My friend and fellow Knight of Columbus Bill Caughey was kind enough to invite me to speak today to the Rotary Club of Centreville, MD, of which he’s a member. Bill introduced me by reading my tongue-in-cheek biography. Here is the text of my speech.
Thank you, Bill, and thank you all for having me this morning. I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard a bio like that one before; it’s from a novel the likes of which I’m pretty sure you’ve never heard of, either.
That novel is Lost Dogs, and it’s written for young adults—ages 13 and older—but there’s a lot in there that grown-ups, too, will like. Lost Dogs is a science-fiction story about the end of the world, but two things make it different from any other apocalypse book. One, it’s set on Kent Island. Two, it’s told from the point of view of a dog.
Yes, a dog: a German Shepherd named Buddy. In a single summer afternoon, all the people that Buddy knows—including his human “family” of Rob and Gennifer Bennett and their young daughter, Audrey—disappear, and he spends the rest of the book searching for them. And I tell that story by describing what Buddy sees, hears, smells, feels, and thinks.
Now, you might find the premise of Lost Dogs odd, maybe even laughable, but people have taken to this story—it’s selling very well for an independent book with no advertising or bookstore placement, and it’s averaging 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. When I talk to people about Lost Dogs, they often tell me, “I’ve never heard of any book like this.” To which I can only say, “Great! Would you like to buy it?”
I’m not actually here today to peddle books: I’m all out of copies (though if you want one, I have some coming in next week that I can get to you). Actually, I’m here to talk about creative problem-solving.
For me, Lost Dogs has been one long exercise in creative problem-solving. My initial problem—the first of several—is that while I like to read and write science-fiction and fantasy, there is too much of it that’s too alike, particularly if you write for teenagers, which I started doing when my daughters were younger.
There’s Harry Potter—and all the rip-offs that came after him. There’s The Hunger Games—and all the rip-offs that came after that. And there are all the vampire books (Twilight) and the zombie books and the werewolf books—I shudder at them not because they’re scary, but because they’re all the same.
So that’s why my story is about a dog on Kent Island who witnesses the end of the human world. “How’d you think of that?” you might ask. Actually, it wasn’t that hard to come up with.
As far as having it on Kent Island, I picked that place because most stories like this are very big in scope: they’re all about big cities all over the world, and they usually have big casts of lots of people. I wanted a story with a smaller feel, just because I hadn’t seen that done before. I’ve lived on Kent Island for going on 20 years, and my writing professor back in college told me, “Write what you know,” so I have.
And as far as the dogs go, a while back, I was watching a show on the History Channel called Life After People. The show speculated on what would happen to our world if suddenly, all of us vanished. The show didn’t say why we were gone, only that we were. How long, it asked, would the power stay on? How long would buildings and bridges keep standing without someone to maintain and repair them? And—one segment wondered—what would happen to our pets—our cats and dogs—without us to take care of them?
The segment wasn’t very long, only a few minutes (and the short answer to what would happen is that it wouldn’t be good for most of our critters). But when that portion of the show was over, I asked myself, “Yeah, but what else might happen?” And I took that and ran with it, until it was a book about 350 pages long. That was the inspiration for Lost Dogs.
Once I had written the book, my next big problem was getting it published. A few years ago, when I wrote my first novel, I had tried to go the traditional publishing route: sending out letters and copies of my manuscript, contacting literary agents to get them interested, trying to find publishers who might want to buy it, etc. But the traditional publishing business is in a nosedive: if you’re an unknown, like me, it’s very, very hard to break into the business. The publishers would much rather put their money and efforts into proven big-time authors like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or James Patterson.
So again, I got creative, and I published my book on Amazon with their publishing service. It was fast, it was easy, and the only thing it cost me was paying for the cover, which was done by my friend James Arnold, a professional artist who works at Washington College. And because more and more people have Kindles, I made an electronic copy of Lost Dogs that you can download in a minute or so for less than $5.00.
Once I had it published, my next problem was getting it noticed, and that’s very, very hard to do these days, because there are tens of thousands of new books coming out each year, most of them by self-published, independent authors like me. Lost Dogs is on Amazon, but so are all those other books I just mentioned. Most bookstores won’t stock indie books—not that there are many bookstores left (remember Crown Books? Waldenbooks? Borders? B. Dalton?). So, what could I do?
To answer that question, I had to ask myself who would be interested in Lost Dogs? Well, I write for young adults, so teenagers, of course, but research says that more than half of all people who buy “young adult” books are actually grown-ups. (And besides, anyone, like me, who has teenagers knows it’s almost impossible to get them to do what you want. Forget getting them to buy my book, it’s tough just to get them to pick up after themselves or do their homework).
So which grown-ups would want Lost Dogs? Well, folks who like science-fiction: it’s more popular now than ever. One of the biggest movies of last year was Guardians of the Galaxy, which has a talking raccoon and a walking tree. Compared to that, maybe my dog story isn’t so strange, after all…
Who else? People who live on Kent Island, obviously, and people who live nearby on the Eastern Shore. And who else, I asked myself? I thought about it for a while, and then I finally realized the obvious: dog owners. People who have and love dogs, even if they aren’t sci-fi fans (my book is, admittedly, pretty light on the sci-fi stuff).
What then? I didn’t have a big budget for advertising. Actually, I didn’t have any budget at all (I have one kid in college and another is getting close). Experience had taught me that book signings don’t get nearly as big a turnout as you might like. So in addition to selling my book on Amazon, I tried new venues.
I entered craft fairs and holiday bazaars on Kent Island and here in Centreville (“Heck With the Malls”) and sold books there. I was always the only author present, and it worked out very well. I usually sold more books than I would have at a regular book signing, and made more money, despite having to pay entry fees.
Right before Christmas, I also did a fundraiser at my church, selling books and splitting the proceeds with the Knights of Columbus for their Christmas baskets for needy families in the area. That worked out well, too.
Most successful of all, I did similar fundraisers—splitting the proceeds 50/50—with the Animal Resource Foundation (ARF), a pet rescue organization, at a few of their fundraisers last fall. It was a win/win/win: the animal lovers that attended got to buy my book (and told me later how much they enjoyed it); ARF got several hundred dollars just for letting me show up; and I made some money and got more fans. I’m sure that ARF and I will do this again this year, and I’ll probably also team up with Chesapeake Cats & Dogs to do the same.
Now, I know that probably none of you are authors. But my point in discussing what I’ve gone through to publish Lost Dogs is to give you a reminder and some examples, if you need them, that sometimes we need to think creatively to overcome problems and accomplish our goals.
Sometimes, the approaches we’re accustomed to taking to solving problems and getting things done don’t work—like my problem of trying to write a sci-fi story that would be distinct from all the others.
Sometimes, the old institutions—in my case, the traditional publishing industry and the bookstores—aren’t any help.
Sometimes, we need to look at new technologies—like Amazon’s publishing service.
Sometimes, we have to turn to unconventional approaches—craft fairs and animal rescue fundraisers—to get done what we need to do.
So the next time you’re stumped on how to accomplish your next goal, please think of me, and this talk, and my quirky book about the end of the world as witnessed by dog on Kent Island.
Thank you again for having me.
Kenton Kilgore is the author of LOST DOGS, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote DRAGONTAMER’S DAUGHTERS, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief. Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction.