My Sea Urchin Saga:
Self-Publisher Undaunted by Setbacks
by Tom Kendrick
I was a lousy student. In
fact, at writers’ clubs and publishers’ meetings I’ve attended, I always seem
to be the only one who didn’t graduate from college. The only things I was good
at were surfing and diving.
After I did graduate from high
school (barely) and after a four-year stint in the Air Force, I went to work on
fishing boats and ended up spending 22 years as a diver in the California sea
urchin fishery. I worked with the craziest guys and had hair-raising
adventures, including multiple encounters with great white sharks.
All through the years, over and
over, my friends kept saying: “Somebody needs to write a book about our
adventures!” In 1998, I began scribbling a simple chronology of our crazy way
of life and some stories about the wild things, the hilarious things, and the
tragic things that routinely happened to us. Two years later, I had a 100-page
double-spaced manuscript. “I’ve got a book!” I proudly proclaimed, and I rushed
off to have it edited and bound. The first editor to have a look at it called
it “incomprehensible gibberish, not fit for publication.” I was crushed, and I
After six months, I picked it up
again, saw that he was right, and embarked on the first of many rewrites. It
was during this period that I learned two important rules of thumb: (1) Have
other writers and editors read your work; don’t rely on your friends for
feedback, and (2) everything is a draft—it can always be improved.
Next Stop, New York!!
More people read it. More
criticisms. Work got in the way. I quit again. I began again. By 2004, I had
about 60,000 words. People who read it were more complimentary. Finally, Gil
Mansergh—one of my many readers, a fellow writer, and a literary
agent—called me up one evening. “I think you’ve got something here,” he
said. “But it needs more. If you’re willing, I’ll help you get it in
shape”—yep, another rewrite—“and we’ll submit it to New York.”
New York! My head was swimming.
Here was someone who believed in me enough to represent me to publishing
houses! I was on top of the world!
Gil and I worked on <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Bluewater Gold Rush: The
Odyssey of a California Sea Urchin Diver for months. We created
conflict, we brought in a bad guy, and, of course, there was love.
Collaborating with another writer was new to me, but after we found our routine
(essentially arguing and yelling at each other), it was one of the most
rewarding parts of the entire process.
In early 2005, we began submitting
to big publishers with high hopes. We submitted to Random House, we submitted
to Putnam, we . . . well, we submitted to all of them. Then we waited. And we
waited. Everybody rejected the book. Once again, I quit in frustration and
humiliation. Gil, my unflagging advocate, gave me Dan Poynter’s book on
self-publishing. I set it on my bookshelf and watched television for two
months. Eventually I got around to reading it. Then I read it again. And again.
I’ll bet I read that book five times. I’ll also bet I absorbed about 15 percent
of what it contains.
After New York Said No
Not wanting to tackle the entire
job of publishing alone, I elected to find someone who could handle design and
production for a fee. After getting several quotes from publishers that sell
production services, I found a local dragonfly expert, Kathy Biggs, who had
published two books of her own. She gave me a quote that was too good to pass
Since Kathy, and Dave, her
husband, live nearby, they couldn’t keep me away, and so the interior design of
the book became a collaborative effort. I look back on that process with a
great deal of fondness and pride at what we accomplished. After two months of
working together, we had ourselves a fine product.
Now I was faced with a huge
decision: my cover. I was at a seminar once where the speaker held up a book
for all in the room to see. The cover was hot pink, with a white silhouette of
a female on it. Not gaudy, but extremely eye-catching (you could see it from a
mile away). Once we had looked at it for about 20 seconds, she spoke into the
microphone. “This is a pretty good book. It is not a great book, but it’s
pretty good. This book has sold over 100,000 copies.” Message received.
After much hand-wringing and
pencil-sharpening, I bit the bullet. Pete Masterson, president of the Bay Area
Publishers Association, gave me a short list of his favorite cover designers,
and I contracted with one of them, Mayapriya Long at Bookwrights.
I couldn’t sleep! What had I done?
I had just written a check and sent off 50 pages of my book to someone in
Virginia! Someone I would never meet face to face. Someone who had probably
never dived, never surfed, and had no clue what a sea urchin diver was.
Well, to make a long story short,
she hit a home run. As soon as I saw her cover, I knew it. My book is
beautiful, and I am constantly being showered with compliments (of course, I
take all the credit). Another lesson in my odyssey: don’t scrimp on your cover.
In this crazy process, it seems as
though each decision you’re faced with is tougher than the last. Next up was
certainly a big one: how many books should I order? Will I be stuck with
hundreds (thousands?) of books in my closet for the next 10 years? After much
thought, quite a bit of arguing with my wife, and several peeks at our
(diminishing) savings account, we came to an agreement: our first run, ordered
from United Graphics in Mattoon, IL, would be 2,000 books.
The day arrived. The truck driver
deftly handled the pallet jack, and within 20 minutes, we had a mountain of books—100
cases of 20. We laughed. We cried. We took pictures. I had done it! I had
books! I was officially a published author! It was finished! Done! Mission
Whoa there. Down, boy. You don’t
have a big publishing house. You don’t have thousands (and thousands) of
dollars for a publicist. All those review copies you sent out landed you zip.
You have no distributors, no orders. All you’ve got is . . . you.
I read somewhere that unless
you’re Michael Crichton or Stephen King, there is only one person who can sell
your book. You!
Scaling the Marketing
I speak to groups these
days—museums, schools, Rotary Clubs, dive and surf clubs. Recently, I had
the honor of addressing the Redwood Writers of Sonoma County. I told them
publishing was like climbing a very tall mountain. But the marketing and
publicity! Well, my friends, that’s Mount Everest herself. It’s a huge task,
and now I see why publicists charge so much money. It’s difficult, time
consuming, and headache after headache. I have to confess, though, it can be
fun: “Urchin diving? Surfing? No, thanks. No, thanks. No, thanks. . . . Sure,
send me 20!”
I called, emailed, sent letters to
my target audience—dive shops, surf shops, ocean-adventure people,
maritime museums. I joined the appropriate organizations, contacted icons in
the world of surfing, diving, and outdoor adventure.
Marketing my book, as I’ve come to
realize, is a constant, never-ending process. I’ve also learned that I must be
my own flag-waver. I can’t be shy, I have to do things that are awkward, that
make me feel silly and sometimes downright uncomfortable. The thing that keeps
me going, though, is the fact that I have a good product. My heart and soul are
in it. It’s the very best I can do.
During its first 10 weeks, my book
sold 1,232 copies. At this writing, it has been featured in <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>National Fisherman,California Diving
Surfer’s Journal, the <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>North Bay Bohemian, and the <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>Santa Barbara News-Press,
and is scheduled for coverage on <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Huell Howser’s California’s Gold, a
nationally syndicated PBS television show. At 1,800 copies, I will break even,
and I have ordered a second printing.
In the relatively small world of
sea urchin diving off the California coast, people are now saying: “Yeah,
there’s a book about us. Some guy told our story!”
I can’t tell you how much pride it
gives me to say: “I’m the guy.”
After 22 years in the
California sea urchin diving business, Tom Kendrick retired in 2000. He lives
in Sebastopol where he is working on a movie script for <span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Bluewater Gold Rush, and on his next
book, Tales from the
Kelpbed. To learn more, visit bluewatergoldrush.com.