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Your friends back home say things are “epic” and “awesome,” but you know the real dimensions of those words.
As Hemingway said, in order to write about life, you have to live it first. And if you’ve been anywhere in uniform these days, you’ve been living life.
That’s why those same friends keep telling you to write a book. Or maybe it’s just an insistent inner voice. Maybe you’ve started or even have a manuscript hammered out.
First, here’s the hard truth: Unless you were on the Osama bin Laden raid or can write a tell-all from inside the wire at Area 51, it’ll be hard — almost impossible, really — to get your masterpiece published.
In the traditional way, at least.
But here’s the good news: These days, it’s easier than ever to put your story in the hands of people who want to read it — with the rise of ebooks and other forms of indie publishing, you can do it yourself.
And while self-publishing used to bear the vanity press stigma, not to mention steep costs and, more often than not, lead to boxes of unread books collecting dust in attics and garages, independent publishing is quickly becoming the preferred road to readers for many authors.
Indeed, half of Amazon’s top 10 best-sellers last year started as self-published books, including the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy.
Former Marine and two-time Iraq veteran Robert Tanner III hopes his new book finds its way to that kind of success this year.
‘Memoirs of an Outlaw’
Tanner started writing to try and make sense of all the memories of his time downrange as a grunt with a recon unit known as the “Outlaws.”
“Several people had told me it would be therapeutic to just write it all down,” says Tanner, a business systems analyst for the Veterans Affairs Department in New Jersey. “I didn’t go into this trying to be a New York Times best-seller. I just wanted to heal.”
But as the words poured out, he soon realized he had the makings of a book. “Every memory became a chapter,” he says.
Urged on by his wife and friends, he knew he had to publish something when a buddy from his unit told him, “It would be an honor if you finish telling this story.”
Now his 43 chapters have just become available on Amazon and other online outlets under the title “Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox.” It’s available in paperback or as an e-book.
“I would urge anyone who has been deployed and seen the horrible things and incredible things of war — the best and worst of humanity — to tell these stories,” says Mark Coker, the founder of e-book distributor Smashwords. “They have an obligation to themselves and the rest of us to get these stories out.”
A kind of YouTube of indie publishing, Smashwords helps new authors create digital books for free. You can post them for download on the Smashwords website for free as well. If you charge for the book, Smashwords gets a 15 percent cut.
“We only make money from the sales. We don’t earn money unless the author makes money,” Coker says.
When it launched in 2008, the company published fewer than 200 books. It now has 200,000 titles in its library with distribution deals to Barnes & Noble and Apple’s iBookstore, among others.
“Smashwords is great,” Tanner says. “Their reach is really phenomenal, and the percentage they take seems fair to me.”
But Tanner wanted hard copies of “Outlaws,” too. Just a few years ago, that would have meant spending thousands of dollars to print a few hundred books — that he then would have to sell himself.
Not anymore. Now, print-on-demand services allow online distributors to churn out copies as they’re ordered.
CreateSpace, Amazon’s self-publishing arm, for example, offers a set of free tools to do that, as well as various paid services for those who want some help.
Tanner took advantage of some of those premium options, enlisting an editor to work through two drafts of his manuscript and a graphic designer to help fine-tune a cover design that he had started.
“I got some really good advice from the editor, who urged me to add more dialog use. So I went back and did some major revisions and took out a lot of stuff he said probably wasn’t necessary. His nudging and prodding really helped me develop the story.”
Tanner says he spent about $2,000 to publish his book, including 40 hard copies to hand out to friends and family.
Tanner also tapped into Wattpad, a website that connects aspiring writers with readers who help further refine manuscripts, he says. “I got a lot of good feedback there. I probably did it ass-backwards, though, and should have gone to Wattpad first and then fine-tuned everything with a professional editor. But in the end I’m happy with how it all came together.”
Blissful life, bad endings
Former sailor M.J. Allaire self-published her first book, “Dragon’s Blood,” seven years ago. She now has six books to her credit, including a four-book “Dragon Chronicles” series and her own memoir, “My Blissful Life as a Submariner’s Wife.”
“The title is sarcastic,” she says. “The marriage did not end well.”
But it did fuel her growing passion for writing.
“Getting your books out there is so much easier now. It’s so much more doable than when I first started,” she says.
All told, she has sold about 10,000 copies of her books and is working on two more, including a how-to on self-publishing.
She also launched a boutique publishing house of her own, Bookateer Publishing, designed to help new authors get started.
Her advice to aspiring authors: “Don’t edit your own work. You’re too close to it. Finding an editor you can trust is critical.”
Designing an eye-catching cover is also key.
“People say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but the fact is, people do all the time. If you can’t stop someone with your cover, people aren’t going to read it. It’s just that simple. So don’t just have a friend throw one together on Photoshop.”
Industry insiders say self-publishing is increasingly seen as a stepping stone to getting picked up by the big publishing houses.
“ ‘50 Shades of Grey’ started with us,” says Dan Dillion, an executive with Lulu, a print-on-demand service.
Military memoirs are becoming more popular, he says. In fact, one of Lulu’s military authors just got picked up by a mainstream publisher.
Gina Sanford’s “Blogs, Bombs and Boobytraps” got its start as an online journal while her husband, an Army helicopter pilot was deployed.
Others are just happy to put their projects in the hands of family and friends.
Richard Weaver has published about 20 books so far that he gives to family members as Christmas or birthday presents.
“Mostly they’re a kind of scrapbook with a lot of pictures and long captions, but they look professional and are very well made,” he says.
Most are the product of digitizing thousands of family photos and the exhaustive genealogy studies he’s done.
“I’ve always loved history. When my last grandparent died in 2008, I realized I didn’t know so much about them.”
So one of his first projects was a book that told the story — through pictures, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia — of one of his grandfathers who served in World War II as an air traffic controller.
Now he’s creating a book out of dozens of letters his dad wrote while serving in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam.
“I found them in a shoebox all out of order and asked my mother if I could have them. Some have dirty fingerprints — they literally have Vietnam on them.”
He’s combining those letters with photos and tidbits of history to create a family history book that he plans to give to his dad for Father’s Day. The project is also about capturing the family legacy for future generations. He knows his own son will cherish the book as much as his father will.
Robert Tanner hopes his book will become a legacy of sorts as well. “We lost some really good guys in Iraq,” he says.
What began as a search for his own healing ended as a way to honor those he served with.
“I just wanted to capture what we did so people would know,” he says. “It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding.”
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