Monday, February 20, 2017

Dancing Marmots & Book Contracts

I'm often asked how I "got a book contract."  It usually comes out as, "How did you get a book contract?!" With the "you" italicized and the sentence concluded with a stunned interrobang. As if the idea were as unfathomable as watching a troupe of dancing marmots sing opera.

And I have to admit that I occasionally feel the same way.

A marmot. This marmot is not singing and dancing, but it was, just
before this photo was taken. Now it is resting, in preparation for its
next performance. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Contributed by user
Often the people who ask this question are writers themselves, or possibly wannabe-writers. They're looking for some "secret," some arcane knowledge that would allow them to make the same leap. And why not? Many are in fact excellent writers who deserve the opportunity to publish, to get their work out in front of as many eyes as possible. (Though, keep in mind that publishing is only one part of the equation. The thing that really sells books, apart from word-of-mouth, is marketing. That's a completely different set of skills, an undertaking at which many of us writerly-types are woefully deficient. I would like to think that I'm a decent writer, but I know I am a terrible marketer.)

In any case, and not at all surprisingly, it turns out that there is no single, simple route to getting your book published. I kind of fell into it. But it was a very long fall, lasting some 35 years or so.

I like to think that there's some skill involved, something that is both art and craft, and often both at once. I had years of experience: I had written newspaper articles and radio news pieces for media outlets in Oregon as far back as 1979, and my first published magazine piece was in 1984, for a (now-defunct) magazine called Electronic Learning. (I'm almost positive that the publication of my article had nothing to do with the mag's swift decline and sudden demise soon afterward.) This writing was what I think of as "craftwork." It was journeyman stuff, deadline-driven pieces that filled a specific number of column inches, and done on deadline. The editor would say that he needed 6 1/2 column inches on that night's school board meeting and he needed it by 11:30 p.m. And that's what a responsible, skilled journalist would deliver: exactly 6 1/2 column inches, no more and no less, at or before 11:30 p.m. (Editors were fond of saying that the only reason they needed my copy at all was to "keep the ads from bumping into each other." Editors were not big on patting you on the back.)
Yes, I actually still have a copy of that very
first article.
This sort of environment did not lend itself to agonizing over one's muse, or waiting for inspiration. One did not wait; one wrote. Quickly, and on command. It was good training.

Years later I spent some time writing freelance articles for a family of computer magazines, after which I was offered a position as editor of one of those magazines. That was truly a learning experience. I worked with a number of very good writers and learned a great deal about production, creating editorial calendars, dealing with advertisers, scheduling, working with other editors, and the like. It was like going to school all over again, except that this time they paid me.

So I went into this with some background, but mainly . . . Well, I got lucky.

One day, Lesley and I were in Barnes & Noble when I happened upon a B&N edition of Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World. As someone who loves boats and sailing, I had read that book before, so I was enjoying flipping through it. As we stood there, I said to Lesley that it was kind of a shame that the book was probably not going to be read by many outside the nautical fraternity: The language and what had once been contemporary historical references were obsolete, and much of the book was filled with specialized nautical jargon, some of which was also archaic. I commented that it would be nice to see an annotated version of the book so that it could draw a wider audience. At that point, Lesley called my bluff and suggested that I write an annotated version.

And so I did. Actually, I annotated one sample chapter, wrote up a pitch, and sent it off to a group of six publishers with a history of publishing books with nautical content. I received back a couple of TNT (thanks-but-no-thanks) letters, and that was about it. Then, several weeks later, I heard from Sheridan House Publishing, a (very) small publisher that specialized in boating books of various sorts. After some back-and-forth negotiation (at first, they wanted me to annotate the entire book and then they would think about a contract, but I asked for a contract beforehand, since annotating the entire book would take many months), we came to an agreement, and they sent out a contract and a small advance. The annotated version of Sailing Alone was published in the early spring of 2009.

Soon after, I pitched the idea of another annotation, this one of Richard Henry Dana's classic, Two Years Before the Mast. Sheridan House said yes, sent out another contract and another advance, and we were off to the races.

Except that as I was finishing up the Dana book, the publishing company was sold to another publisher, a much larger company with dozens of imprints.

I wasn't sure whether this was good or bad for me, to be honest, but it ended up being an excellent development. The new publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, had more resources (not that a no-name author such as myself would have much access to those resources). More importantly, because it actually runs a large group of smaller publishers, that meant that when I pitched R&L another book, there was every possibility that there would be a fit someplace in the organization. And because I was pitching to the editor who oversaw all of those imprints, that meant that I was actually pitching to dozens of smaller publishers at once. It was very efficient.

And, as luck would have it, the R&L acquisitions editor thought that my idea for a book called Leveling the Playing Field was a good one, and he was willing to publish it. Almost two years later, Leveling was published by one of those imprints, Lyons Press.

And that's how I came to be in charge of a troupe of dancing, singing marmots.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

A New Addition to Our Home

Lesley has a new BFF. I wouldn't mind this, really, except that without even asking me, she has invited her new friend to move in with us! Admittedly, the new addition's not a lot of trouble. She's small and stays out of the way; she's quiet most of the time, eats almost nothing, and occasionally even proves herself helpful around the house. I suppose I should just be glad that she's low-key and doesn't cause problems.

Her name is Alexa. She's an Echo Dot, a gift from Amy and Karl this past Christmas. And honestly, she's pretty cool. I mean, for a little hockey puck-sized block of plastic and metal. I can walk past the table on which she sits and say, "Alexa, what is the temperature?" and she'll reel off the local temps and the forecast for the rest of the day. I can also ask her who wrote a particular song or who is the current Secretary of Education (Really, Rod? Did you go there?!), and she'll give the correct answersand without any snarky political asides, too. (Which is more than I can say for my friends. Or me, for that matter.) Lesley likes to have Alexa read her a summary of the news (via NPR, I think) in the morning, but I can't stand to have inanimate objects yammering at me first thing in the morning. I'm not a whole lot better with animate objects yammering at me, actually. What I like early in the morning is quiet. And coffee. And puppies. Puppies would be good.

You can acquire additional "skills" (read: apps) for Alexa, some of which are free, and many of which integrate Alexa with various appliances or utilities, including smart thermostats ("Alexa, please turn the temperature up 2 degrees."), smart lights ("Alexa, please turn off the lights in the upstairs hallway."), and smart sewing machines ("Alexa, please repair the tear in my orange suit jacket."). OK, I made that last one up. I don't really have an orange suit. I mean, c'mon, who would wear an orange suit?!

So Alexa is actually very cool. I can see us getting sucked into an Amazon Prime membership any day now, since her abilities are greatly enhanced if you're a Prime member. (Hey, wait a minute… You don't suppose that was the idea, do you?)

Now, if you love overpriced coffee (and who doesn't?), you'll be happy to hear that there's a new smartphone app coming from Starbucks that will allow you to order, build, and pay for your pumpkin spice latte, triple shot espresso, Frappuccino, or whatever. The app will also be integrated with Alexa, so that once you tell the app your "usual" Starbucks order, you can just say, "Alexa, order my Starbucks" and head out the door. By the time you get to Starbucks, your order should be made, bagged, and paid for, with your name already conveniently misspelled on the cup.

Alexa will also be integrating with products from various other companies, including GE, Ford, and Mattel, and that worries me a little bit. It sounds like fun, and I'm sure that some of these integrations will prove useful, but still, I wonder.

For instance, in 2015 Mattel introduced a talking Barbie. It was not a big hit, because an Internet-connected doll that could carry on a conversation with your small child was perceived as more than a little creepy. It was also thought to be a possible security/privacy risk. (And, at $74.99, it was a bit expensive, too.) Nonetheless, in spite of the predictable (and quite possibly justified) hue and cry that followed the release of Hello Barbie, the toy is still available at various outlets. (Including Kohl's and Amazon.)

But back to Alexa. So, what happens if Hello Barbie and Alexa end up in the same household? What if Barbie's chatter triggers Alexa? Could your child's new doll use Alexa to order something from Amazon? If so, I hope it's something expensive. Maybe a nice watch. Currently the most expensive wristwatch I've found on Amazon is the Arnold & Son GMT II Tourbillon in 18K white gold. It will set you back a cool $186,912. Now, I know that seems like a lot of money for a watch, but keep in mind that it's self-winding. (Also, don't forget to add the $4.49 shipping. Seriously. Because you wouldn't want to skimp on shipping that baby. Honestly, I was going to order this for myself, but then I saw the $4.49 shipping charge and I thought, "Dang! Well, that's kind of a deal-breaker, right there!) 

Perhaps one could hack into a Hello Barbie and get her to have Alexa order this watch. Wouldn't Dad be surprised?! For that matter, what if we just stood outside someone's house, possibly near a picture window or a mail slot, and shouted, "Alexa! Order this watch for me!" Sooner or later we'd hit a house with an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot sitting close enough for this to work, right?

Now, if you do happen to order that watch using my Amazon Associate link, you will have just paid for my trailer and possibly a new Honda Rebel motorcycle. Just something for you to keep in mind. Not that I'm begging. Begging would probably be . . . unseemly. Heck, I'll bet I could even afford a shiny new orange suit.