My story might interest other small-timers with big ambitions. Believe it or not, a four-part series in a local newspaper launched my career as an author. My first book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, was published April 5, and a second title is under contract.
Although my background is in daily and weekly newspapers — I have filed my share of reports on car wrecks and school board meetings — all I ever really wanted to do was listen, read and tell good stories. In the summer of 2008, my friend Jacob and I persuaded our editors to let us spend four days boating down the Sabine River, which flows through our hometowns in the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas. As we traveled downstream, we fished, camped on sandbars, and got to know the “river rats” who live along its muddy banks. Jacob made the photographs, and I wrote the words.
When the narrative account of our trip was published, in the Longview News-Journal (circulation 30,000), readers seemed to not want to talk about anything else. They said they had been hooked from the series’ first few paragraphs, which told them to get ready for an adventure tale unlike anything they had seen in our paper before:
The Sabine River slinks ignored and unloved through the swamps and bottomlands of East Texas.
It is home to alligators that lurk in backwater sloughs, clouds of mosquitoes and snakes — lots of snakes — that writhe across the water. … In old days, the river bottom was a no man’s land where bandits hid from the law. Its reputation lingers today as a dump for dead bodies. Every few years or so, deputies pull a corpse from some out-of-the-way place where civilization meets the Sabine.
Before the Sabine River series, I had not had much luck writing this kind of narrative journalism (not counting a glorious run at my college paper, the Daily Texan, in Austin). When I was the crime reporter for the Longview News-Journal, our city editor rewrote pretty much every story I turned in, until I got the message and fell back into the inverted pyramid. I learned to insert narrative elements after the jump, or in small, inconsequential articles like one about a man who was arrested for shooting snakes on the side of the road. I would spend my day filing crime reports and the police blotter, then stay after hours to polish a Sunday feature with more leeway to tell a real story. Our bosses admonished us not to work unpaid overtime, but it was the only way to get the clips I wanted.
The Sabine articles were such a hit, however, that my editors began to trust me with more latitude. It helped that I had just come back from a winter job teaching skiing in Colorado, and they could only afford to pay me an intern’s wage of $9 an hour. Every time an editor asked me to cover a City Council meeting or something, I reminded her that I had accepted the low pay in exchange for the opportunity to focus solely on narrative, investigative or explanatory reporting.
I had been working at the newspaper off and on since my freshman year of college, and now I was 28. During the next year, I scattered my clips to larger newspapers, and sent freelance queries to more magazines than I can remember. There were no takers. When the Longview News-Journal was sold to one of those parasitic chains whose business model is to wring every drop of value from its properties, I figured my run was over. In fall 2009, I quit.
That was probably a foolish move on my part. With limited options, I thought about writing a book — any book. An author credit might open doors that were otherwise closed to me, I reasoned, so I mailed a proposal about the Sabine River to the academic press at my alma mater, the University of Texas. The press passed.
That winter I came up with another book idea, about an effort to identify and protect the biggest trees in my home state. Looking for funding, I contacted a forest service employee, who forwarded my idea to an editor at Texas A&M University Press. The editor got back to me a few months later, in March 2010. Her email was a life-changer. In effect, she said: Sure, the tree idea sounds fine, but have you considered writing a book about the Sabine River?
Hell yes, I’d write a book about the Sabine River!
It turns out Texas A&M has been collaborating with a sponsor organization, now called the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, to eventually publish books about every major river in the state of Texas. Further, the academic publishing industry is increasingly willing to print “trade books,” by nonexperts like me, as funding dries up for more scholarly books that are less likely to sell.
I threw myself into exploring, researching and writing. I emailed the book proposal in late March, and a contract arrived in June. The publishing agreement didn’t come with an advance, and my savings were running low, so that summer I spent about half my time on the book and the other half writing freelance stories for regional publications, building websites for hire, and taking other odd jobs. When the money ran too low, I moved back to my childhood home and spent most of November and December writing toward the manuscript’s 40,000-word requirement.
The work was a joy, even when it was difficult. Most mornings I would get up, make breakfast, write or rewrite until my brain shut down (usually around 2 p.m.), then head to the backyard hammock to read for a while. Because my writing tends to ape the authorial voice of whatever book I am reading at the time, and I wanted my book to be a breezy one, I sought inspiration in light works like Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Faulkner was put on the shelf.
To get a handle on the manuscript, I built a loose outline that broke the work into three main sections, which were then subdivided into chapters. Like a lot of other journalists-turned-authors, I approached each chapter as an independent story of 3,000 to 4,000 words. The first section was adapted from the original 6,700-word newspaper series. The middle, written during the summer, told the story of outlaw fisherman Danny Tidwell and his wife, Marcia, who had invited me to camp with him on an island of the river. Their lives were rustic, to say the least:
Mud had gotten into their well during a flood the previous fall, giving the water a bad taste, so the Tidwells didn’t drink from it anymore. Instead, they drank from the river. “It doesn’t have additives that city water has, but it’s no worse than drinking well water,” Danny claimed. “It’s purified from running down the river.”
Marcia was asked if she drank water from the river as well.
“Danny’s drank from it all his life and it ain’t killed him yet, so I don’t worry about it,” she said.
“Yeah, that river makes some pretty good coffee,” Danny added.
I looked down at the cup in my hands. It sloshed a little when I realized what I was drinking. “So,” I asked, “the water’s not unsafe or anything?”
“Naw,” Danny replied, “as long as you don’t take a bath in it.”
The book’s third section chronicled a recent journey with Jacob down the lower portion of the Sabine, into the Gulf of Mexico. I had never written so many words about one topic, and I struggled to wrangle the pieces into cohesion. I believed the third section was the strongest, and the first was the weakest, since it had been written for a newspaper and not a book. Two years had passed since our first voyage, and I no longer remembered all the vivid details and observations that would have set the scene and fleshed out the story. Instead of scrapping this section, though, I shuffled it toward the back and moved the third section to the front. This fractured narrative seemed to work better. At least, I convinced myself it did.
My editor received the manuscript a few days before my Jan. 15, 2011, deadline, and she liked it.
Before Texas A&M would consider publishing the book, two anonymous reviewers had to read it and offer their thumbs up or thumbs down, as well as suggestions for improvements. The first report came back in March. The reviewer was generally complimentary but was confused by the broken narrative and wanted to crank up the conservation advocacy angle. The second report, in May, was a disaster. The reviewer hated the manuscript.
“For too long, East Texans have allowed ourselves and our region of the state to be defined as, somehow, inferior to people and landscapes of other regions of Texas. We must not willingly continue to contribute to this cancerous myth by the things we write and say about ourselves,” the reviewer wrote, arguing that I had traded in too many stereotypes of Piney Woods rednecks, dark river bottoms, Confederate flags that ripple in the breeze, etc. The report ended: “I have trouble determining the author’s purpose in writing this book, if it is not humor.”
What an unfair take! I was just reporting things I had seen and heard. The reviewer had ignored my affection for the people who welcomed me into their camps, fed me from their trotlines, and told me their stories. When I calmed down, though, I realized that part of the report was dead-on. I had spent my newspaper career burying my own viewpoints in the service of objective reporting. In the book, however, I would have to let my guard down and allow my perspective to float a little closer to the surface.
By that time, I had taken a job at a weekly newspaper south of Austin, first as a reporter and then as editor. With such an all-consuming job, it was not uncommon for weeks to pass between rewrite sessions, but I did find time to straighten out the narrative and make a few revisions. A couple of my writer friends also provided invaluable edits and advice that significantly improved the work. I turned in the next draft on March 4, 2012. Exactly one day later, my editor announced she was “going off the grid” to care for a loved one. Working without feedback, I turned in a more fully revised manuscript in October.
To quickly recap: I wrote the newspaper series in June 2008, got the book contract in June 2010, turned in the manuscript in January 2011, received feedback in May, and sent revised drafts in March and October 2012.
Four months later, my editor emailed to say the press’s faculty advisory committee had approved the manuscript. My book was going to be published! From there it was copyedited, and a committee made up of the marketing and editorial staffs changed my working title from The Lost Sabine: A Journey on the Edge of Texas to Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, which is fine, and the design staff laid out the pages. When I received a PDF of the proofs, in September, they looked fantastic.
It was also my responsibility to round up endorsements (or blurbs) from people who are more famous than I am. A year before, I had gone out of my way to make the acquaintance of Steve Davis, the curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University, because I envy his job and adore his book, Texas Literary Outlaws. Steve read the proofs and provided an endorsement. Then he volunteered to contact the East Texas literary icon Joe R. Lansdale, whose papers are held by the collection. Lansdale is a big deal. He immediately agreed to read the book, though, and his blurb was unbelievably generous, even effusive, in its praise.
Needing one more, I steeled my courage and emailed a query to the respected author Stephen Harrigan, who happens to be my favorite writer in Texas. I shook his hand once at a literary event, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know what I look like. Nevertheless, he graciously read the proofs and supplied another strong endorsement. A couple of big-name authors declined, but who cares? Great blurbs from Davis, Lansdale and Harrigan seemed to energize the marketing staff, and lent legitimacy to my book.
(Sorry for all the name-dropping just now. I wanted to show that even if you are a nobody, there’s nothing stopping you from reaching out to the people you admire. Some of them will ignore you, some will demur, but they won’t do anything that hurts you too badly. And Stephen Harrigan might even write an awesome blurb for your book.)
Running the River was printed in China, freighted to Texas, went on sale in mid-March and was officially published on April 5. When I held the book in my hands, I knew it was worth the wait.
Now, for the reality check. My contract seems pretty standard for an academic press. There is no royalty on the first 500 copies sold. After that, the author receives 7 percent of the cover price, minus discounts and returns. But my book had two authors, counting Jacob. We agreed that I would keep 70 percent of the royalties, and he would earn 30 percent for his photographs. I have done the math several times, and the best I can gather, I stand to make about 68 cents per book sold via places like Amazon and $1.13 for books sold directly from the press (minus the initial 500, of course).
Keep in mind the typical academic title sells fewer than 1,000 copies. You could argue that writing a book was the worst financial decision of my life.
I was aware of that going in, though. I have always thought of Running the River as a loss leader. I’d take a huge hit on the first book, prove myself as an author, and build from there. Hoping to move enough copies to demonstrate my commercial potential, I built a website, nurtured a social presence, and hounded the regional media for publicity. Jacob and I also partnered with a local art museum for our launch. He built a massive, river-themed installation in the middle of the main gallery, with photo displays, author readings, and a live band, and hundreds of people came to the event. We sold out of books. Because we were peddling copies that we had purchased at a 40 percent discount, we even made a profit.
Here’s where my story gets really good.
In late March, I was in the thick of the promotional push for Running the River. I was carrying a negative balance in my bank account, my Jeep had broken down, I hadn’t paid the rent in 2014, and I owed money to several of my loved ones. Then I got a call.
The Meadows Center — the group that sponsors Texas A&M’s river books — had applied for a grant so I could write about the Blanco River. The Blanco is a stream that flows through the path of rapid development in the Texas Hill Country. A private foundation with ties to the river had met that morning, and its board of directors had voted to fully fund the project. We’re talking a livable wage for the rest of the year. For the first time in my life, starting any day now, I will become a full-time author.
And when this book is done, I have a ton of ideas for the next one.
Wes Ferguson is a freelance journalist and the author of Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine. This is the fourth installment of Writing the Book, Storyboard’s series on narrative journalists turned authors. For the archive, go here.