by Chris Santella
In 1989, a close friend and I had a notion for a golf book that would highlight fifty of the best public courses in America. We wrote a detailed proposal, and somehow secured a reputable agent…or so we thought. The project went nowhere, and our agent finally informed us that no one was interested in such a book. Two years later, while perusing golf books in a local bookstore, I came across a title on public golf courses. In the acknowledgements, the author thanked his agent, who happened to be our agent, for the great idea!
Though slightly embittered by this initial setback, I continued to nurse the notion of one day writing a book. I tried to understand why my former agent couldn’t sell the proposal with my name on it, and realized that it probably had a great deal to do with my credentials…or lack thereof. So although the next book notion had not surfaced yet, I worked hard at getting published, thinking that good clips would be money in the bank when I sat down to pen the next book proposal. There were countless rejections, but I kept pitching, and eventually there were some small successes.
By this time, I had moved west. Proximity in northern California–and later in Oregon–to great fly-fishing opportunities renewed my interest in this pastime. I fished a good deal in my spare time and read fly-fishing magazines. I thought I could write at least as well as some of the authors I read, so I began submitting pieces to these publications. They were accepted. I also wrote some fly-fishing-oriented pieces for general-interest publications. These were especially enjoyable to write, as they gave me the chance to introduce a newcomer to something I loved.
I enjoy writing about fly fishing, but after a few years of doing pieces for sporting magazines and the odd in-flight piece on the topic, I realized that there was an opportunity cost that I hadn’t considered: all the time I was writing fishing articles that paid modestly at best, I could be hunting down work from commercial clients (I’m an independent marketing consultant) to better support my family. I decided that if I were to continue devoting time to fishing and writing, I would need to make more money to justify my time, and that the best way to do so would be to publish a book.
I knew from my research that books from fly-fishing publishers don’t tend to sell many copies, because of limited distribution. I needed to hook a mainstream publisher. Recalling my failed golf book and my relative aptitude for descriptive writing (honed from penning ad copy), the seed for Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die was planted. The book would attempt to capture some of the world’s great fly-fishing experiences and serve as both a guide and an armchair traveler. I took my concept and fashioned it into a two-page pitch letter (a mini-proposal, if you will) and sent it to three literary agencies. This first salvo netted me an agent. After considerable collaboration on the final book proposal, it was sent out to publishers the third week in April; after nibbles from a number of publishers, we accepted an offer from Stewart, Tabori & Chang on May 1, 2003.
While I engage in some creative writing, I made it clear to myself from the beginning that this project was commercial in nature. Throughout the process it’s been helpful for me to suspend the idealistic vision of writer-as-artist and instead view my book as a product that I needed to sell. After all, it is the publishing business! While I take great ownership of my words and the stories they tell, I have tried to remain very open to the ideas of publishing professionals around me. This is their livelihood, and it would be foolhardy to dismiss their viewpoints. One great assist came from my agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan (now a principal at Levine, Greenberg & Rostan in New York), who suggested that I incorporate the experiences of famous anglers in the book, to offer more of a human-interest angle. Another came from my first editor, Jennifer Levesque and her cohorts at STC, who at the last minute altered the book’s layout to include color photos instead of line drawings. (Levesque is now Editorial Director at Rodale Press.) Their advice was on target. Since it was published in May of 2004, Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die has sold over 100,000 hard copies, and was the basis for a TV series (on World Fishing Network) of the same name.
While the title of the book (perhaps my one good idea) and STC’s splendid layout certainly had a lot to do with the book’s relative success, my willingness to promote the book certainly didn’t hurt. I knew from my research (and conversations with my editor) that the resources available at a mid-level press like STC to promote a book for an unproven author were limited and that any energy I could lend to the effort would be important. I reached out to every editor I knew (and many I didn’t) in an effort to secure earned-media mentions. I appeared at signings and presentations at independent bookstores and fly-fishing shops in key markets, even if I had to do so on my own dime. If you can get influential independents on your side, word gets around. If you can get booksellers to display your book, you have a much better chance to sell copies.
Apparently, word got around enough. That fall, STC contacted me to ask if I knew anything about golf. The following fall, Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die was released…and a series was born. This spring, Fifty Places to Camp Before You Die will come out, followed by Fifty Places to Drink Beer Before You Die this fall–the 12th and 13th books in the series, and my 18th and 19th books, respectively. A brand has been borne.
Sometimes when I sign a royalty check, I think of that first agent. While he may miss the steady flow of commissions my Fifty Places books have generated, I’m sure he’d approve of my tenacity.
Chris Santella lives in Portland, Oregon. Click here for a list of the many incarnations of the Fifty Places books.
Chris’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Trout, Atlantic Salmon Journal, Gray’s Sporting Journal, American Lawyer, Travel and Leisure, Golf, San Jose Mercury News and Fly Rod & Reel, among many other publications. He is a founding member of www.theAposition.com, a network of golf and travel writing. Chris is also a member of Portland-based Catch & Release, a four-piece rock band. He holds an MBA from Yale University, and a BA in English from Middlebury College.