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From Commercial Pilot to Bookbinder

Author: Doug Crowson
Date:   05-11-02

It all started as a joke six years ago, a joke I embellished into a three page essay and mailed off to my daughter in Duluth, Minnesota. She phoned to say she enjoyed it. "Send more," she'd said and I did, an average of one a week for about six months. Kathy called. "Dad, I didn't get my essay last week."

"I know. I'm writing a book."

I became obsessed with writing. It was what I needed to fill the retirement void. I bought a computer and stored the Brother typewriter in the basement. A year later my book was finished.

Now I'll have it published, I thought, and headed for the library.

"How do I go about getting a book published?" I asked the librarian.

"It's right over here," she said as she walked around the counter. I followed her down an aisle wondering what 'it' was. "Here it is," she handed me a heavy book - The Literary Marketplace.

I mailed off 30 query letters and got 28 responses. "Unsolicited manuscripts not accepted except through literary agents." Hmmm.

I mailed 50 query letters to agents and got 25 responses. "Not for me."

I hit the World Wide Web and located the e-mail addresses of hundreds of agents. I composed a nice e-mail query letter, including a synopsis and the first five chapters of my book, and scatter-shot it to hundreds of agents. I got lots of responses from this maneuver, most of them saying they didn't accept e-mail queries (I wondered why they had their e-mail addresses posted on the internet). Some of them wanted to charge me a reading fee, but to my delight, two wanted to see more-not via e-mail, though. I packaged up two complete manuscripts, mailed them off and waited.

While I was waiting, I stumbled across Xlibris.com who said they'd publish my book at no cost and I would retain possession of the copyright. I went for it and they did publish it in trade-paperback, print on demand form. My daughter, ex-wife, and son bought a copy. Xlibris price is just too high.

"This is a good story, Doug," agent number one e-mailed, "but it needs a lot of editing. I'll be glad to do it for $3.00 per page." Flush.

Agent number two was the one who impressed me, though. He e-mailed a contract for me to print, sign and mail back to him. I did that... a contract for two years. I haven't heard a peep from that dude to this day. My e-mails to him are returned--and the snail-mails, too (I hope you steal it and have it published, Dan, I'd just love to sue you).

So, there I sat at my trusty Compaq writing the sequel to my book when my grandson came to visit.

"What ya doing, grandpa?"

"Well Nick, I am apparently just wasting time. I'm writing my second book and can't even get the first one published."

"Why don't you make them yourself?" 12 year old Nick asked.

I laughed and said, "I can't do that."

"Can't?"

"No. How do you think I'd go about making a book?"

Nick picked up a paperback from my recliner, John Grisham's "Runaway Jury," and turned it this way and that, examining it closely. "It's just some paper glued together. Besides, you told me once that 'can't' wasn't in your vocabulary."

That did it.

I went to my basement workshop, moved the radio controlled model airplane stuff off my workbench, and glued some scrap paper together with Elmer's glue. It didn't look too bad. Now I had to figure out a way to print the book. I didn't want it to be the size of a standard typewriter sheet so I figured out how to print it on half a standard typewriter sheet, turn it around and print it on the other half. I used Word Perfect to do that. It took some doing, but a week later I went to the print shop with my master copy. After a little wheeling and dealing I managed to get the 200 pages copied 10 times for a total price of $6.00 per book.

Back in my workshop I devised a plywood jig to clamp my twenty books together while the glue dried.

Now for the cover. I found that the spine of the book was 5/8 inch thick and headed for Word Perfect. I designed the back copy, the spine copy and the front copy to be printed on 8 1/2 by 14 inch paper in landscape format and headed back to the print shop with the master copy. This was cheap... 18 cents per copy on card stock.

It amazed me that the books looked very professionally bound. I didn't like the cover because it was just white with black printing and decided to change it later. I grabbed two copies of the book went to my favorite bar to celebrate my accomplishment. I sold them immediately, autographed them and bought the purchasers a drink. This, I figured, has got to change. Very simple math told me that I was now a dollar in the hole for each book I'd sold - and that's not counting the time involved in my efforts.

Those first 20 books were sold within the week and my research and development mode kicked in. I had to make them cheaper. I began my quest for a used copying machine, and found one for fifty bucks at a thrift store. I learned how to operate the thing in a few hours and was running that master copy like crazy. I began keeping track of my time so I would know what kind of hourly wage I was earning. It turned out that my next batch of 20 books cost about $4.00 each. Selling at $12.95, that wasn't a bad profit. Who needs a literary agent, I thought as I clamped and glued.

I had designed a 2 inch wide strip to paste around each book, an advertising wrapper, if you will, that read:

"Local author turns your imagination every which way but loose in this outrageous yarn about alcohol and drug abuse, perverted sexual shenanigans and eerie religious cults in the underbelly of bird society... YES... BIRDS."

I hit the road with my treasures. My friend who owns a restaurant allowed me to leave four books next to his cash register, a consignment deal. He would get $2.95 for each book that sold. It wasthe same back at the bar and the three other establishments I called on - the dry cleaners, the filling station and the Mom and Pop grocery store - all people I knew. I was in business.

All this took place in 1999. In the past three years my book binding has become much more professional. I found a local book printer. I order 100 per batch at a cost of $3.75 per unit.

"Can I order your book off the internet?" someone asked me at the bar.

"Yes you can," I replied, "but please don't order one until next week." I didn't want him to order it from Xlibris and pay over twenty bucks to get it to his front door, I wanted him to order from my website - the website that I would design and have up within a week.

I tried a freebie first, didn't like all their pop-up ads, so I ordered their 12 bucks a month professional deal. I spent hours at the Compaq piddling with my new toy. Now it's up and running and I like it pretty well, but still make minor changes just to have something to do.

Surprisingly enough, lots of folks are ordering the book from my site even though they have to order via snail-mail.

Now, about those literary agents - I know deep down in my soul that there is one literary agent out there somewhere who would be willing to help me get this book published the regular, old fashioned, on the bookstore shelves way, but I can't find him or her.

In the meantime, I am actually working on another book, my third.

You can also find Doug on http://www.dougcrowsonbooks.com.

Copyright 2002 Doug Crowson.. All rights reserved.