The Road Traveled
edited: Sunday, June 29, 2003
By Kenny Kemp
Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2001
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How winning the Grand Prize in the Writers Digest National Self-Published Book awards changed everything
Five years ago I made good on a threat I’d been making for years: I wrote my first book, "I Hated Heaven." I knew nothing about writing a book. All I knew is I had a story to tell and I needed to tell it. I read every book I could find on writing, joined a writer’s group, sat at my computer for days on end, and ate, dreamed and lived my goal. Six months later I had the first draft of my novel completed. I rejoiced. Indeed, I must admit, I gamboled.
Then reality came a knockin’. A stack of rejection slips tall enough to cushion the fall of a 747. Condolences from my friends; baleful looks from my dog. And embarrassed looks from my mirror. The word was: my book sucked.
So I regrouped. What do they know? I demanded of the mirror. It just looked back at me. I knew—and it knew—that they usually know more than I. So was it true ? Was my book really that bad?
No way, I countered defensively. My friends and almost all of my siblings had read the book and they thought it was great—a real “roller coaster ride” raved a sister. But truth be told, I never gave the manuscript to my literate arch-nemesis, but why hand the headsman the ax he’s gonna use to chop off your head? What am I, nuts?
So I went to the temple for solace and worship. Barnes & Noble. Wandering the stacks I found myself prostrate (okay, just kneeling) before the Writing section. And there, on the bottom two rows, were a dozen books on self-publishing. And a chord sounded in my soul, a magnificent thirteenth, full of possibility and hope. Inside of one second I had mulled it over, considered the costs and rewards, and made up my mind: I was going to self-publish my novel.
All I needed was $10,000, eighty hours a week, an iron stomach, and a lobotomy.
I found a good but inexpensive book designer. An artist friend illustrated the cover. I read and re-read the book until I was sick of it—and I still missed typos. I sent out RFQs to twenty printers. I joined Publisher’s Marketing Association. I read books on marketing, learned what a “signature” is and how much leading looks good. And one day the books arrived, five thousand of ‘em. And then the work really began.
I located a distributor, got in touch with wholesalers, and began introducing myself to bookstore managers. I sent 500 books out for review. I made phone calls, did radio interviews, wasted money on a $3,500 full page ad in a magazine nobody ever heard of, and managed to get a starred review in School Library Journal.
And I sold books. Out of the trunk of my car, out of my backpack, to my family, friends, and total strangers. I attended book fairs, sat behind a table at a hundred bookstores, trying not to feel arrogant and foolish at the same time. I designed flyers, mailed out postcards, held self-publishing seminars in libraries, and talked on the phone to book reviewers. And I sold books.
10,000 of ‘em.
While the ink was still wet on my first press run, I ordered my second. And I started writing my second book because the only way to not go crazy about how well your first book is doing is to become a schizophrenic: spend half your time promoting your first book and the other half writing your next one.
This time I wrote "Dad Was A Carpenter," a memoir about growing up under the stern and watchful eye of my father, a quiet, unassuming do-it-yourself guy who could rethink, repair, reuse or recycle almost anything. It’s the story of how I cleaned out his garage after his death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and the four tons of memories I pulled out of there. It was an emotional book to write, but I needed to do it. I didn’t really think it would touch anyone else.
Yet everyone who read the book said they knew someone just like my dad. I always thought my family was weird and unique. Turns out I was only half right.
I attended my first BEA convention in Los Angeles, stunned as I stood in the huge Convention Center, surrounded by the entire book business, feeling once again arrogant and foolish. And strangely at home. I can do this, I murmured to myself as I made my way through the crowds to my distributor’s booth, where I was to do a book signing. It doesn’t matter if no one has ever heard of my book or me. It’s great just to be here!
As I walked up the aisle where Origin Books was supposed to be, I saw a long line of people waiting. I wondered who they were waiting for. Then someone said, “He’s here!” and some guy with a TV camera turned on the strobe and I was blinded for a second. Hands reached out for me, pulling me forward. People were patting me on the back. “That’s him!” someone said, and I could feel a hundred eyes on me.
And then it hit me. They were waiting for me. But I didn’t see the crowd or anything else. All I saw were three hundred of my books, stacked high, waiting. I was relieved, because the book had just arrived from the printer that morning—I’d never even seen it yet. I held it in my hands, turning it over and over, amazed at how beautiful it was. Then I looked up and saw fifty faces smiling at me, people who somehow understood what I was feeling at that moment. And instead of feeling arrogant and foolish, I felt proud and vindicated.
And in the next six months we sold 20,000 copies.
A few months later I received a call from Writer’s Digest, informing me I had just won the Grand Prize in the National Self-Published Book Awards competition for "Dad Was A Carpenter."
The day the magazine came out, my phone started ringing. A dozen A-list agents were calling, asking for copies of the book, interested in representing me. I chose the most tenacious one, the one who talked frankly and energetically about my book. The one who sat down and read it the moment he got it in the mail.
And a month later we had a six-figure deal with HarperCollins for reprint rights to my little book about my unheralded father.
This June I went to BEA in Chicago, one of just three authors sent by my publisher. I signed books alongside the big shot authors. I spoke at the PMA Publisher’s University about my experiences. And I secured another major deal for my newest book "The Welcoming Door."
I scaled my job back to part-time. I went to Israel to do research for a new book. I get email from people asking my opinion on story ideas. I judged a category in this year’s Writer’s Digest 2001 National Self-Published Book Awards. And I write. A lot. And it’s fun. I’m living my dream.
It will. If you don’t give up. Write from your heart, write the truth, and never stop writing. Remember: arrogance and foolishness are essential qualities of the self-published author.
A lobotomy doesn’t hurt, either.
Web Site: Kenny Kemp's Studio
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