After Fred Minnick returned from Iraq, he wrote a war memoir through the eyes of a “camera boy” – – his moniker as an Army photographer. In 2006, having finished the draft, he sent me an email with the subject line: “Iraq vet looking for an editor.” He’d read on my website that I am a Vietnam vet, and hoped I might have the empathy that other manuscript editors might not possess.
I found in Fred’s story an intimacy that could put readers right into his dusty Army boots — to make them laugh, and cry. And so I worked with him for a while. I gave him a reading list that included a tale of a different kind of battlefield — Bel Kaufman’s classic novel of teaching in an urban school, “Up the Down Staircase.” Within short order, Fred got his manuscript to the point where he could send it to prospective agents.
Peter Miller of the Peter Miller Agency of New York, liked what Fred had written. He sent it out to several publishers. Many liked it but urged the author to take on a more political slant. How did he feel about President George W. Bush? Was the media covering the war fairly? Fred didn’t want to write any of that; he was more interested in honoring his fallen Army friends. So he stuck to his guns.
The agent dropped out. The writer persisted. He eventually enticed Hellgate Press, which specializes in military books. Hellgate ordered a small press run — 3,000 — but at least Fred was getting his story out. And getting it out with his own marketing savvy. He recently told me, “I sent a press release to all the local media to wherever I was going. I’d hit all the blogs, and Tweet like crazy — I have 47,000 Twitter followers. I am friends with a lot of writers, and took advantage of that. I always went to areas where I had at least two friends — so if nobody from the public came, I’d have at least an audience of two. Sometimes at a bookstore they’d put me behind a table and instead of just standing there, I introduced myself to everyone who came in, giving a short pitch for the book.”
Though at one signing alone he sold 80 copies, he began to understand that it would be a long slog, and that, at best, he could expect modest sales, even when the electronic version of Camera Boy went on Kindle. Minnick turned his attention to other kinds of writing — selling pieces to Saveur and similar magazines that cover food, wine and liquor. He published a book on the history of Angus beef, and sold another manuscript about whiskey.
Then something unexpected happened. This spring Amazon chose Camera Boy as it’s book of the day, and sales began to spike. Then a few days ago, he did some browsing and came across a reference to the Wall Street Journal’s newest list of best-selling books. There, in the number 10 spot on the e-list, was Camera Boy. As of this week, it had sold more than 6,000 copies electronically, and that tally is incomplete.
Fred is thrilled of course. “Whatever happens to my career I can always say I was on the Wall Street Journal’s best seller list.” When I asked him what he thinks the lesson is from his story. “Never give up on a project,” he said.
I asked him, too, whether he felt at any time queasy about all that self-promotion. Yes, he confided. But he also knew that he owed those lost friends something – and that he could restore a sense of dignity to lives ended in such brutal fashion, and in their prime. Indeed, he fulfilled the duty and delivered the gift of a dogged a storyteller who had an old-fashioned idea that narrative still matters and the skill to awaken the world to it new ways.
(For more www.fredwrite.com)