I was very honored to give the keynote address at the Indie Authors Fair on March 8, 2014. The invitation came from Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute. I gave my speech without notes, however I'd written down what I wanted to say the day before in order to organize my thoughts. Check out the written version of my keynote address below...
Hello and welcome to the 2014 Indie Authors Fair. My name is Martin Lastrapes and it’s a terrific honor for me to be here this afternoon talking to you as a representative of the indie author community. I’m very proud to be an indie author and, by extension, an independent publisher. But, there was a time in my life where being an indie author was absolutely the last thing I ever wanted to be.
When I was coming up as an aspiring author in college, the predominant ethos was that “real” authors didn’t go the route of independent publishing. In order for your work to be taken seriously, you had to be published traditionally. Traditional publishing, as I suspect many of you already know, starts with procuring the services of a literary agent. That agent will then shop your work around to publishers—in particular the Big Five publishing houses in New York—until they secure you a book deal.
For me and every other writer I knew, this was the dream. And in 2005, I came face-to-face with my dream when I had the opportunity to meet an actual literary agent in the flesh. You have to realize, for me that was sort of like meeting Santa Claus or Batman. I met him at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He was leading a workshop I’d taken part in. Afterwards, he asked to speak to me.
He told me he really liked what I’d had to say during the workshop and then he asked if I was working on anything. I let him know I was in the middle of writing my first novel and then I proceeded to give what I imagine was the worst pitch in the whole history of pitches. Even I wouldn’t have read this book and I was writing it. The agent was very nice and he could tell I was nervous, so he told me that when the book was done he’d love to read it.
I felt like I’d just won the lottery. I just knew it was only a matter of time before I saw my novel on bookshelves and went on a national book tour and did interviews on Good Morning America and spent time on the New York Times Best Seller list and attended the Academy Awards where I accepted the award for Best Adapted Screenplay because the studio who optioned my book insisted I write the script.
I finished the book two weeks later and shipped it off to New York. And then I waited for what felt like forever to get a reply. In reality, I only waited two months, but it was the longest two months I’d ever experience. Then the letter finally arrived. And it didn’t arrive on just any day—it arrived on my birthday. My birthday! Even before I opened the letter, I knew this was a good omen. I decided that I wanted to open the letter in private, so I didn’t tell anybody I’d received it.
I got in my car and went to a nearby gas station. I sat in my car in the gas station parking lot with the letter in hand, knowing that as soon as I opened it my whole life would never be the same. In the letter, the literary agent said some very nice things about my writing and my book, before ultimately telling me that he would not be taking me on as a client. I was heartbroken and I don’t mind telling you that I shed more than a few tears as I sat alone in my car in that gas station parking lot.
Soon enough, despite the disappointment, I decided to move forward and contact more literary agents. And, in the process, I collected more rejection letters. Many…many… rejection letters. After about a year-and-a-half of getting rejections, I decided maybe it just wasn’t a good enough novel, so I started writing a new novel. And, after spending a few years writing it, I began querying agents. And this new novel, which I was terribly proud of, also received rejection letters. Many…many…rejection letters.
It could’ve been that I simply wasn’t a good writer and didn’t deserve to be published…but, even if that was true, it wasn’t something I was willing to accept. But, at the rate I was collecting rejections, I couldn’t imagine ever being published...and that was another reality I couldn’t accept. The only other reasonable option seemed to be independent publishing…and that was yet another reality I wasn’t willing to accept. Of course, of those three options, the latter was the only one that offered me a guaranteed path to publication. But, I was still holding onto that fear that my work would be stigmatized, that it wouldn’t be taken seriously if it wasn’t published traditionally.
I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do and, consequently, I found myself at a crossroads.
The event that changed everything for me occurred on a Wednesday night in the summer of 2009. I went to see a stage production of the play Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It was s small production that took place in a small theater in Santa Ana. It was hardly even a theater, so much as a small concrete room with enough seats for about 30 or 40 audience members. And there wasn’t so much a stage, as there was a designated corner of the concrete room where the players performed the play.
The star of the play was an actor who’s name, unfortunately, I don’t remember. But, he was absolutely fantastic. He put on a world-class performance. I would put his performance up against anybody who’s ever won an Academy Award or an Emmy Award or a Tony Award. He was just that amazing. And, more than that, his performance affected me deeply. It was one of those truly transcendent experiences you get when you see a brilliant artist exercising their craft. But, he wasn’t preforming in Hollywood or on Broadway, he wasn’t in movie theaters or television screens. He was in a small concrete theater in the middle of Santa Ana on a Wednesday night performing for about 30 people.
But, none of that made his performance any less brilliant. And more importantly, it didn’t make my enjoyment of it any less. I realized that night that all those fantasies I'd had about book tours and Oscars and Good Morning America had nothing to do with why I ever wanted to be a writer in first place. I wanted to be a writer because I love telling stories and all I really wanted was an audience for that. I decided that when I felt my novel was ready, I'd publish it myself. I realized that it didn’t matter how my book entered the world, just so long as it got there. And even if only one reader ever discovered it—and was affected the same way I was affected by that actor's performance—then it'd have to be worth it.
It'd have to be.
Two years later, in the summer of 2011, I officially published my first novel, Inside the Outside. Within about a week of its publication, it was on Amazon’s Best Seller list. The reviews that came in from readers and critics were overwhelmingly positive. By 2012, Inside the Outside began winning awards, including the Grand Prize in the Paris Book Festival. I saw my picture in the newspaper and I started getting invited to speak at high schools and universities and libraries and even prisons. Readers all over the world began discovering my book and today some of my most enthusiastic fans are in Canada and France and Italy and England and Ireland and Australia.
Just this past January, Inside the Outside officially became a #1 Best Seller on Amazon. It was also #1 on Barnes and Nobles' horror list and it was #2 in horror in the iTunes Book Store—Stephen King was #1 there, so I can live with that. I remember looking at the list and seeing Stephen King at #1 and me at #2 and I had this fantasy where he was looking at the same list and wondering, “Who the hell is Martin Lastrapes?”
Even being here today and having the wonderful honor of being able to speak to you all was made possible because I decided to become an indie author. It was without question the best decision I ever made and I’ve never spent one moment regretting it. And the true beauty of independent publishing is there is no reason that anybody in this room can’t do the same thing I did. Because of independent publishing, these opportunities are available to all of us.
I want to thank you all so much for listening to my story and, from the bottom of my heart, I want to wish you all nothing but the best of luck with your writing careers. Thank you.