From the archives: James Conroyd Martin

Author’s note: Between July 2010 and February 2011, I wrote a series of posts for the old Underblog of the Chicago Underground Library, now the Read/Write Library“Miracles in self-publishing: James Conroyd Martin” was originally published November 6, 2010.

North Side resident James Conroyd Martin wanted to write for film. He fell backwards into writing successful historical novels about Poland. He wasn’t even Polish.

And self-publishing, in some ways the path of most resistance, was his unlikely point of entry.

The Irish-Norwegian Martin was studying screenwriting in L.A. in the 1970s when a friend showed him something he thought he might be interested in. It was the colorful, occasionally scandalous diary of the friend’s ancestor, a Polish countess. 

Martin was enthralled. Countess Anna Maria Berezowska lived through the tumultuous era of Poland’s “Third of May” constitution (1791-94), the first modern democratic constitution in Europe. And she wrote about it. This was history observed at point-blank range by a woman, a rare viewpoint.

He had to do something, but what? At first, Martin considered publishing the diary as-is. But by the time he returned to his native Chicagoland as an English teacher, he was reworking it into a novel.

It went through a multitude of drafts and three agents, but nobody wanted historical fiction. Martin got a foothold with a small publisher in Wisconsin, but the house eventually backed out.

So at the turn of the millennium, and after two decades of writing and waiting, he took his product, Push Not the River, and decided to go it alone.

Martin, now in his twenty-eighth year at Marian Catholic High School in south suburban Chicago Heights, says his motivation was basic. “I had to get it off my back. My mother was the only one to read it.”

At the recommendation of his mentor, sci-fi novelist Piers Anthony, Martin looked into Bloomington, Indiana-based Xlibris. It was one of the first print-on-demand publishers.

Before then, a typical press would make self-published authors purchase an initial “print run” of perhaps $5,000 worth of merchandise. The unwary or unlucky ended up with garages full of books they couldn’t move.

Xlibris, on the other hand, capitalized on new digital technology and only printed individual copies of a book when a customer ordered them (literally “print on demand”). The result was a relatively low starting fee (Martin remembers $300 for a paperback contract and $500 for both paperback and hardback), great for authors with uncertain prospects. Xlibris also innovated by helping with book construction: covers, layouts, and the rest.

Martin went with Xlibris, which released the book in January 2001, but remained ambitious for Push Not the River to get picked up by a major house. By now, though, he realized what publishers told him was a liability was really an asset.

“I was lucky enough to have a niche market,” Martin said. “I would go to Polish clubs, Polish fests.”

He subscribed to a slew of Polish-American publications, finding leads to events where he could table and mingle. He did fliers and mailings. He sold books out of the trunk of his car.

And the ball began to roll. “The word of mouth was tremendous from the first day,” Martin reflected.

At his first book signing, two of his customers were his illustrator and the head of the local Polish Falcons. Both called back with effusive praise in less than three days. “They were just amazed that I’m not Polish,” Martin said. He started getting a lot more feedback like that.

Martin negotiated with area bookstores, including Barbara’s Bookstore and a couple of Borders outlets. They took copies of Push Not the River on consignment. By early 2002, he had sold 2,500 copies.

Now Martin made a grab at the next rung up. He created a profile at Publishersmarketplace.com, a paid social networking website for editors, agents, and writers. There, Martin described his initial success and promoted Push Not the River as “Poland’s Gone With the Wind.”

Martin snagged a reply from a senior editor at Random House. But Martin’s agent, who knew better which publishers would be truly receptive, suggested St. Martin’s Press.

A month later, St. Martin’s bought Push Not the River, releasing it in 2003 and requesting a sequel. The sequel, Against a Crimson Sky, was published in 2006. Polish-language editions of both books were runaway bestsellers.

Push Not the River was also optioned for a screenplay, and though the option expired, Martin says he still communicates with interested parties. Right now, he is working on a final installment in the Polish series, tentatively entitled The Warsaw Conspiracy.

Although self-publishing made Martin a success, he counsels caution. “Don’t self-publish unless you have to,” he said. There are procedural pitfalls, like bad editing, much more common with print-on-demand publishers than traditional ones.

More importantly, unscrupulous parties hover around newbie writers, especially agents who charge you for representation before getting a publishing contract. “When they sell you, then they get their share.”

Above all, Martin believes too many people try to get published before they have a product. He spent years participating in writers’ groups and mastering his genre. “Hone your craft. Read lots. Write lots.”

That’s a lot of cautionary advice, but encouraging nonetheless. After all, it comes from a guy who went from working Polish fests to dabbling in Hollywood.

You can go to James Conroyd Martin’s website for more info on purchasing Push Not the River and Against a Crimson Sky.

–Justin Sengstock

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