I want to tell you a story. No, not one I wrote, one I lived. This story is an illustration of a lifetime of reading, and a story that I bet you read and say, “Why, yes, I remember a book like that.” This story illustrates the seismic changes that we have witnessed. And at the end, there are two messages of hope, one that you may not have thought of.
I want to tell you the story of this shirt. Guaranteed, if you follow this tale you will come out with hope for your chances of finding an audience.
When I was between the 6th and 7th grades my parents moved from Fullerton to El Segundo, CA. For those of you who are non-California readers, that’s right next door to LAX. It could have been an awful summer — shy kid who knows nobody, no school to provide classmates — but it was saved by the El Segundo Public Library, a city institution that was then and is now nothing less than wonderful. I devoured the YA (Children’s back then) science fiction (and I have to give a shout out to the librarian who did that book selection — Heinlein, Asimov, Alice May Norton writing as Andre Norton, all great stories). Anyway, after that was done one of the librarians said, “Here, try this. You might like it,” and handed me Hot Rod by Henry Gregor Felsen. I loved it and it started a lifelong love of hot cars. And parts of it stuck with me.
Fast forward to 1981.
I was reading Stephen King’s masterpiece It. In the part of the story set in the 1950’s, during a summer vacation, one of the kids who is new in town goes to the library in Derry, Maine. One of the librarians says, “Here, try this, you might like it,” and hands him Hot Rod by Henry Gregor Felsen. While reading King’s novel, absorbed in the story, it didn't click at first, but a couple of pages later a chill ran up my spine and it hit me. Hot Rod?!? I flipped back and, yeah, same title. Could it be the same book? Now, for you younger readers the Internet was only a gleam in DARPA’s eye, so there was no easy way to check, so I basically forgot it until . . .
Fast forward to 1984.
In an interview King tells the story and, yeah, it's the same book. When I read the interview I thought “That’s interesting,” which, while true, certainly misses the larger implications.
One more fast forward, this time all the way.
The Internet has burst upon an unsuspecting world.
And the Net changes everything. As a bona fide car guy I’m on email lists and one day there it is, Hot Rod, by Henry Gregor Felsen. I show my wife, saying, “I remember this book!” And on my birthday, the book and the shirt show up. She went to the web site and ordered them for me. Hot Rod was reborn because publishing no longer requires a 100,000-copy press run and a huge advertising budget, and because Felsen’s daughter loved the book and is a talented artist who gave it a new cover.
So what does this mean to you? You who may be struggling with a novel that you sweated over but cannot find a home for. You who are thinking about a novel but wonder if it will sell.
It means two things, one that you probably know, and one that may not have occurred to you.
First, you can get your book published. It may be a very small, electronic-only press, but it can be done.
It’s possible to publish a book with a small budget. The gatekeepers of the Big Six publishing houses are not gone, but like Bud Crayne in Hot Rod, you can skip them, speed past on the highway. You pays your money and you take your chances. That’s the cliché of modern publishing.
Okay, that’s common knowledge but here’s the other part, which I think is at least equally important and which may not have occurred to you.
Your book never goes away. Once that electronic edition is done it can live on the cloud, on servers, on tablets, and on smartphones forever.
In case the importance of that hasn't sunk in, I did some research on just how bookstores handle paperback originals by unknown writers. For starters, keep in mind that shelf space is like gold, so unknowns won’t get face-out so people can see the cover. And depending on sales, after a few weeks, the unsold books are stripped and the covers returned to the publisher. I clearly remember visiting the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore and seeing a large trash can full of paperbacks, all without covers, sitting outside. In the rain. I still feel the horror, the horror.
So here’s the other message. That won’t happen to your Kindle edition.
It should be a message of hope. It's not easy, but if you work at it you will find an audience. Felsen’s daughter correctly believed in Hot Rod and with its new, improved cover it found a new generation of readers. And the shirt helped promote the book.
Along with everything else, the digital revolution has changed publishing. It is possible to do it yourself or with a very small organization, and find an audience. And once it's out there, your book will live, almost certainly longer than it would on the shelves of a bookstore.
“Okay, okay, I get it. There’s a path, there’s hope, my electronic edition will live forever. But what do I do next?”
Well, for starters you’re on the right track reading this blog. Part of this seismic change is the development of communities of folks with common interests, like writing fiction. You’re in the right place.
Look up Robert A. Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing. They are as true now as they were in 1947.
Want to read more thoughts on libraries? See the Writers In the Storm entry, For Love of a Library by Ella Joy Olsen.
For detailed tips on dealing with this changed landscape, see 7 Things Authors Must Do Differently in 2017, by Penny Sansevieri also in this blog. (And while you’re at it, stop a moment and marvel at just how effortless it is to find those sources.)
And . . . Write. That’s all there is to it.
As the hero of Hot Rod, Bud Crayne says, “Forget your brakes. The way out of almost any tight spot is power.” Just write.
And that shy kid who read Hot Rod? Why, his Surf City Mysteries are on the shelves of the same library.
I wanted to tell you a story. Now it's your turn.
We all have books that were important to us when we were starting this writing adventure, stories that we read that made us say, “I want to do that.” For Stephen King, Felsen’s tale of teenage speed influenced him. What was it for you? There’s somebody out there who will read what you say and go find the book and, just like Hot Rod, it will live.
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James R. Preston is the author of the award-winning Surf City Mysteries. The most recent is Sailor Home From Sea. He is finishing the second of a projected trilogy of novellas set at Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s. The next Surf City Mystery is called Remains To Be Seen and will be available in 2017. His work has been selected for the UC Berkeley Special Collection, California Detective Fiction. And when he needs inspiration for a great opening, he looks at a Jayne Ann Krentz.