In Defense of Self-Promotion: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

There’s no getting around promotion: writers and books need it. With his penchant for both language and entertainment, 49 Writers featured author Ken Waldman is a master promoter. It all starts with recognizing and acting on opportunities.

I was going to title this post In Defense of Self-Publishing, but recall how Ned Rozell covered that three months ago. But first, before I talk about self-promotion, I’ll share two of my own stories about self-publishing.

I’d moved to Fairbanks in 1985 to attend the MFA program. Though I’d entered and graduated as a fiction writer, I’d started writing poems, and during subsequent years in Juneau, Sitka, and Nome, I wrote more and more of them. From 1989 to 2000 I sent out for publication virtually everything I’d written. A few stories got published first. Then some poems. Then plenty more poems.

Sometime back then, I thought about putting books together. I’d written maybe a hundred poems about Nome and the Bering Straits region, so that seemed an obvious book. And here I recall passing through Fairbanks. Naomi Shihab Nye was there with her husband, Michael, a photographer. They were touring the state as visiting artists. One night at a party I talked a long while with Michael. He mentioned they’d be heading to Nome in a few weeks and would be spending several days there. I told him I’d written poems set in and around Nome that they might find interesting, and I’d be happy to pass along a copy of the manuscript. He said I should just drop it by the English Department on campus, where Naomi could pick it up. The next day I did just that, and the following day I got a phone call from Naomi, who invited me to come see her. When we met, she told me she’d read the manuscript, and that I should persist with this project: it was publishable.

Eleven months later I was living in Juneau. A former poetry student of mine with a background in graphic design had offered to design a chapbook for me. The timing was perfect. I’d just received an invitation to present at a statewide conference in Anchorage, and it would be ideal to have a chapbook with some of my rural-set poems. At the time, I had an ancient two-floppy-disk computer, a contraption that may have been fine for my writing, but wasn’t a help with this. I watched amazed as my friend, Penelope, took the poems I’d typed on her laptop, and with a few clicks allowed me to view them in various sizes and fonts.

The first chapbook was so successful that a few months later I paid a graphic designer to make a chapbook with all my music poems. And a few months after that, working at the UAF Summer Fine Arts Camp, I stayed a week afterward to take advantage of the computers on campus, and taught myself to design my own chapbooks. I put together four more there, and made my first poetry postcards. Later that fall, back in Juneau, I used library computers, and designed two more chapbooks.

So, in 1995 I self-published eight chapbooks. In 1996, I self-published eight more. In 1999, having moved to Anchorage, I self-published my last ten. Twenty-six seemed right, an alphabet of chapbooks. And while I don’t sell them now, they still have value, since when I visit middle schools, high schools, and colleges, I’ll show all twenty-six, and explain I chose the poems so each individual chapbook has unity. For instance, there’s the first one with its rural-set poems; there’s the second one with music poems; and then there are the others—-the chapbook of comedy sonnets, the chapbook of political poems, the chapbook of plane crash poems (here I mention that students don’t have to have a plane crash in order to write one of their own; they can write about their car wrecks, their bike wrecks, the times they’ve fallen out of trees).

The process of putting these chapbooks together not only taught me how to assemble my six full-length collections, but also gave me the necessary skills for making CDs. And in 1996, when I met John Crawford of West End Press, who later published my first two full-length poetry collections, I offered him a copy of my first chapbook, the one set in rural Alaska. John took it to read overnight. The next day he mentioned he liked the poems, and wanted to see the complete manuscript, the one that Naomi Shihab Nye had read two years earlier.

Though it took another four years for that first book to actually be published—-and it was published in much different form—-I remained convinced that having self-published some of the poems to make a chapbook catalyzed the process.

The other story about self-publishing?

Three years ago, on the advice of another of one my other publishers, Bryce Milligan of Wings Press, I wrote a children’s book. After all, Bryce argued, I had a successful children’s CD, often went into schools, and ought to have something to sell.

At least I attempted to write a children’s book, since Bryce didn’t much care for my effort, a sequence of Alaska-set acrostic poems from A to Z, which he thought was much too sophisticated. Since I didn’t know the children’s book market, I let the project languish, though not before writing another A to Z Alaska-set sequence, trying to address his concerns. Maybe he was right; maybe I needed to make the poems simpler.

When I showed him my second effort, he just shook his head. Since Bryce had written a couple of children’s books himself, occasionally published children’s books, and was married to a school librarian, I had to admit that he was likely right about this. Indeed, two years later, the only other time I showed the acrostic poems to someone who might potentially publish the book, I was again met with an utter lack of enthusiasm.

Still, I didn’t shelve the project completely, and in May 2008 made the two acrostic-poem sequences the foundation of a second children’s CD, which I recorded in Fairbanks. This past summer when I manufactured the CD, I felt I had to show off the acrostic poems, which meant putting them on the page. Incredibly, it cost more to make 1000 of the small 24-page booklets that were to be included in the CD than it cost to make 750 64-page, free-standing, 6×9 paperbacks. That got got me thinking. Since I’d already bought a series of ISBN numbers, I decided to just go ahead and self-publish the kids’ acrostic poems as a stand-alone book. My
rationale: not only would I save money in the manufacturing, but maybe the book could be sold separately. With every buyer, I’d be coming out ahead.

So I published it myself this past spring, enlisting a friend to add illustrations, and officially gave it an October 1 publication date. Late June and early July I hauled them to library gigs in Haines and Anchorage, as well as to my other appearances in Juneau, Skagway, Girdwood, Kenai, Palmer, Talkeetna, Fairbanks, and Denali National Park. Surprisingly—-or maybe not-—the book and CD did just great, and the enthusiasm for the book from booksellers, librarians, and just regular readers was heartening. Stopping by University of Alaska Press when I was in Fairbanks, I happened to show the book to one of the editors and there was such interest that now they’re distributing both the book and CD.

What does it all mean?

I’ve been through the process with enough projects that any optimism is guarded. It seems a given that so much of this business is random; all any of us can do is persist. I sent the book and CD out for review in mid-June before University of Alaska got involved. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, and maybe there won’t be any. But my first children’s CD received national reviews, so maybe this project will get some too. Also, I understand University of Alaska Press will be sending the book and CD out also, so there are more opportunities. Regardless, I know the challenges in trying to distribute books and CDs on my own (a topic for still another post this month). I’m grateful for the help.

Self-promotion? Unless you count this piece as an example, I’ll get to it next week, promise (though below I’m including links for some of the recognition I received last month in both North and South Dakota; how did those two interviews happen—-that’s a bit of what I’ll be explaining next
week) :

and (click the 10/5/09 show “the fiddling poet”)

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