I published my latest book in March. Publishing it myself was the last thing I originally had in mind. I’m well aware of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Chris Schwarz puts it as starkly as anyone ever has: “In the media world, publishing your own book is akin to marrying your sister. Most self-published books are about encounters with aliens that involve wax paper and Wesson oil, or Klingon wildlife poetry, or recipes for curing cancer with celery salt.”
She’s the one without the fake smile.
The book was a longstanding thorn in my side, albeit a thorn of my own placing. I started working on it a dozen years ago, fitting the writing in around the edges of my daily work. The book would respond to two of my professional peeves: (1) the widespread public ignorance of what it costs to make things when you’re doing so for a living and have to cover the many expenses, beyond labor and materials, associated with running a business; and (2) the romanticization of furniture making as a way to make a full-time living. My model, authorially speaking, was Michael Pollan; I hoped to present a detailed picture of what goes into making a table, a dresser, or a set of kitchen cabinets and explain the related costs – in existential, as well as financial terms.
One year in, I began to wonder whether I would ever find enough time to complete the research and get the necessary distance from my manuscript to do the subject justice. Out of the blue, a client asked me to write a book directly in line with my interest in period cabinetry for the Indiana University Press; she even arranged for a contract with an advance. How could I turn that down? Two years later, I had an opportunity to work on a book about another subject that has long exercised me: the way many of us form relationships with our home, especially when living without a human partner. That book was published by the same press. All of which is to say that it was easy to be distracted by writing other books with firm contracts, in contrast to the nebulousness of the book I still felt compelled to write but didn’t really know how to.
The book continued to nag. I worked on it when I could. One day I was working in the kitchen of an especially trying client, marveling at how Fawlty-Towers-surreal the job had become, and it hit me: Maybe Michael Pollan was not the best author-model for me. Maybe David Sedaris was a better fit.
I went back to square one, making many of the same points, but now through humorous tales drawn from real life. A friend put me in touch with a literary agent who had secured not one, but two lucrative offers from prestigious presses for her husband’s book. The agent graciously discussed my book and agreed to represent me. We worked together for several months, during which he provided some good critical feedback. But I never quite felt we were on the same page.
When the time came to discuss pitching the proposal to publishers, the question of blurbs arose. “Of course you know who the obvious choice for a blurb is,” the agent said matter-of-factly.
“Sedaris?” I wanted to respond, but kept my mouth shut, knowing that Sedaris is on what he calls a self-imposed “blurbatorium.”
“Jimmy Carter!” the agent exclaimed with a note of triumph.
My heart sank. My agent and I really weren’t on the same page. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a serious fan of Carter, the man. But he doesn’t strike me as the right woodworker to blurb a book in which the F-word appears four times in the first two pages. I couldn’t reconcile the former president with the ribaldry that colors daily life for so many of us in the crafts and trades. What I needed was someone edgy, with contemporary clout.
“I think Nick Offerman would be more appropriate,” I replied.
“Who’s that?” the agent responded.
She has always been the cute one hamming for the camera.
It was starting to look like I would need an alternative plan. As anyone in the book world is aware, barring some inside connection it’s all but impossible to get an East Coast publisher to look at a manuscript without an agent. Getting an agent is a challenge in itself, and I’d already had a taste of what working with one can entail. I wasn’t even sure I’d want to write a version of my book that my agent was likely to deem marketable. And if I got a contract with a big-time publisher, I would face the prospect of who-knows-how-much-more reworking to bring my manuscript in line with an editor’s vision for what he or she thought the book should be.
Shortly after this dispiriting conversation with my agent, I was discussing my projet with Megan Fitzpatrick. She urged me to publish the book myself, having it printed and bound by one of the firms used by Lost Art Press. “You may not sell as many copies,” she said, “but you’ll make more money [on each copy] than you would with a commercial publisher.”* I took her statement with not a pinch, but a pound, of salt. As one of my editors in the world of woodworking periodicals, she was familiar with my work in words, as well as wood. But she hadn’t even read the proposal for my book, let alone the manuscript. For all I knew, she and everyone else might consider it a load of rubbish. What if I couldn’t even sell enough copies to break even?
In the end, my agent and I parted ways on friendly terms, and I took Megan’s advice. I sent the manuscript to some of my most discerning friends for critical feedback, then hired a professional copy editor, book designer, and graphic artist to ensure that it would be as close as possible to a commercial publisher’s quality. It was a big financial risk (OK, a drop in the bucket compared to the risk taken by Lost Art Press to bring Roubo Deluxe into being, but a big financial risk relative to my resources); I had to borrow the several thousand dollars it took for printing and binding.
Fortunately, Megan and Chris Schwarz both wrote enthusiastically about the book and recommended it. Thanks to those who bought the book on their (and subsequent readers’) recommendation, I broke even after two months. Huge relief. Another early reader saw to it that a copy found its way into the hands of Nick Offerman, who wrote the kind of blurb a writer can only dream of.
Photo via Instagram, courtesy of Offerman Wood Shop
These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments…. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette, or even religion, goddamnit.–Nick Offerman
Selling a book becomes a job in its own right. I’m grateful to everyone who has read the book and recommended it to others.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
*I’m always shocked when I hear someone talk about authors “getting rich” from their books. Sure, some best-selling authors make a good amount (a few make a very good amount) of money from book sales. But many authors make $1-$2 per copy in royalties. The odds are tiny that sales of Making Things Work will ever cover the cost of the time I invested in writing, let alone promoting the book. But when you feel compelled to do something, you do it.