When I was a kid, I played a strange mental game. Several days before a trip away, I would imagine that a monster was out there in the darkness, stalking me.
Each night he would grow closer and closer and closer until finally… he would arrive at my house to find I had left. Howling in frustration, the vile creature would then sniff the air and begin the long journey to wherever I was visiting. But just as he was about to arrive there… surprise! I’d be gone again, usually back home.
I’m not sure what started the game or how I could overlook the glaring logical fallacy that was part of it. Why didn’t he just wait in my room until I got back? Was he on a deadline or something?
The funny thing is: I barely remembered this game until I started thinking about this column. I couldn’t figure out why it even came up in my memory—and then it all clicked.
I get asked a lot why I self-published my novel or whether I’m actively seeking a traditional publisher (I’m not). I can offer you plenty of logical reasons: the indie label has become more acceptable, the agent querying process was taking too long and the economics of delivering a self-published work have dramatically changed with the development of the ebook. All of these are good, true answers.
But they aren’t the main one—at least not for me.
The truth is I’m running out of time.
Writing novels was something I always wanted to do. In many ways, I feel it is the thing I was born to do. Like many other writers, I am sometimes only 50% engaged in actual real life—there are always stories playing out in my head and they can be rather distracting. Yet for something I genuinely enjoy and view as my destiny, I have wasted a tremendous amount of time NOT doing it.
We can partly blame the traditional publishing houses for this. I finished the first draft of A Soul to Steal in 2001, and had reworked it substantially by 2004. But when it came time to try to publish it, I realized I was up against a vast black wall that was so dark I couldn’t see through it, and so high and wide that I never saw the end of it. It wasn’t that publishers were rejecting the novel—I never even got to that stage of the process. I couldn’t even get agents to read it. It was so disheartening that when my life got busy—kids, more challenging job—I just directed my focus elsewhere.
But it would be a mistake to blame this mostly on the Big Six publishers. I think we all know who the real person to blame is—and I see him in the mirror every day.
It’s true I couldn’t see a way to publish A Soul to Steal. I invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears in that book, and it was going nowhere. But rather than persisting in writing, I gave up. Some of my distractions were legitimate, like my family. Some were definitely not, like trying to reach 100% completion in the single-player mode of Red Dead Redemption.
Two things woke me up from my stupor. The first was reading about Amanda Hocking’s success in publishing her books on Kindle. The second was watching my dad’s progressive deterioration from Alzheimer’s.
My dad was diagnosed when he was 63. At the time, he could blog and still carry on a conversation, but writing was difficult. Fast forward six years, and even talking coherently is a challenge for him. It’s been incredibly hard on my mother, my sister and myself, but it has also unfortunately represented something else: my future.
My dad’s mother had Alzheimer’s. Of her sisters who lived long enough, they all succumbed to the disease. The odds that I will eventually get Alzheimer’s are extraordinarily high. When I see what my father has become, I weep for him, but I am also terrified for myself. His mother was diagnosed at 74. He was diagnosed at 63. For some reason doctors can’t explain, people are getting the disease younger and younger.
So if this is my fate—if I’m even fortunate enough to avoid all the other things before then that could kill me, like cancer or a runaway lumber truck on a highway—it’s possible, even likely, that I will be diagnosed even earlier than my father.
Which leaves me wondering: how much time do I have? I’m 37. Can I make it another 26 years until my dad’s age? Or will it be more like 20? 15? 10?
So the decision to self-publish was ultimately an easy one.
I could sit on the sidelines and wait, hoping that somehow I would break through that huge barrier in front of me and score a traditional book contract. But would that ever happen? And how old would I be if it did?
Or I could publish my book, roll the dice that readers would find it and enjoy it, and try to make my dream come true. I looked at the number of years I might have left and decided to focus on doing what I believe I was meant to do.
I read somewhere once that there comes a time when you realize the distance between who you are and who you want to be becomes an insurmountable gulf.
I wanted to leap that chasm before it became too wide.
I decided to self-publish because I understand now that the monster I pretended was hunting me when I was a kid wasn’t made up. It’s real and it has a name. It’s called mortality. And it has teeth.
Rob Blackwell is a journalist who currently serves as Washington bureau chief for American Banker newspaper. A native of Great Falls, Va., he has worked as a reporter for the Loudoun Times-Mirror, Eastern Loudoun Times and a columnist for the South County Chronicle. He has made several radio and television appearances, including on NPR, BBC, CNBC and C-Span. He has won several Virginia Press Association awards and was co-winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for Business Journalism. He lives in Virginia with his wife and two children.