For some authors, having had nine books published by eight major publishing houses would be a dream come true. Yet for Patti Davis—author, actress, and daughter of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis—it is through self-publishing that she's only now feeling like the author she wants to be rather than the autobiography machine some publishers have expected.
In April, Davis self-published her new novel, Till Human Voices Wake Us, in paperback through Amazon CreateSpace after releasing it as a Kindle edition in March. On the "About the Author" section of the book's Amazon page, she wrote, "I've written a lot about my famous family, the Reagans—maybe this non-autobiographical novel was too much of a departure for publishers to wrap their heads around."
Between 1986 and 2009, Davis wrote four novels—Home Front (Crown, 1986); Deadfall (Crown, 1989); A House of Secrets (Carol, 1991); Bondage (S&S, 1994)—and five works of nonfiction, four of which were biographical: The Way I See It: An Autobiography (Putnam, 1992); Angels Don't Die: My Father's Gift of Faith (HarperCollins, 1995); The Long Goodbye (Knopf, 2004); Two Cats and the Woman They Own: or Lessons I Learned from My Cats (Chronicle, 2006); and The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us: Prominent Women Discuss the Complex, Humorous, and Ultimately Loving Relationships They Have with Their Mothers (Hay House, 2009).
"Yes, I've jumped around," Davis acknowledges. "Now that I look back, it was because I kept running into this wall: 'You need to write about the Reagans.' I had a reputation for writing about my family not favorably. But then I grew and changed and that was reflected in my writing. Through it all, I was writing fiction and novels, but nobody would publish them. The message was, 'You have to stay in this box.' "
After all those books, it's Till Human Voices Wake Us that she feels the most energized by. The story is narrated by Isabelle Berendon, whose young son dies in a backyard pool accident. Grief-stricken and unable to connect with her husband in the aftermath of the tragedy, Isabelle finds herself falling in love--with her sister-in-law, Iris.
The book was inspired, Davis says, by something she heard. "I was walking on the beach 12 years ago when I overheard a conversation between a few women ahead of me about two sisters-in-law who fell in love, and simultaneously divorced their husbands. The only other thing I overheard was that they had no history of being gay or bisexual, they just fell in love. It was deliciously complicated, and I thought it was a great seed for a novel."
To go forward with the story, Davis needed to determine what could have happened to make two women get together that way. "From my past, I remembered a woman who'd lost her son in a backyard pool accident. She kept saying, 'I don't know who left the screen door open.' That stayed with me. So it made sense that, with such shattering grief, you are open to anything. And then I was off and running. I didn't do an outline. I did know the issue that would drive the story was, 'You left the screen door open.' "
The first draft of the story was written in the third person, a deliberate move "because I didn't want people thinking I was writing about myself." In 2001, Davis submitted 50 pages of the manuscript to her then agent, the late Jed Mattes, known for his advocacy for gay literature. Although he loved the story, she says, he scolded her on the reasoning behind her choice of narrative viewpoint: "Why is it in the third person? The story cries out to be in the first person."
Once she switched over to first-person narrative, Davis discovered "I had all this breathing room. I could get into her feelings. I'm very comfortable writing in the first person; it dives into the character in a way that's difficult if you're writing in the third person. It was a really important lesson to me. If I'm making these choices, it's cheating the story."
Despite the revisions, Mattes was unable to place the manuscript; publishers rejected it, telling him "This is not what we're expecting from Patti Davis." He told Davis, "If you weren't you, I could sell this in a minute." In 2003, Mattes died and the grieving Davis set the manuscript aside, writing magazine articles and two more nonfiction titles, Two Cats and the Woman They Own and The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us, before finally completing the novel.
About that time, Davis says, she started paying attention to Amazon. "I knew people were independently publishing, and I buy books on Amazon. I began seriously considering it when Amanda Hocking was in the news about her self-publishing success. [Hocking is an oft-rejected novelist who, turning to self-publishing, sold more than a million copies of her nine self-published e-books.] I started reading her blog, and it really appealed to me. I didn't consider other options; Amazon is the top of the ladder."
Davis says that her incentive to self-publish was totally creative, not financial. "The tipping point was, I had three completed novels and I'd started another one, and I thought, I could die with all of these unpublished novels on my computer. And maybe they'd be published posthumously, but that's not what I want. That's not okay with me. Because I love writing."
There were three fiction manuscripts in Davis's to-be-self-published pile: a YA ghost story; an adult novel about a relationship between two young girls (one black, one white) and the racial terrain they navigate in contemporary California; and Till Human Voices Wake Us. After revising and updating a few cultural references, Davis was ready to publish the last. "I'm not the most tech-savvy, so for me to upload the book was huge. I listened to the tutorial twice, and I was so proud of myself that I could do it. They really made it easy."
After Davis published the Kindle edition, she was contacted by Amazon asking if she'd consider publishing a print edition through CreateSpace. The customer service won her over. "It's an enormous company, yet feels very personal. The feeling that I've gotten is that they really like writers. They ask questions that I'm sure other publishers don't think to ask authors, like, 'What color pages do you want?' I didn't know, so I called them. The person took a look at the books on her shelf and advised me to choose the cream color."
Aside from the technical elements, Davis appreciates the less tangible aspects of the process, such as how the autonomy of self-publishing can appeal to authors who feel marginalized. "I think where Amazon was really smart was realizing that there are a lot of writers out there going through a version of what I've gone through. Of course, people say maybe there are some self-published books out there that shouldn't be out there. Well, it's the same with conventional publishing."
She appreciates the DIY version of publishing. "I remember in my previous career as a conventionally published author, I asked for a New York Times ad. They said, 'If you get on the bestseller list, we'll put an ad in.' I said, 'But if you put an ad in, maybe we'll get on the bestseller list.' That was an absolutely unacceptable Catch-22. What I have never been in love with is the author promotion from the publishing companies. You have no control, you are marketed in a way you're not happy about, you are told 'You need to say this in this interview' or you're pleading 'Can you please get me this interview?' And if I say I don't want to, then 'She's a difficult author.' Like the time I was told I had to do a Fox News interview. I said, 'But I'll be eviscerated!' And they said, 'But it's good publicity!' Also, publishers give up on you if your book doesn't sell thousands of copies in the first week. They will back off and give up on publicity and won't promote it as much. I was told by one publisher that my book was a huge failure. Another said the book was a big disappointment. In one instance, they printed too many books, so now we had books that were going to be remaindered. Well, maybe you shouldn't have printed 75,000 books. When shopping around The Help, Kathryn Stockett was told, 'Please do not send us anything else.' What if she hadn't found that publisher? She might have given up. How many books might never be seen because authors got discouraged by agents and publishers? Plus, that's not any way to talk to people."
Davis is clearly relieved that she can now focus on being a novelist. "Commerce is abusive. It's very hobbling to always be saying, 'Please let me put this out, this thing I've worked on for years.' It's like a nasty parent saying, 'No! Now go to your room.' As publishing companies got bigger, you felt even less significant. So it was inevitable that authors would start saying 'I'm not gonna be kept down, I don't care who you are or how big you are: I'm not gonna stay in my room.' I think it's about time the tables were turned."
After its Kindle debut, Davis promoted Till Human Voices Wake Us on Facebook and Twitter, and a mention on the New York Post's Page Six "catapulted it—it stayed up there a while. Every time I check rankings, yes, I'm dejected if they're down, elated if they're up. But I'm going to be promoting it, and I want it to keep selling. No remainders."
Still, Davis has no illusions. As to the pros and cons of conventional publishing, she says the pros are that they give you an advance, and if you sell well, you have a huge machine behind you. But the cons are "You are very disposable as an author. Even if you sell well, if your next one doesn't, good luck getting your third one published. I don't think there's a lot of loyalty there."
The cons of self-publishing, she says, include that you have to figure out how to promote. "It's a new world for me; my head was spinning after two hours of learning social media. It's good and exciting, but it's a lot. Rankings will go up and down, so you must hang in and have faith."
Interestingly, Davis looks forward to reader reviews on Amazon for one important reason: "They're reviewing my book, and not me. I know I'll get negative reviews, and I'll read them. You'll have to pay attention to all that. You do have to be willing to do the work, but it's such a welcome thing for me to say, 'I'd like to do this interview,' rather than have a publishing company tell me I have to do it."
Would Davis go back to a conventional publisher, like Amanda Hocking did after becoming a bit overwhelmed by millions of sales? "Well, you should never say never, but I doubt that I would go with a conventional publisher again. It's difficult for me to consider, because I feel so excited about my career as an author now. The writing process has always been heavenly to me, but once I got to the publishing stage, it was not heavenly: it was hellish."
As for advice she'd offer to other well-known authors considering self-publishing, Davis says, "I don't think it's a quick decision. You are on your own. It's a little bit of the Wild West, and you might need some help on navigating the social media. But I like what David Mamet said in his op-ed: I think we all want some autonomy in our careers. We don't want to be dictated to. And every writer knows you are only one book away from not having that machine around you."