Fulfilling a Dream

Pythia Peay

Pythia Peay, with her books: American Icarus and America on the Couch

As a publisher, I’m often told by folks, “Oh, I’d like to write a book.” My immediate (internal) reaction is often Why? It’s an enormous amount of work—research, writing, editing—and the rewards (little money, no reviews, few readers) are almost always incommensurate with the effort spent in creating the work. Sure, there is the satisfaction of a job completed, a story told, a mental and/or psychological itch scratched. But it’s a rare person who doesn’t expect more from their writing than these. And yet, sometimes there are occasions such as these. . . .

I first met Pythia Peay twenty years ago when she was the book editor for the now defunct magazine Common Boundary. I was the publicist for Continuum Publishing Company at the time and I’d send her our books on psychology and spirituality for review. Pythia told me that she was working on a book, entitled America on the Couch, and when I began my new company, Lantern Books, in 1999, Pythia’s manuscript was one of the first I considered. It was enormous: 600 pages of interviews with leading psychologists about what ails America. For all its worth as a book, America on the Couch intimidated the hell out of this neophyte publisher, and I turned it down.

I usually don’t like to reject manuscripts tout court, and I told Pythia that I’d been taken with a couple of paragraphs in the Introduction, in which she’d talked about her father. Joe Carroll was an aviator who embodied the aspirational, charismatic, can-do, and optimistic America that burst into the world’s consciousness after the end of the Great War. Yet he was also a depressive and a drunk, who put his family through hell because in his metaphorical flight from himself he always psychologically crashed to the ground. This American Icarus, I wrote to Pythia, was the heart of her story. She should lock Couch in a drawer and tell her father’s tale. I averred that what wisdom she’d gleaned from the psychologists would make its way, as necessary, into the telling of his life, as it charted the highs and lows of the American century.

Pythia embraced the idea of her father’s memoir wholeheartedly. For years, she researched the archives, talked to experts, and visited locations—uncovering a personal and social history, full of fascinating details and fruitful investigations, that gave body and, more significantly, soul to the story of America. When she sent American Icarus to me again, I was astonished and delighted. I now had in hand a book that, I felt, could command a larger publisher’s attention: one able to do unto this book what had been done to Women Who Run with the Wolves and other such titles that appealed to the children of the Greatest Generation, or men and women at midlife, or those who’d had to deal with alcoholism in their family.

I suggested to Pythia that she get an agent, which she did. And another. And then another. For three fruitless years, she followed their advice in revising her manuscript so that the publishers could politely but firmly reject it. She needed a bigger platform, the editors told the agents; they couldn’t market the book, the sales force told the editors; we no longer take such risks on mid-list authors, the executives told everyone. As Pythia relayed these responses to me, I feared that Icarus—expressive, romantic, and expansive—was passé, out of the conceptual reach of the 30-something editors for whom the Battle of the Bulge was a fitness problem and who wanted prose as polished and unscarred as the kitchen countertop in a new Brooklyn condo.

Eventually, Pythia came back to us, defeated as so many authors are by the timidity and rigidity of mainstream publishing, and together we launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the title. By way of a perk, and in the spirit of Why the hell not?, we threw in the original book idea, America on the Couch—this time updated, with 40 interviews organized into six parts, each introduced with a mini-essay by Pythia. Here, too, Pythia worked with her customary dedication, honesty, and moral seriousness, and eighteen months after the launch of the campaign, she yesterday found herself  (as the picture above illustrates) sitting before a stack of both books, signing her name.

Neither Pythia nor myself know the future of these titles. They may, like many, disappear into silence; they may, like some, capture the imagination of their readers and through word of mouth pick up sales that will rebuke the agents and publishers who failed to see what I did: a rich, deeply felt, and very American story on family, land, and the ravages of time, and a remarkable collection of interviews over twenty years on these United States. Whatever happens, however, it’s vital that we acknowledge that what was only a dream or a hope twenty years ago has, through an enormous amount of work and dedication, as well as new technologies and the trust and commitment of friends and family in pre-ordering these books, come into being. While this is only the beginning, it is not just a beginning . . . and, for now, that should be a reward in itself.

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On Whimsy and Lizards

Life, as we know, is rarely fair; and things, as we also know, are rarely equal. And, it would appear, never has life been less fair or more unequal than in the case of Rowe vs. Literary Estate of P. G. Wodehouse. As the more tenacious of readers to this blog may remember, some years ago I had the itch to write a literary parody of P. G. Wodehouse‘s immortal characters, involving Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and the gang in a bloody mash-up with zombie literature. The result was Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, a work that even its staunchest literary champions would admit posed absolutely no threat to Wodehouse’s standing as one of the titans of English comedic prose style.

Being the honest cove that I am, I approached the estate for permission to print or distribute—for free or with monies going to a charity of their choice—and was told never to disseminate this work in any way. Imagine, therefore, my surprise when one of the fans of BWLK emailed me with a link to a collection of parodies of Wodehouse currently for sale on Amazon, expressing the hope that its presence would encourage me to do the same. Entitled Whimsy & Soda, this book by Matthew David Brozik is not discernibly different in genre than mine (although probably a good deal funnier and better executed). Like mine, Mr. Brozik’s volume contains all sorts of disclaimers that it hasn’t been authorized and is a parody, and so forth. Why, one is tempted to ask, is this book OK, and mine not?

In fact, Mr. Brozik had contacted me in 2012 to find out how I’d coped with the Wodehouse Estate. He took things into his own hands, and has written about it (amusingly and fluently) it here (I’m the sad unfortunate whom MDB mentions!). In further correspondence today, he writes:

I entered into a written agreement with the Estate. After the Estate came down on me, my well-regarded IP [Intellectual Property] lawyer colleague/friend and I wrote the Estate’s counsel a letter explaining just why they were in the wrong, legally. They backed down on three conditions: 1. I couldn’t write any more than the 12 stories in my collection; 2. I had to change the title (I proposed, and the Estate agreed to, WHIMSY & SODA); and 3. I had to indicate in the book itself that the stories are parodic and not authorized. I considered the whole thing pretty much a win.

So, there you have it. I will have to consider my next steps.

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How Do I Get Rid of Books?

Books decaying in Detroit

Books decaying in Detroit

Occasionally, a beleaguered bibliophile will ask me how to shift a bunch of books that they no longer need but don’t want to throw away. Books may be wonderful in many ways, but they are bad for the environment when they end up in a landfill, decomposing slowly and releasing methane—and who wants that to happen? Luckily, a number of options exist for those who want to tidy up an apartment. Here are a few of them:

  • Secondhand bookstores. I’m not just talking about The Strand (or your local equivalent), but Housing Works (or your local equivalent), Goodwill (ask beforehand if your local branches take books), and even your local library. You may not get a lot of money for them, but at least they’ll be in a place where other book-lovers congregate. These options are especially good if you have a lot of popular fiction or practical titles.
  • Freecycle. This amazing service allows people to give away (and pick up) stuff . . . for free. You’ll often find bookpeople on Freecycle. In Brooklyn, where I live, a guy runs an unofficial circulating library service for senior citizens throughout the borough.
  • Ebay or Amazon. You could set yourself up as a vendor of secondhand books, but that might be just too much effort, and you’re not really interested in the pennies you will make versus the amount of time and labor you’ll spend getting all those books up online. But it’s an option if you have a lot of time and patience.
  • Local schools. Schools too may need books: especially classics and hardy perennials, which can be given to needy students. Call them up and see if they’re interested. Here‘s an organization that does precisely that.
  • Overseas. Consider donating books overseas, where libraries may be scarce and the hunger for knowledge and information—especially practicing and learning English—may be great. Here is a website on that might help.
  • Books Through Bars. This organization takes books of special interest to prisoners and sends them, or takes donations of books and money. Consider helping this organization (or your local equivalent).
  • Stoop sales and a box outside your apartment/house. If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, just take a bunch of books outside and watch them disappear. Make sure to take the box in if it looks like rain or snow, or night is falling.

I’ve found that it really helps to sort the books you’re thinking of getting rid of into subject categories. Doing so makes your book collection more useable to potential collectors, and will certainly make them more attractive to people with special interests.

You may own some books of disputed worth to anyone—Fodor’s Hawaii (1975 edition), for instance. In which case, my advice is to get yourself a shredder and rip the book into segments. You can either put the paper pieces out for recycling, or use them as bedding for your worm-bin, or as absorptive material for the old paint you’re disposing of, or even stuffing for a pillow. Either way, you keep the books out of the landfill and free up a little more space to . . . yes, buy more books!

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Animal Rights Fiction: A Solution?

The two questions I get asked most frequently at Lantern are: (1) “Do you publish fiction on animal advocacy?” (“No.”), and (2) “Do you know of any publishers that do?” I mention Ashland Creek Press (doing sterling work in this area), but then usually observe that, when it comes to fiction, it’s not so much the subject matter as the genre that counts (literary fiction, mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). If your work is a good fit generically, then the subject matter fades in importance (although you hope that the editor/agent will be persuaded by the vividness of your prose to adopt your cause).

Options exist, of course, for self-publishing, and there now are a raft of e-book publishers offering varying degrees of access for readers or writers. Recently, however, I’ve been convinced that a much more exciting and viable route is opening up for animal advocates who love to read or write fiction . . . of whatever kind. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been placing my short stories on Wattpad, a popular site for free genre e-fiction that is regularly trawled by editors and agents looking for new talent. Another platform is Smashwords, where you can offer lots of different kinds of work for free or for money. Both platforms allow a reader and writer to define their genre and sub-genre. Here are Wattpad’s genres; here are Smashwords’s.

Notice anything unusual? No “Animals” section. (This is strange, since many genres include animals in some way—good-looking people turning into wolves or bats, for instance, appears to be popular.) What would happen if writers about animals—short stories or long-form, of whatever genre—took to these and other platforms to showcase their work? Naturally, writers might have to set aside the dream of monetary gain (no matter how fantastical that might be), but it’s my bet that most writers, given the choice, would prefer to be widely read than earn a few shillings for their labor. However, this need not be a zero-sum game, and the benefits would be considerable.

A body of work from multiple authors under its own genre-heading would (a) attract readers who are interested in animals but not necessarily aware of the issues that we advocates care about; (b) provide community, solidarity, and mutual education for animal advocates who write fiction; and (c) offer agents and publishers access to talented writers and a sense of whether folks are interested in reading them. This, in turn, might turn into (d) potential publishing contracts for the more successful of the collective, and further encourage writers, readers, and publishers to pay attention.

Writers (and publishers) have to go where their readers are. Increasingly, those readers are going online to join communities of likeminded fans to read and write fiction (of admittedly variable quality) that is immediately accessible. This is especially true of fiction and genre fiction in particular. It would be a shame if animal advocates missed out.

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Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by my company, Lantern Books—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend. I was proud to be Norm’s publisher and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved me a great deal of time and gave me extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck me as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and I very much appreciated that. In fact, I thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

I will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for the magazine that I co-founded, Satya, and for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously—including, to my surprise, mine. He kindly took the time and the energy to review The Polar Bear in the Zoo and The Elephants in the Room at length and with his customary acumen and generosity. It’s rare these days to find people who’ll not only read your writing but pay you the compliment of an honest review. He did both, and I was deeply touched by that generosity.

I recall I first heard Norm speaks at an outdoor rally back in the early 2000s, when he worked for The Fund for Animals. I believe he was speaking on why the animal advocacy movement should reach out to people of faith. I don’t remember much of the day, except that it rained and Norm talked with the perspective of someone who’d lived his beliefs and wasn’t just spouting bromides and scriptural quotations.

In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. I  regret that I didn’t get to know him better over the years. We don’t honor our elders in the movement very well, and that’s very much to be regretted. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

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Twelve Tips for Successful Crowdfunding

Janell O'Rourke's painting, from her Housekeeping series. Part of THE ART OF THE ANIMAL.

Janell O’Rourke’s painting, from her Housekeeping series. Part of THE ART OF THE ANIMAL.

For decades, publishers have avoided finding out whether their readers want the books that they painstakingly and expensively produce. We’ve conducted no customer surveys or marketing, and have relied instead on editorial hunches and the occasional word from our sales reps about what genre or works are exciting the general public.

Now, however, publishers have not only a means of not only determining just whether anyone is interested in the book we’re thinking of producing, but of removing the risk of producing it in the first place. We can now ask readers to invest in the book’s creation. This is crowdfunding, and it has opened up new possibilities for publishers everywhere.

My publishing company, Lantern Books, has now used crowdfunding—in our case, Indiegogo—to produce four books. The first, We Animals by Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, was a 208-page, full-color hardcover, the production of which (from writing the text to distribution) we budgeted at $35,000. After a 60-day campaign, 680 individuals bought 1280 copies and we raised $51,007. This allowed us not merely to cover the costs of the creation of this book but to print 1250 more copies than had been pre-ordered. These copies were effectively cost-free, and their subsequent sale through the usual book-distribution outlets allowed us to generate enough revenue to cover the costs associated with a conventional printing of another 3000 copies. We are currently selling down this inventory through standard publishing–retail means.

The second and third titles—American Icarus and America on the Couch by depth journalist Pythia Peay—were also budgeted at $35,000. Although these were not photo books, they required substantial editorial and production work. Once again, we made our budget, although we relied on a couple of large donors at the end of the 60-day campaign to take us over the top. These books are currently being edited and will be available in Spring 2015.

The final book is The Art of the Animal, edited by Kathryn Eddy, L. A. Watson, and Janell O’Rourke. Like We Animals, Art is in full-color; unlike with We Animals, we assumed a much smaller market for the book, and so the budget was less: $13,500. We ran a shorter campaign (45 days) as a means of intensifying interest, and pulled in $14,190.

Before the advent of crowdfunding, none of these books would have been feasible for a small, independent press such as Lantern. Certainly, the greater availability of short-run printing and higher-quality print-on-demand technology now make it possible to produce few, full-color books. But the creation of these works still requires editors, designers, and typesetters, all of whom need to be paid. Simply put, these titles’ size and complexity would have made them too expensive to produce.

That said, crowdfunding is not a sure-fire means to raise adequate revenues. Indiegogo, Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and other sites are full of  projects that didn’t get anywhere near their goal (at which point, they either forfeited nine percent of the revenues they earned or, in the case of Kickstarter, didn’t receive any of the money pledged). So, what have I learned in these campaigns that might help you lessen the chances of not making your goal?

  1. Set a reasonable target. Unless your project is very high-profile with a huge built-in fan-base, be very hard-headed about how much you can raise. If in doubt, only use crowdfunding for a part of the project. It’s better for your morale, for your customers, and for your bottom line to meet the smaller goal than fall far short of the bigger one.
  2. Orient the campaign toward a thing. Kickstarter began as a way for artists to raise money for their albums, books, shows, and so on. If you make the goal vague or numinous, it has much different expectations. To that end, therefore . . .
  3. . . . Don’t think of your campaign as charity. Yes, folks may want to support you in a general sense, but you need to think about the campaign as delivering a product. Use words like pre-order, investment, buy. Resist using words like donate, charity, give. Change your attitude, and that of your customers. They are getting something, and not just being kind.
  4. Make a movie. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a movie (three minutes or less) that explains your project—where you’re talking directly to your audience and making your pitch clearly and concisely—is fundamental to a campaign’s success. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production, and it absolutely should not be long, but it helps. Here, here, and here are some good examples of what to do.
  5. Consider your audience carefully. Is your community enthusiastic but poor or hard-to-reach but rich? How is your product generally valued in the marketplace? These considerations will enable you to choose and price accurately the perks you offer, in addition to branding the product in a way that speaks to your audience’s aspirations and self-image.
  6. Make the perks count.  The “perks” are those items or services that people can purchase in addition to the thing you’re trying to create. In our experience, you need to offer people a way to send you a small amount (because they want to be involved) as well as a large amount (because they want to feel like a sponsor or patron). Some campaigns, such as this one, rely on lots of small purchases; others need a blend of $30 and $500 ones. On the one hand, you need to ensure you can earn enough through the simple acquisition of the product and not rely on the big buyers. On the other, it’s advisable to provide folks with the option of purchasing something expensive.
  7. Budget for distribution. Your biggest headache is likely to be fulfillment. People are going to order your item from all over the world. Lantern’s solution has been to estimate shipping at one rate: the relatively many who live nearer your distribution point will pay more to compensate for the relatively few who live further away, who will pay much less. We’ve found that the costs work themselves out in the wash. Another option is to charge more for overseas shipping.
  8. Have a back-up plan. Use your credit card; engage a wealthy relative to step in; bring in some really amazing perks half-way through the campaign that are guaranteed to get you over the finish line. You do not want to fall short in your campaign.
  9. Send bulletins. Regular messages describing the campaign, expressing thanks, and telling folks about how the production is coming along are essential. Just because somebody’s already paid for something doesn’t mean they won’t buy another copy or let their friends know about their campaign. Don’t bombard your backers with messages (that’s irritating), but coddle your customers.
  10. Don’t just use social media to get the word out. In our last campaign, nearly half the money came from those who had been emailed, as opposed to accessing our campaign through Twitter, Facebook, and so on. That suggests two things: (1) people want to be approached directly; and (2) crowdfunding is now becoming so common that people are zoning it out. You need to be persistent, polite, and persuasive. Targeted emails may take longer, but they may be more remunerative than generic blasts or posts.
  11. Don’t do it all yourself. Make sure you have a group of folks responsible for reaching out to the community—preferably people who are networked to people in networks. In the case of The Art of the Animal, three well-connected and committed individuals were responsible for a third of the purchases made. In the case of We Animals,  the author could tap into organizations who knew her work and were willing to spread the word about the campaign to their networks. This meant that our outreach grew exponentially.
  12. Be positive. People don’t want to see your panic, smell your desperation, or hear you moan about a lack of support. They have plenty of other things to spend their money on. Make them feel part of something bold and exciting.
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My First Ultramarathon: The NYRR 60K

60K will do this to a man.

60K will do this to a man.

Throughout my seven-year running “career,” as I’ve clocked off seven New York City marathons in early November and two Brooklyn marathons mid-way through the month, I’ve noticed lurking within the race schedule a little jaunt once called the Knickerbocker 60K and now known more simply, if less entertainingly, as the NYRR 60K. The race, put on by the New York Road Runners (NYRR), consists of a brief 1.2-mile out-and-back along the East Drive of Central Park starting from 90th Street and 5th Avenue followed by nine, four-mile, clockwise inner loops of the Park from the 72nd Street Transverse to the 102nd.

During this time, no matter how much I tried to ignore this race, it kept on sashaying into my consciousness each autumn. I found myself wondering what it would be like to run 37.2 miles, and in a circle no less. If I was going to venture into the unknown territory of ultramarathons, ran my fevered brain, the NYRR 60K held a lot of advantages. It was conveniently and cheaply gotten to by subway from my home in Brooklyn; it had a simple bag drop and easy access to medical care in case of emergencies; I knew the course (!); and I might be able to prevail upon my friends in the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC) to join me in a loop or three. So I signed up. I’d already acquired my Boston-Qualifying (BQ) time at the Chicago Marathon on October 12th; I’d run New York as a training run on November 2nd. It was now 13 days later, and I’d recuperated and was ready. Now I just had to show up.

The temps on Saturday November 15th were barely above freezing as Francis (an SBRC colleague who was running the race as well) and I met at Borough Hall and took a number 5 to arrive at the NYRR HQ on 89th Street and 5th to pick up the bibs and clear plastic bags for our food supplies. I’d brought some bars and GUs as well as a packet of salt to keep my sodium levels up. We walked over to the start, used the portapotties, dropped our clothing bags at the bag check and our food bags near the food table, and chatted to a few experts and newbies like us. Thankfully, unlike the gusty NYC Marathon, there was virtually no wind that morning, and it was shaping up to become a beautifully sunny, if frigid, day.

I was chatting with Francis when I suddenly heard the horn, and we were off. No fuss, no hoopla, just a kind of giddy amazement that we were all about to run 37 miles in a circle—and no walls of any Biblical city would be disturbed by our efforts. My aim beforehand had been to try to keep a 9:30 pace and come in at around 5:52, with a bit of lag for bio breaks. As it turned out, I set out fairly conservatively, and began to tire on the 6th and 7th loops. My time wasn’t helped by a couple of portapotty encounters and a knockdown battle to open my salt packet (which I won). I crossed the finish line in 101st place (out of 300) in 6:05:58, which is a per-mile pace of 9:51.

But that’s not the real story. In fact, for all my hopes before the race about getting in under six hours, I’m not that bothered about my time. This, I understand, is a common experience for ultramarathoners. The distances are so absurd and the number of people engaged in these kinds of activities so few in number, that a loop-y ((literally, in this case) brother- and sisterhood is formed. That I was lapped at least twice by at least three people became, instead of a humiliation, a marker of the inevitability of completion. We kept on seeing the same course marshals (and they us), and their extraordinary enthusiasm amid the russets, ochers, and mustard yellows of the trees beneath a cobalt-blue sky endowed the day with more color than it had any obligation to display.

The other signature appeal of the experience was the companionship of my colleagues, one or more of whom joined me for all but one of the loops. I suppose some competitors may have had the comfort of a phone or other device to occupy their time playing music and/or listening to podcasts or audiobooks, but another human being beside me made this event special for yours truly. To have my friends Marcus and Ted amuse and inform me for the first five loops and then Dan and Birgit flank me for the final three, and count down 10K . . . 5M . . . 4M . . . 5K . . . 2 . . .  1 . . . before we upped our pace on the final straightaway—well, to be honest, that’s what running is all about.

So, what would I counsel for anyone thinking of running the NYRR 60K?

  1. Run it with a friend or friends. If nobody will run it with you, ask a friend or two to cheer you on (as I was lucky enough to have with Hannah, Matt, and Caitlin).
  2. The runners assembled covered the gamut of body types, age, and ethnicities. As long as you’ve completed a marathon, you should be able to finish 60K. And I’m a pasty-faced, middle-aged, vegan Englishman with bad running form.
  3. NYRR wants to ensure you do not die, since that would place a damper on proceedings. There’s lots of food—bananas, GUs, salty bagel halves, and other stuff—at the main table you’ll pass every four miles, and gatorade and water at that station and its sister-stop mid-way between. I brought too much of my own food to eat. In the end, it was the bananas and salt that kept me going. But . . .
  4. . . . don’t stop eating and drinking. Yes, you may need to use the portapotties and your hands may get sticky from banana peel, but I didn’t cramp and that’s good.
  5. I was advised to walk through the water-stations and make sure I got a good amount of fluid. That was good advice. I did.
  6. I started off slow and got slower, but finished pretty strong. Francis went out fairly fast and had a wretched final 12. I was probably too conservative; he was too ambitious. I’ll leave it to you to determine your race strategy; but know your limits, and pace yourself properly.
  7. I can’t say that a 37.2-mile road race is a quintessentially different bodily experience from a marathon. It’s just longer. You have to be patient and relax. Enjoy the sights, smile, and have great (and preferably loquacious) company.
  8. It was just a little too cold for full comfort (hat, two shirts, gloves, and leggings). Ten more degrees would make it delightful. But the Park is in its autumn beauty at this time of year. It’s also full of random people cheering you on and wishing you well and joining in the conspiracy: You all know that what you’re doing is kinda goofy, so embrace the improbable and enjoy it.
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10 Things You Need to Know about Running the New York City Marathon (That Have Nothing to Do with Running)

Updated: October 28, 2021

I’ve run the NYC Marathon seven times—most recently in 2014. It’s a terrific race, and if this is your first time, you’re going to be in for a treat. No doubt you’ve scanned every single article/blog and watched every single video about how to run the course, and so on. I also assume you’ve read about making sure you have all your items ready the day before, so you’re not frantically trying to find that bottle of vaseline the morning of. Good job. I’m here to give you a few pieces of advice that you may not have come across and that I (natch) think you’ll find useful. Because I’m revising this seven years after last running NYC (the 2021 race will be my first marathon in seven years. Yikes!), some of the details may be out of date or not applicable to the new COVID reality. But the general advice, I think, is solid.

1. The Staten Island Ferry time you’ve been given is not a deadline. So, you’ve booked your baggage/no baggage thing, and clipped your toenails and packed your goo, and you’re (rightly) going to use the SI Ferry to get to the start. You’ve been assigned a time with your registration form and it’s on your bib, and you fear that there are people at the terminal ready to turn you away if you take the 7:00 a.m. ferry when you have a 6:30 slot. Don’t worry. Everyone’s way too sleepy and there are far too many other runners streaming on to the ferry for anyone to check. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the “correct” ferry. Why? Not because the ferry might sink because there are too many people on it (don’t be silly!) but because of Thing #2. . . .

2. The bus ride from the ferry might take thirty minutes or more. You are going to leave the terminal and it’s going to be cold. You’ll make your way to a line of (school) buses that will fill up with people just like you and drive you to the starting area. In recent years, New York Road Runners has been trying to shorten the time it takes, but it’s still a trek. If you’re a worrywart like me, and you don’t want to waste energy getting nervous, take an earlier ferry. The ride is beautiful, and the sun (you have already creatively visualized a beautiful day) will be rising over the bridge you’ll be running over in a few hours. It’s your day; make the most of it.

3. Be prepared for the Village experience. I’m not talking about Greenwich Village or M. Night Shyamalan’s execrable movie. I’m talking about the place where you will be spending the next couple of hours, once you get off that bus. You have been told it is cold and to bring lots of old clothes that you can throw off ecstatically. Do that. What are you being brave for? I’ve bought an old sweatshirt, hoodie, and gloves from Goodwill just for such purposes. The clothes you throw away will make it back to Goodwill, and may be ready for you the following year!

4. Bring a robust black trash bag. Cut a hole beforehand in the bottom for you to put your head through and then slide it on once you get into your corral. You’ll be amazed how warm (and dry) you’ll be once you’ve gotten rid of all your other clothes. If you want, you can cut holes in the sides to slip your arms through, but if you’re like me that might be too fashion forward for your taste.

5. Use your old heat sheets. Remember that heat sheet they gave you at the end of your last marathon or half-marathon that you put away in a draw as a memento? Why not honor your last effort by using it to keep warm before the race? Don’t worry: they’ll likely give you another one at the end of it.

6. Bring a broken-down cardboard box to sit on. It’ll be wet or dewy, even muddy, as you sit on the grass listening to the polyglot recorded message welcoming you over and over to the athletes’ village. You need to keep your bottom dry, and a cardboard box is just about the only thing you can bring to the place that security hasn’t prohibited as an offensive weapon.

7. Talk to people. Yeah, I know it’s early and it’s cold, and it took you fifty minutes to get coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts stand. And, sure, you wanna get in the zone and psych yourself up. Plus, you bought six copies of The Economist that you haven’t read yet. But, you know what? You can’t concentrate and you’ve got plenty of time to get your game face on. In fact, your aim should be to psych yourself down so you don’t find yourself speeding through Brooklyn alongside a willowy Kenyan and crashing into The Wall before you leave Queens. Perhaps you think everyone else around you is too cool (temperamentally speaking) to talk to you. They aren’t. They’re just as nervous, excited, cold, and freaked out as you. Find out where they’re from; practice your Swedish; give and take some advice; wish them luck. If nothing else, conversation will eat away the many, many minutes you have to wait.

8. There are portapotties everywhere. You will need to pee. A lot. A combination of nerves, unnecessary amounts of pre-dawn energy drink, and necessary amounts of coffee will make you want to use the bathroom. DO NOT WORRY. There are toilets at the ferry terminal (Manhattan side). There are toilets on the ferry. There are toilets at the terminal (Staten Island side).* There are portapotties before you get on the bus. There are portapotties when you get off the bus. There are portapotties in the village. There are portapotties in or near your corral. You could spend the entire time lining up for portapotty after portapotty if you wanted. (Note: portapotties arrangements change frequently.) The one place that matters is your corral. For which reason: Thing #9.

9. Get in line for the portapotty as soon as you near or enter your corral. You’ll be in this densely populated area for perhaps 30 minutes before you move toward the bridge, so you want to avail yourself of the facilities. You could hop into a portapotty further toward the front once you start inching forward to the start, because that corral will have moved on, but that means you’ll lose your place in the line up, if that concerns you (which it shouldn’t). Why does any of this matter? Because beyond the corrals, that’s it: no room or place to pee or anything else (apart from off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge itself, but that’s another story) . . . except for all the portapotties en route, between miles 3 and 25.

10. Breathe. Before the national anthem is sung, before the elites are introduced, before the cannon goes off, and before some semblance of Francis Albert requests that you start spreading the news, just take a second. You are about to run 26 miles and 385 yards, accompanied by tens of thousands of other runners from all over the world, cheered on by more than a million people, serenaded by scores of bands of all types and abilities, and on a course that takes you through neighborhoods that encompass virtually all of humanity’s countries of origin and language groups. You might feel overwhelmed or you might be jazzed by all the hoopla. Don’t matter now. It’s your race, your moment. All those training runs, the plyometric exercises, the track work, and days when it wasn’t even light out when you were tying your shoelaces (oh, by the way: double-knot those laces!): this is what it’s about. This. Right now. Right here. So, breathe. And then go have a blast.

* It’s early on Sunday morning, and they may be closed.

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The Future of Publishing

Ten years ago, I was asked (along with others) to form a panel on writing and publishing for an animal advocacy conference. The panelists and I were so gloomy and downbeat in our presentation that we were never invited back again! What a difference a decade makes: I’m actually very positive about the future of book publishing. The reasons why are contained in this fine extended essay from The Economist (kindly sent to me by Cassandra Greenwald), and which is worth reading in full. There are, however, three  paragraphs that distill just about all the “wisdom” that I impart to would-be authors, which are worth me quoting in full. In the future:

While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers, says Mike Shatzkin, an industry analyst.

This too could be in part seen as a return to previous eras, when people did not expect to earn a living by writing books but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than just being faded pictures on the inside back cover.

And writers who are not also performers may find that new opportunities arise. People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as Pubslush and Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams.



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Five Ways In Which a Trainer Is Like a Good Editor

Martha Prakelt

Martha Prakelt

When I first began running and writing, I assumed that—because I could put one foot in front of the other and I was expensively educated—I knew how to do either well. There were plenty of running blogs and training programs, as well as “how-to” books on writing and short-story writers and novelists to copy. So, why not use what was freely available, study up, and practice?

Now, it’s true: You can do a lot to improve both by paying attention to the advice of expert practitioners, honing your craft by following the regimens of the best in the field, and making sure you put in the hours. But no matter how much self-discipline you bring to running or writing, it helps to have a little bit of one-on-one personal coaching from a trainer or an editor.

This is what I did in running when, in 2011, I found myself out of sorts following two poor performances in marathons. I decided to get a trainer, and once a week for eight weeks Martha Prakelt helped me with speedwork on the track and strength training. My marathon times reverted to status quo ante. This year, Martha advertised an eight-week, hour-long strength, plyometric, and core workout, which I found so helpful that I persuaded members of my running club, the South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC), to join me in eight more weeks. The result was a further improvement in my time, and a much fitter, stronger me.

But how is that like editing, I hear you ask? Let me count five ways.

1. A good editor doesn’t do the work for you. She expects you to put in the hours and do the heavy lifting. It’s your perspiration and inspiration, not hers. Instead, she’s there to keep you on track, make sure you’re not falling into bad habits, and that you’re focused during those times when you really don’t quite know where you’re headed. In short, she’s there to help you retain your form and not take shortcuts because it’s “just too hard.”

2. A good editor wants you to realize your plans. Now, a good editor is not going to sit back and let you concoct grandiose and unreachable goals that you’re not willing to work to achieve. Instead, she’s going to take a hard look at what you can do and enable you to improve incrementally. Martha knew that the SBRC-ers were runners, and tailored her workouts to strengthen what we needed to perform across a range of distances and at our several abilities. She was specific, yet she also provided a general regimen that improved our overall fitness. Nobody got hurt, as far as I know, and everyone gained something from the workout. Likewise, an editor will look at the overall aims of your work and point out areas that can be strengthened, but ensure that the corpus itself isn’t distorted or pulled out of whack by overemphasizing one feature at the expense of the total reading experience. At some point, you’ll probably curse the editor/trainer for yet another round of burpees or because she tells you to “kill your darlings.” But that’s the price you pay for somebody paying you the compliment of taking you seriously as a runner/writer. You wanna improve, or what?

3. A good editor will do as much work psychologically as technically. Everyone can write and everyone can run. Neither things are complicated and you can do both on your own. The trainer/editor knows that. What can’t be substituted is the personal attention that makes you, the trainee, acknowledge that the long haul requires concentration and discipline, yes, but also the hoped-for pleasures of a sentence well constructed or a run well executed. Half the battle in writing and running is self-belief; the willingness to defer immediate pleasure for a longer-term accomplishment made all the more special because of those quiet, early hours of slogging through the pages, each sentence creaking and begging to stop. Each training session, therefore, is not a substitute for the hard yards, but an editorial session: tightening, strengthening, and honing the prose until it’s muscular, taut, and sinewy—conveying exactly the energy you want for an even more satisfactory ending.

4. You may think nothing’s happening, but it is. I can’t remember what I looked like, or how well I performed the squat jump, at the beginning of the summer. Martha didn’t give us measurements, or weigh us, or get us to keep a log of how long our planks lasted. All I remember is that, after each workout, I’d sweated a huge amount and yet felt sore (in a good way!), flexible, and refreshed. Likewise, a good editor will help you produce a text where the reader keeps turning the pages, appreciating the story and/or the clarity of the prose, without noticing anything except you’ve educated and entertained them. Now, if you want to log the hours or count the calories, so be it. And if your goal is to write 25,000 words in six weeks, then be my guest. But I’d prefer to be stronger and fitter overall, and have a number of excellently constructed ideas and a solid narrative arc of whatever length, rather than fit my practice into a preconceived notion of what it means to achieve something.

5. A good editor tells you to find a community. Every book or magazine article I’ve read on writing includes authors telling would-be scribes to sign up for journals, buy books, go to libraries, join a writing group, or in some way get engaged in the literary community. That’s because you learn from others, often indirectly or accidentally. So, share your work, ask for feedback, be grateful for honesty and frankness. Your work will be better for it. Martha suggested that part of my blahs might be because I did so much running alone, and often on the treadmill of the local gym. She suggested that I join SBRC not just because I might become a better runner or learn new things, but because the lonely long-distance runner can sometimes do better with a friend, just as the solitary writer ultimately yearns for an editor . . . and then a reader!

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