For two decades I’ve been researching a historical novel, and when the manuscript grew to almost a thousand pages I put it aside while I wrote a dozen mysteries. But when my opthalmologist told me I was a glaucoma suspect—and I had another landmark birthday—I decided to self publish. It would be my twentieth book of fiction, nonfiction, poems—the first nineteen traditionally published.
The novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, is the multigenerational tale of three spirited women who carry on their lives through a flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and two World Wars (1912-1945). It’s based on my Scottish grandmother’s coming to America to be nanny to her widowed uncle’s brood of seven children. At seventeen, she had not only left a beau and a university education behind, but had recently learned that she’d been conceived “out of wedlock,” as they used to say. It was this fact that sparked my story after I went to Edinburgh to look up my granny, and the archivist gave me a slight smirk and a slip of paper that read “illegitimate.” To compensate, I wrote a novelette for Seventeen Magazine called “Long Journey Home,” and made far more money than I’ve yet received from my novel. I incorporated that magazine story into my “fictional memoir,” as I call it.
So I radically shortened the manuscript, opened my wallet, and sent it only to Red Barn Books, the self publishing arm of Wind Ridge Books of Vermont. There I had a superb editor, who had earlier edited work by John Irving, and was allowed to choose my own cover art. Admittedly, I loved being in full control for the first time in my writing life. For Poison Apples, one of my St. Martin’s Press mysteries, the book jacket showed a leafy tree filled with ripe red apples—none looking the least bit poisoned—and a friend asked if I’d written a cookbook!
One of the characters in Queens Never Make Bargains is based on real life Joe Henry (1912-1973), an artist with polio who had no use of his opposable thumbs, and could only paint propped up in braces to sweep a painting onto canvas, or newspaper, since the family was poor. He died, alas, in a nursing home before I could meet him. But I interviewed a compassionate veterinarian who had taken Joe along on his farm rounds, offering subject matter for his paintings, which ultimately appeared in NYC galleries. I used one of those paintings for my cover art.
In about four month’s time the novel came out, beautifully designed by Wind Ridge, and it now appears in their catalogue with other traditionally published books. They also gave me a website for ordering, so bookstores and libraries receive the usual discount.
In my haste to push the book through, I had acquired, alas, only one blurb—and by a non fiction author. Then I read in Poets & Writers magazine that Kirkus would review my book, though with no assurance for a good review. But Kirkus had always praised my books in the past, so I took a deep breath, paid their hefty fee—and lucked out. It was a lovely, long, thoughtful review without a single negative, calling Queens “an often illuminating novel that lays bare the societal constraints faced by generations of women and the stark realities they bore with grace.”
But it was too late to put it on the back cover! So I had to advertise.
Kirkus offered, for a fee, an attractive, wide banner ad of the above lines, along with a link to the entire review, to run for two weeks on several of their websites. It apparently had a lot of hits, and my Amazon rating surged for a time, before falling slowly back. Next I sent the book to Historical Novel Reviews, which had happily reviewed my Mary Wollstonecraft mysteries, along with a middle grade historical. But HNR has a rule set in stone: no self published books in its august pages.
HNR would, however, try to find a freelancer for an online review—and I’m still waiting. My local Vermont Bookshop has rallied behind me and copies continue to sell, online and off. New England Booksellers have plugged it on their website, yet I haven’t dared approach other bookstores. The stigma for do-it-yourself has surely eased, but like the ants I can’t keep out of my Vermont kitchen, it remains—at least for writers who haven’t the clout of a Stephen King, whose books are bestsellers with or without a publisher.
So as Fitzgerald, who didn’t self publish but made just $13.30 in royalties from The Great Gatsby, wrote: “So we beat on, boats against the current…” And hope for smooth sailing!
Nancy Means Wright has published 20 books of fiction (mystery and mainstream), nonfiction, and poems with St Martin’s Press, Dutton, Perseverance Press & elsewhere, including two historical mysteries featuring 18th-century Mary Wollstonecraft. Her most recent historicals are Walking into the Wild, and the multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains. Short stories appear in American Literary Review, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Level Best Books, et al. Her children’s mysteries have received an Agatha Award and Agatha nomination. Nancy lives in Middlebury, Vermont, with her spouse and two Maine Coon cats.