On Killing My Darlings and the Most Author-Friendly Way to Buy a Book

The book is done. All the photograph permission forms have been signed, the copyediting changes made, the final page proofs approved. As we speak, the book is at the printer, making 1,200 neatly bound, neatly stacked copies of my little paperback.

It’s done.

This book, as you will see it, as I will hold it in my hands, ended up being something quite different from what I expected it to be. As some of you know, I originally developed a soft spot for Arcadia Publishing when I stumbled across a copy of Yardley, an installment in their Images of America series. It was my dad’s hometown, where he was born and raised in the early 1930s, and as I flipped through, many of the images illustrated stories I had grown up hearing, over and over again, like a broken record. There was the steep hill, with the elementary school at the top, where my dad had rode down on his scooter, the bolts and screws popping out as he descended, until it and he was a broken mess at the bottom. There was the girl he had taken to his senior prom. There, smiling, was the public school principal who had beat my dad, day after day, trying to break him of his left-handedness until he finally became ambidextrous. There was the duck farm where my grandmother would get their Christmas dinner. And then there, sitting cross-legged in the front row, wearing his Boy Scout uniform, was the unmistakable face of my father. He was probably no more than eight, but from the handful of surviving family photographs, I recognized him, without even needing to look at the caption for confirmation.

That moment was really special for me, because my dad had died of cancer two years before, and he would never be able to tell me those stories again. Not only that, but the fact that he was preserved in this published book and without doubt on other people’s bookshelves–it was a form of preservation beyond the limitations of my own family. No matter what happens, my father will never be erased from history.

When I started work on this book, I wanted to provide that same magical feeling to other readers. I wanted someone, somewhere, to suddenly get smacked in the face with an image of someone they loved. Whether they were a nurse, a doctor, a volunteer, a student, or a patient at Philadelphia State Hospital, I wanted to give their families something that illustrated their moment in history.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Due to copyright restrictions, I ended up having to blur many of the faces in the book. Not just patients–which I would have understood, to protect their privacy–but also the faces of nurses, doctors, people beaming at the camera. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried when I blurred out some of their faces, because I felt like after unearthing some of these long-lost photographs from the depths of archive obscurity I was turning around and burying them all over again, burying their story, hiding them, disguising them, taking away their chance to be remembered in history. Many of these people, with their expressions–some hilarious, some sorrowful–became full-blown characters to me, and it was, at times, like killing my darlings.

Copyright law is a messy, complicated, and at times completely impractical thing. In one case, I couldn’t track down the copyright holder of this really amazingly haunting 1940s lithograph by Robert Riggs of a mental ward at Philadelphia State Hospital (his most famous work, titled “Psychopathic Ward.” Really, it’s amazing, I’m begging you to click through and look at it). This is simply because, in the extensive network of surviving family members and art dealers and museum archives, the information got lost somewhere along the line. I talked with one family member on the phone who was terribly sad about it. She explained that, were Robert Riggs alive, he would have been thrilled for me to include it in my book. As an artist, he and many others like him, are being pushed into obscurity, because the tangle of copyright laws surrounding their work and the associated fear of possible legal retribution have, essentially made it too hard to reproduce or display their art.

I could go on forever about my opinion on copyright laws, but really, my point is that this book wasn’t turning into what I had thought and hoped it would be. I was crushed with disappointment. As it sat with the publisher, getting polished up for publication, I mentally pushed the book from my mind and tried to focus on my next project.

But I read over the page proofs a few weeks ago, with fresh eyes, I realized that though it wasn’t what I had originally wanted it to be, the book had in fact become something much better. It is so much more than a local story, of interest to a handful of Philadelphia residents and the families of those portrayed in the photographs. The terrible conditions at Byberry in the 1940s, which were exposed in a 1946 Life magazine article, fueled a national mental health reform movement that improved hospital conditions across the country. Byberry ended up being the birthplace of the National Mental Health Foundation.

The research, if I may say so myself, is impressive: it is the product of dozens of interviews with former staff members and the ancestors of former patients (so many people welcomed me into their homes, dug up old scrapbooks, spent entire afternoons reminiscing with me) and weekends upon weekends upon hours upon hours of archival research at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, where I read the actual, original, handwritten diaries of conscientious objectors stationed at Byberry during World War II. I can’t even explain to you how excited I was when I was trusted to touch these and read these, flipping through the pages of their impressions of the wards. It felt a little bit like when I touched hieroglyphics when I visited the Great Pyramids in Egypt. If you’re a history fangirl like me, there’s really nothing as awesome as seeing and touching history. My research was also heavily dependent upon archival research (again, weekends upon weekends, hours upon hours) done at the Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center, the Philadelphia City Archives, the Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, among others. All of this research has resulted in a book unlike any other.

And though when I was doing it, it felt like I was blurring every face, it’s really just a small percentage of the 200 total photographs in the book. And beyond the blurring, this book provides an unprecedented inside look at the hospital’s ice cream parlors, beauty parlors, woodworking shops, libraries, baseball fields, dairy cows, and bowling alleys.

But I think my absolute favorite thing about this book is the fact that never before has there been a published history of the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry. And now, with my book, a history exists: spanning from its early farm colony days in 1906 until the doors closed permanently in 1990. (I was only one year old!) When I was researching, I came across hundreds of people–on Ancestry.com news threads, online forums, and blogs–desperate for information about their relatives who had been patients at Byberry. They only had scraps of information–a family story about their illness, told in hushed tones, a name, a possible death date. They wanted to know what had happened to those relatives, many of whom entered Byberry and never left. In a way, my book is a history of the faceless, the nameless, the undocumented, the forgotten. I hope it gives as much comfort to those relatives looking for information, clues regarding what their relative’s experiences might have been like at the hospital, as I found in my father’s photograph.

I learned so much while writing this book and had so much fun researching it. The book developed into exactly what it was supposed to be and I believe I wrote it exactly the way it needed to be written. I’m so flipping proud of this book and I can’t wait for you all to read it.

On that note, I wanted to mention the most author-friendly way to purchase a copy, if you’re so inclined. All that research I had so much fun doing, and all those photograph permissions I had to get were expensive. Actually, it was mindbogglingly expensive, and almost restrictively impossible on my salary, especially considering the fact that I didn’t get an advance for this book. (Common in non-fiction publishing.) Until a relative stepped in and offered a personal loan, I really didn’t think I was going to be able to finish writing the book. The quality of the images I was able to afford to include, therefore, is largely thanks to her. It was an investment I don’t regret making, because I’m proud of the history this book effectively preserves. But, that said, I do have to pay back that loan (no interest, of course, I’m so lucky to have such great and supportive family members!)

Here’s the nitty-gritty:

Total expenses (photograph permission fees, archive travel costs, etc.): $2,266.70

My contract dictates that I get a normal royalty rate of 8% per book, which, by my calculation should be about $1.75 per book. And on the first print run–who knows if we’ll even ever go to a second print run–there are only 1,200 copies to sell. If the print run sells out, I’ll make about $2,100. I won’t even break even on the loan.

However, I’ve bought 200 copies at a 50% discount from the publisher and can sell them as I please, though I am bound by my contract to sell them at full price, $21.99 (I know, Amazon and Barnes and Noble have a discount war going on, and are offering the book at somewhere around $14.00 right now.) But this means I get a 50% royalty rate on these 200 copies. That’s about $10.99 per book. If I manage to sell all 200 copies, I’ll make $2,199 and I’ll kick in the remaining sub-$100 to pay back my relative in full.

[Updated July 3rd, 2013: I have been notified by my publisher that my calculations were incorrect. Though the royalty rate is, indeed, 8%, it’s 8% off the net, which means I can actually expect something closer to 80 cents per sold book.]

The book will be published on May 20, 2013. If you’d like to preorder a signed copy from me, you can order through PayPal.

Buy Now Button with Credit Cards

For those of you I know and love and am dear and geographically near to, I can hand deliver! Or, if you prefer, checks, money orders, and cash are options. Email me at HannahKJones10@yahoo.com to discuss this method of payment further.

I’ll be absolutely thrilled if you buy a copy of my book wherever–online or at a bookstore. But if you can afford the full book price and would like to help me out, I’d really appreciate it. I never wrote this book with a goal of making money–it was always about the history–but breaking even would be nice!

[hugs everyone who read to the end of this extremely long blog post]

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8 thoughts on “On Killing My Darlings and the Most Author-Friendly Way to Buy a Book

  1. Matthew Wright says:

    Cool! I hope you have every success. It’s hard, these days, to make a book work when you have to cover the costs of photographs and permissions – something I struggle with in a lot of my titles. I manage it via grants and, occasionally, persuade the publisher to pony up the costs. But when that’s set against the falling print runs of today it becomes very hard.

    So I hope all works out – and congratulations on being published!

    • hannahkarena says:

      Thanks Matthew! It is hard–I’m impressed you keep writing more history books, despite the struggles. I suppose learning the tricks (grants, etc.) makes it a bit easier each time. Good luck with your future projects!

      I’m crossing my fingers too!

      Best,
      Hannah

  2. Giulietta Nardone says:

    Hannah,

    I don’t live near you but I’d like to support you as an author and would be honored to pay FULL PRICE for your book – aka learning adventure. We should all be paying full price, it’s the only way to promote full living.

    please contact me and I will send you a check!

    Giulietta

    • hannahkarena says:

      Hi Giulietta, I’m honored that you’re interested in reading the book! How would you prefer I contact you? Email, twitter, something else? Let me know!

      It is a really strange, awkward feeling I’m experiencing when asking people to pay full price for a book…many people don’t want to, feel it’s a rip off or “overpaying,” despite the fact that if you walk into any real bookstore, like a local Barnes and Noble, you’d find the book offered for the same full price. I think there’s a book-buying culture developing where readers expect “freebies” or bonuses, extra enticements for buying a book at full price, like the book itself isn’t worth the full list price as is. I had originally been hoping to offer a CD with all the photographs that didn’t make the final cut into the book, as an extra to entice such readers, but those darn copyright issues again!

      Best,
      Hannah

  3. Mom says:

    I did the same, except I co-released a storyteller’s version to go hand in glove with the Arcadia version. They are both doing well. There wasn’t much marketing on Arcadia’s end–but I learned a whole bunch and maybe even a lesson too. The picture book makes others happy–very nostalgically happy. It cost me an arm and a leg–and yes, I bought 200 copies as well. I’m glad I had the ear of a small press to publish my second book to sell alongside the photo book 🙂

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