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April 1, 2002
by Judith Rosen
Out here, light can be the raw calcium of old bone," writes Mary Sojourner in her first collection of essays, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest (Univ. of Nevada Press, Mar.), which chronicles her transformation from tourist/observer to defender of the environment. But what makes Bonelight so unusual is not just the writing.

Out here, light can be the raw calcium of old bone," writes Mary Sojourner in her first collection of essays, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest (Univ. of Nevada Press, Mar.), which chronicles her transformation from tourist/observer to defender of the environment. But what makes Bonelight so unusual is not just the writing. It's that Sojourner--a 60-something activist, gambler and NPR commentator who lives in a cabin without running water--is helping her publisher develop a grassroots approach to selling the book based on her success in self-publishing her collection of stories, Delicate. That book went back to press five times for a total of 3,000 copies after it became a September/October Book Sense 76 pick last year.

According to University of Nevada Press assistant director Sandy Crooms, Bonelight "is a natural fit with our list. Our strength is our regional titles, all rooted in the West." She acknowledged that Bonelight has opened doors to some independent bookstores for Nevada, and noted, "There are also a number of things we'll do that Sojourner couldn't do with Delicate, like distribution." The press is breaking new ground with one of its biggest first printings--5,000 copies--as well as a large, unconventional author tour by car and train throughout the Southwest, the Northeast and the Northwest.

Sojourner herself is making many of the actual bookings, as she did with Delicate. "We're helping where we can," said Crooms, who plans to use most of the book's publicity budget to pay for targeted mailings to support events such as one at Denver's Tattered Cover, rather than advertising.

If persistence were all that counted, Sojourner would be a bestselling author. After she signed with agent Judith Riven, who represented Bonelight, she decided to publish her short-story collection, Delicate, on her own with the $2,000 left in her credit-card account. But she refused to sell the book to chain superstores directly, or even indirectly through distributors. "We saw two of our local bookstores snuffed out by Barnes & Noble," Sojourner explained.

Sojourner's local independent, Reader's Oasis in Tucson, Ariz., appreciates her bookstore activism. "We got a lot of business when Sojourner was on NPR and told listeners to support independents," said head book buyer Jeff Yanc.

Since the Book Sense 76 lists started, "we've only had a few self-published books," noted Carl Lennertz. "But boy, have they ever taken off. In every case, the author was a dynamo." Like Himalayan Dhaba by Craig Joseph Danner, which was also a self-published Book Sense pick (Book News, Feb. 4), Delicate is slated to be reissued by a large house. It's part of a three-book deal with Scribner, negotiated by Riven. In spring 2003, Scribner will publish a new edition of Delicate--Sojourner has let hers go o.p.--along with Sojourner's journal for the year 2000 about giving up the Internet and going offline. The deal also includes a novel, Ghost.

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