Constance Hale is a San Francisco–based journalist probably best known for her books on language and literary style, including the best-selling Sin and Syntax, and her New York Times columns on the subject. But she’s also been writing about Hawaiian culture for more than twenty-five years, with award-winning features on hula, slack-key guitar, the sovereignty movement, the Hawaiian language, Big Island cowboys, and Spam musubi in the Atlantic, National Geographic Adventure, and Smithsonian, to name a few. She’s now trying a different publishing approach with two new books: The Natives Are Restless, on the hula and the work of Patrick Makuakane, and a children’s book titled Iwalani’s Tree. I loved reading about old publishing and new in this engaging and funny post. – Meg
Shedding old ideas about books
On or about June 1, 2015, my second book went over that magic threshold: 100,000 copies sold. I was elated. I’d written Sin and Syntax in 1998 and refused to give up on it. I hand-sold the books in classes, on airplanes, and even at street fairs. I watched as it slowly—very slowly—took hold. After much cajoling, my publisher agreed to let me do a revised edition, which came out in 2013. That gave the title a nice push and the book finally earned out.
(Yes, I’d been paid a nice advance in those heady years of the late 1990s.)
The elation was soon dampened, though, when I realized that my “residual income” of $1.13 per paperback did not put me on a path either to financial stability or creative freedom.
My mood got darker when I realized that my third book, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, would probably never earn out. My first book, Wired Style, wasn’t even in print anymore.
At least I could feel proud of what I’d done, I consoled myself. I could imagine all the writers out there who would be encouraged to express themselves in a more spirited way, and all those students who might shake off the “rules” of well-intentioned but misdirected grammar teachers.
Then my mood sank again. I’d built a brand as a language maven. Magazine editors kept calling for essays on words. Publishers wanted more language books. (They were, after all, making money on mine.) My plan to use these books as a springboard to do my ideal work was foundering.
I spent a few days in a funk, then considered the possibility of going to grad school (at 60?), becoming a realtor (really?), or getting a job in a good wine shop (since when did I need inducement to quaff more?).
I do love writing and editing, I decided, and I’m reasonably good at both. So maybe I should start saying No to all that work that doesn’t pay, focus on a few lucrative editing projects, and write only about things I’m passionate about—money and fame be damned.
The first subject on the list was Hawai‘i—the place I was born, the location of my favorite recurring dreams, the well that never runs dry. (I have written countless articles about Hawaiian culture and history, just no books.) And what about that children’s book I’d written years ago, had an agent shop around the country, and shelved when all it got were sweet rejections?
I never saw myself as a DIY type. I’m proud that I have books with Norton and different divisions of Random House. I’ve never wanted to be a page designer, or a project manager, or a marketer, or a publicist.
Yet I’d been reading articles about “hybrid authors”—writers who creatively dip their toes into the “trad” world of the big houses, the independence of self-publishing, and the scrappy reality of indie presses. Hybrid authors, it turns out, make more money than authors who turn exclusively to traditional publishing or self-publishing. Maybe it was time to dip one of my toes in.
Then my own dance teacher—a phenom in the hula world and a fixture on the ethnic-dance scene—asked me if I wanted to write a book. I thought of using his story and his choreography to upend clichéd notions of hula and to write about activism rocking the islands today. His arts organization would pay me only a modest advance, but more than I’d get from an academic or small press. We would collaborate, since he owned hundreds of photos. We could design the book exactly as we wanted (large trim size, four-color photography, Wired-like graphics). The arts organization would cover costs and we’d split the profits. We did the math and realized we’d be in the black if we sold only 2,500 copies.
We hired a book consultant. We partnered with a new indie outfit, which gave us distribution through Ingram. We reached out to publicists.
In the meantime, I’d sent my children’s book manuscript to the editor of a tiny press in Honolulu. She worried that its poetic style would make it a hard sell in Costco and Target, the main venues for book in Hawai‘i. But she was willing to give it a go, if I was willing to buy 500 books. That would cost me $2,900, but I could buy them in batches, replenishing my stock after selling out. I asked if a certain artist in her stable could illustrate the book. She said Yes.
And here I am, fifteen months after my 2015 meltdown. Within a week, I will hold my two newest books in my hands. The publicity for both starts with this post. A couple of big radio interviews are scheduled. We’ve pre-sold 1,000 copies of the hula book.
But that’s not what’s most important for me. I’m most proud of writing each in a voice that is true to me (there was no editor standing over my shoulder). I adore the high-touch visuals, possible because I had creative control. I can ogle gorgeous pastel drawings of my favorite beach in ‘Iwalani’s Tree, and the stunning photography that will change your idea of hula in The Natives Are Restless.
I don’t feel pidgin-holed any more as a language maven. I’m now a poet and a storyteller as well as a journalist. I’ve shed an old creative skin and watched a new one emerge. I’ve even shed a couple of pounds in the process, maybe because I can’t afford to drink much good wine or eat such rich food. I am happy for that, too. – Constance