Sunday, March 6, 2011

This writer's life. Riding Man, redux

Ironically, my book Riding Man sold out of its first printing almost on the day that Cycle World released its April issue, in which Peter Egan devoted a column to what amounted to a book (and DVD) review -- and a very favorable one, at that.

I've known this review was coming for the last month or so, and I've been watching my remaining stocks of the first edition dwindle, so running out of books didn't come as a surprise. If I could afford it, I'd reprint it. The alternative is to set up a Kindle downloadable edition, and to arrange for a Print-on-Demand second edition, which is something I could do with minimal set-up costs. But there are a few technical hurdles to both of those procedures, and it will take a few more days' work to get a clean copy of the book's text. Argh.
I have never met Peter Egan, though we've since traded emails. He got a copy of the book from a mutual friend of ours, Ken Gross. Ken's one of the most respected automotive writers in the U.S., and I suppose that since Riding Man came with his endorsement, Egan was inclined to view it favorably. Still I wasn't prepared to be compared to Bob Dylan and Winston Churchill. I mean, I think I'm a better motorcycle rider than Dylan, and as far I know, Winston Churchill couldn't ride for $#!+.

The whole anxiety over a wave of positive press coming when I have no way to capitalize on it is just one of many ups and downs along the Riding Man road. I had planned to write a book about my Isle of Man experience from the very beginning, and actually pitched the idea to publishers a couple of years before I raced there.
One of the publishers I approached told me that he didn't feel it was right for his imprint, but he arranged an introduction with a pretty solid literary agent, who agreed to take on the project. That was in early spring of 2000. The agent gave me statistics about what percentage of his projects ended up getting sold to major publishers, and what his average author earned in royalties. I did the math and realized that while there was obviously a chance (about 30%, according to the agent) that I'd get nothing, I could expect a pretty decent return. (Again, according to the agent, the probability of a sale X the average return = high five to low six figures.) I happily signed a contract and went off to write Riding Man, funding the project by selling everything I owned and spending my life's savings.

Over the next couple of years, Riding Man was rejected by every major publisher in New York. "Don't worry," the agent said, "Once they see the finished book we'll get a great deal."

But as I was finishing the book, the wheels were falling off the book business. Fewer and fewer publishers sought solid mid-list titles that could break into a wider market with diligent marketing. Nobody was looking to break in a new name. And as the agent tried to play the new game, he started to pressure me to dumb down the story, and ratchet up the drama and conflict.

By that time, I'd returned to the U.S. from Europe. I agonized over a dilemma: I could write the book I had always wanted to write. Or, I could write the sensational, Walter-Mitty-cheats-death narrative my agent wanted.

In the end I realized that if I wrote the compromised book, there were two possible outcomes: I might reach tens of thousands - or even hundreds of thousands - of readers but not actually change the way any of them think. I'd make pretty good money if that happened. But then again, I could write that compromised book and have it continue to be rejected anyway.

Or, I could write the best book as I saw it. I could write it for my little tribe of motorcyclists, and let the chips fall where they might. I still believed I could reach a wider audience of non-motorcyclists in spite of that motorcycle-centric content. I still believed I could use my sport as a lens through which to examine several universal themes like the nature of risk and reward, the pursuit of self knowledge, and the notion that we are rarely in control of our lives' destinies but we should embrace them and live them fully whatever they are.

The agent made the choice easy by giving up on Riding Man (he was about to retire anyway.) I realized that we'd worked our way down the publishers' totem pole to dinky little presses that offered little over self-publishing, and so that's the route I took. Actually, per book, it's vastly more profitable than just collecting authors' royalties. But of course with essentially no distribution or marketing budgets, it's not a route to riches. In fact, it's not a route to having enough money in the bank to even reprint it.

That said, I don't really regret it. I would have loved a really great editor, but several friends pitched in reading the manuscript. The noted illustrator Doug Fraser gave me a beautiful cover illustration, and my ex-wife stepped in to design and lay out a fine-looking book.

Most important, the book may not have reached many people, but it reached its audience deeply. About 10% of all Riding Man buyers have taken the trouble to find an email address for me, and write to discuss it. Dozens of people have told me it prompted them to make their own major life changes. About 20% of the people who buy one copy later buy additional copies for their friends. (The record is eight subsequent gift copies!)

Peter Riddihough, my friend who made the companion documentary film One Man's Island (which is still available) gets similar feedback.

Now, there's a chance that the story may reach a wider audience anyway. Last summer, an avid, life-long rider named Tom  (he's since become a friend of mine) who works in the film business saw One Man's Island. Tom works in the same building as a film producer named Mark Clayman, and they're friends. Clayman was the executive producer of the the Will Smith film Pursuit of Happyness. He was looking for another story which, like 'Pursuit' involved a true story of one person's passionate search for a meaningful life.

Tom arranged for a meeting with Clayman, and although he was not wildly enthusiastic off the top, the more we talked about it, the more he thought there might actually be a feature in it. Over a period of a few months, I wrote the synopsis for a film inspired by my Isle of Man experiences. That was one of the toughest writing assignments of my life -- again, I was forced to find a line between some kind of journalistic and internal truth on one side and the codified and conflict-driven tropes of contemporary Hollywood. And again, it was devoid of any guarantee.  You think nothing could pay less than motorcycle journalism? Try writing a film treatment on spec.

Right now, Clayman's working with Tom and another producer to make a 'sizzle reel' for Riding Man, the movie. A sizzle reel is basically a trailer for a film that has not yet been made; it's a tool a producer uses to attract talent to a project. Some time in the next few months, that will get finished and I suppose I'll find out pretty quickly after that if the project has any appeal to Hollywood. I won't actually write the screenplay, some A-lister will get that assignment. But if the finished film resembles the treatment, I can live with it, and what the hell, it'll reach that wider audience after all.

I'll keep you informed.


  1. Truly one step at a time, eh Mark? What a long journey this has been! From reading "Riding Man" on the north coast of California, to watching "One Man's Island" on a raining Sacramento eve, to now hoping for the chance to see what the inside of a theater looks like in the 21st century! (Yeah, it has been that long since I set foot in one).
    All my best to you successfully completing the soul nurturing “ride” of coming full circle.
    Fair Oaks, CA

  2. Glad I got my signed copy ;-) This book and Egan's Leanings will be re-read each winter as I try to make it through another February in New England.