There’s a high school in Aroostook County that has a writers’ conference every year and I’ve been able to attend the last two. The students don’t want to know much about writing, but really want to know how each writer first got published. When it’s my turn, I tell about how I started writing a weekly column, with the idea of eventually having them collected into a book. I tell them my idea turned out pretty well, since I now have five titles in print and in all five are in fine bookstores throughout northern New England.

I learned a lot about publishing while shopping those early columns around to publishers, I tell them.

One publisher said he was definitely interested in publishing a collection of my columns and stressed that he would do it “quick and cheap.” I said, “Quick and cheap, what kind of guy do you think I am?”

He said he would run off 500 copies in no time and staple the pages together in the middle, like a town report. It’s called a saddle-stitch. He said we could sell them for about $7 each. I told him I’d think about it. I didn’t think much about it.

Another publisher said he was ready to publish my columns, but at a final meeting to discuss details he said, “Oh, John, I just want you to know that I don’t do bar codes on my books.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “Bar codes? Why don’t you use bar codes?”

He said it was just his little protest against “the man.”

I said, “I’m sorry but I’ve got nothing against ‘the man.’ It’s a small thing but my book must have bar codes.”

So much for that book deal.

For those who don’t know, a bar code is an optical machine readable representation of data. It’s the thing that sales clerks now look for and scan at every retail establishment in the world.

A publisher in Massachusetts said he wasn’t interested in publishing a collection of columns but asked if I’d be interested in writing a Maine dictionary.

I said I would be interested and then spent the next five months pounding out what became “The Maine Dictionary,” a humorous look at Maine words and phrases, published in the summer of 2000.

The dictionary was a big hit, but about four months after I came out the publisher started having financial problems. He owed rent on the warehouse where he kept his books and even though he had all kinds of orders for my book, the warehouse owner wouldn’t release them until the rent was paid.

I told the students I wouldn’t bore them with more gory details except to say “The Maine Dictionary” now has a new and very successful publisher, Commonwealth Editions, an imprint of Applewood Books of Massachusetts, and the book is doing just fine, thank you.

Eventually, I told them, Dean Lunt of Islandport Press agreed to publish a collection of my columns and the result was the book, “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar,” published in 2002 and still available at bookstores. A student said that book was in the school’s library.

All this time, week after week, Isaid, I kept turning out columns, and because they were eventually available online, I started getting emails and letters from readers all over the English-speaking world.

One woman wrote from Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands off England, to tell how she’d bought a copy of “Moose” in Bangor at the Borders Bookstore and then began driving across the country to visit friends in Houston. She said she left her copy of the book in a motel room in St. Louis, so when she got to Houston she went to the Borders to get another copy.

The clerk said they didn’t have the book, to which she replied, “Well, they have it in Bangor, Maine.” The kind Houston clerk called Bangor and the clerk in Bangor agreed to overnight the book to Houston. The woman from Guernsey picked it up the next morning and when she finally returned to her island home in the English Channel, she couldn’t wait to write and tell me all about it and tell me what a great country we have here in America was.

I, of course, agreed.

John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine, including “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information.” Contact him at [email protected]


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