Self-publishing was not my first choice for Setting the Hook, a Diver’s Return to the Andrea Doria; not by a long shot.
I was fortunate to have had my first nonfiction book, Angles of Attack, an A-6 Intruder Pilot’s War, accepted by a traditional publishing house (Ballantine Books imprint, Random House) in 2002 with modest effort, and I fully expected the same when it came time to circulate the proposal for Setting the Hook.
It was only much later that I came to realize how lucky my first experience in publishing had been.
Only through a series of fortuitous coincidences did that first manuscript find its way into the hands of a reputable agent, an agent who loved the book and aggressively shopped it to the big New York houses. The book was picked up in less than a year and my understanding of the normal publishing experience would be severely skewed for quite a while during my follow on efforts to get other works published.
After Angles of Attack was published, my agent worked Setting the Hook in traditional industry fashion and the manuscript sat idle on my desk while I gave fiction writing a try.
We received multiple “close but no cigar” turn-downs by traditional publishers over the next two years and my agent gradually lost interest in the project. The first draft of my foray into fiction fell flat with my agent (and thankfully so; it was awful), and communications slowed to a stop between us.
Then, in 2005, my life circumstance abruptly changed forever when I was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at age 43.
My primary career as an airline pilot was over in an instant due to the loss of my medical clearance to fly commercially. I took on various part time jobs, went to graduate school, and took care of the kids while my wife traveled frequently for her work.
For the next several years I tinkered editorially and stylistically with Setting the Hook, but focused my efforts almost entirely on getting the original version of the manuscript published, first through the few larger houses that did not require an agent, and eventually by unsuccessfully trying to gain new representation.
I lowered my sites. Two verbal acceptances by small independent publishers were rescinded almost immediately for vague reasons that were never fully explained to me (in both situations I’m guessing the editorial patriarch said “yes,” but was overridden by the young heir apparent on the editorial board).
It was only later that I realized how closely my desperate efforts to get virtually anyone to publish Setting the Hook mirrored my handling of the Parkinson’s diagnosis; I was in denial about both.
To be fair, initially it seemed reasonable to deny both problems: medication mitigated most of the Parkinson’s physical symptoms for the first several years of treatment, and the original version of Setting the Hook was a fairly good true adventure story with a smattering of history.
After about four years of not truly examining the underlying meaning of my health situation or Setting the Hook as anything more than an exciting story, I had an epiphany of sorts; the two issues were not simply related, they were the same. Both the story I was telling and the life I was living were shallow, passive observations leading nowhere of substance or value.
I stopped flitting in random directions and began to direct my energy toward producing less heat and more light in understanding both.
Over the course of the next two years I completely rewrote Setting the Hook; not the chronology, structure, or events – they were all fine. I took a hard look inward and gave Setting the Hook the only truly important component of any book: I gave it a soul.
Through the process I came to understand my disease and my life more clearly. I’m still a long, long way from truly knowing myself, or anything, for that matter, but I’m confident that understanding the past is a worthy start.
I do have a point to all this squishy philosophic mumbo-jumbo: the process of re-writing Setting the Hook made my publishing decision easy.
I no longer cared a great deal about achieving the lofty hubris of knighted credibility bestowed by traditional publishing. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still fall back to old, bad habits and patterns, such as subconsciously defining the worth of the book and me as a person in terms of sales or reviews or critiques.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good review and hate a negative one, but I try to catch myself, not lose perspective, and – occasionally – I’m even successful.
I decided that it was pointless to split my focus between improving Setting the Hook and trying to break back into the New York publishing world, which at a minimum would delay the project for years, might go nowhere, and would in no way make the book any better. I was confident in the story and wanted to own the entire publishing process without the concern of an outside editor muddying the creative or marketing waters.
There was no question in my mind when the re-write was complete. I can open Setting the Hook today, a year and a half later, and find nothing of substance that I would change. That did not mean, however, that the copy editing was anywhere near finished, which was my first lesson in self-publishing – despite being my second book, I hadn’t a clue as to the depth of the publishing process.
I re-read word by word, line by line, page by excruciating page the entire book about twenty times making copy edits. My third to last effort yielded about fifty changes; the second to last about twenty; and even the final run through picked up probably five or six errors, things like a stray “em” dash where I had decided to use all “en” dashes for consistency and to resolve pagination issues.
Scrupulously re-reading twenty times a manuscript that had essentially been complete for ten years is not easy work.
Marketing is all on me and it has been daunting, fun, tedious, embarrassing, and endless. At first, nothing seems to gain traction, and then, somewhere between the second and thirtieth independent marketing plan, it suddenly becomes clear that no single effort will ever miraculously gain traction.
Over the past year and a half I have given presentations on early technical diving and the Andrea Doria to as few as five and as many as 150-200 people across the country (fun), done many book signings (embarrassing and tedious), built a reasonable following on Facebook and through a web page (fun and tedious and embarrassing), received eight professional online and print magazine reviews in addition to Kirkus (all of which have been miraculously positive), and many, smaller scale marketing attempts (daunting), with an end result of steady but not particularly earth shattering sales.
Book sales revenue has paid for all my travel expenses over the past 18 months with a bit left over, which is still more than I made going the traditional route and selling 26,000 mass market copies of Angles of Attack. If Setting the Hook never really takes off as a commercial success, I’m just fine with the memories and have absolutely no regrets.
I’ve read that it takes two years of committed marketing if a book is to have any real chance at breaking out. It might be more difficult for non-fiction; I don’t know. I plan on sticking it out with active marketing for this final six months, and then let the chips fall where they may.
I am proud of my latest book, but far more importantly, I honestly believe in Setting the Hook’s value independently of any commercial considerations.