Self-Publishing Journeys: Bish Denham

A Journey to Self-Publishing

For 23 years I worked at a home for abused and neglected children. For eighteen of those years I was the assistant editor of the newsletter that went out to about ten thousand people across the United States and various countries in the world. Over the course of that time I wrote hundreds of articles and stories.

When I retired from my job I decided it was time to wake up my own writing dreams, dreams of writing for children. They were dreams I’d had for a long time but had been unable to pursue. To that end I took all three correspondence courses at The Institute of Children’s Literature which included two on learning how to write short stories and articles and submit them to children’s magazine and one on novel writing.

I had some success getting stories and articles published in children’s magazines like Spider, Fun With Kidz, My Friend, and Wee Ones to name a few. I also had a couple of lower middle grade novels under my belt that I was submitting to agents and publishers. But I had no luck getting anyone’s attention with them. While I was doing that, I started a blog and began making friends.

At some point I translated and retold an old Jamaican Anansi story about why dogs beg and submitted it to Children’s Writer when they had a folktale and fantasy writing contest. To my delight and surprise it won first place. That win inspired me to translate and retell more stories until I had a nice collection of ten stories which I peddled around to various agents and publishers. Again, I had no luck getting anyone’s interest.

I was beginning to become discouraged. By this time, I started seeing many of my friends in the blogging community going the self-publishing route. And, they were encouraging me to do the same.

As more rejection letters trickled in I realized I didn’t have any more time to play the waiting game. When you go the traditional route, you wait for an agent to respond – or not. You wait for a publisher to respond – or not. If an agent picks you up, you wait while the agent peddles your book and there’s no guarantee your agent will be able to sell your book. If the book actually get sold, you wait until it is published, a process that can take several years.

I realized I’d started too late in life and that self-publishing was the only logical route to go if I want to get my stories and novels out into the world. It was not as easy, nor is it as hard, as I thought it would be. I had lots of help, thanks to all the wonderful friends I’ve made through nearly seven years of blogging.

If you go the self-publishing route you are in control of your own product, which means you want to put out the very best product you can. If your work is sloppy, if it’s full of spelling and grammar mistakes, if the formatting is bad, it reflects back on you, the author. Who would buy a second book from you if the first one is terribly written?

There are things you can do to help you on your journey.

1. Learn your craft. Read books on writing, take courses, find critique partners and beta readers. Never be afraid to ask questions and ask for help.

2. Find a good editor. Even if you think your manuscript is perfect, I can just about guarantee there will be mistakes you can’t see. As writers we get so close to our work we can’t see mistakes, like a missing word or a misplaced comma.

3. Find a good cover illustrator. The cover is the first thing people are going to see. Make it good, make it pop.

4. If you are unsure – as I was – about formatting for the various platforms, find someone who knows how.

5. Be aware that an editor, an illustrator and someone to format, will probably cost you money. You will have to decide how much you are willing to spend.

6. Have fun!

Bish Denham, whose family has been in the Caribbean for over hundred years, was raised and educated in the U. S. Virgin Islands. In the 1980s she moved to Texas to work at a home for abused and neglected children. After 23 years she retired and began pursuing a dream of writing for children. She has had stories and articles published in several magazines including, Spider, Fun With Kidz, My Friend, Wee Ones, and Children’s Writer. She is also the author of Anansi and Company: Retold Jamaican Tales, a collection of ten Anansi stories. She still lives in Texas with her husband and regularly visits her sister and cousins in the Virgin Islands.

The Genesis of "Marcus and the Amazons"

The idea for Marcus and the Amazons, started on Friday, March 4, 2011, when my son, who is now a film major at Miami Dade College, told me that one of my “adopted” sons, Patrick Pollack, had always wanted to illustrate a book for me. When Andrew said it, I felt very foolish and wondered why I hadn’t thought about it before.

My daughter, Christina, had designed the cover for Twelve Poems and a Story for Christmas and my eldest child’s partner has already designed the cover for my next children’s book, Anancy Saves Christmas. So, I said, “Sure, I’ll think about it.” The only problem was I didn’t have a story in mind. As I hurried to drop him off at the college (I was already late for George Lamming’s keynote speech at the University of Miami), I did what I’ve always done when I face a creative crisis: I plugged in my Bob Marley playlist on my iPod and let the magic happen.

It did.

The first song on the playlist was “Rat Race”: “Some a gorgon, some guinea- gog, some a jacket,” and I thought about a children’s book with mice or rats as the protagonists and antagonists. I kept playing the idea over in my head and then, quickly forgot everything as I entered the auditorium where George Lamming was about to speak.

Lamming was brilliant. He is one of those rare public intellectuals who does not “phone in” the lecture, but is always deeply engaged in extending the themes of his work. I listened intently to the lecture, but it wasn’t until he read the “Ants Section” from Of Age and Innocence where he explored the idea of ants as a recurrent trope in Caribbean literature that my ears perked up: “The ants are a symbol of fragility, a symbol of vulnerability, yet it is the most triumphant symbol of persistence, of the refusal to die.”

In the Q&A that followed, Pat Saunders mentioned how other Caribbean writers such as Patrick Chamoiseau, and Édouard Glissant had used ants as metaphors in their work. Now my brain was on fire. A circle had been made whole again. For just as Lamming’s In the Castle of my Skin had played a part in the inspiration of Benjamin, my son, he was again planting the seed in my imagination for Marcus and the Amazons.

And then, my son called. Classes were over early and he needed a ride home. Bob Marley was still on my car radio. I picked up my son at the college, went home, gave a reading from Who’s Your Daddy? at a Food for the Poor fundraiser for Haiti at FIU, and scribbled an outline of the book that night.

I woke up on Saturday morning and replayed “Rat Race.” With the idea of either an inter or intra species war on my mind, I began researching ants in Google and Wikipedia. When I discovered that Amazon ants enslaved Formicas, I now had a conflict. That the Formicas were the common black ants and the Amazons were a different color opened up a world of possibilities. I also reread an interview by Bob Marley about war and the cycle of revenge if blood is spilled in a war. I gathered all the notes on top of my desk and finished my weekend chores, had dinner with my family, and went to sleep.

On Sunday, March 6, 2011, I woke up at about eight, had a light breakfast, and plotted the story. First, I needed a name for the hero. I looked across to my books. Marcus Garvey stared back at me from the cover of Colin Grant’s Negro with a Hat. I had always wanted to write a book about Marcus Garvey, and Kamau Brathwaite had once suggested that I should write a book length poem about Marcus Garvey. Maybe that will happen in the future. But for now, I had the name of the main character, Marcus.

Next, I needed the name of the antagonist.

I thought about the Civil Rights movement in North America and then, I thought about Kamau Braithwaite’s Barabajan Poems and Captain O’Grady was born—a marriage of Caribbean and North American history. Because, yes, our fates have always been intertwined.

Plus, I now had a livication: For Kamau Brathwaite.

Now that I had the conflict, protagonist and antagonist, I needed a complication of the plot, which I developed in Marcus's brother, Clarence, and then, a final twist that would move the story to its conclusion.

I had a first draft of the set-up by mid-afternoon. Exhausted, I went upstairs to get a drink of water and noticed a sign that my daughter, who likes to leave love-notes around the house, had posted on the fridge: “Success is not caused by spontaneous combustion. You must set yourself on fire.” I went back to work and finished working at about ten ‘clock that night. For the next two weeks, I got up at five every morning and wrote a chapter a day, and then I spent another two weeks polishing/editing. When the manuscript was finally presentable, I thought about a publisher…
That lasted for about two minutes after I read Joe Konrath's blog and remembered Marcus Garvey's words: “Where are our people…?” It was time to stop jestering.

I researched the pros and cons of self-publishing and realized that like all my other books, I’d already done the hardest part: I’d written the best book that I could write. The next steps would be easy. I proofread the manuscript twenty more times, sought the advice of experts such as Diane Browne, and sent the text to a copy editor.

After the copy editor returned the text, I worked with my son and Patrick on the illustrations, which had many "teachable moments" for all of us. Patrick had never worked with Adobe before and moving from an actual to a virtual canvas was a steep learning curve. He's also a bit of a perfectionist, as you will see with the illustrations, but the graphics are awesome. He's made the book better than I could ever have imagined. I also wanted to give my "sons" a lesson in entrepreneurship, bringing a product to market on schedule and pre- and post-marketing. This is why I have also made this a profit-sharing venture.

After we had a last review session, in the tradition of Marcus Garvey, I restarted my company, Mabrak Books. Then, I signed up at , so that I could have access to Barnes & Noble, Apple and iBooks. I also purchased an ISBN with them ($9.95) that I used when I signed up at Amazon’s Kindle and uploaded the book to their web site.

Smashwords and Amazon use different methods, so it’s important to follow their style guides. They also have excellent tutorials on e-publishing and marketing, which I highly recommend. I'd also recommend CJs Easy as Pie Kindle Tutorials for the excellent information about inserting images.

Yet at the last moment, I almost chickened out. The fear that every independent author confronts rippled through my brain: what if no one ever read the book? With a publisher, I stood the chance of wider distribution and greater publicity…fame?

Then I asked myself, am I writing for fame? Fame is an ego stroke. Was I writing for ego strokes? I was forced again to ask myself a familiar question in a new way: “Why do I write children’s books?”

I write because I want my readers to experience something similar to what I felt during the early seventies when I was walking in my old neighborhood in Jamaica. As I was walking from Plumbago Path to Geranium and then to Orchid Path, Bob Marley’s “Natty Dread” was blasting from very house on the block:

Then I walk up the first street, (Natty Dreadlock)
And then I walk up the second street to see. (Natty Dreadlock)
Then I trod on through third street, (Natty Dreadlock)

I felt as if I was inside the song. I was trodding with Bob through Jamdown. A great love was shaped by that moment, and I hope my storytelling reflects that experience.

So, I've committed myself to self-publishing. And as an independent author/publisher, I’m putting my faith in the people who have always supported me by buying my books and encouraging me through the years.

Geoffrey Philp is the author of three children's books: Marcus and the AmazonsGrandpa Sydney's Anancy Stories; and The Christmas Dutch Pot Baby. He is also the author of the e-book, Bob Marley and Bradford’s iPod, five collections of poetry, and two short story collections. An award winning writer, whose work explores the themes of masculinity and fatherhood in a Caribbean context, Philp is one of the few writers whose work has been published in both the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. His popular blog,, covers literary events in the Caribbean and Miami, where he lives with wife, Nadia, and their three children, Anna, Christina, and Andrew.


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