Write Your Life

These Marin authors have found other ways to get their stories into print.
Illustrations by Emily Balsley

WHEN JANICE MOCK, the Tiburon-based author of the surprisingly joyous cancer memoir Not All Bad Comes to Harm You, decided to publish her book in 2015, she was clear how she wanted to do it. “I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t want to go through the process of people telling me no,” says Mock, whose book chronicles her experience after diagnosis of ovarian cancer. “All I really wanted to do was get this message out there.”

So, like thousands of aspiring authors, Mock decided to self-publish.

Self-publishing, once the ugly stepsister of the book world, has become an increasingly attractive alternative to the mainstream-publishing route of signing with an agent, sending out manuscripts and (all too often) getting rejection letters in return.

It’s become so popular that books from “indie publishers” have jumped from 28 percent of the total e-books sold on Amazon in 2014 to nearly 45 percent now, according to authorearnings.com. Self-published books have also bumped up the total number of books published each year, from 266,322 in 2003 to 1,413,095 in 2013.

“It’s a time in history when there are many avenues for telling your story,” says Leslie Jonath, creative director of Connected Dots Media and a former editor for Chronicle Books. “The thing that’s cool is you can actually do it.”

In the traditional publishing world, the process of getting a nonfiction book into print is notoriously arduous. According to Fairfaxbased literary agent Bonnie Solow, an author needs a 50-to-100-page book proposal — including an overview, marketing plan, competitive title analysis and several sample chapters — before pitching the idea to a major publisher. The payoff can be big, with writers receiving deals ranging from $50,000 to seven figures.

But many authors aren’t in it for the money. When Jim Wood (the “POV” columnist for this magazine) wrote his 2014 autobiography What a Trip! A Mostly Positive Life Story, he did so to have “something to leave for my three daughters,” he says.

Like any writer, he hoped that a publisher would be interested in the book, a delightful and often reflective and introspective recounting of Wood’s success as a businessman, his four marriages, and his wanderings throughout the world, including several cross-country trips on a Greyhound bus. After he sent out 50 query letters to agents, receiving “one positive response back” (which went nowhere), Wood decided to publish the book on his own.

Greenbrae author Laura Fenamore also hoped a major publisher would pick up her book, a self-help memoir called Fat, Skinny, Perfect: Love Who You See in the Mirror. For years, friends and clients had urged Fenamore, a life coach and body image expert, to tell her tale, which was particularly inspiring: Fenamore had survived terrible childhood abuse, become overweight, and permanently “released” 100 pounds through experience with 12-step programs and tenacious self-love.

Though Fenamore wasn’t interested in selfpublishing, she ended up going that way — sort of. Eight years ago she attended a Book Passage class on finding an agent, taught by Tiburon agent Kimberly Cameron. Cameron loved Fenamore’s idea, called her the next day, and said, “I want you to write your book and I want to represent you.”

After Fenamore wrote the book with the help of a private editor, Cameron sent it to 33 publishers — all of whom rejected it. But Cameron was so passionate about the story she started her own company, Reputation Books, to publish it. For Fenamore, it was similar to self-publishing but better: Cameron paid for the designer and the printing, while Fenamore paid for copies of the book, which came out last year. Today, the book serves as not only a stepby- step guide to her body-positive approach, but also a platform for Fenamore’s life-coaching business and public speaking. (Reputation Books has gone on to publish other books, including a number of mysteries.)

It takes more than a desire to tell a story, though, to shepherd a book into print. The act of writing itself requires staggering motivation (along with ample doses of masochism and caffeine). When Mock wrote her book, she worked on it every day for nearly a year as she commuted on the ferry to her job as a trial attorney in the city. She felt some urgency, as she didn’t know how long she’d remain healthy (she’s currently battling another round of cancer). Wood worked on his book intermittently for the better part of a decade, consulting journals he’d kept for years.

The commitment is intense, but even then, says Jonath, “when you write the book, you’re only 30 percent done. After that, you have to be entrepreneurial. You have to understand the entire process of publishing.”

Most indie-authors hire a private editor, whose fees (in Marin, at least) range from $55 to $150 an hour. “I haven’t met anyone who can get a book together without a good editor,” says Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera. Wood paid an editor $55 per hour for approximately 160 hours to edit his book. Authors also need to hire a designer and publisher.

To help writers wade through all the options, Book Passage offers a one-day course, “Paths to Publishing,” taught by writer Sam Barry (brother of Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize– winning author and columnist). The course covers various ways to publish and includes information on local editorial, design and publishing services as well as agents. There’s also a mentor program available through the course, in which new writers can work one-on-one with an established author.

Wood took the course and chose to publish with IngramSpark, an indie publisher recommended by Book Passage (other reputable companies include Blurb). His total costs, including a Larkspur-based editor and 200 copies of his book, were around $15,000.

That’s not cheap. But there are advantages to using a reputable indie publisher. IngramSpark includes its self-published books in the Ingram database, which means booksellers anywhere can order the books. “Those sales are then registered with a database,” says Petrocelli, “which can make a big difference if you’d like to work the next time with a more established publisher.” A successful self-published book can be the springboard to getting a book deal later with one of the big publishing houses.

That’s assuming, of course, that anyone wants to buy the book — the biggest hurdle for most first-time self-published authors. The solution? Marketing, marketing and more marketing. After publishing his book, Wood gave readings at Book Passage, the Depot, Cavallo Point and his high school reunion. Fenamore did readings too (as did Mock), spoke at other events to promote her book, and spent hours pursuing celebrities, particularly those who had struggled with weight issues, to write a cover blurb. (Anatomy of the Spirit author Carolyn Myss provided a glowing one.)

Stores like Book Passage increasingly stock self-published books, but its buying staff is selective, Petrocelli says, choosing only books that have been produced with “the care we think a really good book needs.”

Wood cautions that one of the biggest mistakes first-time self-publishers make is ordering too many copies. “You think, ‘God, I can get rid of 400 easily; I have 400 friends,’ ” he says. “But your 400 friends are probably couples, so cut that in half, and at least half of those aren’t readers.”

Sometimes sales aren’t even the main concern for self-published authors; more often, they’re driven by a fierce desire to tell their story. “I feel like the reason I survived everything I did and was granted a second chance is because this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” says Fenamore. “My job is to teach women about self-love.”

And for many authors, the satisfaction chiefly lies in creating the book itself. Take Mock, for example. She used iUniverse’s “Book Launch Premier Pro” package, which included editing services and provided guaranteed book reviews, and has sold 300 copies of her book through Amazon and her website (she makes only $1.67 per book through Amazon). But in the process of sharing her story, she also made sense of it. “The hardest part for me, honestly, was having to relive the entire experience’” she says. “But painful as it was, it was worth going down that road, because I ended up writing about what I really care about: living.

Categories: Feature Story