If anyone understood the pie-in-the-sky chances of becoming a successful author, it was Hugh Gilmore.
For 10 years, he owned a small bookshop in Chestnut Hill overflowing with old and rare novels, nonfiction, and poetry, the great and woeful majority of which — no matter how well-written — were destined for dust-coated obscurity or the ignominy of the recycling bin.
"Of the millions of books that have been published, I was the person deciding what gets passed on to the next generation. It was a great responsibility," he says. "I tried triage. Would it be a free book? On the $1 table? Or in my shop as a collectible? I did that constantly. Handled thousands of books every week. And 950 out of 1,000, I gave away."
So, when he decided to write his own novel, he set forth with realistic expectations.
"How did it feel, tossing my 370 pages into the great mix?" he says with a laugh. "I had something to say, and I wanted to say it. All my life, I had thought about writing a novel. To see your work in hardcover in a bookstore, that was one of the greatest life achievements one could ever hope for. But now, it's like wanting to be a great wagon-wheel maker."
According to Bowker's, a bibliographic database, the number of U.S. books with International Standard Book Numbers put out by self-publishing houses rose 160 percent between 2006 and 2010. Which means that tens of thousands of writers using services like CreateSpace, Lulu Enterprises, Xlibris, Smashwords, and Authorhouse have been able to transform themselves into bona fide authors.
Few ever inch over the ledge into anything resembling success. But so what? Especially compared with the old days, only a few years ago, when writers would have had nothing to show for all their literary effort except a pile of rejection letters and a dust-covered manuscript in a box under the bed.
Gilmore had even more reason to forge ahead. He figured he had nothing to lose because he had already suffered one of life's greatest losses.
In 1988, his son Colin was killed by a drunk driver. Colin was 18.
"Any parent who loses a child is really hurt and damaged by it," Gilmore says. "They have to spend a lot of time working out their grief."
He and Colin's mother divorced when Colin was in middle school. The split derailed his relationship with his son, and they were just beginning to rebuild it when the accident happened.
"My life has until relatively recently been a guilt trip, yeah. When I think about what was gained from the divorce, my freedom from a person that I didn't get along that well with and other freedoms, they weren't worth the pain of hurting the child. But I couldn't see that at the time."
He can't rewrite his life, of course, and in many respects would not want to, since he is happily remarried and has another son, who is now in his 20s. Still, he says, Colin's death accompanies Gilmore nearly everywhere.
Before the self-publishing boom, he wrote two novels containing a character who has lost a son, and part of a memoir in which he confesses to contemplating suicide. "Once," he recalls, "I almost stepped overboard during a puffin-watching trip in Maine. It's like loyalty. Like your child is trapped on the other side of a glass wall and you have to go, you have to go help him."
After numerous attempts to hitch his star to an agent, Gilmore gave up.
"I was sick of the process," he says. He is 71, with thick gray hair and a beard. He wears khakis and race-walking sneakers and an air of weary gentleness. "Marketing yourself is a whole different talent than writing. An agent is a salesman. They look at your work and think, 'Can I make a profit on this? Can I send my kid to summer camp based on the pages you just walked in here with?'?"
About 18 months ago, he decided to lighten up and write a mystery, based loosely on his tragedy.
In 1970, when Colin was an infant, Gilmore bought a bottle of vintage wine, Porto Kopke. "I put this down to give to him when he turned 21," he says, setting the inky black bottle with the desiccated lip on the table.
The wine served as a symbol for all the sweetness he would never taste watching his son grow into a man. In the novel, the bottle is stolen and the father sets out after the thieves.
When the book was finished, he sent out 100 queries. Four agents asked to see pages. One, the whole manuscript. None made an offer.
Then a friend persuaded him to publish it himself on Amazon.
So far, he has sold about 50 copies on Kindle and about the same number in paperbacks that he produces at a nominal fee on demand. In February, Kathy Bonnano, a friend who runs a literary arts center in Chestnut Hill, held a launch party for him.
"I sell as many as I push," he says. "You can Google how to promote your book and come up with all kinds of advice, but getting the word out is very difficult. It's exhausting. I'd rather write."
From time to time, he still feels the nagging urge to make it big. "But how many readers do I need?" he asks. "When you're a novelist, if you get any readers, that's wonderful. How many is enough? On Amazon, I may be 102,000th, but Dickens is probably lower. It's meaningless."
(Charles Dickens' Bleak House currently ranks 198,813d while Gilmore's Malcolm's Wine comes in at 859,692d, but that's beside the point.)
He has just completed a collection of short stories titled Scenes From a Bookshop that he is publishing on his own, not even trying to find an agent this time.
"I could not be more proud or feel that I have something to show for my efforts than if my books had been published by Scribner's. They take up physical space. They're not clouds in my mind any longer."
Contact Melissa Dribben at 215 854 2590 or email@example.com or follow on Twitter @dribbenonphilly.