As the author of eight previous titles–under such imprints as HarperCollins, Plume and Putnam–Patti Davis (The Way I See It, The Long Goodbye) has a notable track record in publishing. Yet, for the past 12 years even she, the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, has struggled to get her latest book, Till Human Voices Wake Us, to the reading public.
“Fiction is hard to get published these days. But fiction was always hard for me to get published,” Davis confesses from her home in Santa Monica. She wields the same light voice and unpredictable sense of humor that her narrator, Isabelle Berendon, uses to ward off melancholy as she deals with the drowning death of her 3-year-old son in the family’s “architect-designed swimming pool.” This tragedy speeds up the disintegration of Isabelle’s marriage and becomes the catalyst for a scandalous relationship with Iris, her sister-in-law. The women’s surprising affection for each other and the fluidity of their sexual orientation stems from a conversation Davis once overheard concerning a true-life incident of a similarly unexpected arrangement. It also serves as the perfect metaphor for the capriciousness of the human heart.
When this touching tale of mothers, daughters, love and loss first made the rounds, her agent, the well-respected Jed Mattes, championed it–to no avail. “It’s really hard because of who you are,” he told her. “You’ve been put in this box: Patti Davis is the person who writes about her family. If you weren’t you, I’d sell this in a minute–even on a partial manuscript.”
Perhaps, he suggested, she might assume a pseudonym and stave off the expectations from publishers who saw her as a writer of non-fiction.
“Here’s how I feel about that,” Davis now replies, clearly riled at the memory. “I already changed my name when I was 18 years old. As the child of a famous father–and not only famous, by that point he was becoming iconic–you want your own identity. It’s really important. Thank God my mother had a common maiden name, so that I could still have a family name and not anger anybody.” She had already changed her name once and didn’t plan on doing so again. “I didn’t feel that the prejudice of the publishing world and their refusal to let me out of that box should make me go, ‘Okay, I’ll change my name again. Will you accept me now?’ It felt like giving in.”
After Mattes died, Davis was bereft. She put her manuscript aside and began writing a YA ghost story called The Blue Hour, which she intends to publish next. “I just kept on doing what I know how to do,” she reflects. “I just kept writing. I completed The Blue Hour and I shopped it around, but nobody would take that, either.”
Frustrated by the lack of interest in her work and afraid she would die one day, leaving completed manuscripts, unpublished, on her computer, Davis took matters into her own hands.
“I started paying attention to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and Create Space when I read about (self-publishing success story) Amanda Hocking,” she replies, when asked why she chose Amazon to deliver her novel. “(Hocking) made like a million dollars or something,” she exclaims, and “this whole world of indie authors” opened up new horizons. Plus, she adds, “If you’re going to make a change like that, you go to the top. Amazon is as powerful as the biggest publishing companies.” She finds it “interesting” that the bookseller-cum-publisher is helping to undermine them. This democratization of self-publishing appeals to her.
As do the more manageable levels of pressure and disappointment. “When you work with traditional publishers–and boy, have I gone through this–if you don’t sell thousands and thousands of books right out of the gate, forget it. You’re a failure.” She laughs. “[That business model] can’t succeed and you can’t keep treating people like that. Unless you’re Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, writers aren’t treated very well by the publishing world.”
Through Hocking’s author blog, Davis learned the importance of gratis promotional copies to deliver word-of-mouth reviews. “When Hocking originally self-published, she was selling a few books here and a few books there,” Davis explains. “Then, she discovered book bloggers and sent her book out–and that was the tipping point for her. What I realized with anyone who’s been successful, there’s a similar tipping point, whether it’s a Kirkus review, or book bloggers...you just have to keep moving ahead.”
Because her book can be bought only through Amazon, Davis recognizes the importance of social media and hired some outside help. “I kind of have Facebook down and I was sort of okay at Twitter. But now I have a public author Facebook page and we’re setting up a website and I’m learning all this stuff that I didn’t know before.” She pauses. “I still haven’t totally figured out Goodreads. I’m sort of inching my way through that.”
Thus far, the response has been gratifying. “I love the readers’ comments on Amazon,” she says. “They’ve been so touching to me. Mostly because they’re all good. But primarily it’s because they’re all about the book. They’re not reviewing me–and that was always my biggest problem. Rather than my book, it was, ‘Well, this is the girl who did this and this. Man, that happened 30 years ago. Move on!’”
Most importantly, self-publishing has allowed Davis to be just another writer. “One of my favorite reviews was from a girl, I bet she was in her 20s,” Davis recalls fondly. “She gave the book five stars and said something like, ‘What a gift from a writer I wasn’t aware of–and a virgin writer at that.’ I love that she came to the book because she saw a blurb and wanted to read it and didn’t know anything about me. It made my day.”
Tom Eubanks is a writer and editor living in New York. In publishing for over two decades, he also represents authors and artists. He’s currently working with fashion icon Pat Cleveland on a long-anticipated memoir.