A Cool Home for “Homesteading”


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A year ago today, the inimitable Rick Houston sent me that picture of my book “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” with a note: “Can’t tell you where I saw this yet … but when I do, it will be one of the most impressive places you’ve seen it. I promise.”

 

Rick, for those that don’t know, is the author of “Go, Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control” and of “Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle 1986-2011,” which is the “sequel” to my “Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986,” picking up the story of the shuttle where my book leaves off.

 

Two months go by, and I hear nothing, so I ask Rick if I’ve missed the news. “Nope. Not yet. But I’ll tell you where I saw the book.” Yeeeeesssssss? “Chris Kraft’s house.” As in, like, NASA’s first flight director ever, the guy that basically invented mission control, and former director of Johnson Space Center. During a launch countdown, when you hear people say “Go, Flight,” Kraft was the original Flight. So, yeah, that’s more than a little bit cool. “Just don’t say anything yet,” Rick says. Awww, OK.

 

More months go by. I ping Rick again, asking if I can share the pic and offering to pitch his books in the process. He doesn’t even answer me this time. Sigh.

 

The big secret has now been revealed, however. The reason Rick was hanging out at Chris Kraft’s house was for “Mission Control: The Men Who Put A Man on the Moon,” a documentary about the flight controllers that put men on the moon. I’ve yet to see it, but the rave reviews that it got at Spacefest make me very eager to.

 

So, point being, Rick’s an awesome guy, not only because he sent me a picture of my book in what was, indeed, an impressive place, and not just because he writes great books on his own, but because he’s making actual documentaries about space. Check his stuff out.

If You Have To Choose Between History And Vampires…


Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This past weekend, I went down to Tuscaloosa to interview my friend Jeff Weddle, whom I’d not seen in way too long, about his latest book, When Giraffes Flew.

We met up at a Barnes and Noble, and, out of curiosity, I went over to their search computer, and typed in some names.

Jeff, Jesse J. Holland, Claudia Gray and I were all at Ole Miss within a year or so of each other, and we all had our first books come out during a similar span back in 2007-2008. I, of course, with space history tome Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story; Jesse with Washington, D.C., African American history/tour guide Black Men Built the Capitol; Jeff with a non-fiction look at a unique chapter of publishing in Bohemian New Orleans; and Claudia with YA vampire romance Evernight.

Turns out, if you type all four of our names into the search computer at the Barnes & Noble in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, they currently only have books by one of us in stock. Guess who?

She’s outsold us, her books are in way more everyday venues, and, in an odd thing for me to be slightly jealous of, can be commonly found remaindered, which to me is the ultimate level of authorial success.

And, then, earlier this year, it was announced that she’d be writing one of the first new-continuity Star Wars books pre-The Force Awakens. Like, somebody who worked at my college newspaper is now writing actual, real, canon Star Wars stuff, which is kind of mind-blowing.

So the morals of this story, kids, are:

1) I know some pretty awesome people.

2) Ole Miss produces some pretty awesome alum.

3) The latest from these talented authors, in addition to Gray’s Star Wars book Lost Stars, are Weddle’s southern gothic short story collection When Giraffes Flew and Holland’s The Invisibles, available in early 2016. Collect them all.

4) If you want to be successful as an author, and are debating between history and vampires, always go with vampires.

5) I love Star Wars, and, yeah, the idea of actually getting to be part of the story is unfathomable.

But, then, so is the story I do get to be part of. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

My Bad Advice On Book Publishing


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The original manuscript for “Homesteading Space.”

“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.

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The three ‘Homesteading Space’ co-authors, hard at work on the book

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.

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of

Buried somewhere in the archives of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an awesome display of a flown cover image of “Homesteading Space”

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.)

A big envelope full of

A big envelope full of “Bold They Rise”

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.

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Beyond that:

• 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…

That One Decade That One Time


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Exactly ten years ago today, I decided that I should write a book. Today, the final edits to my second book arrived at the publisher. What a long, strange decade it’s been.

The idea that became “Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story” came while I was at Space Center Houston, attending the International Space Station Educators Conference. (The conference is now known as the Space Exploration Educator Conference, but at that time, the idea of human space exploration being taken seriously was less than a month old. To further date this moment, while I had no idea at the time, TheFacebook had just been launched two days earlier.)

I was walking through the incredible Skylab trainer exhibit at SCH, when I decided to actually pursue an idea that had been in the back of my head for months. I went home, contacted Owen Garriott to see if he would be interested in writing a book, and was amazed when he agreed. Thanks to author and editor Colin Burgess, our notional volume soon had a home as part of the Outward Odyssey series on spaceflight history.

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“Homesteading Space” took up slightly less than half of that decade, roughly four and a half years from the day I was in the Skylab trainer until I held the book in my hand. “Bold They Rise” took a bit longer, for various reasons. The opportunity came along at just the right moment as I was finishing “Homesteading” — I was basically finished, so a lot of the stress was gone, but I hadn’t completely finished, so I wasn’t to the point of enjoying being done.

All told, “Bold They Rise” took more than seven years, with a lot of start and stops in between. (The time between original manuscript submission and publication alone was longer than the actual “Homesteading” writing process.) It’s been a long road, for both myself and my coauthor Heather R. Smith, which makes reaching this point all the more rewarding.

It has been an amazing journey, filled with unforgettable and incredibly rare experiences. I cannot begin to express my gratitude to my “Homesteading” co-authors Owen Garriott and Joe Kerwin for the help they gave me and the doors they opened on both books. It’s a strange feeling looking around a room full of people and realizing only two of you have never left the Earth. Or sitting down to dinner with a man who is basically one of the inventors of what NASA has come to be. Seeing half-finished paintings by a man who walked on the moon. Bouncing off walls in zero-G. I have been truly, amazingly, incredibly blessed, and am extremely grateful.

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For the first time in 10 years, I am no longer contractually obligated to provide any book pages to anyone. And that’s not a bad feeling either. I’ve greatly enjoyed the process, but I plan to enjoy a moment of freedom as well.

I’m not going to say there won’t be another book. I have an idea that keeps insisting I should turn it into words. Maybe I will. But not today.

And, of course, I’m in the incredibly interesting situation of living out the sort of story I’ve been writing. Each of my two books has chapters dedicated to the development of a spacecraft, and now I’m a member of a spacecraft development team. It’s a strange experience, going from studying history to being a part of it. When the time comes for that book to be written, maybe I’ll want to write it. But, at the moment, I’m far t0o focused on getting the program through this chapter and into the next.

And, of course, edited page proofs are not the same as a published book. The writing process of “Bold They Rise” is completed, but that just means that a new phase begins. Writing a book can range from grueling to enjoyable, sometimes in the same day, but there’s a lot to be said for having written a book, as well. Soon, the book will be released into the world, and I’ll accompany it for some of that voyage.

Maybe I’ll see you out there.

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Capturing the Stories of Challenger


Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Launch of the 51-L mission of the space shuttle Challenger.

Without question, the last chapter of Bold They Rise was the hardest to work on.

Not because it required more effort or research or anything like that, but because every word hurt.

Our publisher defined the scope of the book from the outset — the beginning of the program through the Challenger accident. Before we wrote the first words, we knew how the story had to end.

Writing the rest of the book, there was a lot of jumping around. Large portions of later chapters were written before earlier chapters. We just sort of put down the pieces where they fit.

Except the last chapter. Except the Challenger chapter. The end, we saved until last.

Which was pure procrastination. We knew we would have to write it, we just weren’t in any hurry to do so.

Challenger had always been a personal thing for me. I was in middle school when it happened, and I can only imagine that it was for me what the Kennedy assassination was for a previous generation. I was a school kid, far from involved in it, but it hurt. It was a loss.

I’ve written about it every year since. For school writing assignments, newspapers columns, blog posts, I’ve paused today to put thoughts into words, to remember, to ponder the event, its meaning, the years since. I’ve gone from being a middle school student to being part of the team creating NASA’s next launch vehicle. Challenger has gone from a national tragedy to a mandate. I’m not an engineer; I’m not designing the vehicle. But I try, every day, to hold myself to the standard I would want from those who do — “Do good work.”

The crew of Challenger’s 51-L mission were names in the news to me, far removed from my life. Eleven years ago, working for NASA, I’d not met any of Columbia’s final crew. But over the years, I begin to meet the men and women who were risking their lives. After Columbia, there were few flights for which I’d not seen in person members of the crews. It was no longer names in the news. It was people.

During those years, I’ve also had gotten to know people who were in the astronaut corps at the time we lost Challenger. I’d never talked to them about the accident; I’d never had any desire to do so. There were better things to talk about.

Working on this book, however, I did.

Joe Kerwin, one of my co-authors on Homesteading Space, was the medical examiner after the tragedy. For Joe, these were not names in the news. They were his colleagues. They were his friends. And he and his team had to identify what was left of them, and to try to determine what exactly had happened to them in their final moments of life.

We recorded the story. I cannot imagine the experience.

We first submitted the manuscript for the book three years ago today, picking this date as a small tribute.

Today, we’re reading through the manuscript one last time, with a looming deadline to send it back in for publication.

Heather has that chapter in her pile today. I’ll read it again soon. But not today. Not today.

Several Orbits Later


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All in all, it was a beautiful coda to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to record, and to one of the better stories I’ve had a chance to live.

Last week, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center hosted its annual Space Exploration Gala, and this year the event celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Skylab program. The eight living Skylab astronauts all came back to Huntsville for the event.

A similar night, almost 10 years ago, helped plant the seeds in me for a life-changing adventure. The eight were in Huntsville for the 30th anniversary, and it was one of the times I started to think seriously about what it would be like to work on a book telling the Skylab story. I was still a little ways out from having the nerve to actually step out and stop thinking about it and start doing something about it, but that night brought me a little closer.

So it was an incredible experience, on the other side of that adventure, to see the guys gathered in Huntsville once more, to see them and the program being celebrated, and to be a little more involved this time.

I had the chance to see most of the crew members the night before the event as we signed books to be sold the next night as a fundraiser for the museum. It was good getting to have a little time to visit and catch up, and even better to get to be present while they visited and caught up. I’ve been blessed to be in some amazing situations through the book, and this was one of them. I try to always appreciate what a blessing and responsibility it is; the legends will long live in history, the men behind them will only be known as long as there are people to talk about them.

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Five of the Skylab crewmembers came to Marshall the next day to talk about their experiences with the workforce. The event started with an awesome video overview of the program. I’ve always wondered if you could make a good movie about Skylab; certainly, that video showed you could make a great trailer for one. It was a little odd watching the video; I know the guys more as they are now, it was fun and a little odd seeing them looking so young. I ended up watching them watch the video more than watching it myself; it was fun watching their reactions to their younger days.

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It was also neat for me seeing my friend Andy Herron watching their talk from the front row. Andy’s a young NASA engineer working on SLS, and it was encouraging to see one of the team members who are taking on the torch appreciating the value of the experiences and wisdom of those who have paved the way.

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Afterwards, there was a reception at which I ate Skylab cake …

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… and photo-bombed astronauts. (Unintentionally, of course.)

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It was a fun combination of past and present, getting to be there with both the past NASA team I worked with on the book, and the present NASA team I work with today. That’s my former NASA boss in education, Jeff Ehmen, talking to Joe Kerwin. If you work at Marshall, you are the heir of an incredible legacy, and events like this really drive that home.

I was talking with my team lead after the talk about the fact that is a big part of why we do what we do — someday, I’m going to go to an event at Morris auditorium and hear astronauts tell about their experiences flying atop a rocket I was part of. And that will be a good day.

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The Space & Rocket Center used the occasion for another exciting Skylab milestone — the Skylab trainer that had been deteriorating in the parking lot for years was brought inside the Davidson Center for display. What the public didn’t realize is that not only had they fixed up the outside to bring it inside, they had actually also done a substantial amount of work on the inside, and the interior was ready for display also, if not complete. I was amazed at the work they had done. Very very exciting!

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Skylab trivia: Differently colored Snoopy stickers were used by each astronaut to mark his property.

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The Skylab display was particularly exciting to me because that was actually how I began my years as a Space & Rocket Center volunteer, by participating in a volunteer effort to fix up the exhibit many years ago. We made some progress, but it fell apart long before the trainer was display ready again. But we did reverse some damage and laid the foundation for the recent professional effort, and, for me, it was a great experience to be able to spend time inside a Skylab mock-up while working on the book. At one point, we closed the airlock door on the trainer, which was a Gemini hatch that was repurposed for Skylab. How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to close a Gemini hatch? So it was very exciting for me to be inside the trainer for the first time in a long time. Not nearly as many years as it had been since the crew members had been aboard Skylab, but still a nice homecoming for me as well. Before the volunteer effort ended, we all were given the opportunity to sign an out-of-sight wall, and it was a neat experience to see my name still there.

I don’t have good pictures of the talk, but it was great as well. The guys did a good job of telling the old stories, and they have some great ones.

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Paperback Writer


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I can remember, as a kid, singing along with The Beatles — “And I want to be a paperback writer.”

(I can also remember, as a wee kid who couldn’t understand the song but had watched the cartoon Tolkein adaptations too many times, singing along to “Be the Black Rider,” but that’s beside the point.)

And now, I am a paperback writer. That’s kind of cool.

In the mail yesterday, I got my advance copy of this fall’s paperback release of Homesteading Space,which is already available in hardcover and Kindle editions.

Order yours today!