I have a book coming out in April called Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin (And Other Delusions of Grandeur). It’s a lot like my last book – only funnier.
A 20-Year History
Over the last 20 years, I’ve used The Week Behind as my personal podium to express just about every opinion I ever had on politics, technology and pop culture. I’ve covered five presidential campaigns as its chief political correspondent, reviewed books, showed how to make home movies, and two years ago collected my Bucktown stories into Never Leave Your Block, a book that, as you might imagine, didn’t have a lot of sales outside Chicago.
But there are a lot of weeks in 20 years, so Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin is a collection of stories I wrote to fill the gaps. (And nothing fills a void better than writing about growing up.) These are the stories I had the most fun writing, and I hope you will have the same fun reading.
It’s Not About Skiing
First off, I should tell you: it’s not about skiing. It’s about growing up––and the pleasure of coming of age in a place that has no pretense. The logline I’ve settled on to sell this book is that Wisconsin isn’t a state, it’s a state of mind; and gentle good humor is the coin of the realm.
The title takes its name from the opening essay about learning to ski on a 200-foot high mountain in Wisconsin called Little Switzerland. But the rest of the book is just stuff you never knew you needed to know about rocks, truffles, men’s colognes, paperclips, Disneyland, Barbie dolls, my short-lived career in semi-pro baseball, and other youthful misadventures. In my recollections, I trust you will find your own. But you’ll probably have to read the book to see what I mean.
A Train of Thought
I’ve always thought of a story as a train of thought. What holds this book together is that all 30 of these trains ran through my brain at one time or another – and never collided. Why a book? Because in this digital age, its hard enough to keep track of your own tweets, much less sift through the slush pile of things you wrote in The Week Behind over the last 20 years to find that thing you wrote about the disappearing wayside.
Books on paper seem to last longer than the latest digital software used to create them. (How many of you can read your old Wordstar documents?) Recognizing that, my friend Bruce Bendinger helped me establish a publishing imprint called Dead Tree Press to preserve our digitally created product.
Before I decided to self-publish, I sent pitch letters to over 50 agents asking them to help me find a traditional publisher. Forty-nine of the 50 rejected the manuscript sight unseen. “I like the title, but I can’t sell story collections,” one of the kinder rejection letters said. So I decided to publish it myself – hardly a new concept.
The book trade publications are full of stories about how self-publishers are driving a stake through the heart of the publishing establishment. With ebooks and print on demand services, book blogs and social networking, The Big Five in publishing — Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Random House Penguin and Simon & Schuster –– are reeling under the onslaught of digital competition.
According to Bowker, which manages ISBN numbers, there were 391,000 self-published titles 2012, just under half the ISBN numbers issued. Never mind that 90 percent of them don’t sell over 600 copies. Getting books to print has never been easier, and the vagaries of the Internet allow for anyone, with a little luck, to catch lightning in a bottle.
Amazon vs. The Bookstores
The disruptive force behind self-publishing has been Amazon. It now accounts for 60 percent of all books sold and has spread its tentacles up and down the literary food chain. It offers everything from print-on-demand services through its subsidiary Createspace, to free ebook conversions through Kindle Direct, to crowd-sourced reviews through its recent acquisition of Goodreads.
No one can publish a book without having a presence on Amazon, but there’s a problem here: What the book industry calls “discoverability.” Sure it’s easy to put up your book on Amazon, but how is a reader going to find it among the 6 million books Amazon lists in its database?
The show window for books is a bookstore. And your best salesman is the clerk behind the counter who dutifully made coffee for the six people who attended your reading. But he was listening nonetheless, and if he liked what he heard, he’ll be in that store the next week when a customer asks him what’s new, and he might say, “Well we had this guy here the other night” . . . and sell a copy or two.
It’s fortunate that the small press department of Barnes & Noble has taken my book under wing and that most of the independent bookstores in Wisconsin like the title enough to stock a dozen or so copies. In film terms, I’m doing a platform release with this book. But will it sell outside Wisconsin? In places that don’t have snow?
Writing a book is a solitary occupation. Selling one is not. I could not have published Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin without the assistance of editors, book designers, publicists, and other “consultants” – a word too often applied these days to knowledgeable book people let go in the overall downsizing of the industry. There are tricks of the trade, and these people know them.
Left to my own devices, I would have put this book up on Amazon in a New York minute. In fact, it has taken more than a year to put together the jigsaw puzzle that brings it to you as a hardcover ($27.95), a paperback ($14.95) and an ebook ($9.95) that, on iPads and advanced Kindle Readers, weaves video into the narrative.
My sales strategy may look on the surface like a touch football play where the quarterback calls his buddies into the huddle and says, “Okay, everybody out.”
But there a sequence of steps involved: content editing, proofreading, interior design, cover design, ebook design, advance reader copies, more proofreading, printer specifications, distributor agreements, press releases and publicity tours.
The Big Five don’t do those anymore for anyone other than best-selling authors. But if you publish a book yourself, be prepared to stuff a bunch of them in the trunk of your car and sell it yourself.
Plugging My Book
I’ll be out plugging my book over the next couple months. That’s what you do in the new world of publishing, no matter how big or small your publisher is. I’ll be having launch parties in Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison the first week of April, then reading and signing books at any bookstore or library that will have me. “If you don’t sell your book, no one else will,” a friend who has been down this road himself told me.
I’ll answer any question about the book except what it’s about. It’s just a train yard full of old trains of thought. But if you ever wondered what happened to the guy who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” I think you’ll find it interesting.
And if you like it, tell a friend. That’s hand-selling in the jargon of the book trade. That’s what booksellers do that Amazon can’t.