I recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Harling, author of Postcards from Across the Pond and More Postcards from Across the Pond, both reviewed in earlier posts. The books recount with humor and sharp observation his adjustment, culturally and socially, to being an American living and working in the UK after marrying a Brit.
I’ve reviewed both books and jumped at the opportunity to interview Harling and ask how he came to write the books and, more importantly, found someone to publish them.
It seems hardly a day goes by without an article in the media about the crisis facing the publishing industry and the revolution in how the public choses to read books. These days there doesn’t seem to be one accepted route to publication and I was interested to learn how the books came to be written and how Harling chose the publishing route he did.
Like many writers having published their first book, you must have been thrilled to see Postcards from Across the Pond ‘out there’. When did you decide to write More Postcards and was there any point you worried you might be a ‘one hit wonder’?
When I received a contract for the original ‘Postcards From Across the Pond,’ I was thrilled, even though it was with what I call a micro-publisher. The manuscript had been making the rounds of agents and publishers—and getting some good feedback—for about 18 months, so when I finally got a ‘Yes’ it was almost surreal.
The book came about because friends and fans kept egging me on. I’d started the website, Postcards From Across the Pond, even before moving to Britain. Back then, in 2001, Blogger was practically unheard of and Twitter and Facebook did not exist, so I posted my musings and adventures in HTML. Even so, I managed to acquire a modest following and almost immediately people started e-mailing me, saying, ‘You should write a book.’ I started it in 2006 and it finally saw the light of day in November 2008.
I always assumed Postcards would be a one-off. The essays covered the first five years or so of my life in the UK and, even though I continued to blog regularly, I didn’t feel I had enough left to say to fill a whole book. I was comfortable with that, however; I never anticipated making a vocation out of being an expat. I concentrated on my fiction writing and enjoyed what notoriety ‘Postcards’ brought my way.
At the beginning of this year, to fill the down-time between submitting my novel to an agent and actually hearing back from the agent, I began casting around for another project and the idea of pulling together another Postcards book seemed a likely prospect. Coincidentally, at the same time, my publisher contacted me asking if I wanted to re-release Postcards with additional and updated material. I was already into the new project far enough where I felt a second book was a real possibility, so we decided to go with More Postcards From Across the Pond rather than re-release the original.
Was writing More Postcards more difficult knowing it was destined for publication, rather than being written with the spontaneity of a blog?
Knowing publication was practically a given didn’t inhibit me in the least; in fact, it inspired me, and the deadline helped keep me from slipping into my usual writing habits, which involve finding increasingly creative ways to waste time. I knew the length, pace and style I was aiming for so, mechanically, it was it wasn’t difficult, but content was an issue. I felt Postcards had set the bar fairly high and I was concerned about maintaining the quality, but as More Postcards progressed, those fears diminished. By the time I completed the manuscript, I was confident that it was every bit as good as, or better than, the original.
Were you tempted to go back to a literary agent/mainstream publisher once you’d got one book published and were more of a ‘name’?
Oddly, having a ‘name’ and a quality manuscript was what kept me from going to another literary agent, publisher or back to my own publisher.
You chose to go with a different publisher for the second book, was there a reason for that?
The publishing world is currently undergoing a dramatic shift and many things have changed in the two and a half years since Postcards came out. Improvements in POD technologies and the astonishing rise of the ebook has made self-publishing, for the first time in history, a viable option as opposed to something you have to mortgage your house to achieve. This has kept a lot of people’s garages and spare rooms free from boxes of unused books but, on the down side, it has flooded the cyber-library with legions of really, really, really bad books. (No, even worse than that.)
At the same time, cutbacks in traditional publishing houses have resulted in lower quality books, low or non-existent advances and the shifting of marketing responsibilities to authors.
As these two forces converge, it provides a unique opportunity for authors—those with a good manuscript and who possess halfway decent marketing skills—to produce and publish their own books at a very low cost and higher profit margin. Or so they say.
This all sounded a bit too “California Gold Rush” for me and the stigma of “Self Published” was not something I wanted to saddle More Postcards with, but eventually I decided it would be worth a try. However, the only reason I chose this option—and I cannot stress this enough—is that I knew I had a publishable manuscript and a template for a professional looking cover. The last thing I wanted to do was toss another substandard book into the ever-widening cesspit of self-publication.
So I spent a lot of time working on the manuscript, trying to get it right and having people proofread and review it. Then I wrestled with Photoshop for a week or so until I got tired of banging my head against the wall (this is where traditional publishers have the advantage: they employ artists and creative designers). The eventual result (in addition to the dent in my wall) was a cover I felt was both professional looking and in keeping with the Postcards brand. And I put my old website’s name on it because I liked the sound of Lindenwald Publishing better than ‘I printed this myself.’
More Postcards is currently only available on Kindle in the UK but in paperback in the US . Was this a conscious decision and are there plans for a paperback edition in the UK ?
The book has, literally, just come out. I released it as an ebook on Amazon and Amazon UK in early May and published the paperback about a week later. The wheels of Amazon move slowly, however, and as of this writing, More Postcards is only available on the US Amazon site, though I expect it to be on Amazon UK, and others, soon.
The ‘self-publishing revolution as gold rush’ pundits tend to eschew paperbacks, leaning more toward the Kindle crowd, but I am still a big fan of physical books, so I did not begin publicizing More Postcards until the paperback was available. It wouldn’t bother me to sell a lot of ebooks, but I really like the idea of people holding my book in their hands or having it lying on their coffee table, even if they are only using it for a coaster.
Where do you see your writing going from here assuming you have time to think about it right now?
Now that the writing and publication stages of this project have been successfully completed, I’m gearing up for the marketing phase. It’s not something I love, or claim to be good at, but it is necessary if you want to be an author these days, even if you go with a traditional publisher. But even as I’m oiling up the marketing machine and slipping it into gear, I am already working on other writing projects.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you have to write; has that changed since the publication of your books, do you feel more driven to write or less so?
Having two physical books that I can look at and feel proud of seems to have taken the edge off of my writing desperation. My goal was to have a book published and I have achieved it. For me, that was liberating; now I can write without having to worry about that goal. Instead, I have another goal—get a novel published—but having attained one goal, I am more confident of the next one, and better equipped to achieve it.
Any plans for a Postcards trilogy? Are you tempted to try other directions in your writing?
I am already working on the third—and hopefully final—Postcards book. This one won’t be a collection of essays about my life here but will, instead, be a narrative of my two-week trip to Ireland in 2001 where I met my wife and started my expat journey. I like the idea of a Postcards Trilogy and I think that book will tie up the series nicely. After that, I plan to concentrate on my fiction writing.
On a personal level you’re obviously very settled in the UK , have taken citizenship and are no longer the accidental expat of the early days. How would you describe yourself now?
As a member of the expat community, I have met (in a virtual sense) a lot of people for whom intercontinental travel is part of their makeup—they were born with a sense of wanderlust, and finding themselves in another part of the world was a dream fulfilled, not a bewildering surprise. The idea of me living in another country was not a vision I grew up with, which is why I call myself ‘the accidental expat.’ Because of this, my early days in Britain were characterized by an astounding sense of wonder. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this and I found everything fresh and new and exciting.
These days, I’m a bit calmer. You can’t sustain that level of excitement for very long, and after a while your everyday life becomes, well, your everyday life. I actually find it surprising when people who meet me for the first time ask if I am an American. I feel comfortable enough here now to consider this my home, and when they ask me where I’m from I tell them, “Horsham.”
Still, hardly a week goes by where I don’t find some reason to reflect on my new life and feel grateful for the turn of events that brought me here.
Has moving to the UK changed how you feel about your identity as an American? Would there ever be a time you would consider moving back to the USA, especially now you have reached the ultimate in life and become a Grandfather?
Like many Americas, I lived a very insular life until I moved abroad. Living in Britain and on the doorstep of continental Europe has really broadened my outlook on the world in a way that could never have happened if I had stayed in New York. All the traveling I’ve done, the people I’ve met the places I’ve seen have helped me redefine America’s role in the world. I have no less respect or love for my country, or less pride in being an American, but—having had the chance to look at the US from the outside—I think I have a more realistic view of what we’re all about.
At this point in my life, I can’t envision moving back to the US, but then I couldn’t envision moving out of it, either, so I never say never these days. Being a grandfather has changed my relationship with ‘home’ in that I expect to be going back more often. When I left the States, my children were grown and independent, and keeping in touch by email and the occasional visit was enough, but now that I’m entering Grandpa Territory, the need to be physically there is greater.
The dirty secret of the expat life is that it can be a lonely and isolating experience. Take away the novelty, the exotic flavor, the new experiences and you may find you are simply a person without friends and family. That’s a sobering thought.
What personal goals are still out there that you would like to achieve?
What I would like to do is make a living writing. That’s not an easy thing to do but it is my goal: to make money by writing books, not a lot, just enough to keep me in cigars and single malt, and pay for a yearly excursion to the States.
My hope for the future is that when my grandchildren (there will be more, oh yes) get old enough they can come for extended visits and my wife and I can show them around and open their minds to a wider world. If I can plant the seeds of wanderlust in a few of my descendants, I will feel I have done my job.
Postcards from Across The Pond: Dispatches From An Accidental Expat Michael HarlingPaperback:188 pages Publisher:Lean Marketing Press (26 Nov 2008) LanguageEnglish ISBN-10:1905430485 ISBN-13:978-1905430482
More Postcards From Across the Pond – Dispatches from An Accidental Expat, Michael Harling