Lowly Self-Publisher Educates Wise Publishing Veteran
This is the story of a self-publisher who did everything “wrong” to publish a charming and humorous gem that I’m recommending to everyone.
The big lesson I had to learn (again) is that “professionals” in the book business like yours truly can easily lose their trust in the reader and their eye for creativity. Instead of enhancing the publishing process, too often we pros get in the way of very good, very original and often even memorable books.
In my own defense may I say that 99 times out of 100, the self-publishing author needs guidance from a wizened (I used to think that meant wise; now in my declining years I see it’s right on the money) veteran of industry standards and procedures.
Too Shy to Paginate
The author in question is Niko Mayer, a member of the book group I facilitate at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Calif. When Niko asked me to endorse a collection of travel stories that she had written and illustrated, I felt a certain dread creep in.
1. First, there was the title: “Travelin’ Light Is Not for Me: Worries Weigh a Lot.”
Well, it’s a bit wordy and hard to follow, I thought, not to mention a little precious. A customer may read it several times and still not know what the book is about.
I told Niko a good rule of thumb about titles: If the reader has to look inside the book to understand the title, you’re not there yet. But if the title is catchy, and intriguing enough to lure the reader into the book — to make us curious, to make us open the book to learn more — you’ve nailed it.
Uh-huh… said Niko.
2. Then came the illustrations (see below)
Hm. All the drawings were like this: Spirited and earnest, certainly, but amateurish and dated, too, I felt — reminiscent (to me) of ladies’ teas in the ’50s. Again, a preciosity crept in that made the art a bit self-conscious.
I told Niko a rule of thumb about illustrations: If they distract readers to the point of making us lose our focus or enjoyment of the story, you’re not there yet. But if they enhance the text and add a personality all their own, like a bonus, it’s worth every extra penny to include them.
Hm, said Niko.
3. Then came the typeface (see below).
Okay, this had to be some kind of faux handwriting font with one of those cute names (I thought maybe “Postcard Crimp”) that I guessed was supposed to resemble pages in a person’s travel journal. That’s fine for a while, but soon I found myself squinting at paragraphs that looked a bit like a rough draft, as though jotted down without a thought. Considering typos and occasions where the type runs into illustrations, the reading of the text could be simpler, cleaner.
I told Niko a rule of thumb about content: When the typeface calls attention to itself, it steps in front of the writing (literally in this case) and confuses the author’s meaning. That’s not fair to the reader.
The typeface, said Niko, is called “Handwriting Dakota.” Not “Postcard Crimp.”
4. Other things I puzzled over: Why was there no Table of Contents, no page numbers?
Niko said later the template that her printer (Blurb.com) used for self-published books didn’t leave room on the page for art and pagination, so the latter had to go. As to a Table of Contents, the idea hadn’t occurred to her.
I got the feeling that the author was too shy to paginate: Niko thought of “Travelin’ Light…” as a coffee table book or bathroom read that you could flip open anywhere and simply start browsing. Who would take it seriously enough to remember a specific page?
The Lesson Begins
5. The dread increased as I turned to the text, which I worried would not redeem difficulties in the design. Then for the next hour I heard somebody chuckling happily, and realized that it was me.
Niko, it turns out, has a gift for dry, wry humor that sneaks up on you on nearly every page. She and her husband Steve (what a patient man! I thought at first. Then: What a lucky man!) have traveled the world together (she sometimes solo), and have had many misadventures that are both entertaining and amusing.
But the delight here lies in Niko’s approach, her insistence on traveling on her own terms. “I expect everything to go wrong, and I do everything I can to insure it doesn’t,” she writes. This means preparing and packing for the worst – “tsunamis, strikes, and poison gas in subway tunnels” — as well as more ordinary problems (dengue fever, malaria), though she does have her limits.
On a trip to Africa, “I stopped short of carrying my own blood plasma supply,” though much to her regret. Waking up with a swollen black tongue is the subject of the second chapter (they’re not numbered) called “Open Wide and Say “EeeeeuuuuuWWWW,” a title I most certainly would have discouraged but begrudgingly found charming, especially after the origin is discovered.
In any case, having realized long ago “how much I loathed being uncomfortable” away from the comforts of home, “I tried to take my home with me,” she writes. This makes her the most resourceful packer in modern times. If Steve is right that Niko has a “four-degree comfort range,” it follows that she’s always going to be “too cold or too hot” wherever she goes, so she takes pains to “pack for two seasons to protect against misery.”
Early on, we surrender to her logic. Stuck in the back of a hotel with a limited view, Niko places on the window sill a special thermometer “made for sailors that calculates the wind-chill factor along with the temperature.” She refers to it as a “tiny” device while Steve calls it as a “portable weather station,” but the point is, phoning the doorman to ask about the weather would never work for Niko. “The doorman is from Austria, not California,” she tells Steve. “How would he know what I consider cold?”
Two Kinds of People
Niko realized years ago, that she and Steve represent two kinds of people in the world: “Luggage-intensive” travelers like Niko, pictured on the cover with six pieces of luggage, a stack of books, umbrella, goldfish bowl and electric fan; and “carry-on” travelers like Steve, who never seem to bring more than a few small bags.
“The carry-on people believe that they are efficient, and yet they are the ones slowing down the boarding procedures,” Niko writes. “They don’t trust the airlines to deliver the bags. They believe the overloaded group is slowing them down waiting for lost luggage. But notice who they borrow from when they need toe spacers.”
Ah, toe spacers. It’s fascinating to see how many unusual items (well, for you and me) turn out to be necessities for Niko. She provides a full-page list at the front of the book that appears to be suggestions to consider if you have space (2nd skin and moeskin, baking soda, DIY medicine book, bactine”) but turn out to be essentials that Niko takes on every trip.
Here is just a part of it:
Water purification tabs
So while many people are awed by travel – by the fact that airplanes actually fly, for example – “for me, the most amazing invention is the expandable rolling suitcases,” Niko writes. She packs many of them because, despite taking classes like “108 Outfits in a Carry-on Bag,” she can’t reduce her clothes to a dreary all-black wardrobe (“I looked like I expected a death in the Royal Family”); mix-and-match apparel (“so shapeless that no necklace could rescue it”); or a dress-up-or-down basic outfit (“I remain unseduced by the novelty of scarves”).
The author seems to thrive on adventure, but she does note that “Steve is allergic to luxury, while I’m allergic to risk.” That only means that when he wants to leave the safety of a group in Nepal, she spends all night “catastrophizing (at which I excel),” to good purpose.
While the “excursion provider” insists that sherpas will be bringing not only a cook but two cabin boys, Niko isn’t so sure (“What about oxygen tanks?”). And it’s not danger she’s worried about so much as a certain phonying-up of authenticity: A guide who asks passers-by for directions. An exhausting trek up a mountain that seems remote until a taxi wanders by. A promise that “You carry nothing. You lack for nothing” that really means no food or water for 20 miles.
Like many of us, Niko and Steve want to see the real, un-touristy places of the world, but are there such things left these days? The author might not have meant for this to happen, but often “Travelin’ Light…” reads like a cautionary tale, to warn us that no matter what our interests may be in the remote, the untouched, the wild, or the pristine, some kind of business is already thriving to service (or is it exploit?) our needs.
Of course, Niko has the wit and good humor to make all this funny. If the chances are pretty high wherever one goes of hiring charlatans or fanatics who are busy putting up a sign that says something like “Sunrise Travel,” a better way to read it would be “Surprise Travel” and let catastrophizing claim the day.
Learning My Lesson
All of this to say that gradually I grew to love every aspect of this book, including the title, which states exactly what the author wants us to know before we buy it. The illustrations that at first seemed so dated and pinched now look adorable and revealing. Even the typeface with it’s don’t-I-look-authentic look appears, to me, so charmingly close to being real handwriting that I would hate to see a cleaner, more easy-to-read and, yes, sophisticated font.
So now it’s my turn to be wrong. It’s wrong to force old formats and constraints onto self-published books. It’s wrong even for trusted old fogies like myself to forget that once authors are freed from “professional” standards, they are answerable only to themselves. Sometimes their gut instinct can free us all from the limited expectations of an industry that’s gotten too streamlined and arrogant.
The fact is that “Travelin’ Light … ” is a good book because of all that’s “wrong” with it, for one reason because the author trusts the reader to give the book a chance, and we do.
Maybe it’s not exactly an impulse buy, but I bet it will go far on that other trusted industry phenomenon, word of mouth. Niko wrote it in a spirit of playfulness that you can see in the photograph of the two of them straddling the Equator.
Whenever I’ve given it to people without saying a thing about it, the reaction has been universal: “What an unexpected delight! We loved it! Especially the time Niko and Steve are nearly shot by a firing squad on page — oh wait, why are there no page numbers…”
“Kidnapped by Radical Feminists”
Finally I was so delighted and surprised by a chapter in which Niko signs up for a trip to Greece, led by a Belgian Jungian spiritualist/feminist/psychoanalyst and seeker, that I immediately bought First Serial Rights to get ahead of the crowd of magazine editors (okay, I paid a dollar) and hereby offer it to you in its entirety below.
Niko says she was attracted to this special tour for women because the guide promised to “illuminate the psychological aspects of mythology” right at the sites of the Earth Goddess, Gaia; the God of Healing, Asklepios; the Oracle of Delphi itself, and many others.
It’s an understatement to say that Niko’s fears come true in a most comical way as she watches some (not all) members of the group bring out the panpipes, the drums, the runes, the chanting and dancing while the guide “spoke in Capital Letters” about how “the Journey has something to Teach” us all.
Suffice it to say that every historic site they visit is a holy, peaceful, historic sanctuary “until we arrived.” There is even one person – perhaps the product of too much therapy, radical feminism, New Age spirituality and folk music — “who kept her /Inner Child’ (a doll) in a backpack,” bringing it out to hold in front of her “to witness this marvelous feminist solidarity.” This is just one example of Niko’s incisive but never mordant observations.
Go here for a pdf of “Kidnapped by Radical Feminists.”