Tuesday, February 19, 2013


... for an online friend who wrote inquiring about writing and publishing books, based on my experience with Slow Looking and other recent publications.

Thank you for your letter and inquiry about your book(s) about end-of-life care and preparation for dying, and what the publishing options might be.  Not having seen the work you've done, It's very hard for me to respond with any confidence that what I say will be useful, but I do have some general observations.

First, your topic is an enormously important one, especially given two factors: One, the fact that medical knowledge is helping us to live longer and that our global population is therefore aging; and two, at least in my opinion, the widespread loss of religious faith and religion-based community leaves people more isolated and more confused in the face of death than ever before.  I have known about your work, through the blogosphere, for some time now and I admire your dedication and the comfort you surely bring to those you serve.  I am sure that you have a great deal of experience to bring to the subject matter, and know that you have the compassion needed to address it with seriousness and depth.

What I don't know, of course, is how your book hangs together.  You say it's a "mess," which is not a hopeful sign!  A book does need a focus, a coherence, a clarity of purpose.  If it's at present just a grab-bag of ideas, stories, observations, you'll need to find some way to pare it down to the essential.  In a nutshell, what do you want it to say?  Who's your readership?  Those who are dying, themselves?  Those who attend them?  Their families?  What do you want them to take away from having read the book?  These things do need to be thought through.  Good answers to such questions will provide you with the guidelines you need to clear up the "mess" and create, instead, a "book."  Or, as you suggest, several books, each with its own focus and intent.

And when you have the book(s) in hand, you're right again, publishing these days is an ocean of possibility filled with reefs and shallows you can run up against--and a good few sharks!   Not to mention those greedy whales who occupy so much of the territory.  Ideally, you need to study the market a bit, to find out what else is out there; is the ground already covered?  What do you have to bring to the table that is yours alone?  (Obviously, personal experience is one big factor.  No one else has seen and done the things that you have done.  I'm a great believer in getting to the heart of the matter--and that means my own heart.)

My own books have mostly been published with small publishers--the exceptions being my monograph on the artist David Hockney (with Abbeville Press) and my two novels, published in the 1980s.  As I'm sure you know, small publishers and big ones alike are putting books out into an incredibly competitive market place, in which very few books indeed reach more than a handful of readers.  If you get a book out this way, you'll find yourself pretty much on your own when it comes to promotion.  These days, the Internet is incredibly helpful in getting the word out--especially if you have established a base of readers though your blog.  Social networking also provides a great vehicle for getting the word out.

The problem with these methods, though, as I am currently discovering, is saturation.  I don't know about you, but I habitually scroll through my email trashing everything that seems non-essential--and that includes, I regret to say, those urgent emails from people like myself, anxious to get word out about the excellent writing or art work they have done.  You need a great deal of sheer luck to rise above the horizon in this particular seething ocean of information.

"Slow Looking" is my first venture into self-publication--though I have made contracts with small publishers before with an agreement to underwrite the purchase of a certain number of copies--not a far cry from self-publication, but still, not quite.  You still have a "publisher."  With "Slow Looking," I worked with Amazon's CreateSpace and found the process, with the help of a professional designer, to be fair, easy, and inexpensive.  I think it's a well-presented, well-written book and it has a clearly defined purpose.  I know of nothing else like it on the market.  And yet... to persuade people to actually go beyond the expression of interest, enthusiasm, and support is proving harder than I had imagined--and I have a good readership base in The Buddha Diaries, the blog I have been writing for several years now on an almost daily basis, in which I give it all away for free!  I have also thousands of "friends" on Facebook.  I contribute regularly to the Huffington Post and Goodreads.  I am LinkedIn...  I have in other words, an established presence online.  You'd think this would all be reflected in the numbers of orders that come in to my CreateSpace account.  But no.  The truth is quite the opposite.

For me, sales are important--not for the money: I've been at this long enough to know that this is no way to get rich, nor even earn a living.  But sales are a measure of the response the book is getting, of the value others place on what I write.  I can't tell, from what you write, what your wishes or intentions are on this front, but for me a "vanity" book is one that is put out for no better reason than to satisfy its author's ego.  You have important experience, performed useful service, have demonstrated your dedication to a fine, humanitarian cause.  Your Buddhist practice has been, to my understanding, an important resource for the work you have done and for the expansion of your own humanity.  If you do choose to write and publish this book--these books--I believe you should do so with a sense of responsibility to them, and to the message they intend to put out into the world.  In other words, you will need to commit to far more than the organization and writing of the books.  You will need to commit to their nurture and care as you put them out into the world.  And that's no small commitment.

I hope these thoughts might be helpful.  As you can probably tell, they are addressed as much to myself as to your inquiry.  The questions you raise have been much on my mind of late, and I am grateful to you for having asked me to focus on them.  Please let me know if there's any further way I can be of help.  This comes with my best wishes for success in this competitive world.

Oh, by the way, with reference to another of your points.  I'm quite sure that the subject of death and dying is no longer "taboo," as you suggest.  Perhaps in casual chatter, but no longer in the serious writing or in the national dialogue.  I hope you will have no hesitations on that score.

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