Writing his way into a world without books

Published 6:43 pm Friday, September 9, 2011

Decatur author Marc E. Hopkins, whose e-book, “What Killed Jonathon Harnish?” is available since June through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, has arrived in the publishing game just in time to witness the eventual demise of printed pages in a world bereft of backpacks.
Hopkins, a protege of Dr. Michael Collins at Southwestern Michigan College, is working on his second novel, which will be a major departure in a female voice.
“Everything I write is about small towns,” he said. “Decatur. Glenwood. Cassopolis. Dowagiac. In the first book, the biggest city the main character went to was Kalamazoo, and he drove to Kentucky. Jonathon goes to school at SMC. Andrews University is in the second book. I use these small towns because I like them.”
Hopkins, who attended culinary school to become a chef, thrives on variety, having at various times also been engaged in everything from professional wrestling and work as an EMT to being a caretaker for the Edward Lowe Foundation.
“I love talking about books,” Hopkins told Dowagiac Rotary Club Thursday noon at Elks Lodge 889. “I started out about 10 years ago writing poetry and short stories. I love poetry. If the world paid me to sit home and make up rhymes, I’d be all for that. I never shared them with a lot of people, I just kept writing. I lost my job in ’08 and went back to college. I’m a huge SMC fan. I met Dr. Collins and took one of his classes. After about two hours, he asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book and said I should. Six years earlier I started putting ideas in a notebook, so I went home, dug it out and typed up a 39-page document for him.”
Hopkins’ unvarnished format alone might have startled Collins.
“Not one indentation for a paragraph,” Hopkins confided. “I don’t believe in punctuation. I’m a storyteller. I do not like any other part of it. I wrote the book in about a month and we spent six months editing it. It took that long. I write extremely fast. I’ve got a friend who is happy if he writes 300 words a month. He’s on his second book. It kind of snowballed after that. We shot a movie in Dowagiac in July 2010. It’s a four-minute book trailer” starring eight students and his cousin’s son filmed by a hired crew.
It’s had 61 views since Hopkins uploaded it to YouTube on June 25.
Collins excerpted a passage in the Southwestern Michigan Review.
“It’s very graphic,” Hopkins said of his literary debut. “It’s first-person and half of the book is what’s going on in the head of a serial killer. It’s shocking and violent. The second half of the book is about the boy who’s trying to find him to prove to his dad he’s a man by tracking down a killer. They’re two completely separate voices. Other than that I can’t tell a whole lot without giving away the ending.”
Hopkins said he’s halfway through a profanity-free suspense mystery — Annette Magyar is one of his “pre-readers” — “people love it because there’s no murder. They don’t think I wrote it. I don’t know where I came up with the idea I could write like an 8-year-old girl. Characters in my head are just there. Two hundred years ago they’d say I’m demented, but it works for me.”
With the video clip completed, Hopkins devoted three months to revisions because when he pitched his project to agents, “We’re just not believing Jonathon’s character. So I sat down and went through the entire book.”
Hopkins kept careful track so can be certain when he says he’s pitched the book 225 times.
“I documented all of it so I could see who said what and where I needed to change the book,” he said. “They give you a little bit of feedback. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback from an agent or a publisher and you’re dumb enough not to take it, your failure is your own. Every ounce of information they give you is something you can use, so I did. I rewrote the last 150 pages, sent it to one agent and waited. And I don’t like waiting because an agent may take up to six months to reply.
“She wrote back and said it absolutely captures the mindset of an 18-year-old boy, but the problem was they couldn’t sell it in a bookstore because you’re so in his head they’re uncomfortable. Walmart won’t sell books with profanity. Walden Books wouldn’t touch this graphic genre and put it on a shelf. She said that would be my biggest problem. Had I thought about putting it on the Internet?
“Amazon had a site where you could post books and stories and it swept the world. Last year, hardcover book sales went down 23 percent, paperback books lost sales by 18 percent and e-books went up 160 percent. One blog I found online that tracks book trends said in 30 years kids won’t know what a book is. They’ll read by iPhones, smart phones and devices we haven’t created yet. You won’t need to carry a backpack to school because it will be in the palm of your hand. That’s where it’s heading.
“I was offered 1,000 copies worldwide, which I do on the Internet with an endless supply. I still have an agent representing the book, but not me, in Ireland. Once or twice a month I get replies about this book. One agent told me the worst thing I could do would be to start a second book, so I put it down. I didn’t know any better. Then I got really irritated and thought I’d start one and not tell them. I like the advice agents give, but at the same time they’re in it to make money. If an agent tells me they’re in it for love of books, I know they’re lying. If they loved books, they’d go to the library,” which is where he was headed after his program.
“They want books that sell and sell big,” said Hopkins, who has an app on his phone that alerts him every time a bookstore closes. “If you give someone an opportunity to read 1 million free books, like Amazon and Barnes and Noble did, your book sales are going to decline because nobody’s going to drive to South Bend or Kalamazoo to buy a book when you can load an app on a phone or computer and select from 1 million free books. That’s the problem, and they created it.”
Hopkins, who has sold 100 copies, or about one a day, said social media sites help spread awareness of his book.
“If I never had a Facebook or Twitter account, I wouldn’t care,” he said, “but I need an audience for what I want to do. One of the biggest misleading pieces of advice that any agent will give a writer is, ‘If you have a following, we’ll buy your book.’ If you don’t have a book to promote and something to offer, you can write about it all day long, but people aren’t going to fall for it. I know there are people out there spending 10, 12, 15 hours a day on social Web sites, which drive me nuts. They spend a lot of money understanding the market and they know from studies that for a first-time author like me, no one will buy the book until they hear your name seven times, male or female, whether you’re into this genre or not.”
On Aug. 26 he tweeted, “Writers are people who didn’t let reality crush their dreams.”
Hopkins said the advantage the Internet gives writers is “it allows us to take back the power of what readers will read. For 100 years, agents dictated what people read, whether in libraries, schools or the open market. If an agent said no, your book was through. With the Internet, people learned overnight how to be their own business,” which takes five editing steps for hardcover or paperback volumes.
Independent authors such as himself are helped by reviews posted under his e-book.
Hopkins recalled being contacted “out of the blue” by an illustrator offering to furnish him free book covers because “the minute you put it up on Amazon my name goes underneath as illustrator. That’s all he asked. Whether it’s 100 people a day or 5,000 people a day see it, they see his artwork.
“Two days after that I got an editor for the second book I’m working on now. She got ahold of me by Facebook, said she read the first book and was now terrified to drive through Sister Lakes, but wanted to be one of my pre-readers. She contacted me two days after I sent it to her and said, ‘I’ve got it edited. You need a lot of editing done to your work,’ which I knew because I don’t like punctuation. How do you turn down an offer for free editing? Within seven days I had two book covers designed. I think the second book will be done well enough to go to paperback or hardcover, which is fine with me, but if it doesn’t, the Internet’s given me so many options.
“In about six weeks we’re planning on putting out the first three chapters of the book I’m writing now. I have another book that’s half done that Magyars read that I put down over the winter because I actually got mad at one of the characters. The best advice Collins ever gave me was, ‘If it doesn’t live in you, you can’t get it out of you.’ I wrote the first book in 21 days and I’ve got 16 days into this one — 55,000 words. I work a job and two teenage daughters live with me. Monday I didn’t have the girls so I sat in front of the computer from 7:30 in the morning until 1 a.m. and wrote 7,000 words. I don’t do that every day, but when you get that opportunity and it’s in you, that’s how you do it. I’m also working on a Web site.
“When I got the contract from Amazon, it was 120 pages long. I looked at the first page, I’ll be honest, and sent it to a friend in Cleveland who’s an electronic guy. Fourteen days later it was up. It doesn’t cost anything to download software onto a computer, laptop or phone to buy books from any of the places that sell them online because they want you to buy books. My son has an X-Box game device that he loaded with an app that he can read on his TV like I read on my phone or Kindle. My cousin bought the book and read it on her laptop, but she wants to hold a book and smell it. Honestly, I love that same thing, but the sad reality is we’re not going to have that option forever.”