By now, the canonization of Tracey Garvis Graves has been well-documented among the chat-room classes. Her self-published debut novel from 2012, On the Island, hit No. 7 on Amazon’s top 100 and became a New York Times best-seller. MGM optioned it, and Variety wrote about the deal, leading to a contract with Penguin, which re-released the book through their paperback imprint Plume. This September, her latest novel, Covet, will appear in hardcover through another Penguin imprint, Dutton.
With discipline, determination and approximately $1,500, the patron saint of independent authors took the egalitarian, DIY spirit of the Internet and forged her own path to success in her indie debut. But Garvis Graves is more than just what USA Today called “one of those dream-come-true author stories.” The mother of two and former Wells Fargo recruiter never imagined she’d be a working writer in the first place. “I wouldn’t have known what to dream about,” she confesses from her home in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa.
“I just wanted to see if I could write a book,” she claims. “In the most distilled sense, that was the goal. I just wanted the personal satisfaction of completing a novel, with good characters and a proper story arc and the appropriate word count.”
She had “zero expectations” for her two-narrator tale of a pretty tutor and a handsome teen stranded on a deserted island in the Maldives. With no pressure to succeed and no fear of failure, she “enjoyed every minute” of the writing process. Even, she laughs, “when I wanted to bang my head against the wall.”
Although she’d taken a couple of creative writing classes in college, Garvis Graves graduated with a business degree—which came in handy when it was time to self-publish. An admitted novice, the “voracious reader” surfed Kindle Boards and hung out on a forum called Absolutewrite.com, which she found helpful since, “when you write your first book, you don’t know what you’re doing. At least I didn’t know what I was doing.” Online, she found “really good technical information” and connected with a critique partner in Colorado, who became so instrumental, Garvis Graves dedicated On the Island to her. One day, they hope to meet each other in person.
To the authors of the generation Garvis Graves represents (she is 46), the concept of a contemporary writer existing in a lonely vacuum seems as quaint as the dime-store paperback. Aside from her critique partner, Garvis Graves belongs to multiple online writers’ groups, supplemented by a network of “beta readers.”
Her “betas”—“not writers, but they have to love reading,” she says—consist of people she knows and trusts in real life. “I’m always surprised when a stranger reaches out to read my next book,” she laughs. “I feel that if I wouldn’t let you watch my actual kids, I’m probably not going to give you my manuscript!”
“Before I even show it to anybody,” she explains, “I like to have my beta feedback and then revise and polish. Even if you have an editor or an agent, that’s still one person. It’s nice to get a wide range of feedback.”
Because everybody reads a book subjectively, Garvis Graves prefers to cull the opinions of betas to look for “trends.” For example: “If there’s something I know deep down I need to change and kind of don’t want to and a beta says, ‘You know that one section?’ Then I know that I have something that I need to address.”
Garvis Graves spent nearly two months researching the most effective ways to release and promote her first book. “When you self-publish, knowledge is key,” she advises. “It’s a business that you’re forming.” And, of course, “there is no formula.”
She warns: “I feel there’s a lot of bad information being shared. While social media is important, it’s still the book. The book has to be well-edited. It has to stand on its own.”
She advises every independent author to make sure their title is on Goodreads, whose reviewers were highly instrumental to the sales of On the Island. “It was such a word-of-mouth book. It really takes someone saying to somebody else, ‘No, it’s not creepy. You should read this. Give it a chance.’ ”
A month after tackling the multiplicity of e-book formats, she used Create Space for the paperback edition. “It wasn’t terribly hard,” she says, but she thought the details through. She hired a book formatter because she wanted the interior design to be something she was proud of. A few months later, she recorded the audiobook.
“I’ve acted in all facets of the publishing process,” she explains. “I did everything that a traditional publisher would have to do, and I genuinely enjoy learning things. A lot of self-publishers don’t want to do that or shy away from it, but I loved every part of it.”
Which begs the question: Does knowing so much about the process and having a stellar track record threaten her new editors at Penguin?
“On the contrary,” she answers. “They have been wonderful and very forthright about saying, ‘We know you know a lot about this. You did this by yourself, so we want to know: How can you help us to help you? Tell us what worked, tell us what didn’t.’ ”
In Covet, Garvis Graves returns to the multiple first-person narrative device that allows each of the players in her Great Recession love triangle to have their say. “Maybe love is like a pendulum,” writes Claire, torn between her salesman husband and a sexy, single cop. “It swings back and forth, slowly, steadily, and sometimes you don’t know where it will come to rest.”
Perhaps the same might be said of the accidental author’s publishing success?
“Absolutely,” she exclaims. “There’s a strong undercurrent of luck that runs in the publishing industry. But then, I believe that we make our own luck. Maybe if you write for the right reasons, because it’s something that truly makes you happy, I think the rest will follow.”
Tom Eubanks is a freelance writer, editor and consultant with 25 years of experience in magazine and book publishing. He lives in New York City.