Writing Sanibel: Or How An Old Dog Used A Unique Island and Technology to Learn New Tricks

In 1984, after writing for newspapers and magazines in the United States and Canada for nearly twenty years, I did what most writers dream of doing, I published a novel.

It was a thriller set in Toronto about a nomadic freelance journalist who returns to town hoping to pick up with his lost love only to discover she is engaged to someone else. The journalist begins to suspect the guy is a killer. The plot, as they say, proceeded to thicken. It was published in the United States and Canada by a big New York house, Doubleday.

I’m not quite sure what I was up to in those days. I’m not sure I had any literary pretensions on the one hand. On the other, I wanted to be taken seriously. The novel did all right, as these things go, mostly because I was working at the Toronto Star at the time and thus was able to generate a certain amount of publicity.

In the years that followed, I published a clutch of books both fiction and nonfiction with various publishers in Canada and the United States. The realities of publishing were then, and are now, harsh; publishers really don’t give a damn about you and they certainly don’t care much about your book. The last time I was published by a major New York house, I received a six thousand dollar advance, paid over a two-year period, for a fantasy-adventure titled Magic Man, a novel I had worked on for more than a decade.

My agents, who had championed the book for years, never giving up on it, made a total of nine hundred dollars.

I never met my editor. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone. But if we communicated at all, it was by e-mail.  The editor sat on the book for over two years, to the point where I was certain they were not going to publish it.

When the novel finally did come out, it got some great reviews in what they call the book “trades,” but that was about it.  A week after it was published, I went looking for it at a Borders store in downtown Chicago. They swore they had it in stock but couldn’t find it. In Canada where I live, I never saw a copy in a bookstore—except in a huge warehouse that called itself The World’s Biggest Bookstore. They had—I swear this is true—one copy.

They told me the publicist was going to call. But the publicist never did.

I endured all this in silence, and you know why? Because I knew this was going to happen long before any of it actually happened—or, more accurately, didn’t happen. In publishing if you map out the very worst case scenario you can ever imagine, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to your book.

I swore I was not going to go through that again. It wasn’t worth it. Why the publishing house even bothered printing the book in the first place still mystifies me. What was the point? It was a waste of everyone’s time.

For several years, I didn’t attempt to publish anything. In the meantime, my career as a screenwriter, such as it was, began to unravel. A look in the mirror confirmed a growing suspicion that I was getting too old to be attractive as a writer in a business that increasingly catered to eighteen-year-old boys. Besides, movies were even more frustrating than book publishing. As the writer, you invariably were the dumbest guy in the room. Everyone involved could fix the script except the guy who wrote it—me.

I began to wonder what I was going to do with myself. The string was running out. I had spent my whole life writing, as a newspaper reporter, columnist, magazine writer, movie critic and screenwriter. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of not being able to earn a living at what I had been doing for over forty-five years.

And then the miracle occurred. The revolution arrived on my doorstep.

I read an article in the New York Times about a sea change in book publishing. Thanks to technology a whole new world of do-it-yourself publishing was emerging and taking on unexpected legitimacy.

The Times pointed out that whereas previously, writers had to grin and bear any and all the horrors of publishing, as I had for years, now they could circumvent the publisher entirely. You could publish your own books. You could control your own destiny. And what’s more, you could make money doing it.

I could hardly believe what I was reading. For the first time since the invention of movable type, power was potentially in the writer’s hands. That article changed everything. It armed me with all the courage I needed.

A few years before, a friend of mine, Brian Vallée, had created his own publishing company, West-End Books. The company had actually published a couple of titles before funding fell through, and Brian more or less put it into limbo.

I suggested we resurrect West-End Books and publish our stuff through it. Brian agreed to give it a try. We experimented with a novel titled The Strange that I had not been able to find a publisher for—that’s a handy euphemism, incidentally, for everyone and their brother turned it down.

I found a printer in Tennessee with digital presses. With digital printing, I discovered, you can print one copy of your book or one thousand copies—print on demand. And do it at a reasonable price. Another revolution. A publisher let alone an author could never have done this on the old offset presses. Technology changed all that. Now anyone can print a book.

A talented magazine designer, anxious to try her hand at a book cover, created the cover for The Strange. I had worked with great editors all my professional life. Now I convinced some of them to work on my book. My brother, Ric, turned out to be familiar with InDesign, the software that allows just about anyone to professionally typeset a book. I put him to work.

Before I quite knew it, West-End Books had produced a real novel. The Strange was set in Paris at the turn of the century, a fantasy thriller featuring a twelve-year-old orphan with strange powers, a mysterious international confidence woman out to sell the Eiffel Tower, and a talking hawk named Peregrine.

When all was said and done, The Strange sold pretty well. But I could see the shortcomings of doing things this way. What we lacked was an identifiable market for the novel and, more importantly, a way to get to that market.

Once again, my brother Ric came to the rescue. He lives on the west coast of Florida. He is the president of the Chamber of Commerce for two unique barrier islands just off Fort Myers in the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel and Captiva.

Look, he said, instead of publishing books set in Paris, why don’t you write something that takes place on Sanibel Island? You love it here. What’s more, three hundred thousand tourists visit the island each year—and they are all looking for a good local read.

Suddenly, I had the market I needed—a unique one at that. Unlike most authors and publishers who have to go to lots of markets to find readers, here the readers flow into one market. I had always wanted to write a detective novel so I created an unlikely private detective named Tree Callister.

Tree was sort of like me, getting older, at a loss as to what to do with himself, a fish out of water in an unlikely paradise.

Unlike me, Tree encounters the occasional corpse, and he gets into more hot water than I do. But also like me, he stumbles and bumbles around and somehow gets out of the jam he finds himself in.

I called the book The Sanibel Sunset Detective. It came out last year, and to my utter surprise it started to sell and sell very well. More encouraging still, readers began e-mailing me saying how much they enjoyed the book, and when was I publishing the next one? I was discovering that mystery fans like series books. They insist on them, in fact—and they devour mystery novels.

So I sat down and wrote a second novel. Because I am, in effect, the publisher as well as the writer, I did not have to wait two years for an unseen publisher to decide to bring my book out. Less than a year after the publication of the first book, we have the second in the series, The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns.

These books have turned my life around. In all the years I’ve been writing, I have never experienced so much happiness and satisfaction with what I am doing. Am I getting rich? No, not yet. But I am making money from what I write, which is more than I can say for all those years when others published my work.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are at an age where you are feeling stalled and useless, there is another life out there. In my case it was making use of a new technology to free me from the dictates of others, and give me the opportunity to continue to do what I love to do.

My advice is simple: If you want to write, write. And if you want to get what you’ve written published—publish it. Now there’s no one to stop you.

In the short period of time since I’ve been doing this, the e-book has taken off. You don’t even have to take the trouble to print your novel. You can simply upload it to Amazon and in about two seconds flat, it’s for sale on-line.

Amazon has the most incredibly democratic way of viewing authors. Instead of doing everything in their power to keep you out—a role well-played by traditional publishers—they say ‘come on in. We’ll give you the space you need, and seventy per cent of any sales. All you have to do is sell the book.’

Again, revolutionary. A totally different approach from the way things have traditionally been done.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not disparaging conventional publishers. They can still produce big sales numbers, and, if they decide you are the next James Patterson or Norah Roberts, they can bring a sales and marketing juggernaut into play that is second to none. The trouble is, these days, they seldom choose to unleash those weapons.

But you don’t have to care about any of that. You don’t need validation from someone you’ve never seen. You can do it yourself, and achieve the success you’ve always dreamed of.

Take it from me.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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15 comments on “Writing Sanibel: Or How An Old Dog Used A Unique Island and Technology to Learn New Tricks
  1. Ellen Davidson says:

    Great story, Ron. Are you uploading this second one to Amazon, and the first as well or is there some other way to get them through your publishing company? How bout your others, or do the traditional publishers retain the rights to e-publish? How come you’re not flooding FB with press releases or putting up samples the way my Kindle allows me to sample a book before I order it? I notice on my Kindle that some writers are uploading short stories, for anywhere from a buck to two or three. The stories don’t seem to link to any of their novels but perhaps are just to give potential readers a taste of their style. I have no idea whether it works as a promotion, other than with foodstuffs in a grocery store. While I await your Amazon answers, I’ll go looking on my Kindle for you. Hope I find one or two. You’re a very very good writer … Best, Ellen xo

    • ronbase says:

      Hi, Ellen. Delighted you enjoyed the post. The second book, “The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns,” should be on Amazon later this week. The first book, “The Sanibel Sunset Detective” is already available, and you can sample it. Also, there are links to it along the right-hand side of this home page.

      West-End Books has also uploaded Brian Vallee’s “Life With Billy,” as well as a memoir by legendary Toronto hotelier, Hans Gerhardt, titled “HotelBiz: a Memoir.” More to follow. If you’d like what we used to call a hard copy of the “Sunset Detective” books, e-mail me your address and I will send you an autographed copy.

      Great to hear from you.

      • Ellen Davidson says:

        Found the first on Kindle. Bought it. Stayed up until 3.56 am reading it. Finished it this morning. LOVED IT! Will now await the uploading of #2, not very patiently …

      • ronbase says:

        Hi, Ellen…You certainly know how to make a poor, starving writer’s day…Thanks so much for your kind words. The second book should be available on Kindle in the next twenty-four hours. I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

  2. What an inspiring story! Like so many other freelance writers, I’m wondering what the future holds and this shows we can take some control over our careers … I just have to get that novel-gathering-dust-on-my-shelf up to snuff first. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Ron…What a marvelous surprise to see your story about self-publishing. A lot can be said about blogs and web sites too – 21st Century technology levels the playing field for everybody. As someone who was robbed blind by unethical publishers in the interactive game business, I am redefining my own business model too (in progress). I was also saddened to hear about the passing of David Haslam last year – in one of your entries. I worked with David in the early days – upstairs on John Street when Marquee was young. It was a magic time. Actually, I remember coming over to your house back in those days – in the beach (east side of Toronto). I think it was before I worked at The Star myself. I was friends with Kim Painter and Mary Sinclair and Dianne Schwalm – all film friends. Unfortunately, I have lost touch with those people and those times, but finding you brings it all back. Good luck to you and with The Sanibel Sunset Detective. Best Regards, Courtland

    • ronbase says:

      Hi, Courtland… On John Street, Marquee was indeed young in those days. I’m still in touch with Dianne–in fact she was one of David’s last visitors before he died. Sad times, but good to hear from you–and good luck with your business ventures!

  4. […] Detective yarns, shares trade secrets in his equally amusing tell-almost-all blog Writing Sanibel: Or How An Old Dog Used A Unique Island and Technology to Learn New Tricks … and Hollywood-based writer-producer Kathy Slevin has launched  a new blog focused on […]

    • ronbase says:

      Old pal George Anthony’s entertainment blog is hugely entertaining…a throwback to the days when George ruled the Toronto entertainment roost with his daily showbiz column in The Toronto Sun. Please check it out–and thanks for the plug, George!

  5. Terrific stuff, Ron. Sharing link on a couple of Facebook pages.

    • ronbase says:

      Thanks, Paul… I dropped in to Poco Loco a couple of times when I was recently on Sanibel, but missed you both times…I’ll try again when I’m back in a couple of weeks!

  6. prsanibel says:

    I must have thought it was Ric and hid in the office.

  7. wordsaremagic says:

    Hello Ron,
    It was very nice to meet you at Times Square on Fort Meyers Beach a week ago. I have just started the sanibel sunset detective and think I’m going to love it! I like your sense of wacky humor and convoluted plots contained within a small space. Love the cover–looks like the smudged print I used to get with my old manual Smith Corona. My husband has started on the— returns, so I guess we will swap when we’re done.
    As I mentioned when we met, I have self-published two books and one print-on-demand with Outskirts Press. I understand your frustration with traditional publishing and am glad that POD and ebooks and Kindle Direct Publishing have opened up the market for the independent author. Congratulations on resurrecting West End Books. I have also had a hard time marketing my books of non-fiction and usually just sell them out of the trunk of my car!
    I’m totally new to the world of blogging and a techno dummy at best, so getting images of the covers of my books on to my blog wordsaremagic is stretching my horizons.
    I hope to see you again in Florida. We will drop in and say hello to Ric next time we go over to Sanibel.
    Margaret Watkins

    • ronbase says:

      Thanks for your note, Margaret. I’ve got my fingers crossed that you enjoy the rest of the novel. Marketing is definitely the hardest part of all this for me, too. If someone had told me twenty years ago I would be standing out on Times Square on a Friday night hawking my latest novel, I would never have believed it. I’ve had to swallow hard a couple of times in order to bring myself to do the marketing things I’m doing, but the bottom line is that these days every author has to do much the same thing, and it works! When you are out there meeting the public, you do sell books. This blog, Facebook, making use of available social media, all helps. My only blind spot is Twitter. So far, I haven’t taken the time to get my head around tweeting. But now that I have a smart phone, that’s next!

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