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On a Mission of Courage, Comfort and Joy:
A Success Story about a Book for Women with Breast Cancer

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You have breast cancer. Those four words changed my life on April 20, 1990. How do you say good-bye to your breast? How do you bid your sense of invincibility farewell? How do you deal with a world turned upside down?


Write Your Passion

The night before my first mastectomy, I wrote a poem, “Good-bye, Beloved Breast.” I needed comfort. I needed courage. I needed a sense of certainty about what I had to do. I didn’t need to write a book.


However, poems kept popping into my head. When I shared 20 of them with my oncologist, he told me to “do something with them.” A year later, when I faced a second mastectomy, a sense of urgency propelled me to indeed “do something.” Somehow, in the midst of illness and surgeries, with the help of my daughter and an editor, I wrote Fine Black Lines: Reflections on Facing Cancer, Fear and Loneliness and formed Mulberry Hill Press. I chose self-publishing because I had no assurance that I would live long enough to suffer through multiple rejections or the amount of time a larger publisher would need to get a book to my readers.


Find Resources

Judith Appelbaum’s How to Get Happily Published and Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual guided us. Colorado Independent Publishers Association, PMA, and SPAN also were (and continue to be) excellent sources of help and information.


It was too late for any reviews by the time I realized I should get them, but my husband, Les, and I did a number of PMA mailings to reviewers, libraries, andtargeted groups. Several local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations featured me, because I didn’t know enough not to bug them. One of the articles landed on the Associated Press wire service.


Always Say Yes

Soon after Fine Black Lines was published, Colorado Woman News interviewed me. They asked for permission to reprint the mastectomy picture I had put in Fine Black Lines on the cover of their October issue in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I said, “Yes.”

I had agreed, but when I saw myself, naked from the waist up, on the cover of stacks and stacks of magazines, I was stunned. It took a while to remember why I had decided to share such a picture as part of the truth. I wanted to do my small part to ensure that my granddaughters and the many piano students I have taught over the years would never face breast cancer. I wanted to show, if I could, that femininity, serenity, and joy do not depend on body parts.


I still cringe when I see that cover. I will never, ever feel that naked again. But I am not sorry that I did it. In retrospect, I know that picture has opened many doors to me. And it has closed a few.


Although it had never occurred to me that authorship might include public speaking, I did several readings at local colleges soon after the book was published. Then a niece who works for Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix showed a copy of Fine Black Lines to her supervisor, who asked if I would speak there the next time I was in town. I called other hospitals in Phoenix, mentioned that I was coming to speak at Good Samaritan, and asked if I might give a presentation at their facility too. On that trip, I spoke at seven hospitals–both to breast cancer support groups and to health care professionals–and book sales were good.


Identify Your Market & Get Out There

Ha, I thought, this is great! I located hospitals on AAA maps in areas to which we wanted to travel, called Directory Assistance for phone numbers, made cold calls, and off we went.

It was through my work with support groups that I learned of many conferences and other venues where people would be interested in my book. Attend all the conferences you can–publishing, marketing, those specific to your field. Find out what they need in speakers and provide abstracts of talks you can give. Buy a table. Network. At a gathering sponsored by our regional booksellers association, a distributor agreed to carry my book. Ingram and Baker & Taylor followed.

The smallest group to which I’ve spoken numbered four–two attendees plus two facilitators. Since my marketing is also a mission, I never feel my time has been spent in vain, even if I occasionally speak to very small groups and make no sales at all.


I have also keynoted conferences of a thousand. The larger organizations seem to hear about me from the small groups. I’ve given a dozen presentations at three World Conferences on Breast Cancer in Canada, all because I called the program chairperson the first year it was held.

Get Information Flowing In & Out

We search libraries and the Net for lists of hospitals, associations, and breast cancer support groups. Then we enter and code relevant contacts into our computer, which we access to make calls and to send out postcards about the book and presentations. While the response rate is only 1% or 2%, that’s pretty respectable for direct marketing, and I get enough speaking offers to keep ahead of the expenses. Back-of-the-room sales run about 38% of those in attendance.


I also write articles for related magazines. At first, I simply called the magazines, but then I realized that it’s best to send query letters. However, the editor of American Medical News was so taken aback by my naivete, audacity, and persistence that she finally said, “OK, send me your piece.” And she published it!

My website functions as a press kit (resume, travel schedule, bio, and outlines of presentations), as well as an information and sales tool. I plan to connect with more breast cancer groups online, provide links, and thus increase my presence in cyberspace.


Stay Out There

As we travel, we often follow the blue hospital signs so I can pop in at cancer centers to say hello and leave a book. That’s how I happened to be speaking at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where I met Fred Silverman, a New York producer, who was there doing a documentary about cancer. He asked Les and me to participate–a small matter of being in the right place at the right time. He also wrote a resounding recommendation for Fine Black Lines and my later book, The Last Violet — Mourning My Mother. Similarly, Barbara Jabaily from Channel 12 in Denver invited me to participate in her documentary after I had dropped off a book at the station.


Things are not always hopping, however. Once when nothing much had happened for a long time, I felt quite discouraged and wondered whether I should just give up. A few mornings later, an Aventis Pharmaceutical representative called to order 3,000 copies of Fine Black Lines to give to their oncologists. I tried to act detached and professional, but I was so excited I almost couldn’t talk. They’d seen the book “somewhere.”


Keep on Saying Yes

In July 2001, Rosie Magazine called. Did I have the next Monday free? Would I fly to New York for a photo shoot? You got it. I didn’t recognize the name of the woman who had suggested me, but she had heard me speak “somewhere.” Five other breast cancer survivors and I were featured in an article in their October 2001 issue. It was an exhilarating trip–the loft in SoHo, the vibrant young women dressed in black, the catered lunch, the sheer excitement over the shoot. In October, the six of us appeared on The Rosie O’Donnell Show.

Les and I have traveled over 300,000 miles since 1994, giving more than 475 presentations in 38 states, England, and Canada. We have printed 19,000 copies of Fine Black Lines and sold more than 17,500. For the seventh printing, we did a revised edition and I’m again sending review copies.


Our mission is to bring courage, comfort, and joy to women with breast cancer and those who care for them. Now with The Last Violet: Mourning My Mother, published in 2002, others who grieve have become part of that mission.


A doctor once begged me to continue my work. I plan to do exactly that. The numbers of women diagnosed with breast cancer are still growing. I receive many notes, letters, and phone calls that thank me for writing Fine Black Lines. I am grateful that it is helpful.


I have learned that it is better to give books and time freely than to hold out for top dollar, hoarding one’s time and energy. Generosity returns to the giver. I’ve also learned that one can overcome inexperience, illness, false humility, and an unwillingness to take risks.


The most important thing is to love your book, nurture and cherish it, and never give up.


Lois Hjelmstad is the owner of Mulberry Hill Press. As the author of the award-winning books “Fine Black Lines” and “The Last Violet,” she speaks on breast cancer and loss to health care professionals, cancer support groups, book clubs, women’s groups, hospices and churches, and the like. In a former life, she taught music for 38 years, during and after raising four children. For more info: 800/294-4714 or www.mulberryhillpress.com.  






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