Then came the email rejecting "my kind offer". It seems they ban all books published by Amazon from their store. Now I am not naive about the antipathy between independent book sellers and the retail giant. Many a neighborhood bookshop bit the dust because Amazon arrived on the scene. Moreover, my own dealings with the behemoth around a small camera business that I once operated degenerated into a bloody closure. I finally could take their abuse no longer. I detest Amazon, but BookMarks was rejecting my book and a donation worth, eventually, a few hundred dollars. Strange behavior for a fledgling nonprofit toward a well-intentioned local writer. I am also a member of an allied literary organization, Winston-Salem Writers. I noticed that the BookMarks website touted the fact that the two groups work together to further local reading and writing.
Now I was trying to collaborate, but the new literary power broker in town was telling me who could best NOT publish my work. They were, moreover, also somewhat limiting public access to my book in our small city as they flexed muscle as the major new literary sales portal. "Holy Toledo!", I marveled. A community nonprofit with a business model and policy ethos much like...well ...Amazon! And this they do to an innocent, would be donor!
A few words about myself and my decision to publish through Amazon might be instructive. I am a former grunt and, later, a combat photojournalist for the Army. I have been working on a memoir for 45 years, but personal guilt and depression about my part in the ill-fated Vietnam War stifled my work. Finally, I pulled together some core writings about learning combat photography from legendary lensmen. I added some poignant personal stories, and I finally had a basis for a book. However, this splurge of writing also brought back a lot of tough memories. Often as I wrote, I would sob softly. As I reviewed combat photos from the Jungle War, my sleep was upset by nightmares and flashbacks for the first time in many years. Suddenly, my newly energized book ground to a halt. I had to put this project to rest in a hurry!
I frantically contacted my friend, Bob Sanchez, the Founding Editor of the Internet Review of Books where I sometimes post literary criticism. He agreed to produce a published copy of my memoir in 4-6 weeks using the Amazon self-publishing platform. He had published several previous books this way, so he could work fast. This was the answer to my restless, nightmare ridden sleep. Bob struggled with my disparate system of book writing. However, he churned out a volume that has most often been described by readers as "a cool little book", an assessment which I gratefully accept. The volume is solid, but it is not an example of book publishing genius. Bob saved me from myself. He never fully knew of my inner turmoil. In fact, he ironically sent me four Vietnam novels to review over the next year. These were not so personal, so I cranked them out before asking for a break.
I was still reeling from the summary rejection of my donation offer. Bookmarks queued up a book signing by esteemed novelist, John Grisham. He promised to attend their grand opening week to tout Camino Island. I had hoped that my now defunct book donation might have put my memoir in the hands of more local readers. Maybe there was still a way? What if I went early to the Grisham event and simply gave away the same dozen volumes that I intended to donate to BookMarks? I slide my paperbacks into a stout canvas bag stamped with the logo of the iconic Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. My wife offered up the incisive opinion that I would probably "get into trouble down there!".
I arrived 40 minutes early under a searing Carolina sun. Despite the heat, 8-10 serious readers were already lounging in the alley. I began introducing myself, briefly explaining the thrust of my memoir, and emphasizing that my book was free to any dedicated reader. People thumbed my volume with interest and began offering up their own family stories about loved ones who fought and died in the Nam. One guy yelled after me that he would put up a review on line, not giving a tinker's damn that my work was published by Amazon. "Thanks for your service," a few readers called out. Then something unexpected happened. I began to feel tugs on my sleeve, and people holding my previously given books now asked me to sign them. In my haste to be early, I hadn't even brought a pen, but these folks all had one in anticipation of John Grisham. Just then, the Great Man himself strode up the alley arriving 20 minutes early. He was cool, understated, and affable. "How are you folks doing?", he intoned. I stuck out my hand and just said, "Welcome to Winston-Salem." I still had a few books left, and I practiced being cool like Grisham and signing with more of a flair. Later that night, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had shared a book signing event with the Great Man. He was on the inside of the store while I, with my book fiendishly banned by BookMarks, had signed on the outside.
My book supply exhausted, I folded my Strand canvas bag and pondered all that had happened this week. My eyes wandered up to the BookMarks windows where Grisham now held forth. I wondered if I would ever go inside that fine store again? Would I ever buy a book there? Would I ever sign a volume and smile in there? So long as BookMarks makes stocking decisions based on factors other than just the competence and quality of the writing, I know the answer for me will be "no" to all those questions. BookMarks should ignore the cultural war between Amazon and the indie book sellers. It divides our small local literary community and it holds us back. I have been caught in this irrational crossfire. And it hurts!