Steve Bernstein never imagined himself a writer. He says his sister Amy, who died about twenty years ago, was the writer in the family. Towards the end of 2019, Bernstein signed a publishing contract for what started off as a self-published project. What changed that moved him from a non-writer to this point? What was the journey like? And what were the lessons learnt?
Valley of Writers spoke to Steve to find out.
You never imagined yourself a writer until a few years ago, but at some point, you started writing. What happened?
Well, when I moved down here [Western Massachusetts] from New Hampshire, ten years ago, I had retired from my plumbing career and my work in the non-profit sector. I undertook a Special Ed. Degree program to help at-risk teens with literacy and education. I was then hired to be a Special-Ed. teacher in a very depressed technical high school.
While I was there, I developed a storytelling after school program called “Mi Historia” with the help of several of my students. My students, who were all Hispanic, enthusiastically started telling their stories after I modeled a few of mine. The process brought us closer, broke down demographic walls and provided an arena to share our lives in a very special way with each other.
The process brought us closer, broke down demographic walls and provided an arena to share our lives in a very special way
It was during this time that I started seriously writing down the “bones” of some of my childhood stories that have served me for forty years in my work with young people. Up until that point, they were oral stories.
At some point, you signed up for a workshop with Writers in Progress. Did you find, as a new writer, that being a part of a group of other writers was inspiring or overwhelming?
Both. I loved the interchange among the members; sharing insights, thoughts, and ideas but at the same time, it’s give-and-take. In the beginning I was insecure and unsure if the feedback I was giving was as good as that which the was getting. The process forced me to really pay attention and get out of myself. All this listening helped me to become a better writer.
When you finished your manuscript, you tried to send it to agents? What was your journey to publication like?
Well, in reality, it took all of three or four experiences to redirect me to self-publishing. There were two rejections, and then an agent adamantly refusing to read anything with dogs-my first story-my best story-my oldest story-my most widely appreciated story is a about a dog that saved my life. Her attitude seemed arrogant, arbitrary and demeaning.
And then there were a few who just never responded. Enough. I am not somebody who tolerates disrespect or for that matter a system that is so subjective, capricious and disempowering-mainly because you hope and wait and at times deal with personalities that may not really get you and then one must deal with a diluted version of your product all in the service of getting traditionally published. Not for me.
Also, I’m too old to be waiting around for the phone call, so I self-published. And I promoted and I did readings, and I talked it up and I learned the Amazon system and I found consultants to help guide me and I produced a great self-published book.
And then a couple years later a real and well-respected publishing house found me, mainly because of my self-promotion and Amazon education. All that said, if they were going to in any way change my book substantively, I would not sign a contract. They love my book, they are legit and fair and honorable and want to get good books out in the world. All that said there are two other factors to consider. One is I have a great product, the other is luck.
I’m too old to be waiting around for the phone call, so I self-published.
Can you talk a bit about the promotion you did for the book on Amazon?
While on Amazon, I hired a consulting company who originally helped me with my fabulous book cover. I wanted help to ramp up my exposure on Amazon. With his help, I was able to attract several 5-star reviews and exponentially get more and more traction. This, plus my own efforts of promotion, readings, book signings etc. got me to the publishers desk of Skyhorse Publishing Company with whom I just signed a book deal.
What lessons did you learn during the self-publishing period?
For me, it was relatively quick abandonment of the notion that I wanted to expose myself to what I considered a negative and demeaning process of going the traditional publishing route with agents, queries, conferences etc. that allowed me to be free and unfettered to in fact publish myself and hope for the best.
Being myself; independent, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, and knowing that for me that the right things would happen if I was true to myself was the greatest lesson in actively pursuing my dreams of getting my book out there.
You’ve signed a contract with the publishers. What lies ahead for you as a writer?
Well, hopefully I’ got more books in me. I’m kicking around a few ideas. Now I have a supportive publisher who gives me encouragement and guidance – and the experience under my belt of sticking with my story, my dream and the awareness that where there’s a will there’s a way.
My publisher told me to expect to be very busy working with them on promotion and marketing and to develop outlets and venues to get my book into the hands of as many readers as possible, perhaps worldwide, perhaps a movie, who knows? the sky’s the limit!