Whoops! I'm an Author
How Buzzy Martin's prison stories went from cassette tape to publishing deal
By Daedalus Howell
When it comes to publishing a memoir, the odds of obtaining an agent, bringing a book to market and selling it within one's lifetime—while the publishing industry endures seismic change—are astronomical. Local music fixture Buzzy Martin, however, aimed for the stars and scored by doing precisely none of the above.
Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Man recounts an odyssey that began with Martin's role teaching music to at-risk kids and ended with a stint playing tunes for hardboiled cons at San Quentin. Throughout, he brings back life lessons he shared with his young pupils. (Think Scared Straight with power chords.) This very paper applauded the book as "a compelling portrait of the transformative power of music and of the impact that it can make on men from drastically different walks of life," and recommended it highly.
Martin originally self-published Don't Shoot! three years ago in an edition of just 2,000, but word slowly but surely spread, including positive mentions by Tom Waits both in Harp magazine and on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour. Berkley Books, an imprint of publishing juggernaut the Penguin Group, released Martin's book in a trade paperback edition last month. A film adaptation is underway.
Martin's accomplishment is interesting on several levels, not least of which because the wild-haired and mustachioed guitarist never intended to be a writer. He wanted to be a rock star. "That never happened, and I have to cop to that and that's okay," he confesses, "but what did happen is that I'm changing the world in my own way."
More specifically, Martin is changing the worlds of those he mentors through music and, now, words. Martin's commitment to healing broken souls through music is total, evidenced by the fact that he's more inclined to discuss issues faced by incarcerated kids than the vicissitudes of the publishing industry. However, his successful experience in this realm is an object lesson in persistence, friendship and belief in oneself—the very same attributes he tries to awaken in his students.
This is how he did it: After afternoons playing ZZ Top covers and stewing in the existential experience of jailed felons at San Quentin, Martin would recount his experiences into a tape recorder while driving to decompress during his commute home. Being computer-averse at the time, Martin transcribed the six resulting 90-minute cassette tapes by hand, with a pen, onto yellow notebook tablets. Eventually, he coaxed his wife Laura into keying his words into a word processor.
Thereafter, Martin began working the material into a cogent narrative, writing and rewriting until, he says, "[I] had what I didn't realize was called a manuscript." With little notion how to proceed, Martin sought publishing advice from staffers at Copperfield's Books, who suggested he self-publish. Thanks to his wife's continued assistance, he did. The newfound author then proceeded on an ill-fated campaign to place the book in the hands of juvenile hall inmates, which he perceived as his target audience.
"The only juvenile hall director I talked to said, 'Don't ever call me again, these kids are my fucking retirement. I'm not going to read your goddamn book,'" says Martin, "and that was it."
Mike Grabowski, a professor in the Criminal Justice Program at Santa Rosa Junior College, had a markedly different response. He made Martin's self-published book required reading. "That was the first yes," says Martin.
If the so-called vanity press finds some authors gazing fondly at themselves in the mirror, then Martin is the opposite—he went through the looking glass. When he finally got hip to Facebook, he connected to everyone from guitar players (Toto's Steve Lukather among them) to criminal-justice professionals, and asked each if they would accept a copy of the self-published tome and review it on Amazon. The approbations rolled in.
Meanwhile, a friend's wife at Penguin Books gifted a copy to a colleague who emailed Martin some kind words about the work. Martin contemporaneously pursued a contact in San Francisco's juvenile court system, whom he'd learned had quit and moved into a position at Prodigy Motion Pictures. She recognized the potential of Martin's story, which also sparked the interest of company founder Ray Robinson, information that Martin shared with Penguin. He was offered a book contract in a matter of days. The film contract followed shortly thereafter.
Don't Shoot! I'm the Guitar Player is available in 40 countries. Its first printing sold out in six days. The movie is coming soon to theater near you.
Daedalus Howell shoots the piano man instead for Future Media Research Lab at FMRL.com.
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