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.


  1. Happy that a good writer like you also had some luck too with your earlier publisher selling out to one with more resources.
    One thing I want to mention, I love the two earlier books you have mentioned here. If anyone ever makes a film from these books, you will be a millionaire!

  2. It definitely was a stoke of luck. There actually WAS a (1946) movie made of the Dana book. Very romanticized; they didn't stick to the source material much, but it was fun. :) But a Slocum movie would be very cool!