Alex Haley and the Making of a Writer

Alex Haley in Coast Guard uniform, 1949. Courtesy of the USCG Military.

USCG Journalist Alex Haley, 1949.  Photo courtesy of the USCG Military.

On August 11, Alex Haley would have turned 93 years-old. To commemorate his birthday, I wanted to share a story about how he got his start as a professional writer.

***

Long after he became a best selling author, Alex Haley recalled a phone conversation he had in 1952. “I was standing up at the telephone. And when it hit me who [the caller] was, I just froze.” It was the editor of Coronet, a popular monthly magazine (owned by Esquire), who was looking for a writer. Then serving as the US Coast Guard’s Chief Journalist, the thirty-one-year-old Haley was desperately trying to break into the competitive magazine writing industry. His rejections slips piled high.

Hope was slipping away.

And then came the memorable phone call from the editor of a major New York City-based magazine. To have an article published in Coronet meant so much to the struggling writer that when he was told his byline would not be his own, Haley was not dissuaded. At the time, it was not unusual. Similar publications often hired unknown authors to serve as ghostwriters for celebrities, such as Frank Sinatra, Zza Zza Gabor, and Groucho Marx.

Under contact at $125 (or $100 if written under his own name) for each 600-word article, Haley went to work. Between 1952 and 1960, the neophyte writer penned more than twenty articles for Coronet, with only three attributed to himself. The others were written on behalf of singer Kate Smith and radio/television host Robert Q. Lewis.

Coronet, May 1953 issue.

Coronet, May 1953 issue.

Strangely, the Coronet editors did not think its readers would find it odd that Smith and Lewis, both of whom had no background in maritime or black history, wrote about sea rescues and African Americans—topics that reflected Haley’s expertise.

In “Always a Champion,” published in May 1953 with Lewis’ byline, for example, the story focused on a boxing match that took place on a coast guard cutter. Actually, Haley had written an identical piece in SeaFarer, a short-lived newsletter that he had created for his crewmates.

In “Whittler of Time,” published in June 1954 with Smith’s byline, this piece was about the 18th century African American inventor and scientist Benjamin Banneker. It was highly unusual for a popular magazine like Coronet (that was geared toward a white audience, as demonstrated by its advertisements) to feature an article about an African American figure, especially one who was neither an athlete nor entertainer.

Haley had to pay his dues–even if it meant writing under someone else’s name. In the long run, it paid off. Eventually, he published in Reader’s Digest, Playboy, Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan, with his name in the byline.

 

Best Part About Being a Self-published Author….

 

99designs-logo-r_0What’s the best part about being a self-published author?

Well, that’s easy—selecting your book cover!

One of the biggest gripes among traditional published authors, aside from getting nominal royalty rates, receiving minimal visibility in bookstores, and waiting months (if not years) for your book to be published is that they have no control over one of the most important features of their book—the cover design.

For self-published authors, we can choose any cover design we like or, if we have enough talent, create our own.

One of my editors recommended a professional graphic artist who designed my current book cover.

My plan was to have him use a photograph of Alex Haley, which I had purchased from Associated Press (AP) granting me eBook commercial rights for five years. The artist, whom I had hired, did a splendid job, positinig the photograph, title, and my name on the cover.

He charged his standard fee for a single design. If I wanted another design, there would be an additional fee.

Six months later, when I began thinking about publishing a paperback edition of my eBook, I investigated the cost of publishing the same photograph on a hard cover. To my chagrin, AP charged about the same fee I had paid to have the image on my eBook cover.

Furthermore, I would have to pay my designer another fee just to create a back cover (since there wasn’t one prior).

And I would have to renew the rights to the photograph every five years.

At that point, I had all but given up on publishing a book I could actually hold in my hands and turn the page.

Then, it occurred to me while I was listening to my favorite podcast program on writing—Self-Publishing Podcast—that there was a plausible alternative.

self-publishing-podcast

The podcast is hosted by three indie authors—Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant, and David Wright. It was their lone sponsor, 99 Designs, who caught my attention.

99 Designs is a San Francisco-based web company that provides a marketplace for graphic designers to showcase their work based on a business’ needs.

The designers compete in a contest (paid for by a business or an individual), and, whichever design is selected by the person(s) paying for the service, the winning artist receives two-thirds of the fee. 99 Designs takes the other third.

The best part about working with 99 Designs is that there is no obligation if you don’t like any of the designs. You’ll receive a full refund.

Although the concept seemed perfect for my situation, I was convinced when Wright said on Episode #109: 

“We’re not going to advertise anything on this site that we would not use….If you want a professional design, go to 99 Designs.”

CURRENT BOOK COVER

CURRENT BOOK COVER

At first, there were only a few and they weren’t eye-catching. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. But by the following morning, scores had been submitted and there were enough quality designs in the lot that I knew a refund would not be necessary. By the end of the seven-day-period, I received a total of 145 submissions in the opening round! At least twenty of them I deemed “cover worthy” and those made it to the final round.

I haven’t chosen a cover yet, but I’ve setup an interest poll featuring my favorite designs. I want YOU to help me select the best design!

POLL: http://99designs.com/book-cover-design/vote-ersphb

“Thank You For Your Service,” A Review

T

In honor of the our nation’s birthday, we celebrate the festivities with fireworks (be careful!), flags, and picnics.

It’s important, though, that we seize the holiday as an opportunity to remember  that there are still battles taking place, both on and off the war front.

A few months ago (well before the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)  implosion surfaced, which eventually led to the resignation of  Secretary Eric Shinseki), I was engrossed in reading a first-hand account of what was happening to our soldiers upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s a short  review of it that was originally published in San Francisco Book Review.

***

“I feel so fucking violent right now,” wrote a young soldier in the journal he maintained as part of the healing process during his transition from the battlefield to civilian life.

Author David Finkel

Author David Finkel

In David Finkel’s Thank You for Your Service, recently named by Amazon as the “best nonfiction book of the year,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer followed a group of young yet troubled male veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Like those who served in Vietnam, our most recent veterans are burdened with similar adjustment issues.

Whether it’s excessive drug or alcohol use, suicidal thoughts, violent outbursts, or domestic abuse, the twenty-something-year-old vets that Finkel chronicled are suffering from varying degrees of PTSD and are in need of much more assistance than their families or even the VA normally can provide.

The horror that combatants experienced make this insightful and well-told book–a sequel to the author’s previous book about the war, The Good Soldiers–difficult to plow through. Hopefully, it serves as a reminder to the 99% of Americans unaffected by these recent conflicts that we need to do more for our veterans.

Book Bloggers: Seriously?

If a DIY author has any chance of success, he or she must be realistic and knowledgeable about how and where to get press for their book. Don’t waste your time, for instance, contacting the book review editors of the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. And for that matter, don’t even bother contacting your local daily newspaper.Unknown

The newsgathering industry is dealing with its own financial demise and it is certainly not going to dedicate its space publishing a book review of an unknown author. Essentially, bypass the traditional book reviewers altogether.

To reach prospective reviewers, (and in turn, readers), there are several avenues an author can take without spending a dime. Using popular social media sites such as Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook are a given, but nothing is as effective about creating buzz for your publication as the Book Blogger.

A subculture unto itself thanks to websites like Blogspot and WordPress, these bloggers are the new gatekeepers of the publishing industry. KirkusBooklist, and Publisher’s Weeklyin several respects have been supplanted by “Amy Reads,” “Bookslut,” “Busy Mom Book Review,” and “Reads 4 Pleasure” that are calling the shots.

After sifting through endless pages of Google search results for “Book Blogs,” in hopes of establishing a cadre of potential reviewers for my own book, I began to notice a pattern among these bloggers.

From their “review policies,” it is clear that these bloggers are being inundated with lots and lots of books, most of which, I presume, do not get reviewed, let alone read. These policies in many instances are quite cumbersome.

What I found disconcerting, though, as a self-published author of a biography, which is only available electronically, I concluded that the odds of having it reviewed by one of these book bloggers are nil.

Why?

Let me explain:

  • No eBooks – First and foremost, book bloggers are adamant that they will not review eBooks; they want a hard copy. Are they aware that in 2013, eBooks accounted for nearly a third of all books sold in the U.S.? More to the point, considering their blogs are only available electronically, I find their refusal to review eBooks a bit odd (and hypocritical) at such a request, but, hey, they are the gatekeepers.
  • Nonfiction is non grata – Nearly all book bloggers are female. Certainly, this does not bother me on a personal level but the reality is that most women’s reading taste (i.e., fiction: fantasy, romance, coming-of-age, paranormal, food) is frequently different than generally men’s (i.e., nonfiction: biography, military history, science & technology) as demonstrated by the scores of published blogs. Clearly, I am at a disadvantage in terms of what most book bloggers are willing to review.
  • Self-publishing stigma remains - The majority of bloggers refuse to review, let alone consider, books that are self-published. Certainly, I understand the need for a filter like this one. Most self-published books are poorly designed, are not professionally edited and focus on topics that are narrow in scope. However, there are a number of self-published books (such as, Catherine Ryan Howard, Edward W. Roberston, Johnny B. Truant, David Gaughran and many others) who are on equal footing, in my view, with most seasoned writers.
Irish author David Gaughran

Irish author David Gaughran

Furthermore, I find it ironic that the vast majority of book bloggers themselves are neophytes in the industry. Most have no professional background when it comes to the books they examine. Only a handful have ever reviewed books for an established publication. Yet, they are willing to exclude newcomers similar to themselves.

No matter.

Authors and publishers alike have figured out the value of these bloggers and are more than willing to acquiesce to their demands.

All I want is for book bloggers to remember their roots.

Prolific Author and co-host of Self Publishing Podcast, Johnny B. Truant

Author & podcast host, Johnny B. Truant

That is why I have taken the initiative and launched my own book blog! As part of my “indie” (a fancy word for self-published) author duties, I have dedicated space on my blog to review books that are: a) nonfiction, b) available either electronically or via hard copy, c) and do not impose a “no self published book” clause.

In the age of Amazon, anyone, literally, either can be an author or a reviewer. I understand refusing to review books you’re not interested in reading, but don’t discriminate based on who is the publisher or the nature of the format.

This article was orginally published in the Portland Book Review.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman

BOOK REVIEW

The British geologist turned prolific author, Simon Winchester, falls into the latter category.

Although published more than a decade ago, I recently came across The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary in our home library. My wife, who had read the book and turned me onto other books by Winchester, saw me scrutinizing the back page.

“Read it,” she said. “You’ll like it.”

So I did.

Within a week, which for me is incredibly fast, I plowed through the 242-page paperback.

The story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary is not what you would expect–scores of bearded academics, pontificating to one another as each cups their tobacco pipe.

Instead, Winchester mesmerizes the reader as he focuses on the 19th century lives of two men (hence the title, the professor and the mad man) whose lives could not be more different. Having conducted his extensive research, Winchester weaves these stories seamlessly into a historical drama, akin to Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beast and Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken.

The professor, Sir James Murray, is a loving husband and father who was given the responsibility to create the official dictionary of the English language, a body of work that he began in his forties and would not be completed until shortly after his death at the age of 88. Once finished, it would be deemed the second most important contribution to the English language after the Bible.

The mad man is an American physician, Dr. W. C. Minor. A Civil War veteran with aristocratic New England roots, Minor suffered from PTSD after his service in America’s bloodiest conflict and soon after the war, while having a hard time readjusting to civilian life, fled to England.

Author Simon Winchester at work.

Author Simon Winchester at work.

In the ensuing years, Minor’s mental state got worse. After being found guilty of murder, he was sent to an insane asylum. It was at the hospital that he was introduced to Murray’s project. A literary man hoping to pass the boredom of his mundane routine at the asylum, Minor was intrigued and volunteered his services.

With an infinite amount of time on his hands and a knack for attention to detail, the doctor became indispensable to the project. It would be years before Murray and Minor would meet but, eventually, they would.

A wonderfully written story, the author once again proves—as he did in A Crack in the Edge of the World—that, in the end, truth is always stranger than fiction.

 ***

We Left Our Heart in Knoxville

In mid-February, InsideofKnoxville.com published a post I had written about my experience in Knoxville, Tennessee.

To my surprise, the blog was a hit, having been shared on Facebook by more than 250 users and receiving a record number of comments (in comparison to the other blog posts).

Most of the comments in response were pleasant  such as “great story” or “made me more homesick than about anything I’ve read in the last 20 years.”

There was one, though, who was not pleased, but rather offended: 

“So the locals being puzzled by two Californians being in Knoxville, as if they were Lewis and Clark taking a wrong turn and landing in Miami, seems odd.” 

Ha, ha, I suppose.

If you haven’t read the post, here it is in its entirety. Enjoy – AH

***

It was my first trip to Tennessee.

Hell, aside from Austin and Miami, it was my first experience in the South.

Traveling from the bluest of blue states, California, where Obama and Planned Parenthood bumper stickers are proudly displayed, my girlfriend (soon-to-be wife) Jennifer and I were in for a bit of culture shock when we arrived in Knoxville. 

“What brings you here,” was the most frequent question we were asked during our brief stay. Locals were dumbfounded why two West Coasters would make the trek to the Eastern part of the Volunteer State. 

Two words (and it wasn’t the Smoky Mountains). 

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

Adam Henig at Alex Haley Heritage Square Park.

“Alex Haley.”

 Immediately, we were told to go to the Alex Haley Square. I was planning to visit the site, but my purpose was to conduct research in order to write the first biography about the author of Roots. Although his personal papers are under lock and key, Haley’s designated biographer (who died before completing the project), Anne Romaine, made her research open to the public. Her manuscripts and related materials are so vast and vital to anyone wanting to reconstruct Haley’s life, visiting Knoxville is a must.

Since I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, I was covering the entire cost for the two plane tickets, five nights in a downtown hotel, meals, and incidentals.  

 “So, we travelled all the way to Knoxville to go to a library,” Jennifer continued to inquire in the taxi en route to our hotel. “That seems so strange.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll go out to dinner and there will be time to shop.” 

 A smile emerged, but just a little one. 

The first two days in Knoxville were spent at the university’s library. We arrived when the Special Collections division opened and stayed until we were asked to leave. Our lunch consisted of a bagel, yogurt, a banana and coffee at the library’s in-house Starbucks–of course, we couldn’t take any of the goodies inside. Jennifer helped out with making copies, which numbered in the hundreds, and kept the files and folders organized to the staff’s delight.

On the third and final full day of research, I cut it short so we could explore the city’s downtown. We walked over to Market Square to find it bustling with outdoor dining venues, live music, sidewalk vendors, and couples and families mulling about, enjoying the temperate weather.  Jennifer and I were taken aback. 

Which European city were we in? Was this really Knoxville? 

Gay Street, Downtown Knoxville, TN

With her shopping radar on, Jennifer immediately zeroed in on Bliss, a chic fashion boutique. She was in heaven.

An hour later, we ate delicious pizza at Tomato Head. From there, we walked along Gay Street, admiring the architecture, the Knoxville Theater marquee, and, eventually, the waterfront. 

I admit I had preconceived stereotypes of what life was like in Knoxville. This was not what I had expected. 

The next day, we rented a car, stopped by Alex Haley Square (and, of course, took a picture), and then drove north to visit John Rice Irwin’s Museum of Appalachia. On our way back, we stopped off in the older section of town. Surrounded by railroad tracks and a series of abandoned buildings, we stumbled upon a pub, a tattoo parlor, and a used record store, the capstone to any hip town.

 Now, I was in heaven!

That evening we walked back down Gay Street, toward the waterfront and ate at The Bistro. Our friendly and inquisitive waiter (who not surprisingly asked, “what brings you to Knoxville?”), provided us with two complimentary tickets to a bluegrass show at the Bijou Theater, which was next door. The show was entertaining and on our jaunt back to the hotel, we wandered through World’s Fair Park.

Relaxing along the river that runs through the park, with the golden golf ball staring down upon us, Jen, cradled in my arms, whispered to me.

“I could live here.”

I agreed.

Although reality sunk in once we returned to family and jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, our fondness for the “Obscure Prismatic City” will always remain.

***

  • To read the comments from the original post, click HERE.
  • For more information about visiting Knoxville, click HERE.