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September 10, 2012

Using an e-Book Novel to Influence Public Opinion

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Last April, I began what would turn out to be a surprisingly arduous literary journey. Desperate to impact the public debate on the Iranian nuclear threat, I rearranged my life to revisit a dramatic story idea that I had originally conceived in 2009 as a concept for a screenplay about a doomsday, military showdown between Israel’s Dolphin submarine and a nuclear-armed Iran.

The premise was boiling with dramatic potential but writing a screenplay that within months becomes a widely released film is like Ayatollah Khameini taking a phone call from me and agreeing to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program: impossible. Film development, production, and distribution moves at a notoriously glacial pace. So the project of authoring a screenplay that might influence the public debate on an issue that (in my overly optimistic assessment) would become moot in a few years seemed futile. But three years later, in March of 2012, I was still hearing the same type of weak talk and indecision about the Iranian nuclear issue, so I resolved to drop everything and work on the story as an e-book, which can be released instantly. By 2012, e-books had also gained far greater acceptance in the market. Thus, self-publishing my novel suddenly seemed like a viable strategy for quickly disseminating my Armageddon warning about the perils of a nuclear Iran.

Some writers who set out to change the course of human events with their stories actually succeed, as did Harriet Beacher Stowe. Her anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was published in 1852 and is credited with helping to foment the US Civil War. Legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, he declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”

Nevertheless, writing a world-changing novel is an outlier so beyond any writer’s control that there is something preposterous about aspiring toward such an outcome. Thus, when I decided to stop the ayatollahs’ march toward the bomb with nothing but the imagination of an unknown author telling an apocalyptic story about 35 men on an Israeli submarine, I knew the odds were slightly against me. And yet, with a trace of the irrepressible optimism that I apparently inherited from my father, I quixotically dropped everything else in my life — my job, my plans, my social life — in pursuit of an absurdly improbable objective. After all, the odds of writing a novel that stops Iran from getting nuclear weapons are infinitely better if one writes it than if one doesn’t. So I did.

How I drafted The Last Israelis in ten weeks is a topic that probably merits a blog of its own, but the short answer is that I didn’t sleep much. Part of what sustained me during the marathon-like writing sessions – besides the urgency of the overall message – was my fanciful belief that authoring the novel would be the hardest part of the whole process and that I could “crash and recover” as soon as my manuscript was finalized. But the day after breathlessly reaching that milestone, I would learn that self-publishing and marketing an e-book novel that had to compete with millions of other novels meant that the truly exhausting work had only just begun.

Self-published authors whose main motivation is to influence public opinion will find it much easier to endure the marketing marathon that follows manuscript completion. They may even embrace the constant need to create content, engage potential readers, and participate in the marketplace of ideas with editorials, blogs, and social media updates, because these are all additional opportunities to impact public opinion. But authors who write their novels for purely personal or artistic reasons unrelated to any larger pressing issue and who still want their work to be widely read may have a harder time sustaining the grueling effort that awaits them. Such writers understandably prefer to focus on the art and craft of fiction writing and will eventually feel frustrated by how much of their time must be spent on things other than writing just to get their stories on the radars of potential readers.

From time to time I’ll post about the ups and downs — and lessons learned — from my own adventure of self-publishing a novel as an e-book. I hope that by sharing my experience I can provide some useful tips and/or solace to other self-published novelists out there.

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