On reading the manuscript of my collection of essays, many of them having first appeared in the New York Law Journal, a literary agent writes me, “I was fascinated. Manuscript reads well. I think they add up to a book.”
How delighted I was. No literary agent has ever expressed interest in taking me on.
Two publisher rejection letters later, the welcoming mood changes. The literary agent dumps me. Essay collections are not welcomed by publishers. With no agent and no publisher I feel, not despondent, but liberated. I decide to self-publish my collection of 83 essays on New York City and organize them under the headings: Walking, Central Park/Grand Central Terminal, Lawyer/Homeless/Prisoners, Basketball/Opera, New York and Venice, Writing and Literature.
I engage a designer to do the book cover and interior.
I select the title, “My New York, a Life in the City,” and choose a 1946 black and white photograph for the cover, “The Manhattan & Brooklyn Bridges,” taken by Andreas Feininger. In the photo, south of the bridges, 20 Exchange Place is visible, where I began practicing law in 1964.
After receipt of the manuscript, Create Space, a unit of Amazon, publishes the book within two weeks. I direct that 150 copies be sent to my office and the same number to my apartment. When I need additional copies, I will order them. (Thoreau would have benefitted from books on demand. A thousand copies of his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” had been printed. Four years later, a wagon from his Boston publisher arrived at his house in Concord filled with unsold copies. Thoreau, to visitors: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”)
With the book a physical reality, the challenge becomes informing the world of its existence.
I start small and close: the sixth floor apartment directly across from mine. I place a copy on my neighbor’s doormat. Hours later, an envelope is slipped under my door containing $12.50. The first sale!
Lil on the fifth floor is my best customer, 11 copies so far, for friends who lived in the city and have since moved away. At the building’s annual meeting Lil urges shareholders to buy copies.
At every opportunity, I hand out postcards bearing the cover of the book. On the subway, visitors from France ask for directions. I provide the information, along with a postcard. On 43rd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue I overhear a man speak of Grand Central Station. I interrupt to correct him: Grand Central Terminal. He receives a postcard. When called for jury duty at federal court, I sell a copy to a fellow prospective juror. A pause in a Continuing Legal Education session enables me to make a sale. I trick a friend into buying a copy. My share of our lunch bill is $12.50. I “pay” Jerry with my book, not cash. At the gym, a basketball player wants to buy the book, but has only two dollars. I inscribe a copy and give it to him. Weeks later, now with a job, he brings the balance. Thank you, Shomari!
I realize I am no more than a cottage industry operative. Each sale is an adventure involving charm and cunning, but selling one copy at a time won’t take me far. I need book parties and store sales.
Two dear friends offer to host book parties, but the first won’t let me sell books. “Too commercial,” she says. Since she is providing her beautiful apartment and food and drink, I must abide by her decision. She sends out a printed invitation reading, “Good News! Hot Off the Press! Come raise a glass and collect your copy (a gift from Bill).”
Pensioner that I am, dependent on Social Security and income from a modest-sized annuity, and with book expenses running over $5,000, I gnash my teeth and try not to think of royalty losses as I graciously inscribe copies for nice people with incomes exceeding mine many times over.
At the second book party, commerce prevails. A table piled high with books is placed by the door to my friend’s apartment. Here a young man is stationed to sell books. At the conclusion of the lovely event, I walk home along Lexington Avenue in the darkness with pockets stuffed with cash, hoping not to encounter a malefactor.
Next, I zero-in on book stores. On a beautiful bright Sunday afternoon, with Callery pear trees in full-bloom, I set out by bicycle from my apartment at 73rd Street and Lexington Avenue carrying a Sportsac filled with books. I am on the way to the Corner Bookstore at 93rd Street and Madison Avenue. I explain to the book buyer there that I grew up at 96th Street and know every inch of the neighborhood.
Indeed, right across the street from the bookstore I used to attend Saturday night polo games at the armory, now Hunter High School. He is persuaded and takes 10 copies.
To my delight, I receive an email from the book buyer and manager of the Strand. “Ten copies to start, please.” I rush down to 828 Broadway at 12th Street with copies and am paid cash on the spot.
I submit the copyright registration form for my book to the Library of Congress, feeling a kinship with Thomas Jefferson whose personal library of 6,487 books formed the core of the Library’s early collection.
I spend time on long lines in post offices mailing copies to reviewers, so far without success. Walt Whitman solved this problem by writing his own reviews. Thus, notes Justin Kaplan in “Walt Whitman, a Life,” an anonymous review of “Leaves of Grass” appeared in the “United States Review” proclaiming, “An American bard at last!”
I learn that my Amazon Best Sellers Rank is number 860,963. Not encouraging, but like Samuel Beckett, I ignore all setbacks and financial losses and rejoice over each book sold. When told that only 17 copies of his play, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” had been sold, Beckett remarked, “Getting known.”
My annual income from writing seldom exceeds a few hundred dollars. (Mother provided sound advice by suggesting I attend law school.) Yet the pleasure these essays have given me over the years, both in the writing and publication, has been enormous, and pleasure is not taxable. Few who write expect or receive monetary rewards. In the words of Poe, we write “Through good report and through ill report, …through sunshine and through moonshine, we continue to toil. Nothing hurts our curiosity or our hope.”
William J. Dean is a lawyer and former executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.