2016 VVA Leadership & Education Conference, September/October 2016
So You Want to Write a Book
PRESENTED BY MARC LEEPSON, JOHN MCDONALD, AND KEN WILLIAMSON
As Vietnam veterans enter retirement age, more and more books about the era are being writtenand most of their authors then struggle, like authors of every genre and on every topic, to find a place in the market for their work.
There are many reasons why a writer might want to write a book: There’s money, and the prospect of fame, and the simple satisfaction of the desire to speak one’s piece and tell one’s story, and perhaps even settle some old scores. All of those motivations are true of writers about the Vietnam War, as these three authors attested. Each took a different path to publication, and between them they have a couple of dozen books to show for the effort.
Ken Williamson had been working as a civilian photographer for the Defense Intelligence Agency when, in 1968, he was drafted into the Army. He kept the gig: He was assigned in 1969 to document the work of the Army’s Engineer Construction Agency, a job that, as he says, “allowed me to bump bird colonels off flights, since my papers had priority.”
Williamson amassed thousands of photographs in country. Back home in Cincinnati, Williamson worked as a professional photographer and videographer over a long career. Decades on, he thought he might like to put his visual record into a book. Warned that the market would be tough for such a project and that no publisher would likely take it on, he decided to self-publish. Raising the $35,000 needed to cover production costs was a challenge, but he met it by using different methods of fundraising, including Internet Crowd Funding. He also got to publish exactly the book he wanted, without having to satisfy a publisher’s demands that it be written to specification. “It’s good to get advice from friends, editors, and your target reader,” he said, “but you don’t really have to pay attention to themit’s your book.”
John McDonald’s story is an unusual one. A Canadian citizen and veteran of his home country’s military, he joined the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam, earning the Combat Infantryman Badge and Purple Heart. He then spent years traveling through every corner of the States as a long-distance trucker. With an itch to tell his story, he turned to writing novels starring a protagonist, “Mac,” who is much like himself in most of those particulars. McDonald didn’t bother offering his work to a traditional publisher, but instead set up shop as his own publisherand now has nine books in print, all available for sale by mail order.
“It’s dinky dau,” he said, grinning wryly, “but I did what I set out to do, to tell my story. I’m not rich, but I’m a success.”
Marc Leepson, arts editor for The Veteran, has been taking his work to commercial publishers for the last quarter century, and he now has half a dozen biographies and histories to his credit, including the critically heralded Flag: An American Biography and The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War. The best part about the traditional path to publishingfinding an agent, producing a book after signing a contract to do so, and so forthis, he reckons, that it’s someone else’s job to worry about what the cover looks like, how to get the books into the bookstore, and other such business matters, leaving him free to concentrate on the writing.
Like McDonald, Leepson rightly considers himself successful at what he does. Even so, he cautions, “If you average it out, with all the time I spend on research, writing, and marketing my work, I’m making about two bucks an hour.”
That’s two bucks an hour more than many writers have made, of course. None of the authors has bought a yacht with the proceeds of his work, but all are content in the knowledge that they’ve put their own words out, and on pretty much their own terms. All caution, though, that no matter what approach you take, the hard work doesn’t stop with the writing: You also have to get the word out and make your book known.
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