Glenn Damato's sailing memoir, Breaking Seas, sold over 20,000 copies in a little over two years. This memoir tells the story of an overweight, middle-aged software instructor, who, dissatisfied with his humdrum life, quits his job and embarks on a sailing adventure around the world, a journey for which he is terribly unprepared.
In this interview, Glenn talks about his writing process, his decision to self-publish, and his experience working with a developmental editor. He also shares some valuable tips on how to market your book successfully.
1. What was your first book about?
It was a futuristic disaster novel set in an underground city, which I banged out over the summer of 1975 on an ancient portable typewriter I dug up in my father’s girlfriend’s basement. I was fifteen and all I wanted to do was write about science and technology and people dying grisly deaths. I could only send the novel to one publisher because I could only steal a limited number of stamps from my grandmother.
They weren’t interested.
My first book that people actually read is the memoir Breaking Seas: An Overweight, Middle-Aged Computer Nerd Buys His First Boat, Quits His Job, and Sails Off to Adventure.
2. What was the process of writing your memoir?
Several friends insisted I write a book about my recent sailing misadventures. I wasn’t enthusiastic at first. But I decided to give it a try just for the practice—one draft and one revision.
Once I got started, my attitude improved and I figured if I was going to do it, I might as well write the best memoir I possibly could. But should it be a just-the-facts sailing story? Or should I make it personal and talk about the non-sailing issues that led to the voyage?
Then it hit me: without the personal stuff, I didn’t have much of a story. It would be just another “I went sailing and here’s what happened” book, and there were plenty of those.
I’m happy I made that decision. Some readers comment that I am pathetic and despicable, but they still read the book. Other readers “get” the theme of one man, alone, getting the most out of life, and refusing to accept the “get a partner first” rule that society promotes. The negative reviews impugning my character and worthiness as a human being drive sales too. My mother read it, but she told me she can’t recommend it to her friends because (paraphrasing) it’s humiliating to have such a dork for a son.
Maybe it’s true what they say about entertainment—the only real sin is to be boring.
3. Did you work with a book editor? If so, what was that collaboration like?
I did, and I’m glad I did, but that wasn’t my original plan. I outlined the book and plunged into a first draft, but somewhere around 30 percent of the way through I ran out of steam. Without a deadline, and with a full-time job with tons of stress and travel, I procrastinated. I knew the only way I would ever finish was to create a genuine deadline, with consequences (no silly “self-contract” would do the trick). So I chose an editor to provide development feedback. I lied to her and told her the first draft was complete. We signed an agreement, I paid my deposit, and we set a date about seven weeks in the future when she would be free to devote time to the project.
Now I had to have a draft by that date, or I would be a total chump.
I wrote with renewed energy, terrorized she would send me a note, “Good news! A week opened up in my schedule, so go ahead and send me your manuscript!” The last nine thousand words (10 percent) were written in a twenty-one-hour death march ending at 5:30 a.m. on the due date.
I was happy with the development notes, and I made around 70 percent of the changes the editor suggested. These were broad changes and clarifications, not line-level edits. I cut a couple of scenes and rants and a dozen or so paragraphs here and there. There’s no question the book improved.
Another benefit was the editor’s encouragement. She heaped praise on the subject matter and my approach, and predicted it would succeed as a memoir. Normally I’m cynical about praise offered by someone who is 1) a friend or relative, or 2) involved in any sort of monetary exchange. But she came across as sincere, and for the first time I believed there was a chance some people might like the story.
4. What made you decide to take the indie publishing route?
I want to begin a second career as a full-time writer, and I feel it’s helpful to have experience publishing at least one book independently. Now I know firsthand the decisions that go into converting a manuscript into an actual e-book, a paperback book, and an audiobook.
For my memoir, I did not believe a publisher would devote resources to promoting the book beyond what I could do for myself. I had no platform and had not been involved in any news event. Also, getting a traditional publisher would involve months of work and I was eager to close out Breaking Seas and move on to my next project.
If I had obtained a traditional publishing contract, I don’t believe this sort of book would have sold any more copies than it has under my own imprint, Ninth Circle Press. Overseas bookstores can stock it because it has an imprint and barcode. It’s certain that my per-copy income would be only a fraction of what it is now. Independent publishers pay their contractors a flat fee and there is no one else to take a bite out of revenue except for the distributors themselves (Amazon, CreateSpace, and Audible).
5. When you published your memoir, you had no author platform, and yet you sold over 20,000 copies in a little over two years. How did this happen?
I think it’s because I wrote a book people enjoy, that stands out from the competition, and is easy for potential readers to find.
If you don’t start with a platform, you’re depending on your readers to recommend your book by word of mouth (which includes social media and blogs, of course). This may seem like an obvious point, but I have encountered many writers who embrace the view, “My book is no worse than all the garbage that sells a gazillion copies, so why shouldn’t it sell its fair share?”
That approach assumes there’s an insatiable demand among readers for books in a “hot” subgenre, such as space marines, or post-apocalypse, or someone facing cancer with humor and love. I believe this “ride the trend” approach almost always leads to failure, because vast numbers of other writers are crafting similar books at the same time. Instead of an insatiable demand, there’s an insatiable supply.
Breaking Seas took a contrarian approach from the top sellers in the category. All of the most popular narrative nonfiction sailing books were about experienced, resourceful sailors sharing their wisdom, or ordinary people who had “made the leap and were living the dream,” peacefully sailing off into the sunset, sipping margaritas with their Significant Other. I turned all that on its head, and it stood out in the marketplace.
What proof did I have this would work? None at all. It’s a big risk, but I believe it’s a better plan than “ride the trend.”
6. Are there any book marketing tips you'd like to share?
Make it easy for potential readers to find your book.
I’ve heard writers say, “My plan is to hook ’em on page one.” That’s a solid idea, but the problem is, unless you’re already an established name, or your publisher gets your book displayed near the front door at Barnes & Noble, very, very few people will start with the first page.
That’s because the number of new books being published—traditionally and independently—has exploded into the stratosphere. No matter how many avid readers are out there browsing, they will be lured to the big sellers with major marketing budgets. There is no time for them to read the first page of 1 percent of all the new books that come out, even in a single subgenre.
But they’ll look at search results and see your title, and your cover.
You’ll have two seconds of their attention.
Some writers interested in independent publishing will spend two thousand or more hours researching, writing, and revising a book, but balk at paying $1500 or so for a skilled professional to produce a top-notch cover. “I can’t afford it,” they will say. This makes no sense to me. If you’re serious about being a professional writer, but you don’t believe your work is worthy of a professional-grade cover, don’t publish it yet. Revise until you believe it’s worthy, and then deliver pizza or flip burgers to pay for the cover. If you know in your heart it’s your best work and you believe in its potential, you’ll find a way to pay for a cover that does justice. If your approach is, “I’m not sure it will sell so I’ll do the cover myself and then spend money on a better cover only if it sells well,” then you don’t believe the book is ready and you’re almost certainly correct.
Choose a good title.
The title is a huge factor. We book lovers somehow know what titles excite us and which don’t. Don’t make your title “logical” or “quirky.” Title it like a book you would want to buy.
Not every book should have a subtitle, but in some cases the subtitle is your chance to rub their noses in what your book is about. My subtitle is long—An Overweight, Middle-Aged Computer Nerd Buys His First Boat, Quits His Job, and Sails Off to Adventure—but I think it works. It makes people wonder, “What kind of idiot would do such a thing?” While they’re wondering, they’re not looking at the competing book about the lawyer with thirty years of sailing experience who traveled to Tahiti with his plucky and resourceful family.
Spend time writing a strong blurb.
I spent hours writing the Amazon.com blurb for my book. I believe it’s effective, but many authors overlook this chance to get potential readers to page one. They provide two or three rather mundane sentences describing the book, confident “page one will hook ’em.” But potential readers take the advertising blurb as page one! It’s their quick guide to how well the book is written. Enthralling blurb, enthralling book. Dull blurb, dull book.
Besides what you can see on Amazon.com, I didn’t do much else to market the book except participate in some blog threads initiated by readers. I was delighted when a national sailing magazine listed Breaking Seas on their five-book summer reading list last year—but I didn’t ask them to. Maybe a reader had asked them or one of the editors had found the book.
7. What are you working on now?
I recently completed the kind of realistic, technology-based science fiction novel I loved to read as a nerdy teenager. This sort of sci-fi is rarely published these days. I’m hoping that will change soon, particularly with the spectacular success of the indie-published novel The Martian. The film is doing extremely well too—despite lacking aliens, warp drives, apocalypse, robots, or space marines!