[SWP: Behind the Book] Learning to Be Bold
Written by
Celine Keating
February 2015
Written by
Celine Keating
February 2015

The story of how I came to publish my second novel, Play for Me, with She Writes Press relates in a surprising way to the feminist theme in the novel. But I didn’t see that until I sat down to write this essay.

Like most people who write serious fiction, I wanted to be a published author with a big traditional publisher. Primarily I wanted my work read, and I also fantasized about making enough money to “quit my day job” and write fulltime. But I also wanted the validation of a big publisher, to feel sure my writing was good enough.

Because how can you be sure? This is a strange art we practice. It doesn’t take long, if you’re a figure skater, to see that you do or don’t have the ability to do a double jump. It doesn’t take long, if you’re an aspiring musician, to recognize if your talent does or doesn’t measure up to others. But with writing, there are no yardsticks; there are only acceptances and rejections from others. I understood how steep the odds were of getting traditionally published. I’d been to conferences where agents and editors talked about their acceptance rates. Most agents receive hundreds of submissions a week but take on only a handful, and of those not all will get sold. As a writer of literary fiction, my odds were likely lower. You didn’t just have to be good, it seemed, you had to be sensational. And very, very lucky.

Still, I went the usual route. I got my MA in Creative Writing and took workshops. I sent out my work and over time, had short fiction published, won several fellowships, and found an agent for my first novel, Layla. As I started to receive interest and success, my confidence grew with my résumé. I knew to put in my dues, and not to expect success until I’d worked at my craft for years. But when Layla wasn’t offered a contract from a big publisher, my agent gave up on it. I put the novel away, but later learned of a small press that seemed perfect. Small presses are often a great match for niche novels, and Layla, with its strong political theme, found a home with Plain View Press. Overall I was very pleased by my publishing experience, and I hoped that having one novel under my belt would make things easier next time.

My second novel, Play for Me, was a very different kind of novel, and I thought it had real commercial possibilities. I found a new agent who agreed and worked really hard to sell the book. But once again, although we got really close, there was no contract from a big publisher. Around this time She Writes Press announced its arrangement with Ingram Publishing Services. I’d been a member of the She Writes community for some time, and been eyeing the press from the get-go, but my agent was completely opposed to any kind of author-supported publishing. She was, however, willing to submit to small presses, something many agents are unwilling to do. We got lucky, and I got several offers very close to one another. But these were very small presses, with limited power to get books out into the marketplace. Readership was the goal, and I’d learned from my first experience how important distribution is to get the books into the bookstores and online. What to do?

Had there been no SWP, I would have happily gone with one of those presses. They were not hybrid and so there was no financial outlay expected, and they had good lists and careful editing. But there was something about the energy and excitement of publishing with a women’s press that captivated me, and the distribution deal with Ingram was the icing on the cake. So what held me back, besides my agent’s hesitation? It was something publisher Brooke Warner says: “The press is for those who believe in themselves and the worth of their books. It’s for women who don’t want to give so much power over to the gatekeepers of traditional publishing in determining their careers.” In my heart of hearts, I didn’t feel that kind of confidence.  

Here’s where feminism and my novel meet. Play for Me tells the story of a woman who, after her only son leaves for college and in the face of that new emptiness, takes an enormous risk to find her authentic self. Lily, full of a newfound passion for music, moves way out of her comfort zone and courageously disrupts her life, causing near disaster for herself and others in the process. Her radical actions stem in part because she, like so many women, suppressed her deepest needs through a focus on others--on being a good mother, wife, and worker. But out of desperation, she discovers within herself the boldness to take action. How ironic that here I was, writing about this nervy woman, yet not able to be nervy myself.

It took me a little while to summon Lily’s courage. Guess what helped? Being of a certain age, and the words of my sweet husband, who said, “You’re not getting any younger.” He said he could hear in my voice my excitement about how SWP is forging a new, potentially groundbreaking path as it harnesses the best parts of small press publishing (author control, keeping books in print) with the kind of distribution the major publishers have. What was I waiting for?

I, like so many women, was holding back, waiting for permission. Excess caution, masked as humility, a desire not to exhibit hubris, stood in my way. I just had to decide to believe in myself.

So I took a deep breath, and signed on. 

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  • Celine Keating

    Tammy, what a lovely phrase (reading in a mirror) - thank you!

  • Tammy Flanders Hetrick

    It's like reading in a mirror. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Marianne C. Bohr

    Fell in love with French in high school -- took Spanish first and liked it, but never felt the frisson I did when I started French. Continued through college, did graduate work in Tours, France, and have kept going back ever since. My book is about my husband and me selling everything, walking away from our corporate lives to base ourselves in France and travel through Europe. Am now a French teacher, following my muse.

  • Celine Keating

    Thank you, Marianne!  I actually come by my name via my paternal grandmother, for whom I'm named.  She was French Canadian, and I have no idea (alas) when her family came over. But my father drilled it into me that my name wasn't my name without the accent - as if I'd suddenly be Jane, or Ruth !  Anyhow, I am ENORMOUSLY grateful to you for buying Layla - I really hope you like it.  It's quite different from Play for Me, as you'll see. How did you come to be a fancophile (and I'm guessing that like me, you're a Proust fanatic)? 

  • Marianne C. Bohr

    Thanks for your post, Céline. I'm a total francophile, so I love your name -- especially with the accent aigu! Congrats on being brave and going with your heart.  I wish you all the best with your new book. I found "Layla" on Amazon and after all the great reviews, bought a copy for my Kindle. 

  • Mary Lou Gomes

     Thanks for the reminder that we must be our own best advocates. Unfortunately the fear of the unknown frequently gets in the way. I can certainly relate to your story. It was just  recently that I decided that I would look into blogging my book, but listening to you Celine, perhaps I should reconsider She Writes. 

    Thanks for the advice.

  • Celine Keating

    Karen, thank you so much for letting me know. I so appreciate your taking the time.  I hope my experiences can help others who are starting down this road!  If you do read the book, I'd love to know what you think!  It's not out until April 21st, but that's getting closer every day! 

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Thank you for sharing your inspiring story, Celine!  Would love to read your book,too.

  • Celine Keating

    Shelah (love your name, by the way!) that's the perfect attitude - you could very well get lucky, but have some back up ideas for if they don't fall through. That's helps you feel a bit more of a sense of control, and less at the mercy of everyone else! 

  • Sally Ketham

    Celine, thank you so much for sharing your experience and for all those who have commented. Having just secured an amazing agent, it's good to keep things in perspective. There is still a road a ahead and no guarantees! If my agent ultimately isn't able to sell my book, I will definitely look into putting it out there through other avenues. Trying to be open to the process and keep the faith no matter what happens! :)  

  • Celine Keating

    Connie, what you say is so true, and I hate to be discouraging to those who are so thrilled and excited to land an agent. Your metaphor of scaling a mountain only to see the larger mt. range beyond is so apt.

    It's wonderful to have someone championing your work, but it's tough when they can't sell it - you feel disappointed for them as well as yourself!  

  • Celine Keating

    Patricia, thank you !! It will probably take you a day or so to get used to your new look, but more power to you!  I started going grey so early it kind of snuck up on me, and so the adjustment was easier. And kudos for taking the risks to do that, plus to self-publish. It can be really empowering - and I've discovered most people have no clue about the differences among publishers and just care about the book itself. 

  • Connie Hertzberg Mayo

    Celine, I love this, and I especially love you telling people about how you snagged not one but TWO agents - and that still didn't lead to Big Publishing giving you the green light.  Many people don't realize how getting an agent is like looking at a huge mountain and finally summiting only to see a much bigger mountain hiding behind the first.

  • Patricia Robertson

    We "women of a certain age" can't be afraid to take a few risks. That's why I decided to self-publish. Like you, I'm not getting any younger! I appreciate your grey hair. As I write this I'm getting ready to go to my hair stylist and start the process of going grey, a scary proposition. I hope my grey is as pretty yours!

  • Celine Keating

    You're so right, Betsy...!!

  • Betsy Teutsch

    Celine, totally true that "not getting any younger" is a big motivator. I often think of the scene in Fried Green Tomatoes where the lady ]Kathy Bates] gets really mad, hits a young woman's car to punish her bad behavior, and says "I'm older and I have more insurance."  Point being, no one else is going to do this for us. We are the ones who are working our butts off, and passionate about getting our voices out in the world. We can't wait, at this stage in life, for someone else to get us permission. That said, I am kind of looking forward to looking back on all this!! Knowing that it was all so worth it.

  • Sherry Joyce

    Great post. Nothing warms my heart more that SWP and women truly supporting
    other women authors.

  • Celine Keating

    Eileen, I love that you turned from traditional to SWP for such solid reasons - though I laughed when you wrote " I didn't want to waste several months waiting for them to nibble" - for me that period of agent submissions was closer to a year of "nibbles."And yes, getting older helps us to trust ourselves (and also knowing we don't have infinite time to let things play out. For younger women in their 20s, holding out for traditional might make sense - then again, it's great to have a published book under your belt. It opens doors.  It's so exciting how well your book is already doing, and you'll be a total success - and with such a powerful message.  Congrats!

  • Celine Keating

    Kelley, Laura, Melanie, and Shary, thank you - and also Leslie - for your heart-warming comments. Leslie you are right to keep up front and center how many excellent writers didn't get publishing deals right away - and to keep that self-doubt at bay. I'm glad you're "stepping out in the world" with SWP too, and that your family is so supportive. Sheila and Julie, good luck with your decision - there's no right one, and it's wonderful we have options. So many people just hope they get lucky and don't try to make their own luck. 

  • Kelley Clink

    And we are so glad you did!

  • Leslie Johansen Nack

    Celine, I just loved reading your process in getting to SWP. You say that as writers it's hard to tell if we're good enough. That, for sure, has been my struggle. But unlike figure skating or music, many very famous authors have been denied access to traditional publishing for years and then suddenly the door opens and they hit the stratosphere and the very same book that was rejected five years ago is accepted today. That part of the process is unnerving too. There are so many variables at play and luck is definitely a component. But I really believe we can make our own luck too as we visualize the gathering energy around our projects and "see" our books (our babies) being successful and passed around book clubs because I have to agree with you wholeheartedly that readers are the key to success of a book. I really believe in visualization and I'm so glad to hear you have a supportive husband as I do. My husband believes in me and is never faltering in his support of my dream to become a writer. I have been the stay-at-home mother, the daughter, the sister and the friend, giving each my whole heart. But now that I am of a "certain age" like you, I feel it's my turn to step out and up in the world. SWP has given me that opportunity too. I'm glad you believed in yourself and that Ingram Publishing Services joined forces with SWP!  I can't wait to read your book. It sounds as inspiring as you! 

  • Sheila Kaufman Lewis

    Celine, your post is inspiring and real. You get directly to what is true for so many of us juggling the question of how and where to pursue publishing our work. Your experience with "Play for Me" is nudging me further to consider options I wouldn't have a year ago. May She Write continue to be a great home and haven for great writing, and may yours continue on!   Sheila

  • Julie Maloney

    Celine, This is a wonderful post! I will be interviewing the wonderful Kamy W. this year for a series I run through WOMEN READING ALOUD. You've spoken to the heart of the matter in the publishing industry. I am considering options now with my debut novel. Thank you for your honesty. I so look forward to reading and supporting your new novel. All the best to you. Julie

  • Shary

    Such a perfect post, Celine, incredibly inspiring...JUST THE words I needed to hear, thank you! 

    Indeed, YOU ARE ready to manifest your fullest glory, your brightest shine.  I am honored to be by your side on the SWP Spring Team! 

  • Melanie Bishop

    Hi Celine,

    I am also jazzed about what She Writes Press is doing in publishing. It's different from all the other options out there and it feels fairly ground-breaking. Congrats on your new novel.