Debby Irving's Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race is, at least in part, a memoir, so readers may be surprised when she says, “I really don't want the book to be about me. I want it to be about my message.” The book uses Irving's experience of being a white woman coming to terms with the complexity of racism in the United States and her own perceptions as a lens to explore the role white allies can play in racial justice work.
As she shifts the focus away from herself, Irving instead uses the book as a tool for community development. When she speaks about the book, she says, “I always try to partner with someone else,” usually a person of color, working to combat the problems of racism. Irving understands the importance of a strong community since she has relied on her own at every step in her publishing process.
Irving, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tried querying agents in the initial stages of her project but found it difficult to adequately explain her topic in the confines of a book proposal. “I'm trying to shine a light on an already misunderstood topic,” she says. “I realized I would have to write the book before I could pitch it.”
As she began to expand her proposal into a manuscript, Irving found another community at Grub Street, a Boston-based center for creative writing. She took classes and met other writers at Grub Street's annual Muse and the Marketplace conference and learned about a new side of the book industry. “I had been really anti–self-publishing,” she says, but the conference introduced her to enough happy and successful indie authors to change her opinion.
Irving began to educate herself about the world of self-publishing, compiling detailed spreadsheets that compared the different options available. The numbers showed that print-on-demand was a clear winner. “The idea of being in charge of inventory really wasn't appealing,” she says.
She was interested in working with CreateSpace after seeing a presentation by Jon Fine, the director of author and publisher relations, at Muse and the Marketplace. But she heard that many bookstores were reluctant to stock books produced by the Amazon subsidiary, and she did not want to be excluded from that retail channel. “I knew that was going to be a huge piece of my reach,” she says. In the end, she chose Ingram's Lightning Source for production and distribution. “Lightning Source was just phenomenal,” Irving says. “There's always someone there to pick up the phone.”
Irving also sought help with the design and marketing of her book, and she found an ideal match in Trio Bookworks, which takes a particular interest in books that explore social issues through personal narratives, just as Waking Up White does. Of her editor at Trio, Irving says, “she understood the subject matter more deeply than I did.” She relied on their guidance and found the support that she needed as a new indie author. “They just held my hand through everything,” she says.
When Irving and Trio began the book's marketing plan, she was even more pleased with her choice of partners. “I cannot adequately describe what it was like to have the part of the process I was dreading be so fun,” she says. “It was one of the most joyful parts of the process.” She was particularly pleased that the collaboration succeeded despite the lack of face-to-face contact: All her interactions with the Minneapolis-based Trio staff took place by phone or online.
Once the first copies were printed, Irving began by sharing Waking Up White with her local community. She held the book launch at her local independent bookstore, Porter Square Books, where a standing-room-only crowd of both friends and strangers showed up to learn about efforts toward racial justice in Cambridge. “It meant so much to me,” she says. During the event, she urged attendees to buy two copies of the book—one to keep and one to pass along to someone else—and they did, placing orders for more books when the store sold out.
Since the book's release in January, it continues to sell and recently hit the Boston Globe's best-seller list, which is based on sales at local bookstores. Irving also sells the book at conferences focused on topics related to social justice, and she has found success with large institutional sales—especially since Lightning Source allows her to offer discounts on bulk purchases.
Her most recent event was at Wellesley Books, an independent bookstore in an upscale suburb of Boston. She describes the event's focus as “how efforts to be diverse play out in the suburbs,” and she was pleased to learn that a group of teachers from the local middle school attended and shared stories from the reading with their colleagues. The teachers embraced the book, and the school placed an order for books they plan to distribute to the rest of the staff.
There are “zero reasons I would say ‘don't do this,’ ” Irving says, although she wants to be sure that aspiring indie authors do not expect the process to be simple. “I have a lot of things in place that not everybody would have,” she says, including the ability to invest thousands of dollars in preparing the book for publication. “If I want to write another book, I'm all set up to do it,” she says, but adds, “I'm not sure I have another story to tell.” Instead, she is thinking of using the imprint she established, Elephant Room Press, as a venue for other authors of books on racial justice. Whatever the next step is, Irving knows it will be one more part of her anti-racism work, and she knows she can depend on her community to make it happen.
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.