William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.
DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes?
HENRY ZECHER: Gillette is remembered today mainly because he played Holmes, but he was so much more than that. He was an enormously talented triple-threat theater craftsman—playwright, stage manager and actor. He was part of the vanguard of actors and playwrights bringing realism to the stage in the era of very unrealistic melodrama. He was renowned for his technical special affects—lighting, sound, music. It was in Sherlock Holmes that he introduced the fade-in of the lighting at the beginning of each act and the fade-out at the end, which allowed for scene changes in the dark and, thus, the continuance of the illusion of the play from one act to the next. This has been standard practice ever since. As an actor, he was mesmerizing, described as one of Charles Dana Gibson's notables. He was among those actors performing in a natural manner without the old melodramatic exaggerations, speaking and acting like real people, not hysterical maniacs.
Held by the Enemy in 1887 was the first American play with a purely American theme to be both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in Great Britain at a time when the British held American arts in very low esteem. And Secret Service is still considered a masterpiece of its class, the closest Gillette came to the "well-made play." It is also the only play of his available on commercial DVD, and it gave us our first glimpse on film of a young stage actress named Meryl Streep.
He was as fascinating a character as those he knew, and his friends included Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Nast, Otis Skinner, Maurice Barrymore, and his manager and close friend, Charles Frohman, the Stephen Spielberg of his day. Among those who visited his castle and took a ride on his miniature railroad were Calvin Coolidge, Albert Einstein and Ozaki Yukio, the great Japanese parliamentarian who gave us the cherry blossoms in 1912. That's the kind of company he kept.
Finally, he was the son of a United States Senator and brother of a Congressman, and he came out of the intellectual haven of Nook Farm in Hartford, Connecticut. As a kind of Yankee aristocrat, he was among those who demonstrated that, even if actors had not always been gentlemen, it was certainly possible and acceptable for a gentleman to be an actor.
DAVID WISEHART: What research did you do for the book?
HENRY ZECHER: At first, I looked in books on the history of the theater, and biographies and memoirs of his contemporaries. I searched on-line archives. Google News Archives and Google Books are phenomenal resources. As I journeyed through sources like these, I discovered others, and before long I found caches of his letters in different libraries, letters to Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Brander Matthews, Alexander Woollcott, Elsie Leslie, and others. Networking helped here more than anyone could imagine, because there were many individuals who helped immensely here, throughout the process. The major sources of primary source information, for me, were the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, the Connecticut Historical Society and the Connecticut State Library in Hartford, Connecticut, the Polk County Historical Society in Columbus, North Carolina, and my favorite home away from home, the United States Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?
HENRY ZECHER: Mostly, people interested in Sherlock Holmes and/or the theater. There is so much history of both in my book. After that, there is quite a bit of American history woven in. Finally, many people find biographies, per se, interesting, and this one is, if I may say so myself, eminently interesting because Gillette was an eminently fascinating man.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?
HENRY ZECHER: I always liked to write, and wrote for my high school and college newspapers. Graduating with a degree in journalism, I became a sports writer for a few years but then went into Federal government human resources, after which I did some freelance writing. My first major magazine article was in 1983, on reformer Martin Luther’s impact on the English Bible. It has been republished several times and recorded for the blind. I wrote about C. S. Lewis after Shadowlands came out, and about George Burns after he died, both published in The Pipe Smoker's Ephemeris, a privately-printed journal devoted to pipe and cigar smoking. I wrote for the Journal of Irreproducible Results a satire on Count Dracula’s criminal justice system being considered by sociologists today, because Vlad the Impaler ruled a genuinely crime-free society. For some reason, even hardened criminals didn't like the idea of being impaled, so they took their criminal activities to other kingdoms. Writing for the Ephemeris in the 1990s really got me back in the mode, and my best scholarly work, on the Papyrus Ipuwer, was published in The Velikovskian after that. In it, I argued that, rather than being an Egyptian version of the plagues on Egypt described by Moses, as many believe, it actually described the aftermath of the Exodus after the Israelites had escaped.
DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?
HENRY ZECHER: I read up on whoever or whatever I’m interested in, collect articles and items, and begin writing a draft of something. Gillette began as a magazine series with no intention of writing a book. After writing and editing ad infinitum, it takes shape and I just keep going. If I write another book, I may lay out a plan, like a Table of Contents, dividing the subject up into intended divisions, like chapters, but probably I will just determine where I want to end up and head in that direction. With a biography, that’s easy. The subject was born and then died. What you have to do is fill in the in-between and, frankly, you can’t really plan your chapters too specifically in advance. You can set up a general outline, but that will change more often than you’d like to think. The project evolves as you work on it, and the best thing I can say is that you need to really get to know your subject and everything related to it. As you learn more, you will shift things around, reshape them, enlarge them, and so on.
DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?
HENRY ZECHER: Six in particular. I most enjoy writers who have wit, humor, a lyrical way of writing, and that incredible ability to craft a story. My first writing heroes were sports writers Stanley Weston and Dan Jenkins. Both incredible, witty and fabulous story tellers. Probably the most lyrical writer I ever encountered was Frances Gray Patton. Arthur Conan Doyle was the master storyteller, and a wordsmith. Later, I latched on to C. S. Lewis and then, most recently, Mark Frost. Columnists like Camille Paglia and George Will are fabulous reading just for their wordsmithing alone, let alone how they express their viewpoints. There are others, but those I named were the biggest influences.
DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?
HENRY ZECHER: This may strike you as odd, but Frances Patton wrote a novel titled Good Morning, Miss Dove about a spinster elementary geography teacher in a small town who has a mesmerizing affect on her pupils. I don’t generally read novels, outside of Sherlock Holmes, but I read this one nearly every year. It is the most heart-warming, feel-good book I have ever seen. I can’t get through it without tears welling up in my eyes. I wish I had written that one. I would love, most of all, to write like her.
DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?
HENRY ZECHER: Xlibris promised to do all this on-line marketing—200,000 emails of their press release—which other of their writers told me does not work. My wife, Gay, a vastly experienced businesswoman and marketer, told me the same thing, so writers should never depend on promised on-line marketing. However, I took Xlibris’ press release, prepared one of my own, and sent both to media outlets in major cities where Gillette appeared: Hartford, his home town, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, etc. I also sent them to London and Tokyo, London because he was very popular there, and Tokyo because Holmes in popular in Japan and Gillette’s servant and friend, Ozaki Yukitaka, was the brother of Ozaki Yukio, the Japanese statesman who gave us the cherry blossoms. I added an image of the book cover and a photo of me. I emailed these things where I could and snail-mailed where I couldn’t, with the press releases and images recorded on a CD. News outlets generally prefer emailed press releases, but I didn’t want to just send a simple press release. I was trying to get their attention, so I sent an entire package.
I also prepared images and short notices for Facebook, and have built up a list of nearly 600 “friends” on Facebook. Using photoshop, I put two, three, four, five or six photos into one image. There is a website called Sherlockian Who’s Who in which I could send short items on the book to individual Sherlockians around the world. I even used Babel Fish to translate it into other languages for the countries I was sending them to.
Finally, MailChimp is a fabulous program—and it is free—for business notices to go out in email, and I use that. You can create some terrific bulletins, notices and newsletters on MailChimp. The only drawback is that MailChimp requires two things: 1) notify the people on your email list that you wish to send them your notices, so they can opt out if they wish; and 2) MailChimp does not want you using it to send press releases or notices to media outlets who are not expecting them. Otherwise, you can send them to anyone you like as long as you notify them first.
DAVID WISEHART: What was your experience with Xlibris?
HENRY ZECHER: They were phenomenal in many ways, extremely helpful. I chose the Premium package for two reasons: it offered unlimited photographs (and I have lots of photographs) and they would do the indexing. I came up with the idea for the cover, which is stunning, and they made it work beautifully. When I made corrections and alterations, they did them quickly and efficiently. I sent them the manuscript at the end of July and we were proofing the pdf file by October, pictures and all. When I finally received hard copies of the published book, it was very well put together.
On the flip side, they were miserable at the indexing, and it was a nearly three-month nightmare. I was working with very nice and accommodating people in the Philippines for whom English was very often a second language, and sometimes, depending on who I was dealing with, explaining a concept was tortuous. Even though I had drafted the Index with last name first—i.e., “Wisehart, David,” they inserted names as in “David Wisehart,” and getting them to do it right was sometimes like pulling teeth. They frequently missed important names and page numbers. They finally got it right, but I was wrung out by the time they did.
Xlibris offers resellers only a 35% discount, and I had two book store owners tell me that they need at least a 40% discount to make it worth their while. Finally, I had hoped that my book would be a contender for the Edgar Award given out every year by the Mystery Writers of America, but they only consider books published by accepted publishers, and self-publishing firms are not on that list. Many people look down their noses on self-publishing, because to them "real" books are published by "real" publishers.
Another factor is that, while my book is on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, readers outside of North America and the United Kingdom have to pay about $24 to ship the book to them, which makes the ebook a valuable format to publish your book in.
DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?
HENRY ZECHER: Unlike hard copies of books, Kindle is available around the entire globe, with some exceptions, for perhaps two or three dollars more. Your royalty will be far less, but your book will be easily available to a far greater number of people on every continent.
DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?
HENRY ZECHER: I can’t advise specifically regarding Kindle, but I can advise regarding self-publishing. The benefit of self-publishing is that you can shape the book any way you like and have it published well within a year of submitting it. Depending on the service you purchase, you can do some remarkable things. Beyond that, here are specific tips:
First, to draw readers, find your own niche. Do what no one else is doing. David McCullough said it better. He said to do what no one else has done, what no one else has done recently, or what no one else has done well. Don’t write the 55th biography of Mark Twain unless you’ve discovered some really remarkable facts about him that no one else knows. And it better be good. There has never been a major biography published about Gillette, who was one of the most important figures in the history of the American theater. Mine is the first. Something approaching that kind of exclusivity is what you want.
Second, it is totally up to you to make sure your manuscript is proofed, edited and corrected. In addition to myself, I got three people to proof-read my manuscript, and I sought advice on shaping the book, that is, reworking the manuscript, from people who had published books, by which I mean both authors and publishers. It is also up to you, if you write any kind of a fact-based book, to ensure that your facts are correct. I had Sherlockian experts, theater people and a Connecticut state historian check my facts. Xlibris proofed my manuscript only to make it conform to the Chicago Style Manual. That was it. Otherwise, these firms will publish what you give them and, if it’s poorly written, sloppy and filled with errors, it will reflect badly on you. Regular publishers provide good editing services. In self-publishing, you’re on your own.
Third, you will have to do the bulk of the marketing yourself. Email marketing, generally, does not work. People also think that, if they have a website, they’ll sell their stuff. But, unless you have a red hot subject that half the planet is looking for and only you have it, a website will do nothing for you. Start a blog. Get on Facebook. Facebook ads will work a little, but your publisher should place those. You can do more of your own on Facebook and Twitter; but in both you have to build up a large list of contacts. That takes time.
What really works is getting out there amongst the people – book signings, interviews, personal appearances like your local service clubs, local radio stations, local libraries.
Most of all, you want to market the least expensive way you can, which means emailing press notice packages to media when you can. DO NOT buy ads in magazines or newspapers. They won’t work. Instead, work at getting your book reviewed by those newspapers and magazines. People read reviews. This can be particularly helpful on Amazon.com, where people review books and others read their reviews. Your book sales will build up slowly, but hopefully you will sell books. But, again, make sure your book is really good and well-put-together. If it isn’t, don’t submit until it is.
DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.
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