Alison Jean Lester’s most recent book, Return to the Scene of the Climb, is her father’s posthumous memoir about the 1966 American Everest expedition. Aptly, given the title, she is in the process of returning to the scene of her own first non-fiction writing—and her early experience of self-publishing: her ‘Restroom Reflections’, collated and self-published in 2010.
‘Restroom Reflections’ were short think-pieces that she sent out to coaching clients. Alison is currently creating and publishing an audiobook of her collected reflections. We caught up with Alison to talk self-publishing, promotion and the importance of connections.
Alison, tell us how Restroom Reflections started.
My first Restroom Reflection was an essay I sent by email to training clients and some friends. My idea was that people would print them out and stick them up inside the doors of the office restroom stalls for staff to read in a quiet moment. (Naturally, people thought they were reflections from my own sessions in the toilet. I probably should have seen that coming.) In 2010, I decided to self-publish the first 51 of these essays as a paperback and ebook. I’m not sure why I did that, but I think I was probably looking for more clients!
I did try to interest a publisher before pulling the self-publishing trigger. I contacted Wiley, because they were active in professional development titles in Singapore, where I was living. From them, I learned a hard truth: it didn’t matter whether I was an interesting thinker or wordsmith. What mattered was whether I was somebody. I’d already had a collection of short stories published, but fiction publishing doesn’t depend on credibility in the same way.
How did you go about self-publishing?
There weren’t many platforms for self-publishing then. I chose Amazon’s offering, CreateSpace, now part of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). I hired a small company called 52 Novels to do the formatting, and my web designer created the cover using a beautiful photo my new husband had taken of a toilet roll. I chose the subtitle ‘How communication changes everything’ and I had three testimonials on the back. The first was from a great Trusted Adviser coach and trainer who was the sister of a woman who bought bread from the daughter of a friend of my mother. The second was a client, and the third was a prominent Jungian analyst who had been at graduate school with my father in the 1950s.
Why are you revisiting Restroom Reflections now?
After the original Restroom Reflections was published, my coaching schedule got busier, and I wrote nearly 30 more reflections. But then my first novel was published in 2015, and I moved on. The trigger for revisiting it is connected to what I call the ‘patchwork’. All books are patchworks, from cover to conclusion. Our brains work by association, piecing things together, and so do our lives. While we’re piecing things together for ourselves—both consciously and unconsciously—everyone else is doing the same. We all get pieced into the patchworks of others. Some threads are weak, but some are stronger than we could ever have imagined. Earlier this year, I received an email from Puni because she had reread one of my original reflections, and it had resonated. Shortly after that, I decided to record the audiobook of the essays, with 27 bonus-track episodes. I did that this summer.
How has the process changed since your first experience of self-publishing?
There are now so many more channels for promoting writing, and I have been in the publishing business for so much longer. This has meant I can have more fun launching this product. My experience with publishing houses is that they don’t have the resources to be particularly imaginative with the small fry and don’t really have to with the big fish. They also have a sink-or-swim approach, dedicating a fixed amount of time to a book before moving on to the next one. When you self-publish, you can continue to promote it in as many ways and for as long as you please.
And how will you do that?
I see it as actively creating the patchwork. I love this sort of piecing and sewing. I know it won’t make me wealthy, but who knows who my efforts will reach? I wonder who will be sending me an email in a day, a month, a year or many years, saying, ‘This one resonated with me today . . .’? I can’t wait to find out.