10 Months, 2 Bottles of Scotch, and $42,000 Later: How I Petitioned the Supreme Court & Wrote My Memoir.
You read the headline and I know what you’re thinking: That’s not enough Scotch.
A year ago this month, I found myself entertaining an idea that had crept up on me about once a year since I’d been released from prison (for the unacquainted, check out this Reason article by Radley Balko or this essay I wrote for VICE). The idea wasn’t my own. People would hear my story and tell me, “You should write a book.”
After hearing that over and over, I decided I would.
But I had no idea where to start, or if anyone would even be interested in hearing what I had to say. I thought, perhaps, my words could be a tribute to the love I have for my son, Logan. That, even though I have been barred from seeing him because I owned guns, he could have a window into the truth behind major events that shaped his childhood and altered his relationship with his father for the years to come.
With that in mind, I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to see if I could crowdfund $20,000 for the book. As an amateur econ-nerd and entrepreneur, I figured this would serve as a pretty good market test to determine if there was any demand out there for me to sit down and put pen to paper. Unfortunately, Kickstarter banned my project because it wasn’t “creative” enough.
Fortunately, Indiegogo is a pretty awesome substitute. Within thirty days I had more than doubled my goal by raising $40,544. Suddenly, I was faced with the daunting task of actually writing a book.
The most I had written since college were campaign proposals for clients and strategy briefs. Never anything more than a couple thousand words with lots of bold text and the occasional full-page spread of an exotic white sand beach; the silhouette of a single palm tree framing a carefree middle-class couple. A Non-Fiction book has roughly thirty-times more words and none of the sexy pictures.
Crowdfunding the book turned out to be a bit of a blessing. I had customers, and those customers expected a book to be delivered to them within a year. That constant pressure to deliver what I promised kept me working what felt like twenty-four hours a day for the next ten months, living the frustrating life of a writer who has never written anything and who only has this one chance to write his legacy.
I was able to use a big chunk of the money I raised to cover the cost of writing my book and to petition the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to hear my case. When the Appellate Divisions overturned all of my convictions but one they created case law that potentially turned thousands of law-abiding gun owners in New Jersey into felons overnight for moving from one house to another with their lawfully purchased hollow-point ammunition. Ultimately, my plea fell on deaf ears and my petition to SCOTUS was denied certiorari.
I made a few mistakes in the beginning. The biggest mistake was thinking I could hire a ghost writer to write the book for me. I hired someone, an experienced writer who had written over two-dozen books, and proceeded to send over dozens of pages of notes and massive Dropbox folders filled with transcripts, video clips from FOX News, and links to articles about my journey from bootstrapped media entrepreneur to convicted felon.
A little over two months passed and I received the first few chapters of my memoir.
It was horrifying.
What I had wanted to be an honest and raw exploration of what I had gone through as an individual, father, son, and boyfriend had instead been written like a Young Adult work of fiction. My strong and beautiful girlfriend was portrayed as whiney, desperate, and weak. I knew immediately I had to fire the ghostwriter and find another way to move forward. I had a book to deliver, and I had wasted two months.
Enter Tom McCarthy.
I found Tom the same place I had found my ghostwriter: on Elance. Tom seemed different, like he understood what my vision was for the memoir from the very first phone call. He appreciated that this book was as much for my son, Logan—who I’ve been estranged from for over five years—as it was for anyone else.
We kicked off the project in person at a library in one of Connecticut’s picturesque all-American coastal towns and continued going back and forth via email supplemented with the occasional late night phone call. After we outlined what the chapters would look like he would ask me twenty or thirty questions for each chapter. I would respond with anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 word answers for each chapter.
The first draft was terrible, but it was lightyears beyond where the ghostwriter had been headed.
Tom’s work was done. Of the hundred-thousand words we had written together, I had about sixty-thousand words I could work with. Within a week, and without a polished manuscript, I had an agent.
I had two offers fairly quickly, including one from Skyhorse, but neither publishing house—as I would come to learn is an industry standard—would guarantee that the book would ever actually see the light of day. They were buying the rights to my book, but I had no say over the final draft of the manuscript, the title of the book, or the book cover design. They refused to promise that they’d ever print a single copy.
But, 1,200 people had already paid for copies.
I don’t have much besides my name, a name plenty of people tried rather hard to tarnish on their own so I could fit neatly into the bipartisan box of people they loathe. But my story doesn’t fit neatly into a box. And, I knew I couldn’t risk not being able to make good on my promise to the people who had invested in me. I turned down the offers and decided to self-publish, instead. I figured, I’m a pretty good marketing guy with a background in publishing: How hard could it be?
Over the next few months I rewrote every single sentence Tom and I had crafted together. Entire sections were thrown out. More stories were added as others were axed. My final manuscript bears little, if any, resemblance to what Tom and I had developed but I know that no book would exist if it weren’t for his expert coaching. And, throughout the process, that’s exactly what I called him. My writing coach.
I then brought on Nils Parker, who has edited six New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers, to give the manuscript an editorial polish. He also edited Ryan Holliday’s Trust Me I’m Lying and Tim Ferris’s 4 Hour Work Week. I was in good hands.
Some of the best editing work, however, was done by giving out advanced copies of the manuscript to friends and people whose opinions I respected. My wife’s father is a court reporter by trade who reads about two books a week since I first met him. He caught some of the most glaring edits I overlooked, like when I called Clark Neily a “pubic” interest lawyer on page 153. If that’s not a good enough reason to hire an editor, I don’t know what is.
The other challenge I had as an indie-publisher was designing the book cover. I thought I might be able to flex some of my personal design skills, but quickly discovered designing a dust jacket requires a special kind of artist. I researched the New York Times and Huffington Post’s lists of the Best Book Cover Designs and found my eye drawn to two designers work I liked the most: Jamie Keenan and Keith Hayes.
Jamie Keenan’s dust jacket for T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is simply gorgeous but, ultimately, Keith Hayes just had a better grasp on what I was looking for.
I’m a bit of a bibliophile. I love the smell of old books and what dustjackets used to look like. Books used to be such a craft and now, with the advent of Kindles and Nooks, something is simply lacking. I wanted my book to be a work of art that reminded me of the books I loved, and Keith was able to actualize the ideas I had in my head.
To help with the process I sent over a half dozen images of dustjackets I found online that really resonated with me. Some of the more obscure Hemingway titles and several of the mountaineering books from the 1950's had gorgeous artwork. Most of the other designers I reached out to wanted to put a picture of a prison or a gun on the front cover. But I thought that really only told a small part of my story. My book is not “another prison book”. There’s far more to it than that. For those of you who have read The Blue Tent Sky, you probably know what I’m talking about.
Keith is a full-time cover designer at Little, Brown and Company—an imprint of Hachette—whose work is almost constantly being praised within the industry. I consider it a huge favor that he agreed to create the dust jacket for my book and to give me the rate he ultimately agreed to. Full Disclosure: Every person involved in the process of making this book went underpaid considering their expertise and skill. I owe them all a huge debt.
“I found any image to be way too limiting,” Hayes told me of his design in a Facebook message. “I wanted to create a BIG book look for you. Something that would appeal to everyone. I think your sub-title sums it up perfectly. Usually, when I am working on a non-fiction title with a sub, I try to make it small to hide it. In this case I wanted it to be AS important as the title. Your story is so personal, thus the hand scrawled lettering. I was thinking of you writing while incarcerated. In my opinion it hits an emotional note. I think it feels big and looks like something that would be at the front of any bookstore.”
I’m really proud of the book. There are a few grammatical errors I’d like to fix in the second printing but I had to rush through the finish line and go to print with what I had, when I had it. As important as this book was, I had something more important arise that required my full-time attention as a husband and best-friend. For those of you who have read the last chapter of the book you know why it was time for me to move on.
Considering all of the horror stories I read online about people not fulfilling their crowdfunding projects, this feels like a big victory. Few things are as cool as actualizing a dream. As a creative, one of my favorite things to do is have an idea, write it down on the proverbial cocktail napkin, and watch it come to life.
The final book comes in four different versions: the eBook, the trade hardback edition (the one you get if you order from Barnes & Noble or any of the other 39,000 retailers my book is available through via Ingram), and two different first editions you can get from Beard Face Books (my imprint).
Of the two available from Beard Face Books, one is a limited edition of 100 copies and the other is the official first printing limited to 900 copies. Both feature two-color foil embossed spines and covers, Smyth-sewn binding, and a rich 55# paper—which makes for a thicker book than the trade edition. The limited edition features a red cloth wrapped cover and each copy is individually signed and numbered by me for those who went above and beyond in their financial support for this campaign. The first-printing is identical in all ways, except with a black-paper wrapped cover.
The book managed to debut as an Amazon #1 Best Seller for Constitutional Law and Penology (the study of the punishment of crime and of prison management) eBooks which was pretty amazing, considering none of the 1,200 pre-orders or any of the in-person sales counted towards the rating.
Seeing my book alongside Orange is the New Black, John Grisham’s new novel, Glenn Greenwald’s book about Edward Snowden, and Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop was more than I could have possibly asked for when I sat down to write my story. Made only more impressive by the fact that I had no help from a commercial publisher, and managed the project personally from start to finish.
It took me a year, but I managed to live up to all of my campaign promises with the exception of one: getting custody back of my son. After the crowdfunding campaign went live and my intention of seeing my son again began making headlines, my former-wife took my son and moved to an undisclosed address in California. I only found out through a friend of a friend. I’m hopeful that the sale of the book will help fund the legal battle I have ahead of me and I know, at the very least, that I have taken a year to write the truth about major events that impacted my son’s relationship with his father.
One day, hopefully many years from now after he’s long forgotten what it’s like to live without his father, he’ll be able to pick up a copy of The Blue Tent Sky and know he was always with me.