Absolute Write Newsletter, June 16 004
INTERVIEW: KENN AMDAHL
Interview by Jenna Glatzer
I got a letter from Joey Amdahl (one of our subscribers) last
week telling me about his dad, Kenn.
“My dad is a self published author (6 books) and he’s managed
to make a living for the past ten years off of his books,” Joey
wrote. That raised my eyebrows because its an unusual feat.
“He basically spends his days gardening, writing and watching
Star Trek repeats at 4:00.” Okay, now I had to know more.
I looked up Kenn Amdahl and found that he is author or
coauthor of: There Are No Electrons: Electronics for Earthlings, Algebra Unplugged Calculus for Cats, The Land of Debris and the Home of Alfredo
His company, Clearwater Publishing (www.clearwaterpublishing.com) has also published The Barefoot Fisherman: a fishing book for kids by his son, PaulAmdahl (www.barefootfisherman.com) and Economics for the Impatient by C.A. Turner. He’s the immediate past president of the Colorado Independent Publishers Association (www.cipabooks.com) and founder of Book Organizations of Colorado (www.coloradobook.org).
In his spare time, he co-hosts an author-interview TV show called “Off the Page” on Channel 8 in Broomfield, Colorado,and sings and plays guitar in an acoustic group, Cottonwood,that has two CDs out.
Here’s what Kenn had to say in our interview:
Q: Your first book, There Are No Electrons, was rejected 89times before you decided to self-publish it. What made you decide to go ahead with it after so many rejections?
A: I ran out of places to submit it.
Also, people who read the book liked it and seemed to learn a lot about electronics, sometimes without realizing it. One woman, a magazine editor with no interest in electronics whatsoever, said she liked the book a lot, thought it was funny and well written. I asked if she’d learned anything from it. She answered, “Well, no, I dont think so.” That was discouraging. I asked casually what she thought a half-wave rectifier might be. She immediately said it was something to convert AC into pulsating DC. “Ah,” I said to myself, “the book works.”
After several similar incidents I decided that all those Real Publishers were simply wrong. I started reading books on “how to publish” and pushed forward.
Q: How did you determine that there would be a market for this sort of book?
A: I called community colleges and trade schools in my area
asking how many people enrolled in their “Introduction to Electronics” course. Then I extrapolated those results very scientifically, committed some math on them, and decided a big trainload of people take such a course every year across the country. That’s my primary market, and it replaces itself every year. If I could sell to ten percent of a trainload every year, I thought, Id be in business.
Q: As you wrote in the book description, “It may be the only ‘introduction to electronics book’ with back cover comments by Dave Barry, Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, and George Garrett…” I’m pretty sure you’re right. How in the world did you achieve this feat? Did you know all of these people personally?
A: I met George Garrett at the Aspen Writers Conference, he had been kind and helpful to me then, so I decided to push my luck. I wrote the others personalized letters, trying hard to dazzle them with my writing. Instead, I think I instilled a deep sense of pity in them, which is even better.
Q: Your son tells me you’ve been making a living off of your books for ten years now, after self-publishing six books. That’s an amazing accomplishment. How did you build up marketing and distribution for your books?
A: I’ve never spent money on advertising. The books have developed an audience by word of mouth and pity (see previous question). I send review copies to magazines and hope for the best. Luckily, magazine writers have sympathy for book writers, and many of them have generously lied about my books in print.
The secret to distribution is this: If “Car Stereo Installation Magazine” or “Mathematics Monthly” says something nice about your book, their readers will march down to the local bookstore and request your book. The store owner doesn’t want to lose business, so she calls her distributor. The distributor wants the bookstore business, so he tracks you down and buys your book. You can make it easier for the distributor to find you by pestering him nonstop until that happens. As a publisher, one must learn to walk that fine line between “marketing” and “stalking.”
Q: It is notoriously difficult to get self-published books placed in bookstores. What suggestions do you have for self-published authors who want to be able to walk into a bookstore and find their books on the shelves?
A: Write a better book.
I’m sorry, that’s my stock response, but it’s more true than we’d all like to believe. Local stores are eager to support local writers. The big chain stores desperately want to discover the next “da Vinci Code” by a tiny publisher. They really do. They bend over backward again and again for us little guys, but usually all they get for it is a sore back and another dull book.
Something like 150,000 books come out each year. A tiny fraction are well written. Sadly, the percentages are much worse with small publishers. We want to release our books when we’re tired of working on them, not when they’re good. We’re surrounded by friends and family who praise what we’ve written, not cold hearted New York editors who would argue with God’s writing if He submitted a manuscript. “Im sorry, this omniscient point of view doesnt really work for me. And the writing seems ponderous.” But without that ruthless critical opinion, we are fooled into thinking our books are ready prematurely.
But if you write well, learn a bit about production, and demonstrate a viable marketing plan, no book store is going to decline to earn a profit on your book. If it wins a Pulitzer, or is written by Stephen King, they don’t care who published it. A corner shelf will suddenly have room. Look at Michael Moore’s new film. Once it won at Cannes, people decided they wanted to see it. Even Republican theater owners will show the film. That’s the beauty of capitalism. If people want your book, bookstores and distributors will line up to relieve themselves of cash. Spend your energy getting the public interested in your book.
Q: What do you think of all the print-on-demand companies that have cropped up in recent years? If you were starting out again today, would you go for the cheaper alternative of publishing with a POD company, or would you stick to working with a printer and “completely” self-publishing? Why?
A: Print on Demand is changing publishing, no doubt about it. But so far it’s too expensive per book to be practical on a large scale. A typical distributor will pay the publisher between $4 and $5 for a book that retails for $10. Small quantity print on demand books can cost that much or more. If you spend five bucks on printing, you can’t make a profit selling through distributors, and many book stores don’t want to fool with you directly. You’re stuck selling them one at a time at speaking engagements. Using a regular printer, I get my cost-per-book down around a dollar. To do that, you need to use printers that specialize in printing books, not the local business card printer.
On the other hand, I’ve written several books I’m not sure I should publish. I hate to reject myself, but sometimes you have to. For example, I wrote a small book on writing, called “Joy Writing.” It’s a nice book, I’m proud of it, it’s been useful for friends, but despite my ego I realize I’m a pretty small fish in the writing pool, with limited credentials, so I don’t know if it makes business sense to publish that one. So I’ll probably do a very short run, maybe a hundred copies, using a print on demand type printer. I’ll send all of those copies out as review copies. If I get fabulous reviews and people want the book, I’ll use a regular printer to print up a few thousand copies. If the response is tepid, I won’t be out much money. I think that’s probably smart for anyone.
Q: It seems to me that after the cult-like success of There Are No Electrons, you could easily have found a publisher for your subsequent books. Why did you decide to keep self-publishing?
A: Yes. Eighty-nine publishers rejected Electrons. Once it started getting generous reviews and respectable sales, probably twenty of those publishers called me, suddenly very interested. They would have paid a royalty of fifty cents or a dollar per book. But I earn a profit of between five and ten dollars per book. Could they sell ten times as many books as me? Maybe, but maybe not. I felt bad for those eager publishers, of course, but business is business. I sent each one a nice note saying, “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we feel your company just isn’t right for us at this time. Good luck finding other manuscripts.” If I really liked a publisher, I scratched a little personal note on there as well, telling them to keep their chin up, they showed real promise.
Q: One of your books is a novel. Did the success of your nonfiction books help you to get placement for your novel?
A: No. Amazingly and remarkably, no. I even had a gimmick. The Land of Debris is the first novel ever printed on tree-free paper made from the kenaf plant. The environmental journals did not care. No mention whatsoever. It was difficult to convince a printer to use it– it was expensive. And yet no interest at all. I’ve gone back to asking for plastic sacks at the grocery store.
Although that book has not sold well at all (and I confess I haven’t promoted it), I get more fan mail as a result of it than all the others. And I still have plenty of copies. So if anyone is curious about kenaf paper, and they’re not ashamed to buy a book rated number 700,000 or so on Amazon… oops, sorry. Slipped into Marketing Mode there for a second. I’m back now.
Q: It has been rumored that your first book was the inspiration for the For Dummies and Idiots books. What do you think of that?
A: It’s more than a rumor, it’s true. One of the last companies I sent the manuscript loved the book, loved the concept, but felt there wasn’t a big enough market for a book about electricity. Wouldn’t I like to write one about computers instead? I said, gee, thanks and all, but it took three years to write this one. After six months they returned the manuscript. Those folks merged with a larger company and came out with “DOS for Dummies.” Sure, it sold a few more copies than Electrons, but it’s now out of print and we’re still going strong. I figure Electrons will catch them in 316 years.
They have called me from time to time about writing other books for them. But if you write a book for them you earn about what I make in two months on Electrons. That’s it. They have a great business model, and I wish them well, but if you write a book that’s going to sell for ten or fifteen years, it may not the best model for a writer.
Q: How did you tap into the academic market?
A: I haven’t. A few enlightened, noble and dazzlingly attractive teachers use my books in classrooms, but not many. I think I make school boards and curriculum committees nervous.
Q: How much of your time is spent writing versus marketing, networking, etc.?
A: When I’m writing a book, I spend three or four hours a day writing. After that my brain is too tired to create much more. Luckily, I write pretty fast; I wrote “The Land of Debris” in less than two months. The business side doesn’t consume much time. I’ll get on a jag of sending out review copies or other promotions and do that all day long for days in a row. But most days I spend a lot of time researching life, consulting my muse, mowing the lawn. All perfectly deductible writer stuff. And, of course, my staff peels grapes for me and drops them in my mouth while I lounge by the pool.
Wait a minute, I guess my creative side hasn’t been exhausted yet today. I have no staff or pool. Or grapes, for that matter.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you like to pass along to authors?
A: 1. Replace most of your passive verbs with active ones. And not mere barely-active sleepy wimps. Choose raging, snarling, swashbuckling verbs to clutch your reader’s throat and jerk him into your world.
2. Eliminate every word you can. Don’t make me waste the precious moments of my life reading crap you were too lazy to throw out.
3. Write something so personal and emotional you’d be embarrassed for anyone else to read it. The way you feel about a person, the reason you still hate someone who died, whatever. Write it, read it, then burn it. Literally, with a match. I use my barbeque grill for this exercise. When you read it, notice if that writing is different somehow from what you bring to your writers’ group. If it is, you might ponder what that means.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Self-publishing is great for some people and certain kinds of books, especially nonfiction with a definable market. You need to be a bit aggressive. Dan Poynter’s book, “The Self Publishing Manual” will explain all you need to know. Self-publishing is also a great way to see your baby in print, and to publish poetry or your life story; things that can’t make money anyway. Self-published books make wonderful Christmas presents, and don’t underestimate that. You wrote those poems to share, not for money, and giving them away in books is sharing. Many people use self-publishing as a stepping stone to a deal with a bigger publisher.
Self-publishing fiction is harder, and rarely successful. Sure, Mark Twain did OK, but then how many of us are Mark Twain? Poe did fine with it, and so did Vergil, and the guy who wrote The Christmas Box, and the Celestine Prophesies, and many more. But it is still a low percentage thing.
If writing is your drug of choice, abandon hope of a cure. Just write every day, try to improve, and make a scrapbook of your rejection letters. Someday you’ll be able to give your grandchildren either a legacy of immortal literature or a really cool scrapbook.
Jenna Glatzer is the author of Make a Real Living as a
Freelance Writer, available here: