We were honored to speak with IPNE member and 2015 Book Award winner Jack Mayer who penned the incredible book Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project.
Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (2011) is the true story of a Holocaust hero, Irena Sendler, who rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto, and the three Kansas teens who rescued her forgotten story 60 years later.
Here’s a peek into his indie journey:
When did you know you were a writer?
WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT'S BEEN...
I've been a closet writer for more than forty years, mostly writing for myself, poetry, short stories, essays about my pediatric practice, and hiking The Long Trail in Vermont. (I loved writing stories in elementary and middle school, then went into literary hibernation until completing my medical education and training.)
What does your writing process look like?
My writing process is somewhat random and chaotic… writing when and where I can. I always have index cards and a pencil in my pocket. Notes, maps, reference texts all over the place. Over the six years I spent writing Life in a Jar I spent many hours researching the Warsaw ghetto, immersed myself in diaries, memoirs, first-person accounts, and scholarly writing about Warsaw in WWII. I also had many hours of tape recorded interviews from Kansas and Poland. I wrote when I could, early or late, sometimes between patients in my office, or while on-call waiting for the delivery of a high-risk newborn.
Why did you choose to self-publish? What roadblocks or obstacles did you face?
I self-published (Lightning Source) my non-fiction book Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project (2011) after receiving multiple rejections from mainstream publishers. I've had a few agents trying to sell the book to no avail. What drove me past these obstacles was my undying belief in the importance of these two intertwined stories, a forgotten Holocaust hero and a contemporary story of typical American teens "rescued the rescuer" and changed the world.
Since then the book has sold almost 50,000 copies, has a 5-star Amazon review rating (400 reviews), and has received 8 book awards, including the 2015 Eric Hoffer First Horizon Non-Fiction Award for debut authors.
You've had enormous success promoting Life in a Jar. Could you tell us about some of the ways you've promoted your book? Successes? Failures?
I've employed multiple strategies for book promotion. The teacher who initiated this project retired from teaching and established the Life in a Jar Foundation as part of the Lowell Milken Center, Fort Scott, Kansas to work with high school students in every state and more than thirty countries on Unsung Hero Projects that, like the Life in a Jar/Irena Sendler Project, reflect and promote Irena Sendler's legacy of tolerance, courage, and respect for all people. Fifteen years later, the Center, with new student actors, still presents the play at venues in the U.S., Poland, and Canada, where the book is sold. They also sell the book through their website. I donate 60 percent of my author royalties to the Life in a Jar Foundation as my tribute to this amazing organization and the powerful good they do to repair the world and inspire students to do what they can to repair the world. (I am a child of Holocaust survivors and quite sensitive to the commercialization of the Holocaust. I aspire to cover my costs and only earn enough from the sales of the book to continue speaking about it and spreading the legacy of Irena Sendler and the "girls from Kansas".)
As an indie publisher I established my website, Long Trail Press, with information about the book, the project, my author bio, a list of awards and reviews, etc. I created a YouTube trailer with the help of my book designer, Winslow Colwell. Win's book cover art was recognized with the 2011 da Vinci Eye Award (Eric Hoffer Book Award).
One of the most powerful promotional aids has been as a member of the Speakers Bureau of the Vermont Humanities Council (VHC), which facilitates my talks in various community settings all over Vermont. The VHC pays a small honorarium and the venue can be as few as ten people in a rural library or hundreds in Burlington, our largest city. I have also spoken and done book signings for more than a hundred groups in the U.S., Poland, Canada, and the U.K. including schools, book clubs, book stores, churches, synagogues, libraries, adult education, teacher, and Holocaust conferences, etc. When possible, I accompany the Kansas students to their performances of the play and speak there as well as sign books. I'm still a part-time pediatrician, so that is somewhat of a balancing act as well.
I've been fortunate to receive enthusiastic reviews from among others, Jay Parini, a 5-star Foreward Clarion Reivew, Kirkus Reviews, U.S. Review of books, Michele Forman (National Teacher of the Year - 2001), etc.
Some failures and frustrations along the way: I was unable to have my book reviewed by mainstream newspapers, magazines, journals, etc. As an unknown, self-publishing author I had no way into these media platforms for an assessment of my book. I was just ignored. Ouch! I am now trying to interest a mainstream educational publisher in a 3rd edition of the book aimed at school audiences. So far, no luck!
Your book has been translated into multiple languages. How did this happen? What approach did you use?
Life in a Jar has been translated into four languages: Polish, Russian, Chinese, and French. I did not seek out these translations, rather I was approached by publishers or agents in each country who came across the story in one way or another. (The Chinese literary agent learned of the story from the Chinese Reader's Digest!) I went to Poland for the release of the Polish translation in 2013 and was received by Deputy Foreign Minister Jerzy Pomianowski, gave multiple media interviews, and spoke to students at one of thirty-five Irena Sendler schools in Poland, along with one of the children she rescued, Elzbieta Ficowska, a spokesperson for Child Survivors of the Holocaust in Poland. She was rescued by Irena as a five month old infant and, in her later life, Elzbieta helped care for Irena in her old age. Before Life in a Jar/Irena Sendler Project, Irena was unknown in Poland.
What impact has Irena Sendler had on your life and writing?
I accompanied the Kansas students to Poland on one of their many journeys to present the play and meet with Irena Sendler over the last eight years of her life. I met Irena and interviewed her as well as children she rescued and scholars of the Warsaw ghetto. We walked the streets of the ghetto, which I knew by heart because of my intensive research.
My encounter with Irena Sendler and the Kansas students has profoundly impacted my life. Liz, Megan, and Sabrina have demonstrated to me and those who read the book, the power of one person, a teenager, to change the world. As a child of Holocaust survivors I feel a mission to document and memorialize the best of humanity that arose at such a challenging time. As a pediatrician, I immunize against microbial disease; as a writer, I invoke memory as our best immunization against the atrocities we inflict upon each other… an ethical immunization that foster respect, love, and justice against the disease of intolerance, hatred, and violence. My fondest wish, my hope, my prayer, is that after reading Life in a Jar, young people another generation removed from the Holocaust will remember the Warsaw ghetto and be inspired by what these Kansas teens accomplished. Hopefully, they will be inspired to do what they can to "repair the world.”
What advice do you have for other indie publishers? How can we find your books?
Life in a Jar is available at local bookstores, through Ingram, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and is also in a Nook, Kindle, and iBook electronic format. The audio book is now being produced by Tantor Media and should be available soon. Tantor Media approached me after seeing my book at BookExpo America in New York City. I also continue to advertise with IPNE and IBPA for more visibility and promotion… two invaluable resources that helped me navigate the steep, but rewarding learning curve that is indie publishing.
In the end, for me, indie publishing was a matter of do or die. I believe so strongly in this story and my telling of it, that I was not going to be defeated by the obstacles. I suppose it's a matter of faith, and a willingness to fail. I was frightened many times during this process, but as a friend of mine observed, "If you're not scared, it isn't courage."