Monday, January 28, 2013

Publish that First Book!

The Guide to Florida Lighthouses

My first book, published by Pineapple Press in 1987

If you have a story to tell, sit down and write your book. Make it the best work you do. Target your audience and research the market, including potential publishers. Sell yourself and your idea to the publisher you've chosen. Believe, be patient, be persistent.
I began work on this book in the early-1980s after a military move with my husband landed me in Orlando, Florida. I was so fascinated with lighthouses by this time and was happy to discover Florida has about thirty sentinels. I began researching them and quickly discovered there was very little information available, and what I could find was scattered. Hoping to locate more information, I visited the library at University of Central Florida. When I asked one of the librarians to help me find books on Florida lighthouses, she searched earnestly and then said, with a chuckle, "I'm not finding anything. I suppose you'll just have to write a book about our lighthouses!"

That was all I needed to hear! It was obvious there was a market. I wanted more information about Florida's lighthouses, so surely others did. This was a subject I knew well. I had published articles about it and had collected information--articles, clippings, interviews, letters from lightkeepers, photos--sfor a decade. I had the necessary track record to claim it, to convince a publisher I could do a good job. I knew there was a grassroots effort brewing to save lighthouses. The U.S. Lighthouse Society and the Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association were being formed to preserve the history, lore, and structures themselves, and I was in contact with a number of small groups devoted to saving a particular lighthouse. The dozen or so articles I'd written about lighthouses had netted me lots of mail, mostly from people who liked to fish or go boating, who lived along the coastlines and loved the sea, or served on Navy and Coast Guard installations. I had letters from all over the world from readers of articles written for boating magazines, travel rags, and Sea Frontiers and Mobil Compass, to name a few. My instincts told me these people were hungry for more information; and like me, they enjoyed visiting lighthouses, photographing them, and reading about them.

I spent a few weeks framing my book and decided to make it a guidebook that would serve travelers, both the armchair types and those who wished to visit the lighthouses. I'd mingle a little history and human interest with usable travel info and toss in lots of pictures. I knew that one of the things I loved most about lighthouses was seeing them. They are so diverse in form and purpose. My book would need lots of images!

No worthwhile book ever goes to print without lots of work. I set up a file for each lighthouse in Florida and began the hunting and gathering. I spent many free days and weekends traveling to lighthouse sites in Florida and scaring up information. I went to libraries, contacted the people I knew in the lighthouse community--including Wayne Wheeler, who would later found the U.S. Lighthouse Society and Kenneth Black, a retired Coast Guard officer who collected anything and everything lighthouse. I got support from my family and friends.

By 1984 the prewriting effort had fillwed several crates, and I felt I had enough material to actually sit down and write a book. By this time, our family had transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i. I set up a small office area in one corner of our dining room (Ewa Beach military housing) and began working. The big coconut palm in our side yard flapped in the Aloha breeze as I typed page after page of the manuscript. It was my Florida connection, along with the endless clement weather. That palm tree and the pleasant breeze wafting into my writing space took me on a mind journey back to Florida. Writing is, after all, an exercise of the imagination. If you aren't in a place, you can go there in your head. I suppose living in the region I do now--the Pacific NW--would have made the task a little harder.

A highlight of the project was replacing my old, manual Royal typewriter with an electric typewriter, complete with a correction tape. Woohoo! This was big technology in 1984 and so much easier to use than the manual version. That old beast had served me well, but it was heavy to carry and had a smudged "R" and an overused "E" that sometimes wouldn't strike. With the new machine, pages of text flew out of the carriage, all neatly numbered. Color slides were required at this time for color separations, and I had a pile of them, along with numerous black and white prints. These were meticulously organized and captioned. By summer that year I had the book package ready.

I'm not sure why I felt so confident. I had no formal training in journalism; I didn't even have a college degree at this point in my life. I knew what rejection slips looked like; I had enough of them by this time to wallpaper our house. But I did have that track record of articles. I had bylines, which meant I could write solid topics with sound mechanics and content and good angles to grab readers. Call it blind faith, literary ignorance, or whatever you like... I felt confident. And perhaps that's the main thing a first-time book author needs to get a project done and in the mail. 

The publisher I chose was Pineapple Press, a small regional business in Sarasota, Florida. Listed in Writer's Market as "a publisher of Floridiana," they seemed the right fit for my topic. Pineapple at this time was a small press, but it had published books on a variety of Florida topics, so why not lighthouses? As a newbie, I was sure a publisher would want to see my completed project, so I sent everything--proposal, manuscript, pictures, captions, and lots of tear sheets from the articles I'd written for magazines and newspapers. I worked on the cover letter for days, making sure I convinced the submissions editor my project was worthy.

I had read in writers' guidebooks, again and again, that first-time authors often submit to dozens of publishers before they sell a book, if they sell at all. I fully expected a few rejections...maybe a lot of them! I would not give up easily. If Pineapple Press wasn't interested, I'd go to the next publisher on my list, and then the next, and the next. Hadn't Phillip Roth done that with his first novel? William Golding too, and many more.

The response, a few weeks later, was surprising and wonderfully gratifying. June Cussen, Managing editor at Pineapple Press, loved the idea of a lighthouse guidebook and liked my work,. She even complimented me on the detail and extent of the material I'd submitted. But she cautioned that it might be a few years before Pineapple Press could publish the book and send to stores. Was I willing to wait? It seemed like a first response of "yes," and from the publisher I felt was right for the job, should be accepted. I'd wait.

It turned out to be true--the wait, that is! The Guide to Florida Lighthouses finally hit store shelves in 1987. (There was no Internet back then, there were no eBooks or mega bookseller like, so it was all about bookstores!) I remember how wonderful it was to receive my author copies in the mail. My family had moved again and I was living in Groton, Connecticut in 1987 when the postal carrier came to the door and said, "Lady, I think you like books. This is one heavy box!" I so wanted to tell him it was my book, that I was the author. But I didn't. (I'm still a little shy about telling people about my writing and my books. Maybe I should explore that issue in a separate post.)

I had barely closed the door on the postman before I had that heavy box open. Ahhhhh! "New book smell," similar in its euphoric effect to "new car smell," wafted up to my nostrils. All authors know about this, at least hard copy authors do--how a new book you've slaved over for months, even years, feels....smells....looks. It's almost like giving birth and seeing your new baby for the first time. I held it close to my heart, smiled a HUGE smile and wondered how I'd wait until my husband and kids got home.

The Guide to Florida Lighthouses has been in print for twenty-six years now. That's a long print run. It's one of the things I really like about Pineapple Press. I'm grateful to Juen Cussen and her staff for keeping it in print and for nurturing my career with the publication of several other titles. Editors seldom take time to help young writers grow and learn. June Cussen did, and she still does. The ethos of Pineapple Press is to do worthy subjects and keep them in print for the public. Books should be passed down through the generations. This one has spanned two generations now, and I hope it stays in print for years to come.

In 2001, The Guide to Florida Lighthouses received a much-needed update and a new cover. The errata was fixed, some new images were added, and a couple of missing lighthouses made their debut. By this time, the SUnshine State had its own Florida Lighthouse Association, a nonprofit group founded by my late friend Tom Taylor. The group has done many worhty projects and events to raise awareness about Florida's treasured lighthouse and save them. There's even a lighthouse license plate that raises money for lighthouse education and preservation in Florida. I can't lay claim to any of those good deeds, for I was long gone from Florida when they happened. But I do like to think I had a hand in jump-starting the effort. When I met Tom Taylor in person for the first time in the early 1990s, he shook my hand over and over and then said: "Can I give you a hug? You are the lady who started all this!" I'm not. I just saw a need and wrote a book. The rest happened with the help of more energetic people than me.

The Guide to Florida Lighthouses remains a popular guidebook today, though several other similar (and possibly better) guidebooks have joined it. It's legacy is a proud one, at least for me: Residents and visitors to Florida have discovered there's more to the Sunshine State than Disney, beaches, golf courses, orange groves, and rockets. This was my first-born book and will always occupy a special place on my wall of honor, and in my heart.