How one community writers group helped its members finish writing and publish their books

United by a love of writing… and a dream of publishing. <October 2013, Paul Smith Library of Southern York County (PA)>

“Dude, who’s the hippie?”

My eyes scanned the room and took in a gentleman with a beard and shoulder-length gray hair wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks. The rest of the room was filled with colleagues assembled for a motivational meeting on the future of public libraries.

“I think that’s our speaker,” I whispered.

It was a hot August 2012 evening, the end of another invigorating yet tiring Summer Reading Club, on what was supposed to have been my day off. We were there to get a vision of our industry’s future. What would our library buildings, our public spaces, and our collection of reading materials look like in five years, a decade, or a quarter-century?

Just like a high school assembly, though, most of us were there because it was required. Yet in a scant forty-five minutes, the course of my next year, my career, and even my whole life would be changed.

Jamie LaRue was a passionate speaker who has since retired from the Douglas County (CO) system he elevated from one of the worst libraries in the state to one of the best libraries in the world. His new purpose is to share those lessons with people who shape libraries around the globe.

He uses hard data to reinforce his message — and for a numbers girl like me, that’s sexy.

Amidst his message that eBook vendors provide libraries inadequate access to both traditionally and indie published titles, he slipped in a plug for local authors.

“When we as librarians are searching for books that interest local patrons, who better to write those books than local authors?”

Typically public libraries specialize in bestsellers. Jamie’s library developed a way to integrate indie-authored eBooks and audios into their collection — which had previously been limited to titles available from traditional publishers.

I wasn’t hooked… until he scanned the room, made eye contact with each of us and asked, “Have YOU ever thought about writing a book?”

Sure, I thought. Plenty of times. I saw the heads of my colleagues and our board of trustees nodding as well.

“According to a study, 81% of Americans dream of writing a book at some point in their lives,” he quoted.

81%? That’s more than can agree on what to have for dinner at my house.

He went on to share how Print On Demand services now make it possible for a writer to hold a professionally printed and bound copy of their book in their hands for less than the cost of a gourmet coffee.

Huh? I’m a typical bargain-hunter and “cheap” and “free” are the siren calls of my species.

I’d heard horror stories of local authors who vanity-pubbed and a decade later still had unopened cartons of books stashed in their basements.

One of my specialties was creating classes for adults — lifelong learning, if you will. But with a twist.

I was never interested in high-brow literary or artistic or historic sessions (though we hosted a few with moderate success). What I loved were classes where people could learn how to cook a fantastic chicken using herbs from their garden, or stage their home for quick real estate sale, or play family card games, scrapbook, knit, or quilt.

I wanted to program classes I would actually be interested in taking.

And if 81% of Americans wanted to write a book before they left the planet, maybe five or six of them would want to join me in learning how to do it.

At heart, I’m a geeky researcher. No amount of tedium can dissuade me from diving into a new idea and mining its every nuance and quirk.

I want to know each last detail about how a thing begins, middles, and ends before I take my first toe-dip. I want to pull every book off the shelf, spread them out in front of me, and wallow in their pages until I’m saturated.

I’ve since discovered that’s not normal.

But it’s at the core of who I am: speculate, accumulate, collate, translate… and pontificate.

I love to learn, I love to do, and I love to teach.

When I arrived at work the next morning, I shared my previous night’s experience and epiphany with my staff. Every element and detail of Jamie’s talk was fresh in my mind. And I communicated it with evangelical fervor.

The front desk staff looked at me like I was unhinged (or should that be unbound?). Either they were deeply riveted by my revelation, or thought I had contracted a terminal brain disease.

“I want to write a book,” I continued. “Do you want to write a book?”

Still blank stares. Clearly they’d opted for door number two.

At my desk, my right foot bounced spasmodically while I waited for the computer to boot. A backwash of nervous energy eradicated any need for caffeine. I wanted to find out more. I wanted dollars and cents. I wanted the inside scoop — with whipped cream and sprinkles.

I was a librarian-on-a-mission and powerful search engines would bend to my will.

After an endless space of time — probably forty-five seconds — I logged in “to see what I could see,” like the proverbial bear we sometimes sang about in story time.

And I found an irresistible honey pot of information. And a Royalty Calculator!

Math had never been so fun. Pushing those buttons gave me a dirty little thrill.

Where was that sweet altruistic librarian who wanted to spread peace and love and a great recipe for Lemon-Basil Chicken?

By lunchtime I had penned a 350-word invitational flyer. An organizational meeting was set for the Saturday after Labor Day, and instructional writing classes would be held bi-weekly.

Anyone finishing the twelve-month cycle with a marketable product (aka book) would be featured in a regional book tour or festival I’d organize.

And what the hell? I said I’d get us a NY Times bestselling author to headline!

My brain searched frenetically for something catchy to call the project, while my stomach growled furiously for its daily jaunt to the Chinese restaurant across the street. Twelve months, writing classes, publishing books. Hungry! Chinese food!

Even an armchair psychologist would have no trouble understanding how “Year of the Book” was derived.

I hit ‘Print’ with the zeal of a newbie author, and the frightened panic of a pubescent girl discovering her mom’s Chippendale calendar.

Did I really think I could write a book? And teach other people how to do it at the same time? What if everyone thought I was crazy?

And worse, what if I found out I was a crappy writer?

At the front desk I passed out copies of my call to arms (or should that be “call to pens?”), and trooped off to lunch. Thankfully, I met a library volunteer in the parking lot who didn’t think I was a lunachick.

“Hey Susan, have you ever thought about writing a book?” I called out.

“Well, sure,” she replied, as if it were a dumb question.

“What would you think about…” and I launched into full-frontal promotional mode.

“Sounds great. There’s a couple ladies in my book club who are writers, too.”

Oh my God, I thought, this might actually work!

After lunch, another area book club was scheduled to meet in our community room. The leader was a retired children’s librarian and its participants occasionally raked authors’ writing technique (or lack thereof) with a pointy pitchfork.

Instead of resistance to “Year of the Book” I found out 92-year-old Mary had already written a children’s book and was on the lookout for a way to see it published. Her daughter was also interested.

Now, just because I had a leadership job in the public eye didn’t make me an extrovert. Meeting and talking with people all day frequently preceded the necessity for a corkscrew. But suddenly I had a burning question and a desire to hear people’s heartfelt answers.

After standing in line for ten minutes to mail a bill, I asked the postman if he’d ever thought about writing a book. His derisive snort took me aback. But as his hands rose to point out the environment in which we stood, I realized his meaning: “If you worked at the post office, wouldn’t you have stories to tell?”

That weekend I accosted the ladies in my card club and instead of being censured, they spoke about the 30-year evolution of the group and its members. By the end of a few hands, they were Mozarts of prose — the book was practically completed in their heads.

One of my reporter friends, Barb, agreed to put together a story to spread the word about our organizational meeting. When I learned it was to be a Sunday feature on the Books page of the local paper, I was shamelessly excited.

We already had more than ten people interested just from the flyers and word of mouth, so I put a sign-up sheet at the front desk for anyone else who might respond to the newspaper article.

When opening day rolled around, my usual in-control public persona was ravaged as fifty-seven wannabe writers looked up to me for direction.

I had painstakingly prepared checklists, volunteer activity sheets, publicity release forms, multi-page handouts, and even name badges with color-coded stickers so participants could easily meet people writing in the same genre or living in the same area. And projected on-screen was my PowerPoint-to-end-all-PowerPoints.

I asked “Guru Jah,” a transient library guest (whose fashion and personal grooming choices far exceeded Jamie LaRue’s penchant for the 1960s) to man a video camera so a recording could be made available to the twenty other folks on our signup sheet who were unable to attend.

I secretly wondered if someday we’d all be interviewed by Ellen or Oprah.

(Okay, maybe I actually spoke that out loud.)

Everyone arrived that day with a dream in their souls and a desire to be told how to accomplish it. In retrospect, though, I realized they were simply looking for Step 1. And later on, they’d be longing for Step 2.

But not that day.

And probably not that week or month.

After I finished a two-hour marathon presentation on how easy it was to write, revise, design, format, and print a book (and have orgasmic interactions with the Royalty Calculator!), I came to the stunning conclusion that my proclivity for deep-dive knowledge — before even embracing the snorkeling mask — was Not Normal.

Folks were still excited. But I had overwhelmed them with detail. I’d drowned them in publishing minutiae, when all they needed was a quick pointer toward the oxygen tank.

I expected them to hop up and form small groups around writing topics, or genres, or even proximity to where they lived. Instead they bleated nervously and waited for the real shepherd to arrive.

Luckily a shepherdess author with fabulous coif and curls (and three published books) rose to the occasion. Laura invited folks to her group who had already finished a complete book draft. They would call themselves the “Nearly Theres” and meet every other Monday.

Thank goodness for Leadership Laura!

Everyone else was ready to receive the calendar of events and add interesting classes to their personal datebooks. Except that I had been waiting to find out when most people would be available before scheduling anything. So instead we arrived at a date for a couple small-group meetings — one in the afternoon, and one on a weeknight…

And then… they wanted to know what was their homework assignment.

Well, duh! my unfiltered perfectionista screamed inside my head. Write something! How obvious can that be?

Subtlety is not one of my fine points. It ranks right up there with my patience in line at the post office.

Exhausted from hours of adrenaline high, I watched with delighted surprise as library volunteers and soon-to-be authors helped stack chairs and put away folding tables while talking animatedly about their writing ideas.

Delegation had never been one of my skill-sets. I routinely refused offers of assistance because, like my mother, I hate to feel indebted. But instinctively these people knew I was going to need lots of help — even when I thought I’d only set out to help them.

In the first of many life lessons, I was about to learn the value of reciprocity… soon to be followed by the life-altering inestimable value of friendship.

What started out as one librarian’s dream has grown into a thriving independent publishing house.

Want to hear the rest of the story? “Follow” me as I share how Year of the Book changed the lives of hundreds of writers from my community, and now five years later, all across the United States.