BOSTON: How I Wrote 4:09:43
Bombs at Boston
A story needed to be told; I would tell it
By Hal Higdon
Within a few days after the Boston Marathon bombings, I realized I wanted to write a book about that event. A story needed to be told; I would tell it.
I have run Boston 18 times and have covered Boston at least that often as a reporter for different publications. And even though I was not on Boylston Street when two explosions rocked the running world, I knew I had to put thoughts into words. I needed to produce the definitive book on the tragedy that occurred at 4:09:43 on the finish-line clock. I would do it for myself, but also for my fellow runners.
4:09:43 became the title of my book. The writing came easy, because I knew so well the Boston Marathon. I could picture every twist and bump on the course covered by the many runners. I could visualize the spectators crowding the streets from Hopkinton into downtown Boston. I had been there. I could write about that.
Within a few days after the tragedy, I began writing 4:09:43 without waiting to secure a traditional book contract, a risky gambit for an author, because without such an arrangement, how do you attract readers?
For most of my writing career, I worked with various publishers from Random House to Putnam to Dutton to Rodale, who brought my book to market, whose publicity departments secured reviews, whose marketing people purchased ads, whose sales force secured spots on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Books a Million and the now vanished Borders. Yes, there has been a revolution in and outside the publishing world, allowing authors to upload their books into The Kindle Store and self-publish copies to sell on Web sites. I have chosen this route several times with success, though if you want maximum market penetration, it still makes sense to secure a contract with a traditional publisher.
As spring turned into summer and with the smoke that had fouled the air over Boylston Street long gone, I continued to write fast, furiously. My agent scrambled to secure a publisher, but met with resistance. At one publishing house two mid-level editors loved an early draft, but could not convince a boss fearful of a crowded market. Reporters from two Boston newspapers reportedly were writing books backed by those papers. A Russian-speaking writer supposedly had a contract for a book focused on the terrorists. Someone had a movie contract for a manuscript not yet delivered. I didn’t care. Boston was my story, my life. I needed to write.
I finished 4:09:43 in August. Still no contract, I hired a copy editor to polish my grammar. I hired an artist to design a catchy cover and uploaded 4:09:43 into The Kindle Store. And waited. The eBook sold well, but still no contract. I self-published a few hundred copies to take to the Chicago Marathon Expo in October. The book flew off the table, due to my ability to shamelessly plug 4:09:43 on Facebook and Twitter. But still no contract. I began to worry, since if you want to get your book reviewed by the critics that count, not just friends on Amazon, you need to be more than self-published. You need the help of a traditional publisher. And my agent seemed to be losing interest.
A week after the Chicago Marathon, Human Kinetics contacted me. My success on Kindle and at the Expo had not gone unnoticed. Human Kinetics (or HK) is a publisher of tightly focused books on scientific subjects. One of those subjects happens to be running. Almost instantly I had a contract that provided a clear pathway into the open market.
But it is not enough for an author to write a book and let someone else sell that book. If the author dares dream about a slot on the Best-Seller list, he or she must become intimately involved in promoting the book, making it known to prospective readers.
I hired a publicist to supplement my publisher’s efforts. While HK’s publicity department chased national exposure, particularly in the lead-up to the 2014 Boston Marathon, my publicist focused on local outlets. I did three lectures in three days at running clubs in Florida, where we winter. I did several TV appearances, reminding myself to talk in 30-second sound bites. Any blogger or columnist for a neighborhood newspaper who wanted a piece of me got it.
Will it be enough, or is mine the voice of one crying in the wilderness? Perhaps that editor who feared competition was right .According to Publishers Weekly, one mainstream house planning to print 250,000 copies! I could be overwhelmed, my little tome banished to the back aisles of book stores. That is the risk that every author takes when he or she sits down in front of a computer to turn thoughts into words. Will anyone care what the author has written?
But that is the same risk that any runner takes when he goes to the starting line of a marathon. Thirty-six thousand runners have entered the 2014 Boston Marathon, each one with great expectations. Yet only one runner will cross the finish line first. For most of those following, the goal is only to finish.
In writing 4:09:43, I have finished.
Within a few days after the Boston Marathon bombings, I realized I wanted to write a book about that event. A story needed to be told; I told it.