Anniversary of a (Mostly) Past Life

Today’s date almost slipped by me, even though it had occurred to me a few months ago that it was coming up. Twenty years ago today—June 8, 1997— was when I officially became a Famous Homeschool Author™*.

It was very nearly an accident. We were a homeschooling family, of the secular if-we’re-going-to-spend-most-of-our-time-reading-we-mght-as-well-be-comfortable school of thought. (Seriously, the best way to understand the attitude with which we approached learning is to go watch Carl Reiner’s new HBO documentary, If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. Those over-90s totally get it.) I was active with a statewide homeschool organization, and one day got a call from an editor at a local publisher (then the “5th largest independent publisher in the United States”) who was interested in developing curriculum packages to sell to homeschoolers. I sent them a bunch of articles, magazines, and other info, got taken to lunch, had my brain picked, and was eventually asked to give feedback on a truly awful proposal they came up with. (I tell the complete story in the introduction to Viral Learning.) That was the end of that, I thought.

But a few weeks later, I got a call from a different editor at the same company, who told me she thought there was a market for a trade book about homeschooling and invited me to submit a proposal. Soon, I had signed a contract to write at least 70,000 words about homeschooling over the next 18 months, which seemed an incredibly generous amount of time. It turned out to be far more time than I’d needed, because—inevitably—i procrastinated so much that I ended up writing the bulk of the book in the last two months before my deadline.

Then came the fun of learning how the publishing world worked. I was asked for title suggestions, most of which were completely ignored, because the publisher was more concerned with appealing to book store buyers than the eventual retail purchasers. (After all, if the books aren’t in the stores, either physical or online, nobody gets the chance to buy them.)

There were multiple, seemingly endless opportunities to read my book—over and over and over—copyediting run, making the index (which I did myself because I was too much a cheapskate to pay $400 for someone to do it for me), proofing run, final proofing run.

And somewhere in among the rereads, the publisher sent me the proposed cover, which I detested from the moment I saw it. I hated its homespun faux-denim look with the red scalloped line that looked like a badly tensioned line of machine embroidery. I hated the run-on multi-part title/subtitle/sub-subtitle. Most of all, I hated that damn pencil, irritatingly bearing that smarmy SUCCESS, which seemed to me to symbolize every homeschooling stereotype my homeschooling friends and I had been fighting for years. I suggested a few changes. (My friend Kim Stuffelbeam even mocked up a lovely red cover for it, which I passed on to the publisher, who said thanks, but no thanks. They really liked the faux denim.)

I did win the fight over the back cover copy, persuading the publisher that the original “THE ONLY HOMESCHOOLING BOOK YOU’LL EVER NEED!” would alienate more potential purchasers than it would attract. I decided I could live with “Don’t Even Think About Teaching Your Child at Home—Until You Read This Book.”

Eventually a carton full of books showed up, most of which I signed and sent to all my contributors who’d filled out an obnoxiously long questionnaire for me. June 8 rolled around, the book was officially published, and I was a Famous Homeschool Author™, learning to form coherent sentences on the fly for radio interviews and obsessing over the book’s Amazon ranking. Somewhat to the publisher’s surprise, the first printing sold out within two weeks, and they went back to press, and then asked me, “What’s next?”

So for 1998, I wrote another one, The Unschooling Handbook, which I liked much better. By then, the publisher had decided that my advice about reaching my part of the homeschooling market wasn’t completely baseless, so I ended up with a cover I liked much better, too. The new book sold well enough that the publisher decided not only that we needed a new updated version of my first book, for which I wrote about 40% new material, but that it would be the first of a whole series of homeschooling titles in uniform, identifiable covers. The Homeschooling Handbook, Revised 2nd Edition, came out in 1999, with a cover that was less interesting than that of The Unschooling Handbook, but at least had an illustration of a kid with a book and a magnifying glass, looking at a ladybug, which reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.

My publisher was a bit shocked, I think, that I wasn’t at all interested in writing any of the titles for the new series, but after three years of writing about homeschooling (and talking about it at conferences and in interviews), I’d said what I’d had to say about the subject, and had no interest in rehashing it into further titles. After my younger daughter started college, I sent out another of my long and obnoxious questionnaires to as many of my previous contributors as I still had contact info for, and in 2007 came out with my self-published Viral Learning: Reflections on the Homeschooling Life, a collection of linked essays, plus an appendix full of the questionnaire responses. But that book was just for me, and for the contributors, not a real part of my Famous Homeschool Author™ collection.

The HH and UH, as I think of them these days, are still in print and still selling. My little “5th largest” publisher was acquired by Random House, so my books are now published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Books Group, a division of Penguin Random, owned by AG Bertelsmann. (My contacts and communications with my publishing conglomerate these days are entirely electronic and non-human.) Both books are in their 14th or 15th editions, at least the last time I saw copies in a book store. with cumulative sales now approaching 95,000 copies. (To put that number in perspective, back when I still knew humans at Crown, they declined my fencing book proposal with a kind “We think it would be a great book, but we’re not interested unless it will sell 100,000 copies in the first year.”) My little backlist homeschooling titles have been only enough to keep me in new glasses and occasional computer and phone upgrades over the past two decades.

But backlist titles still earning royalties after 20 years is still kind of amazing.

*”Famous Homeschool Author™” is the term coined in sarcasm by my then 12-year-old older daughter to keep me in my place. The whole family (including me) has used it off and on ever since, invariably ironically.

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