Have thumb drive, will travel

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Germanna Community College this week sponsored a program on publishing your first book. Participants were (from left) Rick Pullen, Howard Owen, Jim Hall, David Sam, Cory MacLauchlin and Chris Brown.

I expected to promote The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia after publication, but I didn’t realize that promotion would take the form that it has. I thought I would go to signings, sit behind a table, and talk to those who wanted to buy the book. I’ve done that and enjoy it very much.

But I’m also a man with a thumb drive and PowerPoint slides who travels the region, talking about lynching, especially lynchings in Virginia. I talk about the lynching I know best, the 1932 Fauquier County incident that is the subject of my book. But I spend as much or more time on other cases, such as the 1893 death of William Shorter. Shorter was pulled from a train outside Winchester, Va., and hanged beside the track. He was accused of murder and was with a deputy sheriff on his way to trial, but the residents of Winchester couldn’t wait.

All of a sudden, I’ve become something of an expert on lynching. I’ve given talks about it in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg. This month I will talk to a history class and a journalism class at the University of Mary Washington. Next month I’m at the Central Rappahannock library in Fredericksburg, and after that the Afro-American Historical Association in Fauquier County and the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

I’m making good use of my master’s degree research, when I studied how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I found accounts of maybe 50 of the 70 incidents that occurred in the state from 1880-1930, including the 1897 death of Joseph McCoy. A mob dragged McCoy from the jail in Alexandria and hanged him from a lamppost at the corner of Cameron and Lee streets. He had been accused of the assault of a child.

I talked to a videographer this week when I spoke at a program sponsored by Germanna Community College. I’m thinking about making a video of one of my talks and placing it on YouTube. Who knows? Maybe I’ve found a new career as a speaker.

A story of persistence is supposed to end this way

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Rick Pullen
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David Sam

David Sam asked an interesting question last week: Is it persistence or delusion that compels a person to write a book and work tirelessly to get it published?

I would answer persistence, and Sam would too. Persistence paid off for him.

Sam is president of Germanna Community College, in the Fredericksburg area, and a published poet. He and I and Rick Pullen, a Fredericksburg resident and the author of the political thriller Naked Ambition, were guests last week on Town Talk, Ted Schubel’s show on WFVA radio. We were there to talk about getting your first book published, which is the subject of a panel discussion that Germanna will host later this month.

Sam is the perfect person to moderate the panel. I was astounded to hear what he’s gone through to get published. He told the radio audience that he’s written poetry for 43 years and has submitted more than 600 poems or collections of poems for publication. Fewer than 100 were accepted. The former English professor maintains a spreadsheet to track his submissions and acceptances. “My success rate is 13.6 percent,” he said.

Sam said people ask him why he perseveres. “I would say I have no good answer,” he said. “For whatever reason, I need to write poetry.”

Last week Sam learned that a collection of 20 poems, Finite to Fail, was the grand prize winner in a national chapbook contest. It was his first contest prize, and it means that the poems will be published by GFT Press in Florida. It is an honor that he is obviously proud of and the reward for years of persistence.

PS:  The free Germanna program will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in downtown Fredericksburg. In addition to Sam, Pullen and me, the panelists will be Cory MacLauchlin, Howard Owen and Chris Jones.

You can listen to our appearance on Town Talk here.

 

How I published my book, in three easy steps

firstbookjA University of Mary Washington student wrote me recently to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the program that Germanna Community College is sponsoring next month on getting your first book published. Germanna invited me to be part of the program, and the student asked, “Could you lend me some of your advice on publishing?”

I had no idea how to answer a question like that, but I wanted to be helpful, so I told the student that if my experience qualifies as advice, I’d be happy to share it. So, here goes. This is how I got my book published, in three easy steps:

First, I wrote the book. Other writers may solicit a publisher on the strength of an idea and a completed first chapter. Not me. I had a 33,000-word nonfiction manuscript in hand when I began this journey.

Next, I sent cover letters and electronic copies of the work to three academic publications. I believed that’s where the manuscript belonged, but one after another, the three journals said no. In fact, the editor at the third one was dismissive of my scholarship and my writing. He hurt my feelings. I knew my research was solid, and I knew that my writing was 10 times better than the gibberish he published. But he was right. My work didn’t belong in his journal. It didn’t read like the other articles there, and it was three times as long. I realized then that my work was not a journal article but a book, a solid, general-interest history book. And that’s when I found History Press.

History Press, based in South Carolina, says it specializes in local and regional history, and that its books are soft-cover and shorter than most, with lots of pictures. That appealed to me. I went to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg and inspected several History Press books. They were handsome works, professionally made, and I could picture being published by them. I also studied the company’s catalog and found a niche where I might fit. I filled out their query form and attached a cover letter, saying that my book would work nicely under their “true crime” umbrella. They thought so too. I signed a contract, and about a year later, I had in hand The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

So to the UMW student, I say tell your story, then study the market for a publisher. Not just any publisher, but the best one for you. And, oh yes, the third and most important step: get up and try again after they knock you down, because they will.

Reflections of a first-time author-Part 2

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Howard Owen, a friend, author and former colleague, taught me to always carry my book in the car in case someone wants to buy it. Edie Gross, another former colleague, did just that last week. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

Andi Russell, who does the Books page at the Free Lance-Star, where I used to work, invited me to participate in a new feature called the Local Author Spotlight. The Spotlight asks 17 questions of the writer. Here’s a preview of two of my answers:

What I learned from the writing/publishing process:

I was surprised to learn of the writer’s place in the publishing process. I compare it to the groom’s place in a wedding. He’s essential but strictly a minor player. I expected the writer to be an important player since he or she is the creator, the one who starts the process, and upon whom all others depend.

He is at first, but that changes when he surrenders the text to the publisher. Then, like the groom, he’s basically told where to stand and what to say. I don’t mean this in any way to be a criticism of History Press, my publisher. They have behaved honorably from day one. It’s my fault that I was not better informed as to what would happen to me and my work once I signed a contract with them.

What I learned is that after the writer surrenders his or her manuscript, it becomes the publisher’s book. The publisher decides how much of the writer’s text to use, what the book will look like, what it will be called, when it will reach the public, what it will sell for, what the writer will be paid, when he will be paid, and who will sell the book. The writer may be consulted on these points, and even get to argue them, but the publisher has final say.

The publisher prints the book or creates a digital equivalent and then ships it to retailers, the second major player in the process. Again, I was surprised to learn that the retail arm of the process appears to be dominated by one company, Amazon. The others, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, keep one or two books on hand in their stores, then reorder one or two more when those are gone. I don’t know what percentage of my sales have been through Amazon, but I bet it is significant.

And so it is not surprising, when sales revenues are divided, that the author stands third in line behind the publisher and the retailer. My sense after being involved in this process for more than a year is that the $22 list price for my book is split roughly $12 (publisher), $8 (retailer) and $2 (author). Please tell me if I have the numbers wrong. It might make me feel better.

My advice for those trying to write:

Don’t be deterred by anything that I’ve said in answer to the question above. Write that darn book and get it published. It will make you very happy.

PS: Reflection of a first-time author, Part 1 can be seen here.

Preparing to launch

Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.
Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.

A sales specialist from History Press sent me an email yesterday titled “Getting your book into the market.” It’s the type of correspondence that I’ve been receiving from the company lately and an indication that it’s time to resume posting here about my book. Publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is still scheduled for Sept. 12, and judging by my mail, I’d be surprised if it was delayed.

Today’s email described how a regional sales team will be working to place the book in the national chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and in local stores. There are no bookstores in Warrenton or Fauquier County, Va., the setting for my story, so I have given History Press the names of local museums, visitor centers and gift shops, such as The Town Duck and Sherrie’s Stuff. I’d like to think a sales person would actually go from store to store on Main Street, trying to place my book. If that’s the case, God bless ‘em. More likely, they’ll use email and phone to make the contacts.

History Press also sent me a supply of business cards and “meet the author” posters, all bearing the book’s cover. Their representatives have asked me to list local reporters who might want to interview me, and any “author events” that I can attend. Finally, a marketing person asked me, “Have you thought about where you’d like to have your book launch?” He described the launch as “the initial large event to announce your book.” My friend Howard Owen had a book launch at a downtown wine bar. Maybe I will do that. Everybody talked and drank while Howard signed books. It was very nice.