The other day I went down to the basement to retrieve three boxes of guidebooks to ship out to a supplier. As I was rummaging around in the dark corners searching for the once-ubiquitous cardboard boxes bearing the name “Malbaie Press” (my invented publishing company), it began to dawn on me: there aren’t anymore left. Aside from a few boxes I’d set in my office to keep for posterity, that’s it. Twelve years after publishing my whitewater guidebook, Let It Rain, I’m finally sold out.
I can’t pretend that I’ve sold that many. I had 2,200 copies printed up back in the fall of 2007. That is certainly not, in the grand scheme of things — or even by the relatively low standards of the modern publishing industry — a lot. But back in January of 2008 when a huge palate of book cartons was lowered into the parking lot of my newly rented storage unit in Bethesda, Maryland, it seemed unimaginable that I’d ever sell through them all. Each box held 14 books, and there was a half-day’s worth of boxes to move. I remember a picture I took, as I stood back, sweaty and tired, admiring my completed work: a storage unit full, floor to ceiling, of boxes and boxes of Let It Rain.
Speaking of the title, here’s a bit of trivia. “Let It Rain” was not my first idea. I’d been trying and trying to come up with something for a while, and by 2006, in the run-up to the final edits, I’d loosely settled on what I’m now sure would have been something I regretted like a wrinkled old tattoo: the Led Zeppelin song title, “When the Levee Breaks.” Fortunately, I soon thought better of this — aided by the continued fallout from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina — and stumbled onto the Eric Clapton song title that now adorns the cover photo of Simon Wiles.
People sometimes ask, “Is that you on the cover?” I always wonder, “What do you think I am, an egomaniac?”
(Actually, I just didn’t have a good enough picture of myself or I’d absolutely have done that.)
Sales were strong the first year; a kayaker I knew from Connecticut named Mike Lackman received the (signed) very first copy. I remember sending out a number of free copies to people who’d helped me during the process. Sales slowed the next year; it was just my luck that the Great Recession happened. But things picked back up a few years later, and continued on, more or less, slow but steady ever since then.
It was the ultimate passion project for me in my early and mid-20s: something to give my life direction, a way to combine my two main interests of kayaking and writing. It was, in its way, my door into the adult world, my first tangible goal as a young adult; a way to put to use the skills of writing, researching, interviewing, and organizing that I’d learned in school (even my limited drawing skills). I began writing the first descriptions (the New Haven Ledges, the Middlebury Gorge) lying on my inflatable mattress in a boater house in Bethesda, Maryland during the summer, a directionless college sophomore; I opened the first fresh box of finished guidebooks six years later as a 26 year-old with a career contemplating grad school.
It was, in its own way, a risk I took. I distinctly remember how nervous I was to tell veteran boaters that I, a relative novice who hadn’t run many rivers, was contemplating writing the definitive guide to their rivers. This was certainly not the case of a wily old veteran finally bestowing his troves and troves of stored-up knowledge on the eager masses.
In fact, I’m struck by how similar that nervous, I’m-not-quite-ready feeling has been before I’ve taken on most of the important steps I’ve taken in my life. It was there when I decided I wanted to devote my professional life to teaching; it was there a few years later, several times, as I applied to a series of teaching jobs that I felt deeply unprepared for. It was there two years ago when I applied for the fellowship that I felt in no way deserving of or ready for, but which was to change the course of my professional life once again. Perhaps there are people whose major life decisions have all been carefully prepared for, moments for which they’ve been completely ready; perhaps these people have waited until they were truly prepared for all such moments. This has not been the case for me. Yes, some of the major decision I’ve made in my life HAVE been ones I’ve mulled over and felt more than prepared for — where to go to college, the decision to pursue whitewater slalom after college, the decision, much later, to marry my wife, the decision last year to bring a child into the world. I’m struck, in fact, by how confident I’ve felt about all of those decisions.
Perhaps then that’s just the way life is: there are sometimes when you’ve waited long enough and studied things long enough that you feel totally informed before taking a leap. You know the field of play, know the competitors, know the odds, know the rules of the game. Then there are other times when you don’t. You simply have to take the leap without measuring; you have to rely on faith.
By the time I finished Let It Rain, I felt confident. By then, I’d run hundreds of rivers, improved my skills to the point where I was an expert boater, and counted as my friends most of the influential participants in our small subculture. I also felt confident that it was acceptable for me to speak with authority on the topic. That’s interesting to me: I couldn’t wait until I was confident to start the project; instead I needed to take the initial risk to get myself into the process . . . because that was the only way to become confident. Once again, I’ve found that to be true with several of the other big personal or professional risks I’ve taken. Last year’s fellowship, for instance, felt like something I was hardly prepared for, but through the process of actually doing it I’ve become far more confident about my professional standing because the risk itself gave me the opportunity I needed to grow and change.
The other day a colleague told me that he’d met a stranger in a restaurant and when talk turned to hobbies, kayaking came up, then my name, and the stranger began describing how much he liked Let It Rain. It’s gratifying to think that all that work I did was helpful to others. Twelve years is a darn good run, and I’m glad it sold. I hope it has a long life on bookshelves and on dashboards for years to come.