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The Road Traveled

The winner of the 1999 Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards talks about the journey that led him to publishing success.
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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 books. All I knew was I had a story to tell, and I needed to tell it. I read everything 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. I pumped my fists into the air like Rocky. Indeed, I must admit, I even brayed triumphantly at the moon. Then, reality came a-knockin'—a stack of rejection slips tall enough to cushion the fall of a 747. I received 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 I knew the mirror knew, that others usually know more than me. 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 one of my sisters. Truth be told, I never gave the manuscript to my literary archnemesis-the person whose judgment I feared the most. Why hand the headsman the ax he's gonna use to chop off my head? What am I, nuts?

So I went to the temple—Barnes & Noble—for solace and worship. Wandering the stacks, I found myself prostrate (OK, just kneeling) before the writing section. And there, on the bottom two rows, were a dozen books on self-publishing. A chord sounded in my soul—a magnificent, clustered 13th chord, 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, 80 hours a week, an iron stomach and a lobotomy.

The writer: A publisher
After I decided to self-publish I Hated Heaven, I began the process by finding a good, but inexpensive, book designer. An artist friend illustrated the cover. I read and reread the book until I was sick of it—and I still missed typos. I sent out requests for quotations (a list of particulars a publisher submits to get a printing bid) to 20 printers. I joined Publishers Marketing Association. I read books on marketing, learned what a "signature" is and how much leading looks good. Then one day the books arrived— 5,000 of 'em—and 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 ad in a magazine nobody ever heard of, and in December 1998 I managed to get a starred review in School Library Journal.

And I sold books— 10,000 of 'em. I sold copies 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 fliers, mailed out postcards, held self-publishing seminars in libraries and talked on the phone to book reviewers.

The writer: A schizophrenic
In the fall of 1998, while the ink was still wet on my first press run, I ordered my second. I also started writing my second book because the only way to not go crazy about how well your first book is doing is to go crazy and 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 found four tons of memories. It was an emotional book to write, but I needed to do it. I didn't really think it would touch anyone else.

The writer: A proud man
In June 1999, I attended my first BookExpo America convention. I stood slack-jawed in the convention center, surrounded by the entire book business, feeling arrogant and foolish, yet strangely at home. "I can do this," I whispered to myself as I made my way through the crowds to my distributor's booth, where I was scheduled to do a signing. "It doesn't matter if no one has ever heard of my book or me. I can do this."

As I walked up the aisle where my distributor, Origin Books, was supposed to be, I saw a long line of people. I wondered for whom they were waiting. 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 300 copies of my book, stacked high and waiting to be signed. I was relieved to see the copies because the book had just arrived from the printer that morning—I hadn't 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 50 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.

In the next six months, I sold 20,000 copies of Dad Was a Carpenter.

The writer: A success
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 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 guy who talked most frankly and energetically about my book, the one who sat down and read it the moment he got it in the mail.

A month later I had a six-figure deal with HarperCollins for reprint rights to Dad Was a Carpenter.

In April 2001, I attended BEA again—one of just three authors sent by HarperCollins. I signed books alongside the big-shot authors. If that wasn't enough, shortly after I returned from BEA, I signed with HarperCollins for three new books, the first of which is called The Welcoming Door, and is due out Christmas 2002.

As a result of everything, I've scaled back my day job (I'm not nuts enough to quit—yet), I went to Israel to do research, I get e-mail from people asking my opinion on their manuscripts and I was asked to be judge the 2000 Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards. And I write—a lot. It's fun. I'm living my dream.

Sound familiar? 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.

Why They Win: 5 Things Award-Winning Books Have in Common
1. Cover. You have two seconds to grab a reader, so make your cover intriguing. Get blurbs from experts or famous authors, and don't forget to affix the gold seal that announces the awards your book has won.

2. Title. If you're not famous, you need a great title. I wrote a novel called I Hated Heaven. Coupled with a painting of wilted angel wings, a broken harp and a bent halo, this title did what my name could not—it attracted attention. Consider the titles of your favorite books. The best titles ask questions and prompt thought.

3. Layout. The dos: Lots of white space on the page. Large, justified margins. 12-point Times Roman text. The don'ts: No flowery acknowledgments, and no distracting dingbats. Keep it simple.

4. Organization. An organized book is a pleasure to read, and metaphors are a wonderful way to organize your thoughts and give depth to your writing. In my book Dad Was a Carpenter, I used tool woodcuts at the beginning of each chapter as metaphors for my dad's life. Find the proper metaphor for your writing and organization of your book.

5. Length. If your story is The Illiad, so be it. However, I would wager that whatever you are saying, you can say it more succinctly. That's why an editor is so important. A short, concise book says to the reader: Your time is valuable, so I won't waste any of it.

KENNY KEMP was the winner of the 1999 Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards. His winning book, Dad was a Carpenter, bought by HarperCollins.

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