A Small Press, Some Big Dreams, and a Dash of Courage


This is really a story of two stories. I’ll start with the first:

A while back, my father and I sat down so he could hand over to me (and Sam Eckenrode) the small press he established years ago, Cimarron Books. This had been his baby for what felt like eons to me, and he had tended to it for countless hours over weeks and months and much, much longer, ensuring he did everything right to make it succeed. Eventually, he gave me a bunch of manila folders and papers and a thumb drive with all the most important computer docs: the ISBNs, various colored and black-and-white logos, registrations and files and records, and it was a big kind of gift, the kind that feels both delicate and heavy in your hands, the kind you know you must handle carefully.

I knew I had a lot to learn. I wanted the first book I published as editor of Cimarron Books to be my own book, so I could learn how to be an editor and learn what it takes without possibly botching someone else’s manuscript and dream. I can see now that I had no idea how challenging it would be.

But what book of mine? I had no idea. I figured the answer would become clear in time.

The second story:

Last spring, I wrote the first draft of a very short manuscript that defied any category I knew. I called it: 36 Things You Don’t Know When You Are Sixteen. It was one of those rare pieces of writing that feels like it falls onto the page, as if it didn’t really come from me but more through me, as if I had no choice but to write it.

I worked on it over weeks and months, still unable to say exactly what genre it was. What if this became the book I published?, I wondered, but because it didn’t fit neatly somewhere, I didn’t know whether to really do it.

Still, I worked on it. I took out some things from the 36-item list; I added others; I rearranged the order, trying to determine what made most sense, what order would convey an arc of sorts. In other words, over months, I did the more tedious and meticulous work (that I happen to love) of making my little manuscript all hold together. I changed the title over and over until it finally felt right as 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17

And then I played the what if game. What if I chose to publish this book? What would people think? What if they didn’t like my mini-book, or didn’t understand it? Fear made me pause. 

But since I was playing the what if game, I fooled around with online design tools and tried to make a decent cover for the book, just in case. I also tried—quite unsuccessfully, I might add—to do the formatting. I had not anticipated how hard any of it would be—both technically and design-wise—to lay out a book. It seemed that with every page and every nut and bolt I needed to use to get a book built, there was a new set of decisions I had to make, and I didn’t have most of the answers. Still, I wasn’t committed, so what did it matter?

Then, one day, not so long ago, the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle came in the mail, and in it was an article by the writer George Saunders. He talked about deciding, after many years of trying to emulate other writers’ voices (he called this “plodding up Hemingway Mountain” and later “Carver Mountain, Chekhov Mountain, Babel Mountain”) before finally giving up and writing his own way, a way which didn’t seem like anyone else’s. He wrote, “I looked over and there was this little. . . . shit hill. . . . And I thought: ‘Well, o.k.—it’s a shit hill, but at least it’s my shit hill.’” His words made me think about how what I wrote didn’t look like what I typically saw out there, but it was what I had wanted to write—felt moved to write—exactly as it was. It was my own voice, and it was own little manuscript, and on that day, I decided I wasn’t going to let fear hold me back.

And so on that day, I decided to commit to publishing 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 under Cimarron Books. With that commitment came the easy decision that if I was going to really do this, I needed to, as they say in the South, “hire it done,” meaning I had better hire a fabulous designer. I did just that: Peter Barnfather took my idea and my pitiful little book-cover rendering and transformed it into something else, something I love. He did the layout and all the formatting, and I trusted his expertise to figure out all those design decisions that had stumped me. I’ve faced other bumps on the road to birthing this little book, ones I won’t go into here, but I wanted to learn about the publishing industry, and I definitely am—the hard way but also a great way. 

52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, the first Cimarron Books under my editorship, comes out today in paperback and on Kindle and other ebook formats.

My official book launch event is The Book Cougars podcast (!!!), which you can listen to here.

If you read The Going and Goodbye, this book is not that kind of book. This book is what I am calling a little gift book meant to inspire at any age. Here’s the book’s description:

If you’ve ever wanted to go back in time and talk to your younger self—to give advice, to say what you wish you had known then that you know now, to promise that even when it gets bad, it will get better—then this book is for you. If you are still young enough that most of life’s lessons stretch ahead in front of you, then save yourself a heap of trouble and read what’s on these pages. 

I wanted to be proud of the first book I published for Cimarron Books. I wanted my father to be proud. 

I am. Let’s hope he is.

To learn more about 52 Things, click here

Book launch event: The Book Cougars podcast

The George Saunders’ excerpt is from The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2018, page 42.