“How did you go about getting your books published?”
When I had two people ask me to tell this story in two weeks, I realized that maybe I should, you know, write it down. I get this question every so often, and I’m always glad to share my experiences, even if they’re not necessarily that helpful.
Because, really, my answer to that question, if I’m being honest is: “Be really lucky.”
My first book, “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story,” has its origins back in 2003. I was working for the NASAexplores education web site, coming up with story ideas for weekly articles, and happened to notice that it was the 30th anniversary of the Skylab program. I started working on an article about the history of Skylab, and, in the process of researching it, noticed that there was a Skylab astronaut, Owen Garriott, living here in Huntsville. Inspired by this fortuitous discovery, I contacted Dr. Garriott to see if he would talk to me for the article. He was so gracious and helpful that I decided to try my luck again and contact two more Skylab astronauts, Joe Kerwin and Jerry Carr, so I could include one from each crew.
The thing that struck me working on the article, though, was how little information there was about Skylab. Really, I thought, someone should write a book about it. With that thought was the idea that writing said book would be a fun thing to do, but that such undertakings are the bailiwick of professional writers, not people like me.
Fast forward a few months later, and there was a reunion event in Huntsville marking the 30th anniversary of Skylab. The book idea popped into my head again, and I pushed it aside just as successfully on this occasion as the first.
Fast forward another couple of months, and I’m at Space Center Houston for the International Space Station Educator’s Conference. (It would later become the Space Exploration Educators Conference, but at this point the idea that human exploration beyond Earth orbit might actually happen again was only about three weeks old.) In the museum, they have the best Skylab exhibit anywhere. Walking through it, the book idea pushed its way into my head again. I dismissed it again with the same logic — that’s something for professional writers to do — but this time it pushed harder. “You know, David, you write for a living. That’s kind of what ‘professional writer’ means.”
I decided that when I got home, I would contact Dr. Garriott with the idea, which I was then picturing as offering to ghost-write his memoir, including Skylab and his Spacelab mission on the shuttle. I sent him a note asking him if he’d let me buy him lunch to discuss the idea. Honestly, at the time, I figured there was a very high likelihood he would say no to the book, but that I would get to have lunch with someone who spent two months in space, which still would have counted as a huge win to me.
Instead he said yes, let’s do it.
Well, um, OK.
Again, honestly, I’d now gotten a bit ahead of myself, I had no idea how to go about writing a book with an astronaut, but I figured, not completely incorrectly, that it was a lot like writing other things, but much longer. I also had no idea how to go about getting a book co-written with an astronaut published, and that was perhaps a little more daunting.
I called a friend of mine who worked for a major publishing house in New York at the time, and he gave me the one bit of good advice this story contains: Go to a bookstore. Find books similar to the one you’re writing. Look through the acknowledgements of those books. Find ones where the author thanks his agent. You now know agents who will work with this type of book, and do well enough that the author thanks them for it. Send proposals to those agents.
As it happens, I never even actually used the one bit of good advice in this story. Owen had the time had been helping another author, Colin Burgess, with a book on NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, and mentioned to Colin that he and I were going to be working on a memoir. Colin, whom I knew through the online collectSPACE community, said that he was editing a series for the University of Nebraska Press on the history of spaceflight, and the author who had originally signed up to write the Skylab volume had just dropped out. Maybe we would be willing to turn the memoir into a Skylab history?
If we were interested, Colin said, we would have to submit a proposal, which he said he would be happy to help us write. They would then review the proposal they helped us write, and, assuming it was acceptable, we’d be given a contract. The offer had appeal. Everything I had started trying to figure out about how to get published just got resolved. We decided to do it. We even wrote the proposal all by ourselves, figuring if we couldn’t write a proposal without help, we probably didn’t need to be undertaking to write a book. It was accepted; we had a contract.
Joe Kerwin joined us later; when we went to interview him for the book he mentioned that he had also been interested in writing one, so we decided to form a super-team-up for “Homesteading.” I’ll note that Owen and Joe did an incredible amount of work on the book; people have assumed that in a partnership like this the writer does the writing and the astronauts lend their names and stories, but they both actually wrote large portions of the book. And a huge amount of credit also goes to Ed Gibson from the third crew of Skylab, who, through not listed as an author, also made incredible contributions to the finished product, both in the coverage of his mission and in the science chapter.
“Bold They Rise” came about similarly. Toward the end of “Homesteading,” Colin asked me if I knew anyone who might want to write one of the series’ two shuttle books. The conversation took place at just the right moment — I was far enough out of doing the real heavy lifting for Homesteading that the intimidation of the work was a little removed, but publication was imminent enough that there was a lot of excitement. So, yes, I know someone — me. The proposal process got extended when an astronaut co-author was briefly attached, and then unattached, from the project, but other than that, it worked in much the same way.
“Homesteading” took about four years from inception through publication; “Bold They Rise” about twice that long, though much more sporadically with more stops and starts. “Homesteading,” co-authored with a couple of astronauts who opened some amazing doors for me, was much more fun to work on. I’m proud of being able to tell the undertold story of Skylab and preserving it for history; but I’ve had a more personal relationship with the shuttle and so I was honored to be able to write that love letter to the program. I think the shorter “Bold They Rise” is a little more accessible, but I also think that “Homesteading” has some really great nuggets that make it worth the read.
In both cases, we completed the manuscript and sent it to the publisher. It goes through a peer review, in which other authors tell the publisher whether they think the manuscript should be published, would be publishable with some work, or shouldn’t be published. “Homesteading” was the former; “Bold They Rise” came back as the second, and, honestly, is a much better book for it. I was perhaps too humble in undertaking BTR; I wanted it to be a whole lot of the voices of the astronauts and very little of mine. Which sounds noble, but the book suffered from the lack of a stronger narrative. The current draft goes much further in fixing that than what we originally submitted. In the case of “Homesteading,” which received a stronger Go from the peer review, there were still some recommended changes, and those were made.
The manuscripts were resubmitted, and went through an edit from a proof-reader hired by the publisher. The manuscript comes back, you make the edits, and send it back. This is the last time your book is yours to do with as you please. It comes back to you one final time, in the form of page proofs, in which it’s laid out the way it will look in print. You make one final look through, just to make sure there are no glaring errors, but unless there is something huge (and at this point there shouldn’t be), you can’t make minor tweaks but you can’t make any changes that would move even one word from one page to another. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had as a writer, having to reread my work but not being able to change it. Reading from this vantage point of having my hands tied, I kept second-guessing myself. The same sentences which I’d loved the last time I read the book now seemed like they could be oh so much better if only I were allowed to change them. (Now that the book is published, they’ve gone back to being just fine again, thankfully.) This was particularly true of the beginning of “Homesteading,” which during that reading felt like I had been trying way too hard to ‘write a book.’ ‘Oh, look at me, I’m such a serious writer,’ 11-years-ago me apparently thought, according to 7-years-ago me. (Me today suspects 11-year-ago me probably really was trying too hard, but that 7-year-ago me may have been a little high on his horse in judging him.)
The manuscript was mailed back one final time, and the next time I saw it was in the form of a box of printed books on my doorstep. Which, for the record, is a very nice feeling. Someone gave me the advice, which I followed, of signing your first copy for yourself; those two volumes sit in my living room. (I also have “yearbook copies” of each book, in which I get signatures from the people who helped me work on them or who are discussed in the book.)
People ask about royalties, and I’ll just say this is not something you do for the money. For a while, I probably spent more working on “Homesteading” than I made out of it, though that may no longer be true. Part of that comes from working with an academic press, which has its pros and cons. A commercial publisher might have provided more marketing assistance and helped us have more mainstream success, but part of that help most likely would have been in the form of a loss of control. In writing “Homesteading,” a huge motivator for us was preserving the story for history, and so we were grateful for a publisher that gave us the freedom to tell as much of the story as we wanted.
So that’s my story. Like I said, I think the best piece of advice in there is one I didn’t use, so take it all for what it’s worth.
• Connections are good. Make them. Use them.
• The best way to write a book is to write a book. It will never be easy. You’ll never have time. The way you do it is this: You type one word. And then you type another word after that. And another word after that. Until there are no more words your story needs. The more time passes between the words, the longer the process will take, but as long as you keep doing it, it will get done. If you wait for the day you have all the time to write all the words, odds are it won’t.
• Write a book because it’s a book you want to write. If you have enough passion to pursue it, do it. If you don’t, don’t.
• I work best with accountability. It’s why I had co-authors on both books; it’s much easier for me to get things done when there’s someone I’m responsible to working with me. I’m not saying you’re the same, I’m saying that we all have strengths and weaknesses. Know both, play to your strengths, compensate for your weaknesses.
The other common question: It’s entirely possible I’ll write another one, but not today. Work keeps me very busy, and my free time goes to improv and history work and freelance writing and Huntsville blogging and being a newlywed husband. Those aren’t an excuse — if I were passionate about writing a book, I would type words around those things. But right, those things are where my passion lies, and a book today would detract from those things. There is an idea I want to write eventually that’s different from my first two, but it’s still boiling in the back of my head. I’d like to write fiction, but I’m not going to start typing until I have an idea that compels me. I’ve had a couple of conversations about collaborating on a project, and for the right project and person, I’m alway open to that.
And, of course, someday the rocket I’m helping to build will need its story told. Part of me would be content letting someone else tell it. But part of me would like to at least be involved in the telling…