In Defense of Self-Promotion, Part 3: A guest post by Ken Waldman

Two weeks ago, in my first post, I mentioned that in 1996 I attended a conference where I met John Crawford, of West End Press, which started a process that led him four years later to publish my first full-length collection, Nome Poems. I also mentioned that prior to that meeting, I’d self-published a chapbook that included some of the poems which later appeared in that book. Though I’d taken the initiative to self-publish, I’d also been fortunate to have already had poems from that book accepted in such literary magazines as Beloit Poetry Journal, South Dakota Review, and Poet Lore. Those publications, which meant that independent editors elsewhere had vetted the work, surely didn’t hurt.

In that post, I also mentioned how earlier this year I’d self-published a book of acrostic poetry for children, D is for Dog Team, which University of Alaska Press picked up for distribution.

In the nine years between, I had six other books from six different publishers, each coming about through its own particular circumstances. I’ll briefly tell those stories in the hope that one or more will be of use to other writers.

When Nome Poems came out in 2000, I felt well-prepared for a writer having a first book. I’d finished a reasonable draft of the manuscript six years earlier so I’d been living with the poems for a good long while. Having had so many of the poems appear in journals (and having met Naomi Shihab Nye, who encouraged me on the project—-an episode also mentioned two weeks in my first post here), I was confident the book had real merit and might find a wide readership, at least in Alaska. Also, having self-published twenty-six chapbooks the preceding five years, I had a rudimentary sense of how to market, and, yes, self-promote. In addition, I’d been freelancing as a visiting artist and performer for the past five years, and those skills overlapped with the marketing and self-promotion. And though I didn’t know it when that first book came out, my first CD, which had been recently recorded in a rush, was going to come out in less than three months.

In the midst of that busy time, I’d booked a tour. First stop was the AWP conference (AWP is an acronym for Associated Writing Programs, an organization that’s the clearing house for all things Creative Writing in higher education, though over the years its reach has extended further) in Kansas City, where I was to see the book for the first time, and where I’d bought space in the exhibit hall to sell my book and chapbooks. From there, I was off to Denver, where I’d rent a car. After a bookstore gig in Denver, I had a coffeehouse show in Boulder, then events in Albuquerque—-where the book was published—-and then several dates in Arizona, which included gigs in Phoenix, Prescott, and Flagstaff. Then I’d drive back to Denver, and fly home to Anchorage.

In Kansas City, I was excited to see the new book. Though a slow four-year process, there had been a sprint at the end so the books could arrive in Kansas City in time to sell at the conference. And since West End Press had been affiliated with University of New Mexico Press, the designer at the university press had worked on the book. In retrospect, it was odd I hadn’t seen the cover beforehand, or even thought to ask—-or even thought to ask to proof the book. Still, when I first set eyes on the book, none of that seemed to matter. The design was better than anything I could have envisioned. Then I leafed through the pages.

Though I’d given a pristine copy to my publisher, it was a pristine hard copy from my ancient double floppy disk computer with Leading Edge word processing, my ancient Panasonic printer. This meant that someone at the press had to retype the manuscript. In the retyping, there had been mistakes, which in-house proofing didn’t catch. The first poem I looked at, I found one small typo, and over the next two weeks, as I toured the Southwest, I must have found at least a dozen more, invariably in the midst of reading one of the poems at a public event. And though the discovery of each new error felt like another quick awful punch deep to my gut, and the accumulating number felt like a curse, I had no choice. The book was out in the world, blemishes and all. At least the book looked great, and, really, most of the errors were so minor no one else would likely notice. After struggling the past several years to sell chapbooks for $5 and $7, it was a pleasure to display this full-length book with color cover. It felt underpriced at $9.95.

While I didn’t sell hundreds those first weeks, I happily sold a fair number and made some connections I’ve maintained to this day. Back in Anchorage, after landing at the airport, I decided to stop in Waterstone’s (the airport bookstore that pre-dated Mosquito Books), where I introduced myself to the manager, Jana, who happened to be in. Before leaving, I offered her a copy of Nome Poems, which she accepted and promised to read. Ultimately, this simple act was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done for any of my books. Though Jana had been quick to warn me she didn’t read much poetry, she did read the book as promised, enjoyed it, and felt others would also enjoy it. Over the summer, she displayed the book at the front table she reserved for recommended Alaska reading.

The next months, I stopped at Waterstone’s every time I flew out of Anchorage, or returned home. Invariably, I saw a stack of my books on the front table. From Jana I learned that against the odds—-after all, this was poetry—-the book sold steadily.

This was one of the reasons why West End Pess went through most of the 1,500 run through the rest of the year and decided to reprint. On my end, I was quick to argue that for the next round of books the typos be fixed and the price raised to $11.95 (this second edition also eventually sold out, but far more slowly; West End Press was reluctant to invest in a third printing, so with John Crawford’s blessing, in 2008 I reprinted it myself—-another example of self-publishing). Another reason the book sold so well was because while West End Press (and University of New Mexico
Press) were both small publishers, they were long-established small publishers. I learned how if I researched, I could see which libraries bought the book (and, indeed, this minute just looked it up, and saw 124 libraries, from the New York Public Library to the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, owned the book in their collections; while the number could be more, it could certainly be less—-a similar check on my other books teaches the sad truth about that).

Since Nome Poems quickly went into a second printing, it made sense for me to pitch another book to my publisher. After all, I had plenty more Alaska-set poems—-again, many already published in respected national journals. This time, after I sent a manuscript, John Crawford quickly agreed to publish To Live on this Earth, which came out in 2002. Instead of setting all poems in the Bering Straits region, this book had poems set state-wide: a section of Interior poems (some music-based), a section of Southeast poems, a section of political poems, a section of rural poems (more poems from the Bering Straits region, as well as poems set in Eek and poems set in Barrow), and a short final section set in Alaska and beyond.

In 2004, at the AWP conference in Chicago, where I again had a table in the exhibit hall-—now with two full-length poetry collections, three CDs, and the chapbooks piled off to the side—-a young editor and publisher I knew asked to buy me a drink. We talked. A long-time fan of my work, he’d published a journal (where my work had appeared), ran two annual book contests, and brought out other books as he wanted. He asked if I’d consider having him publish a book of mine.

Of course I’d be interested, I told him, and mentioned how one weekend in 2003 I laid out sheets with favorite poems that hadn’t been in the first two books (though most had been in the self-published chapbooks, and many had appeared in literary journals), and constructed six more full-length books. The preceding year, I’d entered contests, but gotten nowhere. He could have his choice of one of those books.

“Whoa,” he said. “I don’t work that way.”


“No, give me all your poems,” he said. “I’ll choose the book I want to publish.”

I shrugged my shoulders, and we shook hands. After the conference I sent him the six collections I thought had been ready to go, and told him to have at it.

Fourteen months later, May 2005, I heard back. And while I’d never have chosen the poems he chose for a full-length book, I had to admit the poems cohered in a different way—-instead of a geographic, or narrative, arc, these were mostly all dark and energetic. The challenge was in finding an order to the book, and after we went back and forth several times, we agreed how it would read, first poem to last. Since his strength was editing, not design, I asked whether I could suggest a professional designer. He thought that would be fine, especially since I offered to split the cost.

By early July we were ready to go for a mid-September publication date. I’d seen proofs-—the front cover, the back cover (which included the blurbs I’d solicited), the poems inside, all the rest. My designer only needed a final okay from the publisher for the last of the changes. A week stretched into two weeks, stretched into four. Mid July turned into late August.

It was a little more complicated than this, though. I’d set up dates in the Midwest, including ones in the publisher’s home state. I’d wanted not only to have the book to sell, but had planned to set up even more dates specifically around having the book available. I also expected to use the book to apply for certain grants and fellowships. Having a book is one thing. Having two books is something more. Having three is even more-—and I was waiting for that third book. And there was even more to it than that: in October I was turning 50 years old. Not only was this book a present to myself, but I had a big double CD coming out, and in early August had just recorded my first children’s CD, which I realized could also come out in time for my birthday. Everything was seemingly on track, but for this poetry collection, which had fallen through cracks. The publisher was not returning emails from the designer, who was asking whether the last fix was correct. Nor was he responding to my emails, phone calls, or letters, all checking about the status of the book. Without confirmation, I wrote, I couldn’t market it in any way.

Labor Day weekend, I decided to call a new friend, Bryce Milligan, a writer and musician who was also the publisher of Wings Press in San Antonio. We’d met two months earlier when he attended my performance at Gemini Ink, a San Antonio literary organization. Afterward, he’d bought one of my books, one of my CDs, and we’d talked. Though we hadn’t been in touch the past two months, he didn’t seem surprised to hear from me. I explained my dilemma, and asked him, as a writer and publisher himself, what he’d do if he were in my situation.

“I can do that book myself,” he said. “I have a small hole in my schedule. Get me the files, and I could have it out in ten days. All you need to do is promise to buy some of the books from me.”

“I need to do that anyway,” I said.

“500 books?” he said.

“I’d need to buy 500 anyway,” I answered. Though I hadn’t formalized such an arrangement with John Crawford at West End Press, I’d had to buy books, then buy more and more, and had gone through 500 relatively quickly. This seemed a more efficient way to do it, even if I had to spend more of my own money up front for my own stock.

Later that day, I called the other publisher. Getting the machine, I started to explain that since I hadn’t heard from him, I’d be withdrawing the book. At that, he picked up the phone, and sputtered how he’d sue me if I’d withdraw the book.

“But you haven’t answered the phone or returned an email in two months,” I reminded him. And then I reminded him the book was supposed to be out in mid September, which was now an impossibility. “Somebody else has offered to do the book,” I said.

“I’ll sue you,” he said, and explained he’d already put in a lot of time and money into the project. Then he hung up.

When I called back Bryce, he suggested that since I had no contract with the first publisher, there was no grounds for a suit, and that I should talk one more time with him and try to establish firm dates. “If he balks,” Bryce said, “remind him you have another publisher.” He paused. “And while I’d be happy to do that book, if he does decide to do it, you can just get another to me in the next couple of days, and I’ll do that one. Like I said, I have a hole in my schedule.”

“But don’t you want to see the poems?”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” he said. “I read your other book and saw your show. Let me know what happens.”

After the first publisher reaffirmed that if I gave him more time, he’d have the books for me by November 1, I went to work typing in poems so I could email Bryce a file. Within a day, I was done. Less than two weeks later, I had a preview copy of the book–which I titled The Secret Visitor’s Guide–just in time for a major fellowship application. I received the bulk of my copies in late October, just after my birthday. Mid-November, I received copies of And Shadow Remained, the book from the Ohio publisher. The book looked beautiful and some readers have commented that it’s their favorite of my collections. It remains the only one that was so deeply edited. Despite the confusion with the communication, I was grateful for the help; in fact, without that confusion I’d never have had the Wings Press publication.

My fifth book, Conditions and Cures, was a finalist in a 1994 book contest from Steel Toe Books, a new poetry publisher out of Kentucky. Maybe I had a slight advantage because not only had I once met the publisher, Tom Hunley, in passing, but was acquainted with his own poetry, which I liked. Though I don’t make a habit of entering contests, in 1995 I tried again. This time I wasn’t even a finalist, but received a personal note from Tom, telling me he’d enjoyed the book, as had another judge. It was the third judge who hadn’t much liked it, which was why it had been eliminated before the final cut. Regardless, he especially admired the sequence of comedy sonnets in the collection, was mulling doing a chapbook series, and wondered whether I’d be interested.

I answered that indeed I’d already self-published the comedy sonnets as a chapbook, albeit in slightly different form. And while I’d be happy to have him do a chapbook, it made no sense. With the two poetry collections I now had, plus the two about to come out in the next two months, I’d really have no way to sell a chapbook for whatever price we figured. But if he’d be interested in doing the full-length book, which had been judged good enough to be a finalist the year before, I’d certainly agree to it, and could certainly guarantee I’d buy some hundreds of books, which would lessen his risk.

A few weeks later, Tom agreed to publish the book with a summer 2006 publication date.

My last poetry collection began after an idle comment. March 2006, after a reading in San Antonio for my new Wings Press book, the publisher, Bryce Milligan, mentioned that if he could find a book of really good political poems, he’d publish it in a second. I rued that many of my political poems had already been published, and let Bryce’s remark slide.

But three weeks later, subletting a little house in Louisiana, watching the Daily Show on Comedy Central, I wrote a political sonnet in the manner of the comedy poems that led to Tom Hunley accepting the Conditions and Cures book. So, now I had one new political poem. Torture was a breaking story then—-alas, as it sometimes remains now—-and a few days later I wrote an Abu Ghraib poem. The next weeks I wrote a Laura Bush poem, a Barbara Bush poem, a George W. Bush post-Katrina New Orleans poem. Somewhere I wrote a sonnet in George W. Bush’s voice. Mid-May to mid-July, working for the first half of the summer in Skagway, I wrote several dozen more, most in the 43rd president’s voice. Quickly, I’d somehow accumulated a whole book, so emailed Bryce, who answered that his distribution had changed, so he could no longer do books without a nine-month to one-year lead time. Besides, he wasn’t convinced the project really worked for him.

I disregarded Bryce’s criticisms. Convinced I had a new book on my hands, and one that felt especially topical, I made a few more queries, and remembered a friend, a well-published poet, who was an especially skilled self-promoter himself (and I should mention not only has this poet hosted me several times at his various reading series, but we originally met more than a decade ago at an AWP conference), who had a publishing house that was currently in hiatus. Maybe he’d be interested.

Though that part of his business remained in hiatus, he wrote back to say he’d be happy to help where he could. In this case, while he’d “publish” the book, we were both aware for most intents I was self-publishing through him. He supplied the ISBN and his publishing company’s name, and would enter the necessary paperwork, so the book at least could be considered authentic, at least through the process the book business has established. Meanwhile, I’d design, manufacture, distribute, and pay for the book. Mid August, I picked up 2000 copies of As the World Burns: the Sonnets of George W. Bush and Other Poems of the 43rd Presidency from a manufacturer in Austin, Texas-—one chosen because I knew it specialized in short-run projects, and I’d be swinging through Austin anyway about the time the book would be done.

One Austin friend who has professional experience designed the text of the book, working gratis. I paid the manufacturer for the services of its in-house designer, who did the cover. After picking up the boxes, I drove seventy miles to San Antonio, where I left two dozen copies at Bryce Milligan’s as a thank-you, then drove several blocks where I knocked on Naomi Shihab Nye’s door in the same neighborhood. I had no appointment, just a standing invitation to visit, which I’d previously never taken her up on. Naomi was in, but busy, and quickly leaf through the book, lauded the project, and asked to have several copies of the book, which she promised to pass along to contacts she thought would appreciate it—-one of which directly led to an invitation to read fifteen months later in Pittsburgh at the International Poetry Forum (and the stipend from that one invitation, and an accompanying school visit in town, which came as a result of the first invitation, alone nearly paid for the whole run of books). By the way, for anyone interested in that book, you won’t find any mention on my regular website because I work in a variety of venues in a variety of communities, and there’s no need to mention the political nature of some of my writing. I do have a parallel website: One other note about this book. Though the Ohio publisher had been challenging to work with as he published my collection, the following year he offered to take on this political book in my behalf, which meant helping place it with Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, which then meant national distribution that it couldn’t have had otherwise, at least not without me or my nominal publisher spending an inordinate amount of time and money.

Finally, the publication of my 2008 memoir, Are You Famous?, is a variation of all these stories.

In 2002, I attended BookExpo in New York City (indeed, I attended this past May for the first time since, and wrote about it in 49 Writers), and met representatives from Cinco Puntos Press, of El Paso, who were friends of friends. The business manager at the time was the son-in-law of the owners. He was also an Irish flute player, and offered to host a house concert if I was ever passing through El Paso. Early 2003 I took him up on it, and during the tour of the Cinco Puntos Press office, met their marketing director, Jessica Powers, a writer, herself. Jessica liked my poetry—-a reviewer for New Pages, she favorably wrote about my second West End Press book, which I’d dropped off on her invitation—-and we remained in touch. (An odd aside: a few years later, driving through El Paso, when she still lived there, I stayed one night with her and her then husband; she passed along a book that she’d recently been given to review, which was coming out in a few months, and which she thought I might be interested in—-that night I stayed up until 5 a.m. to finish Ordinary Wolves.)

In 2007, Jessica phoned me that she was mulling starting a publishing house. We’d last seen each other in California in 2005, when, during a visit, we exchanged manuscripts. She read a draft of Are You Famous?, which I’d recently written. I read her young adult novel, The Confessional, which Knopf was going to publish in the next year. So two years later, as I listened to Jessica tell me her plans, she asked whether that manuscript of mine was still available. It was certainly available, I let her know, which started a process that led to her publishing the book in August 2008—-more of the story of how that book came to be is in the final chapter of that book, the postscript. (One thing not mentioned in the book is that while Jessica is a terrific editor, and a smart marketer, and has been just great to work with, book design is not her strength; and while design is not my strength either, if I hadn’t my experiences, that memoir would have looked much different, and, I believe, much worse, if I hadn’t worked hard as an advocate to make sure certain things looked the way they did—-having that say can be one of the advantages, and disadvantages, of being involved with a small press.)

I thank Deb and Andromeda for the opportunity to write here. Funny, I apologized to Deb last week at the length of these posts, and promised this one would be shorter; instead, obviously it’s the longest yet. I do go on. Funny, too, I meant to respond to Andromeda, who commented on my last post; I’m not sure about the thicker skin stuff since this past week I just got rejected from being on the roster of touring artists in Alabama schools. I’m not sure whether I’ll even bother seeking an explanation. It feels like such a little thing since I don’t get to Alabama much, but I did wonder what more I could offer, or how I could have done this differently since I answered the questions, followed the directions on the form, and included reasonable supplemental materials. I’d even been in touch with the director of the program before applying–and a well-respected musician who runs an arts council in the state, who himself does a lot of school visits around the state, who’d hired me to work in his community’s schools, and who is a big supporter of my work, had been one of my references. One thing for sure: we’re inevitably getting rejected in this business for a multitude of reasons, some of which are out of our control. That doesn’t seem to change.

Funny, too, that when I first imagined these posts, one of the subjects I wanted to write about was the challenges of getting work distributed throughout our state, which, in my case, has meant challenges with working in collaboration with Todd Communications, Alaska Geographic (formerly ANHA), and others. I have one more chance next week; I’ll strive to get to that, briefly.

2 thoughts on “In Defense of Self-Promotion, Part 3: A guest post by Ken Waldman”

  1. Oh, Ken, I hope you keep going on and going on – at whatever length works to tell your stories – because they're fascinating and are filling gaps in my knowledge about publishing in Alaska, some of which I hadn't even thought about consciously, but when I read how you connect the dots these little lights just keep going on in my head and I keep thinking "Aha! So that's how that happened all those many years ago…" Thanks for taking the time to share your insights, experiences, perspectives, etc. – It's lovely stuff!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That's a really good comment, and thanks for another informative post, Ken.

    On length, I'm tempted to repeat what other web-oriented people say: that online, shorter is usually better.

    ON THE OTHER HAND (my preferred other hand), isn't this the great thing about an online format? Unlike a newspaper, we have no space limits. Guest posters (who write for 49w without compensation — thank you again!) get to shape their message. And readers — as in all media — are free to savor or skip. I, for one, will re-read Ken Waldman's posts the next time I'm planning my promotions.

    Thanks to all of you who share what you know by writing and/or commenting.

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