Each year, more than 40,000 books are published in the United States. Most of them are ignored or quickly forgotten in such a competitive crush. Book-publishing can be the riskiest of businesses -- especially for the first-time publisher.
Nonetheless, two years ago Eric Diggs decided he wanted to publish a book. It would be on a subject near and dear to his heart, African folk myths. And given his background in advertising and printing, it would be beautifully designed and illustrated.
Now he has his book. It's called "The Origin of Life on Earth," with text by David A. Anderson, a noted African-American
folklorist, and lavish illustrations by Kathleen Atkins Wilson. Mr. Diggs has gotten exceptional response from bookstores and libraries from around the country for his book, and he is planning on publishing more books on African myths and producing related videos.
Mr. Diggs, 40, is a Baltimore native and a 1974 graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in advertising. He spent several years with two advertising agencies before forming his own company, Sights Productions, in 1986. He operates the company out of the basement of a solar home outside Mount Airy that he helped design and build. He lives there with his wife, Denice, and their 6-year-old son, Dylan.
Q: It's a pretty gutsy move to enter the world of book publishing as a rookie in mid-career. How did that happen?
A: The book came out of what I thought was a need for positive children's books. It didn't start out as a children's book; I initially wanted to do a series of children's videos on African folklore. That's the way I wanted to take Sights Productions, the video company that I had started. But the book seemed like the best vehicle initially. I will do the video eventually.
Q: How long had you had an interest in African folklore?
A: It came only recently. My interest in mythology came from looking at Joseph Campbell's books and shows on PBS. There were so many great stories, but when I started looking for African myths, there weren't any around, as far as I could see. And then I found out that there were a lot, but in certain pockets of research. Information about myths is more obtainable now than a few years ago, though.
Q: A crucial part in the development of this book came in 1990, when you went to New Orleans for a convention of African storytellers.
A: Right. That's where I heard David Anderson tell his stories. It was one Saturday morning. After I heard him, I approached him and told him I wanted to do a book. I had been down there a couple of days, just fooling around, trying to learn. But he gave me a big hug and just said OK.
We agreed to the book on a handshake. Later, I came across the work of Kathleen Wilson and knew I wanted her to do the illustrations.
We didn't have any time schedules for completing the book. In a collaboration like this, we had to work together, around each person's schedule.
L Q: Any problems as a rookie in the book-publishing business?
A: Any mistakes I made as a rookie I probably will make the next time as well. No, I knew what I wanted to do -- to make a good book. It wasn't just to make money. I just wanted to do the best possible job.
When the book was finished, I started the marketing. I drew up a poster and then checked out the libraries around the country that served a large black population. Then I checked out the schools with the same demographics. And then my last mailing went out to the black-owned bookstores. Each group responded very positively to the book. People just take this book and love it. That's been the response -- a very emotional one. Some people did think that this story was too sophisticated for children. But I read it to Dylan and he had no trouble following it.
I have gotten some hate mail. It was pretty ugly -- racist stuff that could really bring you down. I just looked at it and then threw it away. I don't like to dwell on such things.
Q: Were there times while working on this book that you felt you couldn't pull it off?
A: Oh sure. Right from the beginning, finding the resources. I applied for a loan and was rejected for that. So I put a second mortgage on the house, and cashed in my life insurance, and cashed in my pension with the company.
It was a stretch, but I had other things going on to bring in money, so I knew what I could do.
Q: How did Sights Productions come about?
A: I started Sights in '86. I envisioned it as a video production company that would do interesting and inspiring work. I did some product shots for corporations, stuff like that; I also did some designing work with Pete Traynor, who was an old friend. And then the publishing part started in 1991.
Q: And you were still working as a salesman for a printing company in Lancaster, Pa.
A: There really was a lot going on in my life. I had that job, which I had had since 1982 and still have. And I was doing design work and videos for Sights. I don't have a lot of wasted time. I have my offices downstairs, so when I have a project going on, I can just hone in on it.
Q: You really had to sell this book project and yourself as well. Was that hard?
A: No. I believed in David, and who he is. And I believed in the artist, and her work. I just believed in all the people associated with this project, and followed my heart.