from writer to author

It wasn’t until I finished writing a book that I discovered the big challenge was not—as I had assumed—the planning, the research, and the writing. No. The biggest barrier to becoming a published  author was finding a publisher.

I had been getting paid for writing all my adult life. But always, the writing was on assignment. For an employer. Or a client. A newspaper or a  magazine. A marketing or advertising agency. Or a graphic design firm.

Nancy Bellantoni and I had been working together for years. (Nancy and her husband, Peter Galipault are principals of Movidea, one of Boston’s best design and marketing firms.)  Brochures. Direct mail campaigns, product packaging, instruction books, trade show booths, signage, comprehensive marketing campaigns of all kinds. Our projects had taken us from a tugboat ride to an offshore construction site to M.I.T.’s robotics laboratory.

We created The Battalion Artist in response to her father’s dying wish. Nat Bellantoni told Nancy he wanted a book about the twenty watercolor paintings he had brought back from the South Pacific, where he had served as with the U.S. Navy’s 78th Construction Battalion during World War II. Nancy asked if I would write it. “Of course,” was my answer.

I had already been working for a year on a very different World War II book. I was writing down stories I’d been hearing all my life–stories told by my Uncle Joe, especially those about his service in the Navy from 1940 to 1946. But for Nat, who had been a friend, a colleague, and a mentor, since my earliest days as a young editor, I was willing to nudge Uncle Joe to the back burner. After all, how long could it take to write a book about twenty paintings? Six months?

In fact, it took nearly four years. First, I had to educate myself; I spent about a year reading and researching. Meanwhile, Nancy was scanned and organized the images from Nat’s sketchbooks, sorted through hundreds of photographs, countless documents, boxes of mementoes and ephemera. Together, we planned and revised the books general outline. Nancy created a layout and, designed and redesigned every page. At one point the book was twice as long as our final version. (Then Peter pointed out that Nat had asked for a book about his paintings—not a history of the entire War in the Pacific). Finally, we were done.

Except for one small detail. We needed a publisher.

These days, for many authors, self-publishing is an option. But for this project—an oversized volume with full-color artwork, the cost of self-publishing was truly prohibitive.

And so we did all the right things. I wrote carefully crafted letters to publishers. And agents. Dozens and dozens of them. Some responded expressing a spark of interest, a note of encouragement. Others with a terse rejection. Or simply radio silence. We had no takers.

Nancy put together a beautiful promotional package, which we sent far and wide. No luck.

We started networking—and never stopped. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation, the Navy History and Heritage Command, The National World War II Museum, and on and on.

I began attending writers conferences and how-to-get-published workshops. The big take-away. I needed a social media presence. And so in due course, I had a website—and so did the book.

On Twitter I began to connect with others who were doing what I was striving to do: share the stories of those who had played a part in the most widespread cataclysm this planet has ever seen: World War II.

Meanwhile, Nancy was doing the same—exploring every avenue she could think of to find us a publisher. In the end, it was through her friends, Kylée Smith and her husband, the late Anthony Weller, that Nancy found our publisher. An accomplished musician and award-winning author, Anthony had edited a compilation of his father’s war reportage: Weller’s War: A Legendary Correspondent’s Saga of World War II on Five Continents.

Anthony was instrumental in helping Nancy and me found our way to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Battalion Artist was published by Hoover Press in September of 2019. (With book launch events, unfortunately, curtailed by the pandemic.) The Natale Battalion Collection has been digitized and is available to the public online.

And somewhere in the Great Beyond, Nat Bellantoni is smiling.