask me how I knew this, I just did. What I didn’t know was how it would come about that I would write again.

Four days shy of my 41st birthday, I experienced a life changing event. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After a radical hysterectomy and six months of chemotherapy, I emerged cancer free and ready to write. And write I did. Like crazy.

Murder mysteries. Historical novels. A commercial novel that I co-wrote with my sister. I got an agent. A really good agent. You might have heard of him. His name is Donald Maass and he’s written some really good books himself.

He spent four years trying to sell my murder mystery without success.

Then my sister and I found a small publisher for Wicked Good, the book we wrote together. That didn’t work out either.

Soon thereafter, Don and I parted on good terms.

One day, as I was trying to decipher the secret to writing a successful query letter, I called my sister and told her I was no longer having fun. I was tired of writing query letters and hoping someone on the other end of snail mail or email considered me worthy.

She said, if you’re not having fun, don’t do it.

I stopped. No more query letters. No more hoping to find an agent who deemed me marketable. No more praying for that editor to take me under her wing and make me the next big thing. No more yearning to call some well-known publishing house my home.

I decided to self publish.

Here’s what I’ve learned about self publishing, at least for us average folks (i.e. not famous). It’s as good as traditional publishing.  We still do our own marketing but we also have control over our product. The final edits. The cover. Where we publish. How much we charge.

Do you know who looks down upon those of us who choose to self publish? People in the publishing industry. Isn’t that odd? Shouldn’t they be cheering us on? Aren’t we all on the same team?

Do you know who doesn’t care if we self publish? The readers. All they ask for, all they deserve, is a good book.

What I don’t understand is how come self publishing, which is the same as being self employed, is given a bad rap? I started my law practice with my own money and was congratulated for being an entrepreneur. I bought a house, fixed it up, flipped it and made more money and people were impressed. I have been self employed since 1997 and make a good living.  Why do I have to work for someone else as a writer? Why is writing the only industry where being self employed is frowned upon?

Many self-published authors are successfully selling their books. What are their secrets? For the most part, their books are well written and well edited (the number one rules) and they work really hard to get noticed. But there’s something else.

Alchemy, I call it. Turning metal into gold. Magic. Providence. Good fortune. Covering cardboard with yellow and green wallpaper and placing it on the school library shelf.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t benefits to being traditionally published. Despite my cheers for self-publishing, if a traditional house came knocking on my door and invited me to sit by their fire, I can’t say what decision I would make.

What I do know is that I am glad I followed my dad’s advice and went to law school.  I am a family mediator and a guardian ad litem who represents children. I feel like I am helping people and I make a decent living, which allows me to pursue my passion of writing.

When I am not working as a lawyer, I am writing and striving to follow my sister’s advice. If you’re not having fun, don’t do it.

I am 47 years old now. I have self-published three novels with Telemachus Press, who publishes John Locke’s books (if you haven’t heard of him, he’s sold over two million books as a self published author). I liked working with Telemachus Press so much that when they asked me to join their company as their Author Advisor, I said yes. I now have one of the greatest jobs in the world; I am a writer who gets to speak to other writers.

And every day, I have fun trying to turn metal into gold.

Joanne Lewis is the self-published author of Wicked Good (co-written with her sister, Amy Faircloth); Make Your Own Luck, a Remy Summer Woods mystery and The Lantern, a Renaissance mystery. Joanne was a winner in this year’s RPLA competition. Please visit her website at www.joannelewiswrites.com or her author page on Amazon and email her at jtawnylewis@gmail.com.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2012 11:33 am

    Thank you for sharing your convoluted journey. I imagined myself feeling the breath of success–getting published–and then having it evaporate into an opportunity lost. Again. And again. Persistence serves an important function and sometimes it takes more courage to stop knocking on the door and build one’s own house, complete with many entry points. As you wrote, readers are interested in a gripping story, well told and well edited not in who published it.

    I

  2. November 10, 2012 10:33 am

    Good for you, Joanne; I am 51, trying to write more than ever now. You are very inspiring. However, I do want to comment on self-publishing. In working with a bookstore, I seen many self-published books and have worked with their (mostly) local authors. The problem is that so much of what is self-published is poorly written. Since anyone can self publish, finding the good stuff is like finding a needle in a haystack. When you do, it can be a worthwhile gem! (Of course, I also often dislike what publishing houses put out, but it does have a better chance of being quality). I am in awe of the many people I’ve met who have invested in self-publishing their work; I introduce them at our Local Author’s Events, and tell the audience that we are glad to be supporting these local citizens who are out “pounding the pavement”, using their entrepeneurial spirit to forge ahead with what matters to them. I expect to be one of them someday. Thanks for your insightful article.

  3. November 10, 2012 10:55 am

    I totally agree. Authors don’t need the Big Six (Five) New York publishing establishment or agents to be our gatekeepers when we can self-publish or publish through a small press. Kindle E-books changed everything. God bless Amazon Kindle.

    • November 10, 2012 8:27 pm

      Right on, Walter. Soon the rest of the world will catch up and self published authors will be in bookstores too.

      • November 11, 2012 11:57 pm

        Bookstores are a tough nut to crack because we cannot take back unsold books. However, we can be king of sales on Amazon.

      • November 13, 2012 6:52 am

        Lightning Source, Inc. (print on demand distributor owned by Ingram) now allows for books to be returned to them. Then, the books are destroyed or returned to the author, depending upon which option the author chooses. Of course, a fee is associated with this. If any of my books are unsold and returned to LSI, I’ve elected to have them sent to me. I would then pay shipping and probably some other costs. I don’t know if I made the right choice. No books have been returned to me yet.

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