Bob Katz seems like an author who should have no trouble selling his sophomore novel, Third and Long. His debut, Hot Air (Birch Lane), about a charismatic Latin American leader, was optioned by MGM. In between, Katz wrote two educational books: The New Public School Parent (Penguin), with Bob Chase, which led him to the story of a teacher and fourth grade student with an inoperable tumor, Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, a Student, a Classroom and One Unforgettable Year (Marlowe/Da Capo). Five years later it continues to hover in the top 75 titles on special education on Amazon. But when Third and Long, which like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary grew out of a news story, was turned down, Katz resorted to a hybrid self-publishing model to bring out the story of a former football star hired as a plant manager in a small town, who must save the community.
“I would prefer to have a major mainstream publisher and agent,” says Katz. The project was nixed by several houses and agents, who told him, ‘We like it, but we can’t sell it in large enough numbers.’ Neither publishers nor agents were swayed by his track record or his connections through his work promoting speaking tours for writers like Ellen Goodman, Matthew Crawford, and Nialll Ferguson. So instead of publishing it entirely on his own, Katz, who lives in Boston, turned to college friend, publisher, Minnesota poet, and marketing consultant Doug Wilhide.
Four years ago Wilhide founded Minneapolis-based Trolley Car Press. With $3,000, which he borrowed, he compiled a collection of poetry by people in his neighborhood, from a 78-year-old to a teenager who died in a car crash, Between the Lakes: The Poets of Linden Hills. Wilhide followed that up with a selection of writings by poet Clarence Jonk, who told stories about life on the Mississippi in the 1930s, A Long Shout. Wilhide settled on Katz’s work for his third book, because, he says, “it’s a good read and more than an ordinary novel.”
Together Wilhide and Katz have cobbled a publishing relationship that is part small press and part self-publishing. Wilhide took care of the ISBN, getting the book on all the appropriate databases so that book buyers can purchase it, and the printing. Katz paid for an editor, when Wilhide didn’t feel comfortable copy editing the book himself, as well as a cover designer. Katz also found the cover image of a small town on the Web site of an auto mechanic whose hobby is taking photos of coal towns. And he solicited blurbs like this one from Frank Deford: “an engagingly sweet tale of first impressions, second chances.”
Katz is also collaborating with Wilhide on getting out review copies. To encourage reviews in the Midwest, Katz wrote sports-related op-eds for the Chicago Tribune and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He also placed one in the Christian Science Monitor, and at Wilhide’s urging, is working on lining up signings at Boston-area bookstores.
Katz says that he was heartened when Paul Harding’s Tinker won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this spring. “It’s a further reminder that the universe is a bit larger than Random House,” he says. He doesn’t mind having to assume much of the publishing work and some of the expense in order to have Third and Long come out. As he points out, “the fact that Trolley Car Press is a small unheralded publisher perfectly complements the book’s theme of uphill struggle against the odds.”
Third and Long will be published next month.