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working writer wending her way through the labyrinth that is self-publishing

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with Don Messerschmidt

1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. Are you a writer?
 I started writing non-fiction as a youth in Alaska, where I was born and grew up. It began with outdoor adventure stories, based on experiences during summer employment for various natural resource management/conservation agencies (in fisheries, wildlife and forestry). My first efforts were published in the old Alaska Sportsman magazine (now Alaska magazine).
In the early 1960s I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal, where I trekked and wrote about the Himalayas. My articles were published various places including Summit (a mountaineering magazine) and in newspapers. Back in the states, I joined Alaska magazine as an associate editor at Alaska magazine for awhile.
After earning my PhD in Anthropology (University of Oregon, 1974), I taught in several  universities (including Oregon State and Washington State), was tenured at WSU, then quit (low pay) and returned overseas as a natural resource management consultant in Nepal, Indonesia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Bhutan. In these places, but especially Nepal, I had more adventures to write about.
For most of the 1990s and 2000s I lived and worked in South Asia (Bhutan and Nepal), consulting, conducting research, and writing. In the mid-2000s, I maintained a bi-weekly column called ‘Don’s Musings,’ in the Sunday supplement of The Himalayan Times, an English language daily in Kathmandu. Then, I signed on as Editor of a popular English language magazine called ECS Nepal, also in Kathmandu, featuring history, culture, the arts, travel, adventure sports and more, from Nepal and the Himalayas (www.ecs.com.np).
I am now “retired” (sort of), living near Portland, Oregon, still writing and serving as a contributing editor to ECS Nepal, and mentoring young Nepalese writers over the Internet and during frequent trips back to the Himalayas. I also lead treks in the Himalayas in association with a friend in Portland (see www.sahaletravel.com).
Along the way, I have published several books in the popular press (two biographies, and memoir and essays), and in the academic press (on anthropology and resource management topics).

2. I Understand you got your book published by Orchid Press. How did this come about?

My most recent book, published in October 2010, is entitled Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas: A Personal Journey, is from Orchid Press (www.orchidbooks.com). My previous two books are also from Orchid Press – Moran of Kathmandu: Priest, Educator & Ham Radio ‘Voice of the Himalayas’ (1997) and Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel – Writer, Painter and Art Historian of Nepal. The Moran book is being republished in a revised 2nd edition, called simply Fr Moran of Kathmandu, due out in summer 2011. That book has been popular with many people interested in Nepal, and with international Amateur (‘HAM’) radio operators. Fr Moran was one of the rarest Hams around, broadcasting from the Himalayas much of his life (d. 1992). He was a fascinating person to write about.
The second biography, Against the Current: The Life of Lain Singh Bangdel, earned me recognition in Nepal including a prestigious award presented by the Prime Minister. It has received good reviews (e.g., see ‘Messerschmidt’s Masterpiece’ by Rajeev Goyal, at peacecorpsworldwide.org/?s=Messerschmidt).
3. Did you pursue other avenues to publication before you selected Orchid Press?

For my first biography, Moran of Kathmandu, I employed an agent who tried hard but failed to sell the book to a major publisher. So I turned to an acquaintance who owned the small Orchid Press (Bangkok). He picked it up, and it has done well enough to be going into a 2nd edition. 
For my second biography, Against the Current, I didn’t think twice, but went directly back to Orchid Press (by then under new ownership). They did a splendid job of printing a high quality book with full color prints of many of the subject’s amazing art work.
For my most recent book, Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas, I sent it to an editor (at her request) at Lyons Press (a Globe Pequot Press imprint). She liked it, but since it is what she called a “niche” book (all three of them are!), Lyons wouldn’t publish it. So, I went back to Orchid, again, and they did, as usual, a splendid publishing job. 

4. Was this an expensive proposition? and 5. How difficult/easy has marketing and distribution been for your book? Have sales been what you expected?

Publishing with Orchid Press is relatively easy and not expensive. If they want your book, they’ll negotiate a reasonable contract up front and publish within months. There’s no up front costs except the typical blood, sweat and tears that goes with writing your masterpiece, then finding a publisher who is interested.
Bear in mind that Orchid Press publishes only books related to Asia. Don’t bother them with anything else. The blurb on their home page reads that “Orchid Press... is a specialized publishing house devoted to books related to Asia – books of general interest, scholarly texts, fiction, and poetry, both new works and reprints. Our policy is to keep books in print for a number of years. Books are sold through distributors, booksellers and directly to customers around the world.” If you have a book on Asia, take a look at the titles and descriptions of past books on their website to get an idea of the many types of Asian books that they publish.
What they don’t tell, but which is true of a lot of the smaller publishing houses (and some of the big ones, too) is that you, as author, have the greatest responsibility for marketing the published work.
In my case, I am well acquainted with the readers of my niche books, people interested in the personalities I’ve written about (both Nepalese and foreigners who have traveled, lived or worked in Nepal) and big dog aficionados (especially of Tibetan mastiffs). I have sent out hundreds of descriptive booksheets to individuals on my mailing list, and to dog clubs and bloggers, and have posted announcements of it on my own blog (‘Himalayan Snows’, at dmesserschmidt.blogspot.com) and Facebook page. The marketing has paid off,. though I’ll admit that none of my books are “best sellers” in the global perspective. I’ve not yet been able to fully retire on the profits. After the first three months, however, sales of my latest, Big Dogs of Tibet and the Himalayas, are relatively brisk. I am selling autographed copies from my home, with considerable success, and the reviews and comments I’ve seen so far are all positive. 

6. Would you recommend this press to others?

Only to authors of books on Asia.

7. What’s ahead? What are you working on now?

I continue to write articles and a regular column on reading and writing, called ‘Spilled Ink’ (like a monthly blog) for ECS Nepal magazine (ecs.com.np). In addition, I continue to place an occasional article in a North American publication. I am spending more time working on a humorous memoir about my life in the Himalayas, an Anthology of my best articles, and I am updating the reprint of a little book about one of the most famous Hindu/Buddhist pilgrimage sites and trekkers’ destinations called Muktinath, in the high Himalayas. I am also researching a non-fiction book on traditional medicine with my daughter, an international health specialist.
In short, I am keeping busy, writing up a storm, and enjoying every minute of it.

Don Messerschmidt, PhD, is an anthropologist and writer/editor, with scores of articles and a half dozen books published, both popular and academic. His academic book titles include Anthropologists at Home in North America (Cambridge University Press, 1981, reprinted in 2010), Development Studies (1995, an anthology of journal articles), and The Gurungs of Nepal: Conflict and Change in a Village Society (1976, based on his PhD dissertation). He has spent most of his life in the Himalayas, but now lives with his wife Kareen in Vancouver, Washington (a suburb of Portland, Oregon). He returns to Nepal at least annually, leading treks, and researching new articles and books. Don can be contacted at don.editor@gmail.com.

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