David Finch didn’t set out to become a best-selling author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, The Journal of Best Practices. The former engineer was merely trying to save his marriage when he started keeping a journal of positive reminders to offset his then inexplicable personality quirks, such as impaired social reasoning, unusual rituals and intense egocentricity that were stressing his marriage.
“My wife and I were both constantly feeling misunderstood, under-appreciated, and resentful towards each other,” recalls Finch. “We didn’t talk very much, because if we did, it usually led to arguments. We felt hopeless, sad, and confused, the way people do when they’ve lost their best friend.”
In 2008, David was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS), a type of mild autism characterized by difficulties in social interaction, physical clumsiness and poor communication skills. Finally he understood the cause of his marital problems and went to work managing his disorder, committing himself to relentless self-improvement, sometimes to a comical extent.
The Journal of Best Practices, his book debut based on his struggle with Asperger Syndrome, became a runaway success, quickly positioning David as a Slightly Famous author, speaker and Asperger Syndrome advocate. In this interview, David talks about his path to authorship which, despite a healthy dose of good luck, underscores several best practices for those seeking to land a book deal in today’s tough publishing marketplace.
Talk about the origin of The Journal of Best Practices
The book arose out of my struggle to adapt and improve my marriage. I wasn’t interested in a complete personality overhaul; I just wanted to become more in control of myself. So, I started keeping what I called a “journal of best practices,” which was a collection of personal maxims that I wrote down and tried to practice everyday: “Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along,” “Apologies don’t count when you shout them,” “It’s better to fold the laundry than to take only what you need from the dryer.”
Working together, guided by love and my best practices, Kristen and I were able to transform our failing marriage into the happy marriage we’d always wanted. I learned how to manage my behaviors on my own and be a better husband. Over time, I began to see that my personal story could be the basis of something bigger than my own personal journal.
How did you go about attracting a major publisher?
It was a seemingly non-repeatable path but, there were some things that I think I did right to help myself launch a new career that aspiring authors can learn from.
At first, I wrote short essays about my learning of the diagnosis and the problems in our marriage. I had no intention of launching a career out of it and was just writing for myself.
Soon after, my wife encouraged me to reconsider my career as an engineer and take my writing seriously. I enrolled in a creative writing workshop and wrote several essays about my marriage and Asperger Syndrome in general.
I wanted to publish my work and targeted the New York Times, Modern Love column, which was widely read. I became intimately familiar with the columns’ style and content and then pitched my ideas for a column based on my personal story.
So you did your homework?
Exactly. I did read the column closely and saw that my story could be a good fit: a love story about a couple coming from two neurological cultures.
How did that lead to a publishing contract?
It was complete good fortune. I pitched the New York Times Modern Love column a piece, which was a challenge in itself. When they accepted it and published my column, it caught the attention of a literary agent. She contacted me and asked “Would you be interested in making this a book?”
Normally aspiring authors have to go through a long process of packaging their book idea into a formal proposal. They seek an agent to represent them, which is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Once you find an agent you begin the arduous process of shopping your book proposal around to publishers.
I skipped that process. The agent came to me, which is rare.
How long did it take to you land your book deal?
I published the New York Times’ column in May 2009. The agent contacted me almost immediately. I brought my vision to the table about what the book might look like and it was almost perfectly aligned with what she wanted. I put together chapter summaries and she started contacting publishers. Their was enough interest and an auction was held the following September, about four months later I had the book deal and a signed contract with Scribner.
I assume you made the book a top priority for the better part of a year?
As an author, you must be prepared to move quickly and readjust your life. I jumped at the opportunity and rearranged my life to concentrate on my writing. I’d been meaning to transition out of engineering and this gave me an opportunity to become a full-time writer.
I started writing the manuscript in January 2010. It took fifteen months to write the book, including going back and forth with Scriber over multiple drafts. Nine months later I submitted the final manuscript and the book was published in January 2012.
How was the book received upon publication?
It took off quickly, and the overall response has transformed my life. Opportunities to promote the book came from many directions as people who read the book or heard me in an interview got in touch and said, “Would you come and speak in our school district?” or “Would you come and speak at our community event?”
Over the past couple of years, it’s taken on a life on its own. In 2012, I booked more than 50 speaking engagements, which have given me an opportunity to connect with many families and individuals who are struggling with Asperger Syndrome.
The book resonated with marriage and family therapists and many of them recommended my book. And we’ve received so much positive feedback from people who don’t have Asperger and were fascinated by the story and led to my becoming a blogger for Psychology Today.
The sales have been strong and the publisher is happy in terms of book sales. I want to keep the momentum going because connecting with people is really exciting for me.
Do you do most of your own promotional work?
The publisher assigned a publicist after the book launch, and she’s been great. But I’ve had to be very involved in leading most of the promotional work.
I quickly learned that authors are disproportionately responsible for putting their books on the map. Promotion must be ongoing and you can’t slow down. I learned the art of media relations, pitching my story and staying in front of editors and journalists.
What have you learned that you would recommend to new authors?
Write the best you possibly can. You can’t account for everyone’s taste but good writing is good writing. Set realistic goals and do not become discouraged when things don’t play out as you’ve hoped. If doors close in front of you, don’t panic and give up. You have to constantly reassess and re-evaluate to keep your road map and strategy viable.
New authors should expect numerous rejections. You have to have a thick skin and learn to accept rejection, learn from it and grow.
You have to truly believe in your idea. If you’ve studied the market, and even tested your thesis with some advance publishing as I did with the New York Times, the right publishing partner is out there.