The Accidental Publisher

By Elisabeth Keely Wilson

Ostensibly, it was your basic itch just begging to be scratched. You know—the kind of itch that can’t quite be reached, so it keeps twitching and itching, demanding your attention. Finally, in order to appease the little beast, you have to twist and turn your body into various odd positions, until at last, you find just the right spot and “ah, relief!” This itch of mine, however, proved to be even bolder than your ordinary, garden variety. The little pest seemed to have a mind of its own and was clearly intent on attaining its complete and total satisfaction—no matter how long the wait might be. Even after a few years of my attempting to ignore the vexing sensation followed by a year or two of diverting its attention with creative endeavors, it persisted. In the end, completely exasperated by its relentless pursuit, I succumbed to the demand of that irrepressible itch—I will write a book!

Although I was aware that the contents of a full-length manuscript were contained in the piles of artwork and copious notes written to myself, I still couldn’t visualize how the various elements might be transformed into a cohesive whole. However, a few nights after agreeing to pursue the itch’s wishes, my unconscious mind rewarded my new-found willingness with a dream in which the book’s framework was clearly presented and the interlocking pieces seemed to fall naturally into place. Fortunately, my conscious mind retained many of the details of the previous night’s journey into dreamland and so, the following day, the writing began in earnest. Three months later, my itch was living in a state of bliss, prompting me to realize that the next phase of the process was about to begin. It was time for a publisher . . .

Now, I acknowledge there are still times when I long for that fairy tale existence where good things inevitably happen to good people; however, this wasn’t one of those times. Upon a thorough investigation of the publishing industry, it became apparent that the probability of my manuscript connecting with just the right publisher was, indeed, slim, and would be increased only with a sizeable investment of time and effort on my part and more than a bit of cooperation from the powers that be.

During one of my moments of doubt, I was struck by the realization that there were two potential obstacles that could prevent me from ever finding a publisher. Not only was I a first-time author (having previously written for magazines only), but my book, as proposed, would require the four-color process to be printed throughout. Taking these two points into consideration along with the magnitude of articles describing others’ difficulties, I chose to forego the publisher route, and instead, focused my concentration on the objective of securing an agent. At least this way, my logical mind reasoned, the agent would be responsible for producing that essential publisher.

The very first agent I approached actually offered a forewarning of what was to come. Her response to my book proposal was a handwritten note: “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You might want to consider self-publishing.” Pshaw! At the time, I was unaware of the significance of receiving a handwritten note from a literary agent rather than your basic form letter and I simply didn’t want to accept that this agent was being quite forthright with regard to my situation. Rather, my hope sprang eternal as it so often does, and I turned my attention to the numerous letters mailed to other agencies, anticipating that one of them would respond favorably.

Needless to say, over the next few months, innumerable dry responses signed with the agent’s stamp were sent my direction, basically informing me of the unsuitability of my proposal to that particular agent’s needs or desires. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I was not one to give up until all viable options had been explored. So another batch of letters would simply be dispatched, along with my heartfelt gratitude that at least there wasn’t a shortage of literary agents.

Just as my patience and persistence were beginning to wear thin, I happened to attend a women’s writing conference, and lo and behold, seated directly behind me was an attendee who was the owner of a publishing company. Oh, the beauty of serendipity! This publisher agreed to review my book over the weekend (a copy of which was my usual appendage), reportedly liked what she read, and I liked that she liked it. Over the next few weeks, we conversed frequently, negotiated the terms of a contract, and came to an agreement. It was with a humungous sigh of relief that I signed the final contract. Hallelujah! I had a publisher!

The next few months flew by as the manuscript was checked and rechecked, the finishing touches were added to the artwork and the cover design, and the entire package was submitted to a professional editor designated by the publisher for the book’s final reading. Upon completing the suggested editorial changes, the book was formatted, chapter by chapter, so that the negative film needed for the printing process could be created directly from disk. During this period, a common question posed to me by various family members was, “Who are you going to be today—Elisabeth, Betty, Elsbeth, Lily, Lisa, or Ellie?” Now, this isn’t quite as strange as it sounds once you take into account that I was not only the author, but also the copy editor, the artist, the graphic designer, the cover designer, and last but certainly not least, the computer technician. Whoops, and I almost forgot—I was and still am somebody’s wife and mother.

Well, as the bumper sticker so succinctly says… life happens. Just two days before the complete and unabridged version of the book was to be delivered to the printer, Chicken Little was proven to be right—indeed, it was the day that the sky fell. Quite possibly, the sky didn’t come crashing down on you and your world but it certainly did on mine. That morning’s mail had brought a letter from my publisher informing me that “unfortunately the company’s doors [were] closing as a prerequisite to the immediate need to file for bankruptcy.” The intent of the letter was to state that our contract was, in three words, null and void. So I did what Chicken Little always did—I looked to the sky for answers.

I was utterly confused—perplexed and befuddled—by this unexpected turn of events. What I truly longed for in that moment was a meticulously detailed set of instructions for this experience called life. Then I would know what to think and do! Instead, I was offered the suggestion that I just go with the flow and see where the flow took me. Now, while I am more adept today at going with the flow than I once was, it doesn’t necessarily mean I do it easily or with great panache but I did agree to try. Amazingly enough, I still had the willingness to persist (that itch had taught me well) in spite of not knowing where I was going or in which direction. I simply resolved to pay attention to anything and everything that came my way and let whatever happened happen. In essence, happenstance would lead the way. In other words, I was an accident just waiting to happen.

Somewhere during one of my sojourns along the information speedway (a fancy name for the Internet), I found myself at a website designed by independent publishers, for independent publishers. After perusing the site for just a few moments, I joined the association simply because I recognized its obvious value if I were to ever self-publish. At this point, I still wasn’t too excited about the idea of self-publishing, but I had begun to tentatively consider it as a slight possibility.

Actually, there was a valid basis for my hesitation. Having owned a graphic design business for many years, I was keenly aware of the amount of time, energy, and money that would be required to promote and market a book, particularly after the book’s publication. In addition, I recalled from past experience that the reality, in terms of time and effort expended on any one project, was usually double that of one’s initial expectation. However, I was attempting to remain open to the possibilities and let life’s current guide my way. So with every twist and turn, I simply whispered a little prayer that it wasn’t toward the falls.

My meanderings on the Internet also led me to a virtual storehouse of information involving various legalities within the publishing industry. Pertinent topics for the self-publisher included applying for a fictitious business name, obtaining a seller’s permit, registering for a copyright, acquiring a UPC symbol, and cataloging one’s book according to Library of Congress guidelines. Realizing that it might be wise to have all my ducks in a row—just in case—I began the process of filling out the various forms and applications required, eventually sending them on to their respective homes.

In the meantime, it had come to my attention that many of the newly released art books and children’s books featuring color illustrations had, in actuality, been printed overseas rather than in the United States. Intending to do just a bit of research on the various printing options, I subsequently found the publishing association’s website offered an abundance of information and contacts. Armed with a written bid from a large American printer (a benefit of my relationship with the now defunct publisher), my goal was to obtain competitive bids from printers elsewhere around the globe. I quickly discovered that many of the overseas printing companies had representatives located in the U.S. in order to facilitate the bidding of jobs. Eventually narrowing the field down, I finally met with one international printer to personally review several book samples that had been produced at his printing operation in Asia over the last few years. In spite of my doubts concerning the possible roadblocks with overseas printing, his extensive knowledge of the printing industry and his very competitive bid and printing schedule were quite reassuring.

Simultaneously, the quest for a publisher was underway, with my recent abandonment furnishing the key to open the door. After successfully arranging an interview with the president of a publishing company whose current list seemed to be the perfect match for my book, my hopes were high. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, however, came the revelation that his company didn’t, in his words, “do color.” So that was that! Our brief exchange concluded with a repetition of the handwritten message received so many months before. “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You would be better off self-publishing.” Consequently, I was offered the names of two distributors who could skillfully represent my work and who would be apt to accept me as a publisher in my own right.

Having been tossed a bunch of lemons, I knew the scenario—it was time to make lemonade. I figured I might as well take one more step into unknown territory, reasoning that if it didn’t work out, then I would absolutely, positively know which direction to proceed. I applied for a business loan requesting an amount that would more than cover the actual printing costs if I did, in fact, self-publish. Much to my consternation as well as to my surprise, the loan was approved by the end of the following day. Yikes! I was, literally and figuratively, at a point of no return. Standing on the edge of the precipice, my mind was a muddle.

Still clinging to the notion of myself as the emerging author, being represented by a strong, stalwart publisher, I was aware that the image was beginning to look suspiciously like a dream. Or possibly a favorite fairy tale? The reality was that I had a book ready to go to print a dependable printer prepared to respond to my every need, and the necessary funds safely ensconced in the bank. If I let myself fall into the world of self-publishing, I wondered, would I crash and burn? Or would I find my wings with which to fly? A flash of clarity brought the realization that the answers to my pondering would be found only with my acceptance of the challenge, come whatever may.

A color dummy of the book was packaged along with thirteen zip disks and sent to Korea, with the hope that, at least in this case, the number thirteen would be lucky. After three weeks, I received a slightly damaged box (Korea is a long way from San Francisco) containing a professionally prepared color proof of the entire book. So far, so good. After indicating a few minor changes, the proofs were immediately returned to Korea, as I didn’t want to create any hang-ups in the printing process. The next several weeks crawled at a snail’s pace while my emotions ran rampant, catapulting from intense excitement to paralyzing fear and back again. Finally, after what felt like five months instead of just five weeks, I received the much-anticipated call—a shipment for Brookside Press was docked at the Oakland harbor, would I accept delivery?

Barely a year after surrendering to that infernal itch, I became the publisher/owner of five thousand books. Today, upon opening my garage door, my eyes are immediately drawn to the space that is covered high with sturdy cardboard boxes, each one boldly proclaiming the scope of its journey:

Brookside Press
Danville, CA
Printed in Korea

In all honesty, the actual presence of one hundred twenty-five boxes can be somewhat intimidating, particularly if you have the propensity to view each and every book as a reminder of the work still to come. Yet at the same time, I stand in awe of what I have accomplished thus far, seemingly in spite of myself. It is with a sense of ownership and pride that I reflect on the tower of boxes upon boxes leading upward toward the sky and I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I didn’t crash and burn—at least not yet. In retrospect, to classify my experience as pure happenstance or a simple quirk of fate seems, at least to my way of thinking, to be an oversimplification of the events. Indeed, the more plausible explanation for my foray into the publishing world is that it was an opportunity in disguise, just begging to be scratched.

You can find more of Elizabeth Keely Wilson’s writing as well as her art at