Part 1 of 3. Books. Warning fair reader…this is very long for a blog post.
It is quite an ordeal getting a book out into print and into people’s hands. But this one really had some extra special twists, turns, bumps and detours along the way! It all began in about 2003 with people who heard my anecdotes and stories and advice telling me I needed to write this stuff down. So, back in the very early days of blogs, using Google’s blogspot free blogging service, I started to do just that. The blog posts were really long for a blog–they each had a major theme and were more like chapters. From the start I wanted my writing not to be a cancer or disability blog–I wanted this to be valuable to a lot more people than just that. I had realized the common themes between what I had had to deal with and how I dealt with it and all kinds of hardships others go through. After a while this collection of blog post vignettes looked more and more like a book. I had written two technical books up to this point so I knew what the process entailed–at least with a technical book and a publisher signed on from the start. I liked the process, I liked getting something I had written into the final form of a beautiful book, and I enjoyed the feedback I got from getting a book published. Besides, once again, it’s a challenge a rare few attempt so as always, that appealed to me.
It was Arthur Graham, my prosthetist, who had been following my blog, who said “This is a book! And you need to publish it so I can give it to my patients.” That was a pretty strong affirmation of the content I had in the blog posts so far and it was all the encouragement I needed to get started. What helped was that right at this time in 2005 I was signing up for the one-year assignment at Petabric in Portland, OR which meant a lot of flying time and a lot of alone time in an apartment across the country from Carole every other weekend. Something all consuming like writing this book would be a perfect antidote to the dead time and loneliness of being there on my own.
Whether on the plane (in first class thanks to Delta frequent flyer upgrades) or in the sparse second floor apartment with a view only of other apartment buildings, I always wrote to loud “concentrate” music particularly my new favorites of the time of Aria, Delerium and Lisa Gerrard. I had the original ideas in the blogs but I was just using them now as reference material. I wrote on yellow pads. As high tech as I am about most things, I still prefer to do original writing in long hand until I have a full chapter on paper. Then I do the first pass edit also on paper before I type anything into a word processor. I would totally lose myself in the writing not noticing that six hours had gone by and I would suddenly realize I had not gotten up to pee, eat, or drink. I started to find the writing very cathartic. The peace and quiet—and frankly, the solitude and loneliness—enabled me to dig deep in the dusty vaults of my memory and experiences of over 35 years and pull out details, stories, experiences, and insights that would be helpful to readers. I was spilling my guts. Some of what I was writing was deviating a lot from my goals but I let myself go precisely because it was proving to be so cathartic. But, I was writing too much about bad experiences. Luckily, the multi-pass editing process went from a personally cathartic book to a generally useful (and hopefully much more interesting) book.
From the middle of 2005 until about the end of my one-year assignment in Oregon I was writing, editing, tuning, typing, editing more, and constantly filling in details and messages to get the whole package as good as I could get it. In mid 2006 I started to think about a publisher. I checked but none of the technical publishers who had published How Debuggers Work or much more recently, Securing Web Services with WS_Security would touch a book like this. I was in the memoir category and neither J. Wiley & Sons nor SAMS dealt with those and didn’t have a sister house that did either. So next step was to see about finding a publisher directly by myself. That was a quick exercise which immediately determined one does not, under any circumstances, as an individual author go directly to a publisher. They only want to deal with literary agents, period. In many cases the point was made emphatically as in “if you send us submissions we will discard it with a snow shovel out into the back dumpster.” I’m not kidding. I was learning a whole new industry and like any industry it certainly has it quirks. Ok got it. So on to finding a literary agent.
Naturally, I used the Web to search for literary agents. There are nice sites that list all known literary agents and I found the one of those that seemed the most thorough, easy to use, and up to date. Here you could filter down to agents that cared about memoirs and were still taking in new clients. There were 58 that passed through that filter. Each one had very specific, and very different requirements for how to send them a “query” to ask them to represent you. Some wanted only email some said never send me email. Some wanted just a synopsis, others wanted a full sample chapter. I listed out the 58 distinct sets of requirements and followed them all to a T. Out when 58 packages requesting a literary agent. I don’t pray but if I did I would have then. I just waited. Ultimately I got 57 responses. One didn’t even bother to respond. All 57 that did rejected my request. The responses were all over the map.
I am resilient but I hate rejection. It slowed me down from dating in the early days. And it’s why I could never really do sales at any of my companies. Sales people have really thick skin and deal with rejection as a standard part of their everyday work life. So this much rejection was a real setback for me and I decided to put myself in a time out. I put the whole idea of publishing this on the shelf for a while. I knew I just needed some time to think of a new approach–I was not giving up by any stretch of the imagination. It really is true that the brain keeps working on a gnarly problem even if we don’t focus our frontal lobe on it. When on a long training bike ride I also tend to think pretty deeply about things that are “on my mind.” It was on such a ride that I had a Homer Simpson Duh! moment.
I know from lots of experience that who you know and connections you can make through people you know can make all the difference in life, in business, in what ever. So why I took the hard route on literary agent I will never know. But I realized that I knew someone who had an agent and they should be the focus of my inquiries not 58 complete strangers. Dan Kinlon had been the co-speaker to the Topsfield High boys several years previously but then he had written a book where a chapter had featured me. This was plenty of “in” to proceed so I made my pitch to Dan. He was not completely blown away saying that it would be a hard sell to get an agent much less a publisher interested. But sure, he would introduce me to his agent as long as my expectations were low because Kenny would probably not agree to take me on. I spoke to Kenny Wapner right away and while he too was skeptical at first he asked me to send him the manuscript. I did and the next day he called back and introduced himself as my new agent.
Kenny liked my story and my writing. He thought the world could use a book like mine, that it was different, and he especially liked the fact that I was not someone famous which made the story, and its approachability, even more compelling. However, what neither of us knew at the time was how much that same facet would work against us in the book publishing business. As much as he liked what he saw, he still said it needed his expert “book doctoring” to make it acceptable. And that was going to cost $10,000. An agent takes a cut of the ultimate deal they can get so they never charge up front. But Kenny was wearing two hats and his book doctor hat did have a fee. I had the money but its never easy parting with that much of it. I wanted this to be perfect so I finally agreed. He started to do major surgery. He turned chapters two, three and four into a new chapter one. He deleted a chapter or two and changed the emphasis. He wanted much more of a focus on amputees thinking that would make it original and unique.
Once the book doctoring was complete–a process which took two months–we moved to the book proposal process. A book proposal looks to me just like a business plan for a new startup. It includes the niche this book is going to fill, what books it will compete against, the credentials of the author, a sample of the writing and a full marketing plan for how the author will work tirelessly to make sure the book is a success. This proposal, including all of chapter one, ended up being a 62-page tome and took us another two months to complete. Now Kenny felt he could start to approach the huge trade publishers; we both felt they were who we needed to try to get interested in this book.
The trade publishers demand an exclusive so Kenny had to work them serially. None of them seemed in a hurry to respond to his inquiry so the process was excruciatingly slow and painful. Week after week he would say, “Well so-and-so has our inquiry and is considering it and I have to wait long enough for them to give us an answer.” But eventually the answer from each one was the same. He would hear “We like the story. We like the author. We like the writing. But he doesn’t have enough of a platform so we can’t move forward with this. Good luck.”
“I know,” he would say. “We have to move on to the next one and see if they have a different reaction.” But they never did. Publisher after publisher all said the same thing: not enough of a platform. Sarah Palin, with all her idiotic proclamations and scary politics while Tina Fey constantly skewered her definitely had a platform and could sell 500,000 copies of her book in short order but we could not get a publisher to give us the time of day.
For a solid year Kenny patiently worked Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and so on down the list getting the same answer in every case: you need more of a platform. So how was I supposed to get a platform? I was not going to suddenly become famous. Kenny could tell I’d had enough of this strategy and wanted to try something else. He said it before I asked: “You know,” he said, “I originally told you self-publishing was a dead end…and it was. But times have changed and successful self-published books do get discovered and picked up by traditional publishers. Maybe that is the best option now.”
It was 2009 and I had been trying to get this book in people’s hands for five years and was seemingly no closer. I agreed with Kenny’s new-found support for self-publishing; I just wanted to get the book out there after all this time. Kenny and I parted ways after a long, intense publishing tour of duty together.
I set off to learn about the self-publishing business as if it was a new market I was building a startup in. And like most startups, first I had to make a mistake or two. I got sucked in by Lulu.com who has alluring positioning, marketing and web site. It’s great if you have a cookbook you want to publish for all your friends but they have no business with someone who wants to really put out a quality book and wants professional editing and cover design. I realized all this in time to get out of any contract and before any books were produced. I went back to the Web and started looking carefully for people’s recommendations and finally got the list down to four or five finally choosing Mill City Press. With professional editing, cover design, a Web site for sales, and real distribution, this felt right but I would have to pay for it. This was going to run $5,000. Mill City evaluated the manuscript and immediately suggested it go through an imprint of theirs called Bascom Hill Books that looks to the outside world like a small publisher not like a self-publisher which is supposed to help.
The cover design and editing processes were fun and successful. Just before the cover was final I sent the final manuscript to Jonathan Alter at Newsweek. He was a friend and a professional writer as well as a cancer survivor. It was a long shot but I asked him for an endorsement we could print on the back cover. He read it over the weekend and called me first thing Monday morning. I expected a polite brush off. But instead he said it was fantastic and he would be thrilled to write me a blurb. What he wrote was incredible:
As we got to the end of 2009 it was finally coming to fruition: the book would be in print and available to the world as of December. I was beside myself. This felt so good. I organized a book launch event in the offices of the PMC that was so tied to this book.
I was nervous as it first came out as to what the reaction would be. But people said it was really well written. I even heard people say they couldn’t put it down, something an author just dies to hear! Other comments were placed in the reader review area on Amazon such as these:
I turned to getting the book out in other formats. I have worked in technology long enough, and I myself am a heavy user of all things technology, so I knew this needed to be out in ebook format as well as in audiobook format. My publisher was too small and of limited means to handle these so I was on my own.
Since the Kindle was the first of the ebook readers Amazon seemed like a good place to start. And they do have resources for the self-publisher. They have a tool to take a book in PDF and convert it automatically into Kindle format and they have a simulator that pretends it is a Kindle in your browser so you can test and see how your book will look when someone buys it. Their tool should not ever have been released. It made my book look horrible. OK so next I used Amazon to look for a book on how to do this and I found one. It made the point that this was tricky stuff. Indeed, it is. Each book reader has a different format. Each of them is really acting like a browser and uses the same basic language called HTML but a different dialect of it. They all support choices of text size so they have to “flow” the text from page to page depending on how much of the chosen text size fits on a single page. The hardest part was the beginning of each chapter where there is a picture and some quotations. But even the running text needed careful scrutiny. You cannot, for example, just use quotation symbols like “. They distinguish between left double quote and right double quote. And they use the obscure HTML codes to do so which are ‘“’ and ‘“’. If you use the standard punctuation mark it will show up on the Kindle as a big ugly splotch mark. And because my book manuscript did just use the “ symbol I couldn’t just do a global substitute; I had to manually go in and change each one. In the end I got it to look good on the Kindle, Nook and iPad.
Next up was an audiobook format. I read that the fastest growing part of publishing was audio books. I also read that the author who narrates his book himself has an idiot for a narrator. They all said narrating is basically acting and someone with acting training had to be reading. So I shopped around. Boy was this going to be another huge expense. I was already $15,000 in the hole for this book and it looked like another $6,000 for this next format if I used a pro. So I proceeded and had John Farrell read all eleven hours of it. That audiobook is 455 megabytes in size. Amazon’s Audible book store sells it but very few have ever been sold.
In general sales were slow. Viral is a word everyone likes to throw around but a minimal starting point is necessary for something to “go viral” on the Internet. Little pockets would take off. A small rabid following kept buying more and more copies that they gave to their circle of friends but that still did not ignite self-sustaining sales. I was continuously over-optimistic thinking the next thing I did would make sales take off big time. I pushed Barnes & Noble for a book signing. I had to push and push. They probably agreed just to get me to stop calling. They let me do a week-day evening event in the largest Boston area B&N store in Burlington, Massachusetts. Most of the people there were my friends and family. By the end of two years a total of 3,000 copies had sold. That is considered pretty good for a self-published book but no where near what I had hoped given how many people could really benefit from it.
Next up, I’d like to talk about some of my experiences trying to get more opportunities to speak publicly.