The four women sat around a table on a chilly Montana morning, sipping coffee and sharing stories of how each one came to be at this particular table on this particular day.
Called together for this story and connected by their association with a vibrant yet underground Northwest Montana community, the quartet is at this moment swapping tales of their beginnings. How, in fact, four professionals — three retired, one not — came to be enthusiastic self-published authors.
“I’ve been writing forever,” Ann Minnett says. “I’m a retired developmental psychologist and I had to write for work and I had to write fact and, you know, make it right, and ‘these are what we found in these studies.’”
She pauses before smirking and leaning in with a hushed tone.
“And I just wanted to make it up.”
MINNETT IS joined at this table by Kathy Dunnehoff, Betty Kuffel and Marie F. Martin. She is joined in the Flathead Valley by around 100 members of the Authors of the Flathead writing group, and joined by dozens more in and around the area that have put their stories to print.
The five authors interviewed for this story — Al Wellenstein, author of “The Life and Times of the Rich Hobo” is the other — all have differing goals for their future and the future of their works, but each one, unequivocally, carried a pride in their compositions and cited a burning urge to share their stories.
“It’s just a need inside of you,” Martin said. “I felt (her first four books) would be it; that I was all done writing.
“Well, a new story came to me kind of vaguely out in the distance and I wrote a few pages. Well … I’m hooked and I’ve got almost 50,000 words written.”
Writing as a self-published author used to carry a less-than-flattering stigma, bluntly that anyone not chosen by a publishing company to write a book shouldn’t be writing a book in the first place. But in the decades since the technological revolution, a proliferation of self-published authors have been able to put their stories to print without being signed by a publisher, or paying thousands of dollars to have their books printed. In fact, the largest bookstore in the world — Amazon — is stocked with intangible mountains of books, and its bestseller lists are filled with self-published authors.
“The problem before with self-publishing was there was no distribution,” Dunnehoff said. “So … you spent thousands of dollars on these print copies that were in the trunk of your car. And how on earth are you going to get them places?
“And with the e-books and the ability to just upload to Amazon, we’ve sold all over the world.”
THAT DOES not mean, however, that the feeling of self-publishing a printed book is any less rewarding.
“It’s a surreal moment when you first see it and you think ‘wow, it’s really happening,’” Wellenstein said of seeing and touching a printed copy of his book.
Wellenstein published his book the way more than 100 others have, by working with Scott Graber and Scott Company Publishing in Kalispell. If you’ve driven up U.S. 93 you know the place, it’s the one that has a screaming sing for “Book Publishing” outside.
Graber is not a publishing house in the traditional literary sense but instead a consultant and printer for authors who would prefer to see their book available both online and in their hands. For a one-time fee, Graber and his company will offer editing services, cover design, layout, printing, websites, video or any combination thereof, work he said the company has been doing for most of its 41 years in business.
“We believe everyone has a story to tell and some people never get it out,” he said. “Get it down on paper and then come see me.”
ONCE BOOKS are published, either electronically or in print, the real work begins for self-published authors, especially if they want their books to become more than just gifts for friends and family.
Wellenstein’s book is about the last 37 years of his life, spent primarily on the streets “tramping around, gypsy-ing around, traveling across the country.” While that might be an unusual background for an author, the lifestyle has given him experience selling just about anything he could get his hands on, a skill that comes in handy when he goes door-to-door hawking his book.
For most other authors, selling themselves and their stories comes less naturally, and as a result they’ve often recruited help in the form of internet promoters and marketers.
“The first time I spent $25,” Martin said. “Now, this was my $25 and, you know, that was scary. But all of a sudden I made, say, $50. So then I reinvested $50 into more promotion and it just slowly grows.”
Dunnehoff’s most successful book, “The Do-Over,” shot up the Amazon charts after she took the manuscript back from her literary agent and handed the project to a colleague specializing in online marketing.
“She was really interested in seeing if she could get an e-book to float up to the surface in terms of searches,” Dunnehoff said of her marketing associate. “We worked together for basically a year and did it.”
“The Do-Over” was a top-seller on Amazon and elsewhere, and was eventually picked up and published — in German.
Despite that success and the success of her other novels, Dunnehoff said she made it no more than two years working full-time as a self-published (or indie) author for financial reasons. Even as she continues to write — both novels and screenplays — she works as a professor at Flathead Valley Community College.
“If you add it all up, over the years, I would be better off financially to have worked at McDonald’s,” she said. “And that is absolutely true. It’s terrible but true.”
What the authors do have — if not fame and fortune — is a nurturing Flathead Valley community that produces an out sized number of independent writers.
The four women are all members of Authors of the Flathead, a group that meets once a week, providing critiques, open readings and guest speakers. Membership in the group is $25 per year and writing experience is not a requirement.
“Nothing,” Kuffel said of the background necessary to join. “We encourage teenagers to come. You can be at any level and you can find people within the group that would help you and support you.”
THE WORKS of all the authors profiled in this story are available online at www.amazon.com.
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.