A crazy thing happened the other day.
When I catch my students writing language similar to the previous sentence, I often ask them to think of the word “thing” as a great opportunity to replace a word with little meaning and instead insert words that reveal specific details, clarity, passion and power. Sometimes, however, either in the case of a monster or the inexplicable, “thing” does the trick.
“Happened” also is one of those words that says little, but there it is, and I wrote the sentence and apparently either my delete key no longer functions or I’m really at a loss for exactly what took place, how it took place, or any of what allegedly happened means.
Let me explain. And — I promise I shall try to quit speaking in such vague and useless terms.
Two weeks ago a juvenile sized wolverine of anxiety seemed to be trapped inside me. The wiry little beast appeared to be trying his best to claw his way out. I was worried about the eight million freshman compositions I needed to grade, the near impossible deadline for a new book I’m working on, and my first work of non-fiction’s publicity rollout in early March.
Anyone who has dealt with a trapped wolverine knows the end results won’t be pretty. I needed to be methodical about my approach if I was going to emerge unscathed and recognizable.
The eight million essays had to be graded. There was no way around that. I seriously considered outsourcing. If students can buy their essays online, couldn’t I have the same companies who wrote the essays, also just grade them? No. I had to grade the essays, just like I had to find the time to work on the new manuscript.
A big source of that concern eating at me was the new book deadline looming. Unless you’ve been actually living like a wolverine, completely isolated from the publishing industry, you know that publicity is now part of the author’s obligatory duties. A large part, if not all, of the publicity for a book can now fall on your hunched writer’s shoulders when a book comes out. I knew this from experience. For my first novel, The Raven’s Gift, I tried everything under the midnight sun to get the public to take notice. Despite the fact that I had a major publisher, and supposedly a PR person, I had little to no help whatsoever in promoting the book. Outside of printing and distributing the book, and getting one cool blurb from Craig Johnson, the big house did next to nothing. The reviews, the blurbs, the signings, the awards – all related to my efforts. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many books I sent out and gave away in hopes that some how I could reach that magic threshold of sales where publishers would consider a second novel from me.
For that first novel I tried everything to get the attention of readers in the Lower 48. Alaskans did their best to help me, too. Alaskan rock stars tweeted about the book. Alaskan television stars gave copies of the book to non-Alaskan television stars. I even went so far as to have my friend Pete Kaiser, an Iditarod musher, deliver the novel to the Nome library via dogsled!
With the new book I felt a renewed sense of obligation to try again, but this time, not for myself. I’m the co-author, and the book is about my friend Jimmy Settle. This is a story from his life, and a story of getting injured in service to our country. I couldn’t just sit back and do nothing, but at the same time, I also knew there was little to spread the news far and wide about a story that I think is pretty wild and inspirational.
Fortunately, we have a publicist who is working to help us, and St. Martins has been an incredible publisher. I wasn’t worried that they wouldn’t do their part, not at all. They seemed confident in their methods, and they had already placed an excerpt in a national magazine, and had an incredible distribution plan.
The publisher mails you a few advanced copies and I’d already given mine away with huge hopes and dreams behind each copy. I was hoping for blurbs or that “thing” that might help propel the book to a place it might get attention.
What was eating at me really boiled down to what would I do for this book? What could I do? Of course I would thrown a cool party (March 18th, 5pm Anchorage Brewing Company!) but that wouldn’t be enough. Jimmy deserved more. He deserved me putting my best foot forward. All my brain power needed to come up with the one idea that would capture lightening in a bottle, or at least a spark in a vial. Again, what was that “thing” that would propel our book to a best-seller?
I had no idea.
Then it hit me.
I had no idea.
The clock was ticking. This was the week of Feb 20th. The book would come out in two weeks. I was working behind the scenes. Doing what I did with my first book. Contacting my alma mater, and his high school, and dropping emails to my media contacts – but that was all Alaska, again, and the Lower 48 and all those readers seemed so far away and out of reach.
Then on Feb 22, Jimmy sent me a message. Short and sweet. His style. He wrote, “Just got done w/filmed Facetime with Casey… hopes to post the video this week.”
He was talking about Casey Neistat. A gifted and wildly famous filmmaker and tech and social media entrepreneur. Jimmy met Casey in Afghanistan. Jimmy was an Alaskan Pararescueman saving lives there, and Casey was there to film a documentary. The rest is a part of the story Casey would release the next day on YouTube to his six million followers and the rest of the world.
Now, I have to admit, I was really excited about this news, but I also tried to temper that excitement with my own healthy dose of skepticism. How many people would watch the video? And then how many of those people would actually buy the book? I mean, come on, they watch YouTube. Right? Those people don’t buy books. Do they?
Jimmy sent me a text at 8:32am the next morning and wrote, “Casey posted this today, and already has 15k views.”
By the time I checked my message and watched the video, at 8:48am we had over 125 thousand views.
At the end of the day the video was pushing one million, and I was eating an entire slice of humble pie. So it turns out those YouTubers were buying the book. The Amazon ranking, which any author knows is actually something you can’t really know or understand, was moving in reverse of the viewer stats. Rocketing up the charts, into the top 100 overall and #1 in several categories.
A week later and I still don’t know anything, but I can tell you that anxious wolverine is gone. We’ve gotten some amazing press coverage in the Seattle area where Jimmy lives and here in Alaska. For a few days a funny little Best-Seller flag appeared beside the book on Amazon. But I don’t know any actual sales numbers, or even what to expect that first week when the book is actually available. I guess I could be nervous that all those people who bought the book won’t actually like it, but I’m not likely to swallow another wolverine over those concerns. If they don’t like it, that’s Jimmy’s fault! I’ve got another book to write and now 7.9 million essays left to grade.
I’m late turning a few of essays back, but my students can really blame me right? After all, a crazy thing happened the other day.
Don Rearden is the co-author of Never Quit. Here is the video he mentioned in the blog post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFRGQGN8u1E&spfreload=5
(The video had 1,802,068 views when this was written….)
Don Rearden will join Brian Castner and Matthew Komatsu this Sunday, March 12, 2017, for our next Crosscurrents event, door 6:30pm, 7:00 start at 49th State Brewing Co., Barrel Room East, Anchorage.
Don and Jimmy will appear together at Fireside Books in Palmer on March 18, 2017.