Why I'm Saying No to Self-Publishing Print E-mail

TS SF 2019 Izanami 2

(Zero Readers March 31, 2024)

I’ve been on a journey the past five years that some writers who come tantalizingly close to publication know all too well. From 2018-2022, I worked on a novel, paid thousands to a professional editor, another thousand for a lawyer’s opinion of my legal liability, and landed a big-time agent whose name will be familiar to most authors in Southern California. As I went, I cut a seven-hundred-page monster down to four-hundred with solid guidance from the New York editor and the all-star agent. They read long drafts, suggested sizeable changes, pushed me to drop characters and deepen scenes, and commended my rewrites. I treasured the agent’s encouragement and tenacity, in particular.

The novel’s subject is crucial to its rocky voyage. It’s my version of a well-known 1960s love story, the four-month affair between the American spiritual writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton—he penned the bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948)—and a twenty-five-year-old student nurse half his age). In 1966, Merton met this young woman in a Louisville hospital as he recovered from back surgery; she shelved her Vietnam-bound boyfriend for him, and he violated his vows of chastity and obedience to his Order. They gave in to their lust in Merton’s psychiatrist’s office—all that was recorded sketchily in his journal and only from his point of view. The woman has never spoken of the affair. I added details by the bushel when I felt necessary.

The agent took the book to nine of her major-house contacts. Soon, several responded negatively with the hapless explanation: “Fine job, but it doesn’t fit our list.” Then, a couple backhanded slaps. One called it a “fascinating novel,” then turned mean: saying that there is “something about digging into Merton’s love life through fiction that doesn’t sit right with me. It’s lacking in the lessons I treasure that I learned reading Merton, and it’s almost scandalous in a way that I don’t find additive to the extensive Merton-related oeuvre out there.” That word, “additive”: such a summary judgment, a burden on the legacy. It also sounds like novel-shaming: How dare I tarnish an American spiritual icon, dead 55 years, by describing his slip from grace and making him more man than a monk who acted on his desire for love, as any of us might.

Such was the crime I had no idea I’d committed—my novel sullied (and would further, if published) the monk’s reputation. Not that Merton had. But I had. All nine editors drew down their shades on the book. Over a summer of rejection, the chagrin for violating a seldom voiced shibboleth—be careful whose life you raid and dramatize as fiction—grew on me like a boil.

After two years working together, the agent and I parted ways. Of late, I’ve sent the book to a new crop of agents: five of 22 have said, “No thanks.” I’ve offered it to 36 small presses; 11 brushed me off with “nicely done . . . but not enough audience interest.” So, is it time to self-publish?

I think not, though the rash of refusals still itches. As time passes and the roller coaster stalls, I’m thinking more clearly than I did in the throes of the endless NOs. I’m trying to assemble well-tempered reasons, minus the fury of self-pity, to avoid the DIY route.


I want to work with a smart and interested editor at a publishing house who is as keen to see the book surface, with its dramatic and intellectual rigor revised and intact, as I am.

I want a big audience a Merton novel deserves. He is a major American literary figure who I tried to capture in his time, the 1960s tumult in and outside the monastery—with substories of his baneful abbot and adoring publisher, James Laughlin at New Directions, and, most of all, the nurse, a coequal to Merton who I portray in free indirect style and who with her medical skill helped men resist the draft for the Vietnam War. I sought to humanize Merton’s ego in my words so that he abides his love for the nurse as a gift from God, not a failing in himself.

How can I quit submitting the book after such a flattering “rejection”? “Many thanks for sending Tom Larson’s [novel] but unfortunately, I’m going to pass. Larson is an intelligent, compelling writer, his narration equal parts tender and precise, uniting two unlikely narratives with remarkable ease: a tale of forbidden love, and an examination of the meaning of devotion. Tom and Christine’s impossible romance opens up all sorts of urgent questions, tackling these queries with grace and compassion.” He said that because the press was small and full of projects for the coming two years, and he couldn’t make me an offer.

How many of the naysayers actually read the novel? In the end, the agent wrote, “I agree that it’s very likely that most editors did not read the entire. Alas, they frequently make their decisions based on their gut reaction after reading the opening chapters, or even a few pages.” In our breakup correspondence, the agent remarked that my novel was the publishers’ “loss.” Thanks, and no fooling.

The publishing ethos now has turned, with fiction and nonfiction, memoir especially, to showcasing the writer’s ethnic legacy or personal identity. As much as publishing these marginalized voices is needed, for me to write about a Catholic celibate’s assignation and a nursing student and antiwar activist—neither of which I was or am—stands little chance with presses these days. Do I wait for the dial to swing back in my direction, to hold on and outlast the tenor of the times?

This reason is the hardest to state. Maybe, just maybe, my novel is not as worthy as I and my supporters and blurbers who read the whole believe it is. Have we misled ourselves? Have I misled them? How? Via my vanity? Via my belief in the aesthetic of recent historical fiction? Via the expectation that monasticism and sex complement each other rather well? Why wouldn’t Merton have risked his lifeblood for love? The affair seems to have deepened his spirituality, not rarified it.

And, finally, perhaps the heaviest nag of all: Should I redo the book, quiet my sophistry, adopt a new point-of-view, change the style, write a 200-page fragmented or oblique tale of denser interiority, maybe shift the story to the nurse?


Saying yes to self-publishing may mean my seven reasons, some obvious, some baffling, will go unaddressed. They’ll be kicked down the road only to blow into a roadside ditch and die. If eBooked, I will never know what I could have done to make it publishable, not only to my standard but also to that which I assume is reputable. If it never sees print, I’ll have to learn to live with the book’s failure—like a divorce. Walk, limp away. Put it up on my website, perhaps, for all eternity.

To self-publish suggests that its audience of one, me, is enough to give it life. I, alone, its judge and jury. That feels unwise— undemocratic. I’m saying no because my literary life has been shaped by the culture that engendered my career, in which the majority of what I’ve written has been published, much of it for money (in the lower sums), a culture I believe still has literary scruples, despite being overwhelmed and corrupted by the marketplace. Where is the meritocracy of traditional publishing, which I know lingers in the dusky corners of Manhattan? Or has my fiction not yet reached the realm of the chosen? For to be chosen is what I want!

Self-publishing narrows the idea of meritocracy, as it largely serves the author’s interest. I want a result more literarily encompassing than a win for me, by me, of me. If I can’t have it, so be it.