What is Success?

“My friend told me about your book. She said it was great! So I was excited to find it in my book bag! ”

Pinch me, someone. But no, it wasn’t a dream. A fan stood before me handing me my novel to sign at World Fantasy Con last year. How do I measure success? At that moment, all my years of writing had been wrapped up and tied with a bow with balloons floating overhead. Singer of Norgondy was being talked about by readers I’d never met! Wow.

Tea cup moments. I write fantasy novels. And I help edit the online genre magazine New Myths (check it out! the spring issue just came out at newmyths.com) I don’t “see” stories generally in the modern world around me. But my fantasy world is crowded with characters shouldering their shovels and circling me, shouting at me, heigh ho, it’s off to work you go. Decades of writing. Never really caring enough to publish. Just needing to write their stories. And more stories. And more stories…

There is an exception to my writing only fantasy. The real world does come alive with stories that have to be written in what I call tea cup moments. The closest literary term is flash fiction. But these flashes aren’t necessarily fiction. They’re the moments in people’s lives around me that shine with a sudden understanding. Most people walk around, day in, day out, same ol’, same ol’, in a pantomime, not necessarily unhappy, not necessarily in drudgery, just…unaware. Then that tea cup moment strikes, and they’re in a elevated moment of self-perception. The world sharpens and their life comes into focus enough for them to glimpse who they are, why they are, or who they could be. You can see it when people enter that state or hear it in their words when they make an observation of it. That startled moment can define them in your memory of them from then on. My father, for example, stood in the howling wind watching the sunset before his heart operation. His white hair whipped about his head, his eyes sparked bright blue. “Anyone can love a beautiful day,”he said, facing the coming storm. “But this, this is living!” Thirty years later, beyond all my other memories of him, I still see him in that one precious moment that defined him to me. A moment so short you can hold it in your hand, like a tea cup puppy, and once caught, you have to clutch it hard forever before it’s gone. Those are the moments I write about the real world. When real people sharpen into characters with a perception of life.

My tea cup moment as a writer came at that signing table at World Fantasy Con. I’ve signed copies of Singer of Norgondy many times at several signing tables. But that first fan who said her friend had told her told how good my novel was before she ever came to the Con and met me, defined success for me. Thank you, whoever you are, I’ll remember you all my life.

I self-published Singer of Norgondy. I’ve written novels for almost 40 years, my obsessive compulsion. But I was never interested enough in trying to publish my novels, not enough to go to a publisher or go to an agent. I’m not exactly an Emily Dickinson as some people have called me, I do like other people reading my novels, I do like other people enjoying them and finding the ideas in them interesting. But I wanted only to learn how to write, how to bring characters to life, how to make each novel better, each a little closer and truer to the world as I see it or wanted it to be. I attended the first Odyssey workshop in 1996 and started writing Singer there. I learned then that other people really did like my fantasy writing, enough that my classmates wanted me to moderate our first reunion workshop in what was to become the glorious TNEO workshop for graduates of Odyssey. Now, almost 20 years later, I’ve finally decided to start bringing out my novels, letting others read them.

So self-publishing was an ideal option for me. It’s the only way I would have published at all. Singer of Norgondy is available on Kindle and as a trade paperback at Amazon and bookstores, and even in a few libraries. It fairly consistently earns 5 stars from readers. My other works and more about my fantasy world can seen at my website holdenstone.com — I welcome all of you to come join me there and offer suggestions and comments.

Self-publishing, self-promoting, what little I do of it, works for me. But would it for you? If you are a novelist listening for advice, would I recommend self-publishing? I don’t know. It’s not an easy road. You possibly might sell more if you go through a publisher — that is, if the publisher actually promotes your book (not good odds on that, unless you’re already a famous author), and if your novel sells off the shelves within the first two weeks of its launch. Have you ever noticed how a bookstore is like a graveyard for remaindered books? Dreams and hopes and years of hard work that were poured into those thousands of books that never sold and will never be read, a bookstore can be the saddest place in the world for me. But e-publishing and print on demand books are a whole new story, increasing the chances of your novel being read for years to come. And self-publishing– as long as your book is very well edited or workshopped — can be a great option for making your novel available without a begging a publisher to “please, just look at it.” (And agents? I honestly don’t think agents have much of a future in publishing anymore, at least not for an author just starting out, why beg them at all to be nothing but a middle man for something you can do yourself now?)

But self-publishing is not for everyone. It still does carry a sting of illegitimacy. Unfortunate, but true. It doesn’t carry the prestige of a novel brought out by a publishing house. At the major Texas state fantasy convention in Austin, you can’t be on a panel or give a reading if your novels are self-published. Thankfully World Fantasy Convention held each fall no longer has that official bias, and other conventions will slowly, I think, follow suit. But we’re not there yet. Also, at some independent bookstores it’s hard to ask for a reading or a signing event if your novel is self-published. At a few you even have to PAY! them for the privilege of displaying your self-published book for a week or two, and pay them $100 more to do a signing there or even more to do a reading in a back room. On their side, I can see their point, there are so many self-published authors who would swamp small independent bookstores without any guarantee their novel is good enough for the bookstore to sell. A novel sent by a publishing house may or may not be any better, but at least the independent bookstore owner knows the novel was at least read and accepted by an editor. But for self-published novelists, that bar to distributing your books is still pretty unfair. And above all, remember, having someone else — a publisher — promote your novel is probably still the easiest route to getting the word out about it.

So, although I’m happy with my experience of self-publishing Singer of Norgondy, and I plan to self-publish more of my novels, I probably don’t recommend it yet to everyone.

Good luck, and I hope to read you too, someday.

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