By Jenny Neyman
As easy, get-rich-quick schemes go, the only part of that description that is guaranteed true for recreational mining, even with the recent rise in gold prices, is scheme.
“My mining partner and I have a standing joke, ‘Someday we were going to find enough gold to buy a magnifying glass so we could see the gold we’re mining,’” said Alan Poynor, of Kenai, who’s been mining since recovering his first few flecks in the Hope area in the 1980s. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about anything in my life. You get the bug, then you’re buying a sluice, then a suction dredge, then you’re staking a claim, then your wife is leaving you or your back goes out. It’s kind of addictive.”
About the only thing as time-consuming and with less assurance of breaking even, much less making money, is an outgrowth of Poynor’s other addiction — writing. And that is self-publishing. Fittingly, then, the Kenai author, with two books of humor to his name, this month has released his first novel, a mystery based in Nikiski in which mining drives the plot.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” as Poynor describes it.
Or else he’s a hedonist for his endeavors (if there is a difference), as the only thing he enjoys more than his efforts to strike pay dirt — even if striking out when doing so — is mining his experiences, imagination and sense of humor for good stories.
“To me, writing is more about having fun than anything else. I know I’m not going to get rich doing this. That’s not going to happen. I have no unrealistic expectations, but I sure have a damn good time doing it,” he said.
“Somewhere West of Roads,” Poynor’s first novel, is currently available at River City Books in Soldotna and on Amazon, in both print form and as an ebook. His two previous books, “Of Moose and Men” and “Of Moose and Men II: Home is Where the Harm Is,” were released in 1998 and 2002. Along the way he’s learned enough about publishing to fill a whole other book, though he’s got too many other ideas to set to paper first. But he is happy to serve as a resource for anyone looking to do the same, if they’re so stubborn as to not heed his warning:
“If nothing else my story ought to serve as a cautionary note to anyone who wants to self-publish,” he said.
Not that he follows his own (tongue-in-cheek) caution. His writing habit took unshakable hold long before any dawning sense of financial return on time and effort invested. Luckily, he’s always counted enjoyment as a plenty rich-enough payment.
“I’ve been writing as long as I can remember,” he said.
The irreverent explanation: “I write because I lied so much as a kid I had to have a way to keep it straight.”
The more genuine: “I always loved to read, and I come from a long line of storytellers. My grandfathers could tell stories that would have you rolling on the floor they were so funny.”
Poynor would write anything and everything — fiction, essay, suspense, poetry, reports for any groups with which he was partnered in class as a school kid. By the time he was in seventh grade he’d fallen for humor, reading and trying to emulate anything with a punch line.
Writing has been a consistent pursuit throughout his life — from joining the Army and moving from Illinois to New Mexico, getting stationed at Fort Richardson in 1976, he and his family (including wife, Georgia, who, to clarify, has not left him over his mining, or any other interest) moving back to Alaska in 1984, their first six months in Anchorage — four weeks of which was a dizzying attempt to secure employment, including a vending machine supplier, public health inspector, 7-11 clerk and chemist — to moving to Kenai for a job with Dowell Schlumberger, to beginning his career with Tesoro in 1985, to his retirement in 2010, and especially since then.
In the late 1980s he began a two-year process of attempting to go from writer to author, first taking the route of attempting to sell his idea of an Alaska humor book to a publisher.
“People that manage to get published have phenomenal perseverance. The biggest-selling book of ’70s, ‘Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ was rejected 129 times before a publisher picked it up. I didn’t know there were that many publishers in the country,” he said.
It was a slow, laborious process.
“Agents at that time didn’t want you to submit to more than one at a time, and publishers wanted only one option, so you only submitted to one of them at a time. Back then there were rules you had to follow,” he said.
Epicenter Press, in Seattle, expressed an interest but finally decided it was too similar to another Alaska humor book they’d already committed to — “Fashion Means Your Fur Hat is Dead,” by Mike Doogan.
Other publishers had commented that the scope of Poynor’s writing was too Alaska-focused and wouldn’t be as applicable Outside. So he figured he’d look for readers where he found his inspiration — at home on the Kenai where he set his mostly fictionalized tales of ice fishing, beer drinking, snow pushing, wife appeasing, kid raising and other such adventures and mishaps.
“For some odd reason people really enjoyed the heck out of B.B. (Blizzard Bob, a frequently occurring character). Everybody wanted to know who it was. Well, 90 percent of the time it was me and the stupid things I’d done,” he said.
Poynor sent four samples of his writing off to the Peninsula Clarion in 1991, and subsequently was offered a weekly column in the paper. He wrote “Of Moose and Men” for 16 years.
“The editor said she’s got a home for all four of them. We started talking price and I said, ‘You mean you’re going to pay me for them?’ I thought I’d get a free subscription for a month or something,” Poynor said. “Yeah, I know, I’m real good at marketing.”
With more and more material stacking up, Poynor decided to give publishing another try, but this time he went his own way. Or, rather, following the bible of Dan Poynter’s “Self-Publishing Manual.” He sought price quotes from printers across the country, educated himself about printing specs — weight of paper, cover colors, lamination, etc. — figured out how to format a manuscript for press, yet still was gobsmacked by a few realizations along the way. For instance, the voluminous reality of all your books once they’re printed.
“Then comes a little problem of, ‘How are we going to get 3,700 books to Alaska?’ On 4-by-4 pallets. I borrowed a friend’s 3/4-ton truck to pick them up and they just about popped his springs. It was 2,700 pounds. It was over a ton of books,” Poynor said.
Sixty-seven boxes, 52 books to a box.
“That’s the big disadvantage of publishing going through a printer, what do you do with all these books? Well, put it this way I’m glad the kids weren’t living in the house anymore,” he said.
Next was the problem of getting the books off his hands and into the hands of readers. The do-it-yourself approach just isn’t efficiently feasible in Alaska, he said, at least not on a statewide basis. So he tried the two main distribution companies in the state, one that supplies small retailers, and one that covers big corporate stores. Distributors have an author by the tail, splitting the sales price 45/55 percent with the author, able to offer discounts at will to retailers, requiring an author buy back any unsold stock they’d like to recover, and so on. But without them, it’s nearly impossible to distribute your book in Fairbanks and Juneau when you’re in Kenai, or vice versa, Poynor said. Even with a distributor, he discovered he still needed to do the lion’s share of promotion for his books himself.
“Marketing and distribution are probably the No. 1 problem indie authors run into. Writing is only 10 percent of the self-published book. Ninety percent is marketing. The whole business aspect of it, it’s interesting, but it’s like, ‘Really? I didn’t know that,’” Poynor said.
Case in point, his lack of enthusiasm over the medium of ebooks in their early days.
“Amazon contacted me about a really neat new concept called Kindle. ‘Your book could be out in millions of hands in nothing flat,’” he said. “Well, hell, I’d never heard of Kindle, so I said, ‘Well, that will never fly. Who’s gonna read a book on a screen?’”
This go-around, Poynor has matured along with the many new opportunities in the independent-publishing industry. For his new novel, Poynor chose a print-on-demand service (he went through CreateSpace, but there are other companies offering similar services), where he orders batches of however many hard copies he’d like at a time, rather than an entire, one-time printing at once. He also waded further into the ebook ocean, offering his book through Amazon Prime. He had to format the text in html computer code — there are computer programs and business services that will do this, but Poynor found it best to double-check and tweak the resulting formatting himself so as to avoid any errors.
Another lesson learned: Though ebooks are free to publish through many vendors, they often also sell for far less than hard copies — 99 cents for Poynor’s first book, of which he gets a third, or $3.99 for the next two, of which he gets 70 percent. It’s an attractive option for self-publishers, eliminating the cost and hassle of printing hard copies. But that can lure writers who are, perhaps, a bit cheap in their revision and editing standards, as well.
“There are just so many of them. There are some real gems of books out there, and I stumbled across a lot of them, but then, too, there’s a lot of people out there that said, ‘I wrote a book,’ but forgot the three most important things about writing, which is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite,” Poynor said. “One of the reasons why self-publishing in general has gotten a bad reputation is because a lot of folks don’t want to dedicate the time it takes to make sure it’s clean.”
For his novel, not only did he and his wife pour over the draft multiple times, he recruited five other well-qualified proofreaders.
“After my five readers, I went through it three times and found 37 typos. I turned it over to my wife and she found 10 more. There were seven people scouring this thing for mistakes, and I’m sure we still didn’t find all of them,” he said.
No matter how riveting the plot, engaging the writing and diligent the editors, ebooks still don’t sell by virtue of quality alone. It takes word of mouth, or word of keyboard.
“If there’s an opportunity to leave a review, that’s what makes or breaks a self-published author,” he said. “I’m really hoping that people will give it a try, and if they liked it they’ll talk about it, and even if they didn’t like it that much hopefully they’ll still talk about it.”
Another valuable tool in the self-publishing shed is social media, with which to connect with readers, engage a following, spur interest and promote releases, book-signings and other events.
“Twitter. I never thought it’d be on Twitter. Actually, it’s turned out to be kind of fun,” he said. “There are options for self-published authors to get the word out about what they’re doing that aren’t going to cost an arm and a leg, but it is going to cost you time.”
That’s no small investment, given Poynor has been grinding through the publishing process for more than 20 years now.
Then again, to him, the root writing addiction is still as good as gold.
“I’m undoubtedly going to keep on writing and putting books out until they pass a law against it,” he said. “But as I always say, I will never be accused of writing literature. It’s just having fun — that’s what it’s all about.”
- Poyner will do a book signing from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Triumvirate Theatre Bookstore in the Peninsula Center Mall in Soldotna, splitting the proceeds of his book sales with the theater organization.
- He also will have a book signing at the Kenai Community Library in December, and will give a presentation to the Kenai Writer’s Group about the self-publishing process at 5 p.m. Nov. 21 in the conference room at the Kenai Community Library. The meeting is open to the public.