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Writers and published authors in recent years have seemed to spring up in Shelby County like so many tobacco or corn plants, as if our soil suddenly were fertilized with nouns, verbs and adjectives rather than the nitrogen that has made our crops so famous.
Literary storehouses suddenly seem to be stocked with our words as wares, as souls are bared, minds are mined and the messages of lifetimes spill onto pages for distribution to the masses. Shelby Countians of many vintages and vantage points have joined millions of authors across the nation who try to capture our attention with printed pages and digital readers, seeking mass distribution, even if they have to dip into their own pockets to ensure that their dreams of being published are fulfilled.
They are historians, chroniclers, people with experiences from the platforms of life, story spinners and novelists of life, legend and even espionage, but all of them share one basic, undeniable core value: They have a story they have to get out, no matter what it takes or costs.
Some are journalists, such as veteran columnist Byron Crawford and his son Eric, who recently cowrote a guide-to-life book with University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, or veteran publisher William Matthews, who just announced another coffee-table volume to preserve the historical images of our county. Drew Howell left the military and wrote novels. Walter Herd came home from Afghanistan and told what he had learned and what that meant. Others have tackled religion, legend and true crime.
But, by and large, Shelby Countians who have ventured down the literary paths are just your neighbors who have a story in their souls and a mission in their hearts.
“To me it is a creative outlet; it is like breathing,” said Tracy Gayle of Shelbyville, a mother of four and an elementary school teacher whose second novel, Valerie, Jean & Me, was released earlier this year. “I don’t play sports,” she said, “and I don’t watch TV. I write – and I could not imagine not.”
Jim Miller, a native of the Clark Station area who now lives in New Orleans, perhaps represents all the archetypes. He started to write as a high school student for the old Shelby News, edited the campus newspaper at the University of Kentucky and was a sports writer at the top of his profession before opportunity lured him to the other side of the interview into professional and college sports management.
“I completed my first manuscript when I was 36,” said Miller, now 65. “But it sat on a shelf for twenty-five years.”
And then there is retired Marine Brig. Gen. Ronald R. Van Stockum, who took up writing books, serious writing 22 years ago, at age 75. Now 97, he’s about to publish his fourth book, based on his newspaper columns about his experiences as an officer in the South Pacific during World War II.
“It’s a good thing I don’t have to make a living writing,” he said.
A million books
Gayle, Miller and Van Stockum – and all the others – are not alone. Forbes reports that between 600,000 and 1 million books are published each year in the United States. Most of them don’t sell more than 250 copies a year or 3,000 in a lifetime. Many of them have been converted to digital formats. Eric Crawford, for instance, compiled his reports for WDRB.com on the University of Louisville’s magical championship basketball season into an E-book.
But all of them share the words, the stories and the passion – and an inherent desire to be successful, to be the next John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell while seeing first hand that the course to success is so difficult to achieve.
“A writer is never happy with his sales,” said Miller, who in 2012 published When The Water Kept Rising, about how the effects of Hurricane Katrina decimated the athletic program he was leading at the University of New Orleans and changed his life. “I have a good friend whose best-seller was on the New York Times list and has sold three point two million copies, and he's disappointed he's not at five million.”
C. Hope Clark is a novelist in South Carolina – author of the Carolina Slade mystery series – but she also counsels thousands of would-be writers on her Web site, www.fundsforwriters.com, through a newsletter and in a help book she produced, The Shy Writer Reborn.
“Daily someone asks me a question about publishing, whether it's about finding an agent or how to select a self-publishing entity, how to format an ebook or how to find a graphic artist for a cover, how to locate a good editor or how to upload through CreateSpace,” she said. “The publishing business is so diversified these days, with so many options, that many writers are stymied by so many choices.”
How they do it
But let’s start at the beginning: How writers get started and how they developed their paths to being published.
Since Miller wrote his first book, he now has completed two more. Van Stockum, since he was 30, had published articles in military and historical publications, but in 1991, he published his first book, Kentucky and the Bourbons: the Story of Allen Dale Farm.
“Because of the national and international involvement of Allen Dale Farm and those associated with it, it was necessary to conduct painstakingly research in courthouses here and in archives here and abroad,” he said. “A great deal of travel was necessary to obtain information that is now readily available on the Internet.
“At my age, time and energy are reduced, and I estimate that fifty percent of that is devoted to writing.”
Said Miller: “When you have a ‘day job,’ you write when you can, mostly nights and on weekends. Since I ‘retired’ in 2009 from having to report to an office every day, I write every day, all day and have completed three books since then. My routine now is to get up at 6:30, have a cup of coffee, go on a 5-mile run, shower, eat a bowl of cereal and be at my desk at 8:30. I usually write or research until about 6 with a 30-minute timeout for a lunchtime smoothie.”
Gayle said she started writing when she was 16 but didn’t really get into her first novel, Tilt-A-Whirl, until 1999, when she was on maternity leave. And the way she described the writing process, childbirth might be an appropriate metaphor.
“Diving into the life of a character – writing their life as I saw the trials and complications they would face,” she said. “Constantly having them grow and change – I never want my readers to know exactly what to expect. So, character development – creating real people – is very important to me.
“I may write a small scene that evolves into a complication for the character…that evolves into a book. I am constantly adding layers of revisions. My first novel was ten years of the writing process. My second novel was two years. When I finally edit and have to let it go to become its own life – it is quite difficult to release all of those people- my characters that I have grown to love.”
The path to publishing
From idea to passion to manuscript in many ways would seem the easier aspects of publishing. Actually getting into print and getting the book to readers has become a delicate waltz through complex processes, dollars and just plain sense. Some authors have been graced with opportunity, but others simply have paid their own way to get into print.
“As a member of the board of the Filson Club, now The Filson Historical Society, I had given several talks on this subject, and the Filson agreed to publish the book [his first] as one of their series of publications,” Van Stockum said. “The first edition of five hundred copies sold out, and the club recouped its cost. I then published another edition, at my expense, and it recovered costs.”
Van Stockum said he didn’t use an agent – although he admits that might have been useful after that first book – and Gayle developed a relationship with Motes Books. Miller found his way through the process via a variety of paths.
“With my first book, I could not find an agent or publisher, so I partnered with a regional publisher who liked the story of my years as athletic director at the University of New Orleans before, during and after Katrina,” he said. “My first novel attracted my first agent, who I met at a writers conference. The conference provided for agents to review your work, and if they liked it, they would offer a contract.”
Said Gayle: “Kate Larken of Motes Books, she has mentored me, taught me, and challenged me to always be better. She has this incredible eye for characters. She is a natural storyteller. I am incredibly blessed to have such a strong working relationship with Motes.”
To self-publish or….
Clark said would-be authors have to study both self-publishing and the traditional world and to know the ins and outs of both to make the best decision.
“These days, people want a fast solution to publishing, and when they see how long traditional may take, they jump on self-publishing,” she said. Sure, they give other reasons, such as being in charge of their destiny, making more money, and so on. But not having studied all their options, they really don't know what's best.
“Self-publishing is great for some authors, and great for certain books, but usually I see someone choosing self-publishing because they have to know less and not wait long to see it through.“
And she said she is often asked whether to self-publish or try to traditionally publish, “which is like asking a third party who you ought to marry, in my opinion. Nobody can make that decision but you.”
Van Stockum said his second book, Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, lost money because the print run was too large.
“On Remembrances of World Wars [his third], using the new ‘Print on Demand’ procedure, I printed fewer copies and broke even,” he said. “In my current book, Coming to Kentucky, I also expect to break even. Of course I don’t count the hundreds of hours I spend doing the writing, editing, proofing, etc.”
Said Miller: “The ‘profit’ for most authors is the love of doing what you want to do and the satisfaction of a good effort. The first book has been an ‘artistic’ success, but I'm glad I don't have to feed my family on it. I expect greater things from my next book, which I am just finishing up.”
Market, market, market
Clark says marketing is the key to feeding the family.
“But sales determine everything – in both avenues – and there are not enough excuses out there to justify why your book doesn't sell other than it wasn't promoted well or wasn't written well,” she said. “Either way you publish, you can fix that, but you have to do some detailed homework to understand the demands of both sides.”
Gayle, Van Stockum and Miller have made appearances at the Kentucky Book Festival, and Van Stockum and Gayle have been invited to return to Frankfort this fall. But each has taken different approaches to marketing.
Gayle and Miller have Web sites and social media presences – which Van Stockum said he would’ve embraced “if I were younger” – but each has tried a lot of avenues to get their faces – and their book jackets – in front of potential readers and buyers.
“As a salesman, I couldn't sell a Playboy magazine on an Army base, so I have to work hard at this aspect,” Miller said. “I have paid for advertising, which did not get back the investment, but I have found the most attractive audience for my book is speaking engagements. My twenty years in the NFL, ten of it with the [New Orleans] Saints, still gives me some name recognition in New Orleans. The most consistent source of sales is when I do a lot of Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and church and civic organizations.
“I always take a box of books and have had success autographing and selling them at those events. I also am a ‘go-to’ guy for local TV stations on NFL developments, and I see a little sales tick whenever I'm on TV. I also try to do as many book fairs as I can, such as the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.”
Said Gayle: “I am always thinking of ways to share my work. I try to do one big event a month. I find that personally contacting bookstores for reading is helpful. I recently had reading at two independent bookstores in Florida.”
Their books are sold in a variety of outlets – on Amazon.com, for instance, and in independent bookstores. Van Stockum uses the historical societies and even Bridwell Terhune’s barber shop as marketing locations.
“Market, market, market!,” he said. “Regardless of the quality of the work, the publishers are looking for best sellers and are not likely to take a chance of publishing a good book that is not likely to sell. Perhaps the only advantage of self-publishing is that it is your book, not edited by the publisher to further sales.”
And self-published books that do fare well in sales bring the potential to attract traditional publisher, Clark said.
“Self-publishing done well can lead to that exposure to a publishing house.,” she said. “Not necessarily for that book but for the next book. To get attention as a self-published author, you have to sell a lot of books, literally thousands. Anything less, and you are not taken seriously, and understandably so. There is a lot of ego exercising going on out there, but there are some gems to be unearthed as well. Publishers and agents know that, and they keep an eye on self-published books doing great things. But just posting the book for sale without receiving sales numbers and great promo will most likely just land you some monthly going-out-to-eat money. This is a business, and you park your artsy side at the door when it comes down to earning a living at writing.”
Perhaps that’s why Gayle, ever the romanticist in her writing, also can be realist.
“Less people read today,” she said. “Look around. Everyone is on their phone. We live in a society of instant gratification – and less people are reading. I even attend book fairs where people stop at my booth and say – ‘I don't read.’ This saddens me because I think they just have not found what they like to read and soared.
“But don't let this stop you. And don't do it for the money. If you are doing it for the money, forget it. Do it because you have a story to tell. The readers will find you.”