"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Lessons learned about publishing a book

I'd already been in the news business for more years than I care to remember when I started working on my first book in 1990.

The idea for Snow Blind grew out of a front-page story I'd written for the Miami Herald about Howard Finkelstein, a brilliant young public defender who lost his priniciples and nearly his life to cocaine.

I met Howard in a courthouse hallway in Fort Lauderdale soon after he recovered both his health and his ideals. He demonstrated his sincerity in spectacular fashion by saving a man falsely accused of murder.

The newspaper story provoked a powerful and positive reaction from readers.

Among the letters Howard received were several from writers who proposed to turn his story into a book, or perhaps a movie. Neither of us saw any reason to let someone else steal the moment.

So I eagerly accepted the challenge of digging far deeper into Howard's history of triumph and tragedy, confident I could sell the story to a major publisher. As a young man, I'd try to sell Ford automobiles. The results were disappointingly similar.

I invested a couple of years in the manuscript, including an extended break from newspaper work. The reaction I got from agents and publishers was eye-opening.

They didn't bother criticizing or even mentioning the writing or reporting. Their concern was with target markets: my book didn't come close to striking any of them.

It was non-fiction but it wasn't self-help. It had criminals but it wasn't a crime story. It had love and even a hint of sex but it wasn't a romance. In short, it just didn't fit into any neat, pre-sold categories with a guaranteed audience.

Worse, nobody wanted a story about cocaine. I pointed to a long list of recent, fact-based books and movies such as Blow and Rush. The publishers countered that the main characters in those tales wound up in prison.

Where I saw hope and redemption in Howard's story, they saw a guy who got away with using drugs for pleasure. One publisher told me point-blank that Howard's story would be a much better example for kids if he died.

I eventually got lucky, thanks to a friend who was helping a start-up publisher get off the ground. He called one day to ask if I knew anyone with a good manuscript sitting in a drawer.

I knew exactly which drawer to look in.

So that's how I finally got a book into print. It took 10 years to find a publisher (or, really, to be found by one) and two more years to get through the editing, design and production. I was still excited, but more than a bit of momentum and timeliness had been lost.

Sadly, the publisher is no longer in business but Snow Blind lives on: I published an updated Kindle version on my own not long ago. I didn't have to sell the idea to anyone, and I didn't have to wait more than 48 hours from the time I clicked the "publish" link until it showed up on Amazon.com.

I learned a number of important lessons from my first book venture, among them that I never have been much of a salesman. That's still a drawback for anyone with a book to promote, but at least it's no longer a barrier to getting published.

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