Blowing Past the Publishing Gatekeepers
Toward the end of a full career as an Army officer I was asked to assist in a test-run of a new course at the US Army's Command and General Staff College. We were going to take senior officers on a new version of the 'staff ride' an established method of examining the actions of commanders on the actual sites of momentous battles. We had done this successfully at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, even Verdun but this time we were going to try it at the site of the disastrous fight at Little Bighorn. The idea was for combat commanders to learn from past mistakes. Well, this exercise was a real eye-opener for all of us. I have addressed the issue of the significance of the staff ride in other forums but in this case the subject of 'lessons learned' has relevance to an entirely different field of endeavor - writing and getting published.
After retiring from the Army it became quickly evident that I should have to find something else to occupy my time. I had done a bit of scribbling for various professional publications but the staff ride experience at Little Bighorn stuck in my mind and so decided to try my hand at reconstructing that fight in the form of historical fiction. The results exceeded my expectations when publishing great Michael Korda called me from Simon & Schuster and said, "Fred, I want to publish your book." As a result my novel A Road We Do Not Know was published by Simon & Schuster, went on to win the Ambassador William Colby Award for Literature, and remains in print. My second work of historical fiction Moon of Bitter Cold (about the Fetterman fight) won the Western Heritage Wrangler and the William Rockhill Nelson awards for literature. It too remains in print to this day.
Not a bad second career one might think. Ah, but the world of publishing was changing. Shifting focus slightly I decided to take a similar approach with historical fiction to an under-appreciated aspect of the American Civil War - the brutal guerrilla conflict along the Kansas-Missouri border, a theater which was the training ground for such people as Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers, "Wild Bill" Hickok, and "Buffalo Bill." A fascinating subject so I thought. I was supported in my delusions by two old friends who read the first draft - General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry - both of them serving in Afghanistan at the time. Karl, Dave and I go back many years to when we were all commanders together in the fledgling Rapid Deployment Force. Both Dave and Karl loved the novel saying "This is great stuff, Fred. It's just what we have had to contend with in Iraq and now here in Afghanistan...the technology has evolved but human motivations and behavior remain essentially unchanged." Well then, thought I, this is a great subject and perfect timing for this book.
Perhaps not. For the publishing industry had changed since my first two, successful books. Agents complained that they were unable to place a manuscript which editors refused to even look at. "No one's interested in the Civil War!" they snorted. After a few years, and three different agents, things were looking a little bleak. There was some small comfort when one considered that the same publishing houses we had approached had all turned away a young woman, a novice writer, telling her that the public had no interest in an aspiring young wizard. "Utter nonsense," they had declared. Fortunately for J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter, and millions of young readers they were quite wrong. Unfortunately for many aspiring writers, most of those individuals who rejected the first Harry Potter novel are still figures of power in the great publishing houses of New York. The question then became, well, how does one get around the gatekeepers of publishing?
The answer, I strongly suspect, is within easy reach of most would-be authors. Technology. Over the past few years we have seen a phenomenal growth in the reach of computer and internet technology. Now, being a bit of a dinosaur myself, I was quite accustomed to using typewriters (and then computers) to write the material and then embark on a laborious and ofttimes rather expensive round of printing out manuscripts, sending out query letters, mailing out both, with return postage, of course, and then waiting endlessly for a response. Agents too were expected to adhere to these time honored and ultimately fruitless methods. And all too often the publishing houses were hopelessly cavalier in their response, if they responded at all. Thus, when a fellow author suggested another route I thought, "Why not? It's certainly worth a shot." Thus I took the manuscript of my new novel Gone To Kingdom, and turned to another route. This other route was to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the internet. With a completed and carefully edited manuscript ready to go it was a relatively simple task to upload the entire volume to the powerhouse which has become Amazon.com (link here)and wait to see what transpired.
The results were rather surprising. Within days enthusiastic notes started to come in from readers in Ireland, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium and even South Africa and Swaziland (this last stunned me) as well as all over the United States. The reach of the Kindle technology is fairly amazing and readership numbers are going up continually. Well, there were over 100,000 people at Gettysburg alone for the commemoration, which I suspect gives one an idea of the level of interest in the subject matter. Shortly afterwards I got a great note from Steve Pressfield (his work includes the books Tides of War, and Gates of Fire etc. as well as The Legend of Bagger Vance -- both book and screenplay). Steve said;
Congrats to you on doing it yourself -- and on the tremendous response! I can't believe any editor told you there is "no interest in the Civil War." I have a friend who takes me to dinner once a year and bemoans my fascination with the ancient Greeks. "Steve, put the Confederate battle flag on the spine of a book and ten million crazed Civil War buffs will eat it up." He explains to me the mindset of the Civil War aficionado. "They do not say, 'Oh no, another book about Antietam.' They say, 'Oh boy, another book about Antietam!'" All of which bodes very well for "Bushwhacker." Have you pursued Hollywood with this? Remember "The Outlaw Josey Wales?" The scene where Clint Eastwood lines up a barge in the gunsight of his mile-range telescope sniper cannon ...
Well, Mister Carpetbagger, we got a little thing out here
called a Missourah Boat Ride.
Think about Tinseltown, Fred. There could be something there. Congrats again....you've got following winds!
Similar notes came in from such distinguished writers as Carlo D'Este (Patton: A Genius for War, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War), W.E.B. Griffin (Brotherhood of War series), and Ralph Peters (Hell or Richmond, Cain at Gettysburg) who applauded the move. Other marvelous notes started arriving from professors of American and military history such as Edward "Mac" Coffman, Paul Hutton, Jeremy Neely, Reina Pennington, Nichole Etcheson, and others. Folks who study, teach, and write about the period and loved the way the book read and the accuracy of the feel for the time, place, and people. So the e-book experiment seemed to be working pretty well in its first few days. Civil War enthusiasts were delighted. Copies of the Kindle edition of "Gone To Kingdom" continue to sell world-wide and notes continue to come in from enthusiastic readers.
Thus, the bottom line for aspiring authors is to think outside the box of brick-and-mortar publishing houses and to consider embracing electronic publishing. Consider the above tale as a sort of "staff ride" for writers and learn from the mistakes of others. Explore the opportunities afforded by new technology. Certainly they are not for everyone but they are rapidly becoming viable alternatives to traditional approaches to writing and publishing. It can be ultimately less frustrating and possibly more rewarding.