My kids and I recently conspired to self-publish a book. Our homespun marketing effort included emails, and even snail mail, to independent bookstores from Yuma, Ariz., to Cape Fear, N.C. Though we made lots of mistakes, we also made lots of friends, sold a few books, and, along the way, learned volumes about publishing and booksellers.
Our family crusade was especially juicy for me. Because my daughter and son did most of the work, I had time to have a ball. Not only did I get a glimpse of my 30-something children in pro mode, I also got to take a sentimental journey back to my boyhood.
In Eisenhower-era Brooklyn, I was in love with the United States. My passion had nothing to do with founding principles, and it was unaware of the dark dimensions of manifest destiny. No, in the second grade, I was smitten with the shape of our country. I loved our map. I was sure we had the best country-shape of all the countries. In the whole wide world.
Those giant lakes in the middle toppy part! Big, fat Texas at the bottom, holding everything up. Florida sticking out down there, like a handle. Maine reaching upward, like an arm raised in celebration. Geez, there were two Dakotas! Other countries didn’t even have one Dakota! In 1959, I got grumpy about the arrival of Alaska and Hawaii. Wait, you can’t just add states—can you?
I once replied to a Chamber of Commerce–esque ad, and a giant envelope stuffed with flyers about Oregon arrived in Flatbush. Apparently, I was welcome in the land of Lewis and Clark and beavers, in this American Eden. Boy, oh boy, I thought, Oregon looked neat! I wished I was named Meriwether.
Sixty years later, every bookseller email address we harvested took me back to that map-crazy boy. They summoned it all: the cool forest-graniteness of New Hampshire, the on-and-on-ness of our Great Plains, the orange-red-pink warmth of our Sonoran Desert. What madeleines did for Proust, the roll call of bookstores did for me. We sent messages to both panhandles. Our outreach struck me as somehow fundamentally American. In our cranky times, it seemed downright neighborly, as though we were knocking on the door, just stopping by to say hi.
Not long into our campaign, there was a shake-up on Team O’Neill. I botched an assignment, and my kids suggested that I might be better deployed in the shipping department. (“But you’d be head of shipping, Dad,” they wrote.) I would put books in boxes and schlep them to the post office. In my late 60s, I became the muscle.
I’m happy to report that I loved my new gig. Spelunking through Staples, I curated a collection of boxes—one perfect for three copies, another that cozied up five. Turns out that the USPS Priority Mail box was designed to hold 10 copies of our baby.
Every day for a month, a bookseller said some version of “Sure, let’s give this a try.” Shout out to the Flying Pig in Shelburne, Vt.; to Canvasback Books in Klamath Falls, Ore.; to Sherman’s in Falmouth, Maine; to Garcia Street Books in Santa Fe; to Card Carrying Books in Corning, N.Y.; to the Little Boho Bookshop in Bayonne, N.J.; to Watermark Book Company off the coast of Washington. The Whitmanesque catalog rolled on: Turn the Page Books in Westfield, Ind.; the Southern Market Shops in Knoxville; Wish Gifts in Denver; Pumpkin Patch Books in Ames, Iowa. Within a few weeks, we even got our first reorder. The Book House in Millburn, N.J., took its permanent place in the O’Neill Family Publishing Hall of Fame.
And then there was the tape gun.
Oh God, how I loved it!
Its growl—competent, assertive—was music. Each time, I laid tape along a box seam (ggrrhggrrh!) I pictured the boxes on trucks, zipping down the coastal plain, or winding through Bear Canyon Pass. Each box was a pioneer, naive, optimistic, and hopeful. I pictured booksellers in their back rooms, slicing the tape on the top seam, then curving their fingers under a box flap, and popping it upward with a cardboardy-tapey snap. I swear I even savored the demurrals. When Beth from Boise passed, my first thought was of the wonderful shape of Idaho. We got good advice from generous booksellers who couldn’t spend their shelf space on an untested book.
Everywhere, folks were rooting for us. The post office woman quickly figured out my daily visits. “You wrote a book?” she asked, slapping postage on a five-copy box, Rocky Mountain-bound.
“Yes, ma’am,” replied the young Jimmy Stewart.
“Congratulations,” she said, twinkling through her stars-and-stripes Covid mask. Two weeks later, she said my taping technique was “getting better.” A week later, she asked, “This is our first Iowa, yes?”
Frank Capra smiled.
Our book is Just a Zillion Things Before You Go. If you have a new graduate who’s leaving home, you might slip it into their duffel. It’s got key wisdom—how to be careful and bold at the same time—and snappy illustrations by Dave Chisholm, a wizard from Rochester, N.Y.
Thanks to all the retailers who took a chance, to many others who just took the time to reply—feedback matters—and to the booksellers who merely opened an email from a stranger. Even that small gesture seems a hopeful, American thing to do. Like many of us, I have of late worried about our country. But I am now a tad encouraged.
Oh, and sorry, Alaska and Hawaii. You should know that, in some kind of karmic payback, you’re the only states we haven’t heard from. Not a retailer peep from 49 or 50. No question, I deserve it. So, for what it’s worth, and a tad late, welcome to the greatest-shaped country in the history of all countries of all shapes.
Hugh O’Neill was an editor at Doubleday, Random House, and Rodale. He knows the capitals of all 50 states.