Susan at her work

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Challenge: Publish A Book in Your 70s

Why go to the effort of self-publishing a book in my seventies?

(Published Aug. 22, 2022, in Crow's Feet on Medium)

On an April morning in 2020 (grieving for my mom, isolated by Covid), I sat down to see if I could write a scene between my great-grandparents Moses Flanagan and Maggie Keville, hoping to dramatize my grandmother’s life story. Eight hundred and thirty nine days later, Kitty’s People is live on Amazon.

Why a book?

In my seventies, a sole caregiver for my 90-year-old husband, living comfortably on the shore of Lake Ontario, I am beyond professional ambition. But, of course, I’m not beyond wanting praise and wouldn’t mind being considered a role model for family history research and for aging energetically without having to take up golf or join a club.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if I can call myself a professional writer, but it does matter that I still have something to say. Something deep. Something complicated.

It also matters that I still know how to go about saying it. Not in a telegraphic caption under an Instagram photo. Not in a string of separate blog posts. But in a big old-fashioned book.

Gathering up the right skills

In fact, if I have something deep and complicated to say, writing a big old-fashioned book is an excellent way of proving to myself that I am (still) a skilled project manager who can execute my own designs down to the last detail.

It’s like making a patchwork quilt or tailoring a perfectly fitted suit from your own pattern. Writing a book and publishing it for all the world to read requires a long view — easily two years of steady work. And you really do have to publish it, even if no one but that one nice cousin buys a copy. Having an unpublished manuscript in the closet won’t do — all those characters, all their stories, going nowhere, their light slowly dimming, like a firefly caught behind the screen door — no, no, no.

The minimal cost of self-publishing eliminates excuses, especially for someone sitting on a lifetime of accumulated skills (or someone eager to add new skills to her toolbox).

Mind you, since I first published a book in 2008, there are lots of services available to someone who has a great story to tell, but didn’t pay attention to those agonizing composition-and-rhetoric classes and has no interest in the book arts.

Me, on the other hand, I like the fact that I’ve piled up relevant skills.

I was no writing prodigy in school, but I liked getting good grades, so I paid attention to the basics. When the fiction-writing bug bit in my forties, I read every writing-a-mystery how-to book I could get my hands on and typed out long passages of favorite writers to get their rhythms into my fingertips. I took courses at the local writers’ guild. I read every revision out loud to Z. I studied the rules for preparing a manuscript for publication.

When the whole NYC-agent, traditional-publishing rigamarole wound up at a dead end, my book got stowed in the closet, its light left to fade.

By the time I cottoned on to free self-publishing in 2008, I was a typography and book arts fan. I maintained a personal website (aka “author platform”) and was fairly adept at coding clean HTML and CSS. I also loved working in Photoshop.

I figured out how to lay out my text in Adobe Indesign. I chose a classic font and styled the pages with drop-caps and vintage dingbats. Then, I figured out the alchemy required to wrestle it into the Kindle format. I designed a cover. I submitted everything to what was then Createspace according to spec.

It worked. Passion and Peril on the Silk Road was live! It inhabited the world and the internet, resurrected from its closet-tomb.

I was 60 years old.

When skills become superpowers

Now at 73, ready to publish again, I had to ask myself: do I still have what it takes? Should I farm out the technical tasks and save myself the pain of opening the dusty old publishing toolbox?

I did hire a professional editor to do a thorough critique of Kitty’s People, to be sure I wasn’t kidding myself about its quality. But once I cracked open the latest version of Indesign, I was in full book-design mode.

There is power in summoning up old skills. Power in the process. Preparing a book for print-on-demand and e-readers is fraught with problems to solve and hazards to avoid. I moved from the world of characters and scenes to the world of margins and line-spacing. Because Kitty is nonfiction, I puzzled through the labyrinth of generating a table of contents and conjuring up an index.

At the age of 73, knowing how to get page numbers to appear correctly feels like a superpower.

I imagined my grandmother’s world. I got it down on paper. I can hold the paperback in my hands. I can call the text up on my device. I can give copies to friends. I did it.

Why? Because I have superpowers!


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.