How My Writers’ Club Changed My Life
“I’m hosting a wine and read-around at my house,” said our writers’ club powerhouse, John. “I have room for the first dozen who sign up.”
I signed up.
Several years earlier, my “like-a-second-father” and I had written a picture book depicting King Phillip and his husband, Don Carlos Emiliano Felipe Compañero y Campañero. They lived contentedly for decades until King Phillip was called to the Hero’s Journey to earn the right to a baby girl to complete their family.
A retired teacher and professor of 36 years, I knew our book was exquisite and lyrical, one that would contribute to a canon in desperate need of books: the canon of picture books for the young children of same-sex parents.
Having had five non-fiction books published by traditional publishers, and with my books shelved on more than 1200 libraries on every continent except Antarctica, and the rights to one of those books sold to a publisher in France, I knew I would have easy time finding an agent. I sent the manuscript to seven agents who said they were seeking picture books about diverse families. I never heard back from any of them. Apparently diverse exclusively meant ethnically diverse.
I put the manuscript away.
But I retrieved and read it at John’s event.
The members asked, “Why isn’t this published?” I told them.
The members said, “You need to self-publish this.”
I rolled my eyes and said, “Self-publishing is the last bastion of the untalented.”
They rolled their eyes and disagreed. “Millie, the publishing world has changed in the last decade. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Self-publishing is perfectly respectable.” They began to share stories with me.
And some of them said that they had self-published. I wanted to crawl in a hole.
The following week, I started looking for an illustrator.
Two years after I’d found my illustrator and she’d completed nine stunning paintings, and before I’d absolutely, positively made my final decision to self-publish, I attended a conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and purchased a ten-minute slot for $30 to pitch my book to a young book editor from a MAJOR publishing house whose books you have on your children’s shelves. And maybe your own.
When I say young, although she didn’t tell her age, in addition to the fact that she looked 18, she was wearing a Hello Kitty tee-shirt, ripped shorts, flip-flops, earrings that looked like crayons, and was chewing gum when I pitched my book to her.
Although I knew that publishers didn’t typically purchase a manuscript and illustrations together unless from an author/illustrator like Jan Brett, half of my illustrator’s breath-taking paintings were finished, so I showed the editor the illustrations and the manuscript.
Still chewing her gum, she said, “I’ll buy the story, but not the illustrations. You’ll have to cut the illustrator loose. I have a completely different vision for the book.”
I said, “I won’t sell it without the illustrations. It’s all or nothing.”
She said, “I won’t buy it with the illustrations. If I buy it, it becomes my baby, and I create it with an illustrator I choose to make it into the book I envision. My baby.”
I said, “Then I won’t sell it to you. I’ll publish it myself.”
“Good luck,” she said.
A few days later, I started talking in my mind to a distinguished Choctaw writer friend who had died the year before at 91. “Owanah,” I said, “Should I do this?” I heard her say, “Email my Choctaw ‘son’ (Bishop Steve Charleston).” I knew Bishop Charleston, and I knew he had started a publishing company for his eight books, but you don’t just write a bishop… I ignored Owanah.
A couple of days later, I bought a refrigerator magnet of an owl that had fierce, piercing eyes. I bought it because its eyes looked exactly like Owanah’s. I hate refrigerator magnets, but I brought it home and put it at eye level on my pristine refrigerator door. Owanah’s strigiformic eyes glared at me from that magnet every time I walked by, waiting for me to get off my ass and DO something.
The following day, I called my favorite cousin and said, “Aunt Doris (from whom my cousin and I had inherited some money) was an entrepreneur. Do you think she would want me to use my inheritance to start a publishing company?”
“I know she would,” said my cousin. “She borrowed money to start her antique business back in the 1930’s when EVERYONE told her that she should stay home and bake pies and take care of her husband. She’d want you to use her money this way.”
Right after I hung up, I reached down into the bottom of my Hermione Grainger-type bag for my keys and stuck my thumb on something sharp. I yelped and jerked my hand out. Stuck into my thumb was a pin that had been on a card of four pins I’d bought at Books-a-Million weeks earlier. I’d worn the pin I wanted (Nice women seldom make history) and when I’d pulled the card out to throw the other pins away, this one must have fallen off. I glared at it as I sucked the blood from my thumb. It read, It’s not what you think or say, but what you actually do that matters.
I knew prickly Owanah had stuck me with this pin, and I heard her say to me, “Get off your ass, email Steve, and start your goddam company.”
So that’s what I did. Bishop Charleston wrote me back a long email saying that he didn’t give business advice, but he would tell me about his personal journey. He had bought Self-Publishing for Dummies and followed every word. He said that his journey was rewarding, and that the two hardest parts were figuring out where to store his inventory and keeping up with the computer “stuff.”
I’ll be honest. I’ve spent $25,000 to date on my micro-publishing company. First was the $7000 I paid my wonderful illustrator, and she was worth every penny. Her asking price was $385 per painting. I’ve already promised her $500 per painting on the next book because her illustrations are the key to the success of our book.
Then I hired lawyers and accountants to do some of the things other people do for themselves. I hired two marketing firms and have spent nearly $10,000 on marketing. I hired a company to put the book in paper and e-form to be published (doing a picture book is a much more difficult process than a novel), and then I paid another company over $5000 for the first run of a thousand books.
I’m not through paying out money yet, but thanks to the quality of our book, knowing a market niche in desperate need of development, and spending liberally on marketing, the money is starting to come in little by little. I’m not thinking of the money as being $25,000 I should have left in mutual funds and bonds. I’m thinking of it as a $25,000 investment that will bring me, my colleagues, and the children and families who need this book a lifetime of returns.
The takeaway? If I hadn’t joined a writers’ club, my story would still be in the tombs of my computer instead of having won a Kirkus star; being for sale on Amazon; being on this blog tour; and with library book signings (including the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library) coming up next month.
Professor M. C. Gore holds the doctorate in education from the University of Arkansas. She taught first grade through graduate school for 36 years in New Mexico, Missouri, and Texas. She was a professional horse wrangler and wilderness guide and continues to play clarinet in two community bands. She is Professor Emeritus from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas where she held two distinguished professorships. Her books for teachers and parents are shelved in over a thousand libraries throughout the world. She is retired and lives in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas.
Maestro Phillip Wilson was a public-school band director, music teacher, composer, and arranger for 28 years. His primary instrument is the trumpet, and he is also a campañero (bell ringer). Although he is over 80, he continues to serve as Music Director and Cantor at his church. He is a life-long resident of New Mexico and was born in Santa Fe. Although his genotype is Dutch and Scotch-Irish, his soul is Hispanic. He was Professor Gore’s music teacher and band director, and although the loving biological father of seven musical children, he is a soul-father of the hundreds of students he has taught.
Artist Angie F. M. Trotter holds a BA in Religion and Fine Art. Her pen and ink illustrations are a fusion of icons, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass window design, and her spiritual life. She is also a chronic migraine suffer and her art helps calm her symptoms. Her mother was a folk artist; her father was an architect and fine artist, so she has been surrounded by art her whole life. Her work has been compared to the masters of the Golden Age of British book illustration. She lives in Arkansas.