In the art world, people routinely self-publish because issues of reproduction quality, format, and paper expense are so extreme that tiny print-on-demand runs make far more sense for almost everyone. If my husband the photographer were to decide to self-publish a book of photographs, I would be enthusiastic and supportive. I cannot seem to dredge up such enthusiasm for my own self-publishing adventure.
On the other hand, I like the book I wrote. And some of you have liked the essays that you've read from the book. And many well known journal editors have praised those essays as well (and have published them in their journals). Yet there the book sits, upstairs on a shelf in the backwoods of Maine--ready to print and (as the publishers and agents tell me) impossible to sell . . . simply because essay collections are unfashionable unless the writer is already famous for some other reason.
Unfashionable. It's hard to keep wearing that label and not want to fight back. Self-publishing is beginning to look like the only sandlot available.
So as a start, I will share the cover letter I've been enclosing with the ms. This is the me that's on paper. This is my unfashionable book. If you were in this position, what would you do?
Enclosed is a chapter from my nonfiction manuscript, The Vagabond’s Bookshelf: A Reader’s Memoir, which I think may be appropriate for your memoir/literature list.
This is my second book of nonfiction: my first, Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton, was published in 2009 by the University of Massachusetts Press and went on to win both a 2010 Emerging Writer’s Award from the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the 2010 Maine Literary Award in Nonfiction. It also received a special mention in that year’s L. L. Winship/PEN New England Awards. According to essayist Sam Pickering (a well-known writer and teacher as well as the model for Robin Williams’s character in the film Dead Poets Society), “Potter writes beautifully. Her prose is as clear as the song of bell bird. . . . Reading this book was an intellectual joy.”
Like Tracing Paradise, The Vagabond’s Bookshelf traces my personal relationship with works of literature—in this case, a handful of books that I have obsessively read and reread over the course of my life. But it is in no way a scholarly work. Rather, it treats literature as one aspect of my daily human interaction with the world. I live in the woods of remote rural Maine, where I raise livestock and care for my children and incidentally read and write. In other words, my physical life is woven into my reading life, and my bonds to the books I read have changed as I have changed. This book celebrates that world. Authors under discussion include Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mary J. Holmes, James Baldwin, Daphne du Maurier, Malcolm X, and Elizabeth Bowen, as well as many others who are incidentally mentioned. The manuscript is 133 pages long (35,133 words) and is complete. It has no illustrations or poetry/lyric reprint issues.
Nearly all of the chapters in this memoir have been contracted for publication as stand-alone pieces, and all of those publishers are major literary journals: the Sewanee Review, the Threepenny Review, and the Southern Review in the United States; the Reader in Great Britain. So far, response to these pieces has been excellent: I’ve received numerous unsolicited letters from readers; and in fact, the Sewanee Review website has announced that chapter 5, “In Defense of Dullness” (about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), is one of the journal’s most popular downloads.
The Vagabond’s Bookshelf should be marketed as a trade book aimed at creative writers and general readers of literary fiction. Related books include Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same (Mariner Books, 2002), which chronicles the author’s project to deliberately reread books she’d last read many years earlier, and A. S. Byatt’s Passions of the Mind (Vintage, 1993), which collects her essays about the work of writers whom she admires. My book is unique, however, in dealing with books that I’ve never stopped rereading and in allowing personal rather than critical reactions to guide my writing trajectory.
In addition to my nonfiction writing, I have published two collections of poetry, with a third contracted for publication. Like my prose, my poems appear in major literary journals, including the Green Mountains Review, the Beloit Poetry Journal, and Prairie Schooner. I am also the editor of The Poets’ Sourcebook (Autumn House Press, 2013), a forthcoming anthology of writings about poetry. Currently I am associate director of the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, held each summer at Robert Frost’s home in Franconia, New Hampshire.
Thank you for taking the time to read this sample. Please let me know if you have any questions about it, or me.