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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hopping in the Saddle with Lucy and Ellee

A troika of local writers, beer and bike lovers all, have collaborated to create Hop in the Saddle, a guide to Portland's beer by bike.  Well, of course they did.  What two activities more define Portland than bikes and beer?  To Portlanders busy peddling to the next beer fest (see pic below of a recent Cheers to Belgian Beers), the two go together like coffee and stout.  But that's Portlanders.  To the rest of the US, where bikes are for kids and beer is yellow fizz, the concept is strange.  It's not the kind of project you pitch to Random House.  Indeed, in an era before DIY communications, Hop in the Saddle would have been a non-starter.

Fortunately, we do live in a better time, and so I asked the two authors, Ellee Thalheimer ( Cycling Sojourner: A Guide to the Best Multi-day Tours in Oregon) and Lucy Burningham (you may recall her amazing NYT story about fresh hops) to describe the project and how they approached it.


Ellee begins describing how the project began: "Lucy was my editor for Cycling Sojourner. I wanted to have a brewery tour by bike in my Portland section. We didn't have room in the book, but it occurred to us that there could actually be a whole book on that subject only." Lucy adds, "that Ellee and I have been friends for a long time, and we’ve always shared an interest in riding bikes and writing (we met because we’re both Lonely Planet authors). We’ve been on all kinds of rides and adventures together in Portland and beyond. It seemed natural that we’d work together on a writing project someday, especially one that included bicycles."

Here I mentioned that I knew how hard it is to attract the attention of remote publishers both to the interest and potential market of a project like this.  Ellee and Lucy felt they understood the book's potential far better than a traditional publisher could. 
Ellee doesn't sugar-coat her opinion of publishing. "Traditional publishing is a broken, antiquated, slow-moving beast." She goes on: "Traditional publishing would consider this a micro-targeted readership probably. It seems these days they consider anything that will sell under 15,000 copies to not be viable. But I consider Hop in the Saddle's readership as a niche market, and I think there's a difference." Lucy describes the market: "When we came up with the idea for the book, I immediately knew we could market it beyond a micro-targeted readership of bike/beer fanatics. We’ve got one important thing going for us when it comes to expanding our readership: the city of Portland. People love this town. They love thinking about living here (if they don’t already), fantasizing about visiting and deconstructing the lifestyles of those of us who are lucky enough live here (hello Portlandia and The New York Times’ travel section). I think people elsewhere in the U.S. and even internationally will buy this book to get a taste of two of our city’s most important and defining cultures: bikes and beer." 
One way they launched the book was through a Kickstarter campaign.  I asked about that.  Ellee said the model isn't only--or maybe even mostly--about money.  It creates community.
"Kickstarter functioned in the same way, except our funders were our excited readership. To get things done, you have to creatively make it happen. The kickstarter didn't just fund us, however. It created a community around the project and was an excellent marketing tool." Lucy continues, "Not only did Kickstarter help us fund the printing costs for the book, by far our largest line item, it functioned as a marketing tool for the book and contributed to a nice amount of pre-sales. But I agree with Ellee that the model really helped us create a community of supporters who will still be rooting for us well after they’ve received their 'rewards.' I still feel humbled by all the support we received."
With a traditional publisher, all you have to do is produce a manuscript.  Ellee, Lucy, and graphic designer Laura Cary had to do everything.  Constraining or liberating?
They were in agreement on this point. Ellee first. "I feel liberated. In general, author compensation is not fair comparable to the high-level work they do. We had a great idea, innovative approach, and a fabulous team. If the book does well, we will actually reap the reward, not to mention the world will be a better place for our project. The fact that we as authors can be closely connected to our own success is a great feeling." Lucy: "Insanely liberated. I’ve been a writer and journalist for a long time, so I’ve spent my career writing for established publications, which informs my writing in everything from word counts to audience and voice. With this project I knew that if I wrote about the best food and beer in this town with total honesty, I’d be doing an important service in the best way I knew how. Like I said above, I think this book will appeal to a larger audience. With that audience in mind, I felt empowered to make the tough choices on what to include in the book (we ended up including 20 of the city’s breweries, for example, instead of the 50 existing). I wrote this book thinking about someone who travels to Portland for the first time from say, Japan, for the Oregon Brewers Fest. I hope Hop in the Saddle will help them get on a bike, which is the best way to explore this town, and find reliably fantastic food and beer."


Because I've been buried in my own work, I haven't seen the book yet--but I'm really excited by the project.  Traditional publishers have an important role left to play in book publishing.  But the truth is, they've never been very good at projects like this.  What makes a book like Hop in the Saddle good is its individuality, the fact that it's not made for a mass audience.  Lucy and Ellee, acting as their own champions for the project, get to make all the decisions about what to put in the book based on what they think will make it a good book.  There's a way in which it sucks to be a writer now--the days of big contracts and expense accounts are gone.  But the flip side is that writers get to follow their bliss.  This is the best recommendation I can imagine for Hop in the Saddle, and why it will be on my Christmas list this year. 

Reward their effort and pick up a copy yourself.  Also, Ellee and Lucy will be speaking about and signing copies of their books at Powell's on November 29th at 7:30.  That's not a bad place to pick up a copy, either. 

1 comment:

  1. am I really the first to suggest the title of this post carries some serious innuendo?