Q&A With Self-published Writer Tom Schabarum
Author: Karen Schechner
June 26, 2013
Last year was big one for self-publishing. E.L. James (who famously got her start self-publishing) won Publishers Weekly’s author of the year (here’s the entertaining response to the news from The Washington Post’s Ron Charles). Penguin adopted Author Solutions, Inc.—a big machar in the burgeoning, self-propelled industry. And Bowker reported that 235,000 print and e-books were self-pubbed in the U.S. As indie booksellers noticed years ago, indie books can satisfy niches too small for the big five. The Huffington Post noted that 40 self-pubbed authors signed with traditional publishers for $250k or more.
This year will be even bigger for indie books. Industry blogs are expanding their coverage, including GalleyCat, which runs a weekly indie bestseller list. IndieReader continues to offer good resources and coverage, along with a bestseller list. And Wattpad and Goodreads serve as well-known communities for feedback and recommendations. And with an impressive growth rate (287 percent since 2006), the numbers of indie books will only increase, especially since sites like Amazon’s Kindle Direct, B&N’s PubIt, BookBaby, CreateSpace and Smashwords make it so easy. Sales of self-pubbed titles are harder to quantify; most individual indie authors don’t sell more than 100 or 150 copies (according a recent article in the New York Times). But that doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone. Who knows who’ll be the next Darcie Chan, Brittany Geragotelis or Amanda Hocking?
This boom in self-publishing has launched a revolution in reading—and writing. The questions that arise when talking about self-publishing are about quality. Of course, for some titles, the “quality” is that of a first draft. But so what? Many writers have stopped talking about writing a book and now have actually written one. There’s tremendous value in sitting with a topic long enough to write an entire book about it, even if that value is to the writer alone. And with self-publishing, there can always be a second, fifth, or 23rd draft.
With so many blogs and review sites (full disclosure: I’m the senior Indie editor at Kirkus Reviews) fueling the movement, the bar is rising and the quality is noticeably improving. There will undoubtedly be new, thrilling work. There are already a number of excellent indie titles, including LGBT titles. And of course there were all those famous queers who self-pubbed ages ago: Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf. Today, books that might have never left an author’s hard drive are appealing to readers and the market. With the relatively recent loss of LGBT publishers (Alyson, Carroll & Graf), that’s happy news for queer readers.
The abundance, however, sometimes makes the best reads difficult to find. This sea of books is already the greatest obstacle for LGBT authors trying to stand out. To cast some light on recommended LGBT indie titles, Lambda Lit introduces a monthly Q & A with self-published authors and professionals. This month, Lambda Lit speaks with Tom Schabarum about his novel, The Narrows, Miles Deep. Schabarum lives in Seattle, and holds an MFA from Bennington College. The Palisades, Schabarum’s first novel was a 2011 Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His novella and stories, The Narrows, Miles Deep was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by the Lambda Literary Foundation. If you would like your self-published book to be featured, please send your bio and a synopsis and EPUB file of your book to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Los Angeles, have lived in Salt Lake City, Utah; Santa Barbara, California; and now in Seattle, Washington. I have to live near water or the mountains or both, and Washington State provides that in abundance. I studied English at the University of Utah and have my degree in cinematography from Brooks Institute of Photography. I also hold an MFA in creative writing and literature from Bennington College in Vermont.
I’ve worked in Corporate Media and Events my entire career and I freelance so I can take chunks of time off to write. I’ve been a writer most of my adult life, but only started publishing in 2010 on the cusp of turning 50.
I love taking pictures as well, and I’m always taking them with my phone or my camera. It also focuses my eye for writing details.
Please tell us a little about your book.
The Narrows, Miles Deep is about two men in their early twenties navigating a deeply felt relationship in the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic in the eighties and nineties. It is also about their friends, family and loved ones coming to terms with loss through their own stories and voices.
It also concerns being gay or lesbian in Utah, and more specifically in the Mormon Church at that time. Southern Utah, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas are the primary settings, and the natural world plays a big part in the story.
What drew you to self-publish your work?
As I was turning fifty a couple of years ago, self-publishing was really taking off with e-readers like Kindle and Nook. It was easy to navigate the platforms and publish my work—and I wasn’t getting any younger. My novels and poetry sat in my drawer or on my computer for years. I was working non-stop, single and not very happy. To literally save myself, I felt I needed to somehow get the work out there and just see if I was any good as a writer. Lots of great things happened: I published The Palisades and sent it to Matt Yau who has a wonderful literary blog called A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook. He wrote an amazing review of the novel and selected it for his top 12 books of 2010. And then, lo and behold, Lambda Literary selected it as a finalist for Best Gay Debut Fiction. I also entered my poems into a contest and won the Creekwalker Prize. All of which was incredibly validating because I’d been in the closet as a writer for nearly twenty years.
What also drew me to self-publish was that writing wasn’t my main source of income, but was a way to get my work out there and not chew up a huge amount of time sending the work to agents and publishers and going through their processes. I find great value in agents because for writers without the tools to market, the time, or inclination, they are invaluable.
Can you talk about the process of indie publishing? Any caveats/suggestions for other indie authors?
The very first thing to do as an author with a completed manuscript is find a great editor, which I did, ironically enough, through an agent who was interested in my work. Working with my editor was an amazing experience and she really brought out the best in the work.
Second, create a compelling cover, one that doesn’t contain an ounce of clip art. Spend money on a type designer or graphic artist if you must. There are so many bad covers out there in indie publishing; it’s astonishing and an immediate turn-off.
Research your market and connect with other writers and readers online. Social media is very important and have friends who are help you, or become social media literate yourself. It is absolutely necessary as a self-published author.
Be patient. Attend workshops. Read your work at open mic nights. Involve yourself in the local literary scene. Ours here in Seattle is really great. Submit, submit, submit to contests, literary journals, agents, online publishers and online reviewers.
Write a blog about the things that interest you around the subject of your novel, memoir or non-fiction piece. Keep it fresh and update it. Discover Twitter and Pinterest, but don’t be overly zealous with those sites as people will ignore you. I ignore people who post incessantly because I know they are spending more time not writing or reading, and more time diminishing the value of their tweets or real interests.
Finally, read everything.
Your novella is a quiet, literary exploration of the risks of caring for others, from several different points of view. What drew you to write a Rashomon tale about love?
First of all, this first love for me was overwhelming and I needed to address it and to explore the ramifications of the possibility of losing that person forever out of my life. Loss and devastation were huge in the gay community in the 80s and early 90s due to HIV/AIDS, and I wanted to understand from the perspectives of those that were left behind in the wake of that devastation: lovers, friends and family.
We are surrounded by many, many people, and when we leave, we change those people in profound ways that will never be seen by the deceased. That was really interesting to me because I felt it deeply. While I was in the process of writing The Narrows, Miles Deep, a close friend of mine committed suicide and left nothing to let us know why. How do we deal with that? What are those things we wanted to say? How does it change us? Was there anything we could have done? Those were questions that, for me, needed answering.
Most of us do quietly live our lives, and we care for others risking our hearts and well being at some point knowing that that person might not exist in a few years or a few months. It’s a simple fact of life.
Most importantly, I needed to explore what I’d been through and writing this novel got me through it.
Why did you choose to set your book in Utah?
There is so much of the natural world in Utah, and particularly in Southern Utah. It is a place of immeasurable beauty to me, and a certain amount of danger. Landscape is extraordinarily important in my writing, and how it enhances character to the point that the landscape itself becomes a sort of character. Also, I lived in Utah for 4 and a half years and came to understand its culture fairly well.
I also wanted a mythic ending, which I won’t reveal here, but that would leave the reader feeling the immensity of loss, whether it be because of HIV/AIDS or something else, and how quickly it can, and does, happen.
I also wanted to deal with the homophobia that was part and parcel of the Mormon experience then, and to a lesser degree now, but that there were also shades of gray around that as well. Not all Mormons were hateful, but the totality of the religion was rather harsh to homosexuals during the time in which the novel is set. I wanted to shed light on that because homosexuality was rampant in Salt Lake City and its environs, but wasn’t discussed, or was treated harshly by excommunication from the LDS Church. Now Salt Lake City hosts one of the largest, if not the largest, Gay Pride parades in the country!
Your book includes a Mormon character who drives a semi through the West (and it gives a satisfying glimpse of what sometimes goes on in those cabs). What drew you to write about big rigs and Mormonism?
Well, let’s just say I lost my love to the road and big rigs, because that’s what my former boyfriend did when his father gave him a truck to drive for their family business.
Truckers are so rich with homoerotic mystique that it would have been criminal of me not to write some truth into the novella.
I’ve also loved road trips all my life, and while I never did ride in the truck with my boyfriend at that time, one of the scenes in the book is based on fact. You’ll just have to read and figure out which truck scene actually happened.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the sequel to Airstreaming, my third book, which leaves the reader (and me) wanting to know what happens to the main character as she sets off. My partner and I just bought an Airstream trailer and will be discovering that story together.
I’m also working on a manuscript of poems called See America, which weaves together my experience, my family and the American ideal through many different road trips.