Marshall Terrill is the author of nearly 20 published books, including the bestselling biography “Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel” and biographies of celebrity icons Elvis Presley and ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich. Three of his books have been optioned for feature films. We caught up with Terrill to ask about the launch of his latest release and first self-published book, “Zora Folley: The Distinguished Life and Mysterious Death of a Gentleman Boxer,” which as of this publication had skyrocketed to become the fifth best-selling book on boxing on Amazon within its first week and a half of publication.
PB: As a biographer, your books really involve significant journalistic research. Tell us about the painstaking process you went through to report and write this book.
MT: This book was different than any other book I’ve written because it has lingered inside of my head for 10 years. With most books I write a proposal and two chapters, shop it around and if I get a publisher to agree to publish, then I work on that book until it’s finished. In this case, the book originated in 2003 as a three-part series for a newspaper I worked for in the Phoenix, Arizona area called The East Valley Tribune. Because I was on a deadline to finish the story, I was forced to present my findings without finding a solution to the case. Many key elements of the story were still missing and I wasn’t able to get closure. For me, it’s comparable to the police detective who never solved that one case that haunts him/her for the rest of their life … and that’s what the Folley story was for me. So after the story was published, it still stayed with me all those years. However, I knew no publisher was ever going to do a book because the audience was too small. So when a colleague at work suggested I take a class she taught on how to publish an ebook, the Folley story immediately came to mind. To answer your question, it wasn’t a painstaking process at all because it was more of an adventure and investigation and the more I learned, the closer I got to finding an answer. Almost every book is a painstaking process, but this book was different. I was a man on a quest and HAD to find the answer. There was no way I was going to stop until I closed the case. That said, I spent the better part of a year working on this book.
PB: How do you pick the subjects of your biographies and how did you become obsessed with unearthing and telling the story of Zora Folley?
MT: Stories come to me in a variety of ways: I pick them; my agent picks them; and I get approached by the subject or their agent. Mostly, the story has to interest me. To me, that’s what it all boils down to — is the story interesting and why should the public care? In the case of Zora Folley, the public was never going to really know what happened on the night of his death in July 1972. I knew based on my experience as a reporter, this case could be solved. I was both haunted and obsessed by the words of Zora Folley’s son, Robert, who said to me in 2003 when discussing his father’s untimely and mysterious death, “One day the truth will come out.” But how was the truth supposed to come out if no one was actively looking for the truth? It had been over 40 years since his death and no one was looking at the case, only speculating, including the Folley family. My driving force was that this was a story in my own backyard and I had the contacts and the know-how to solve it. I pushed and pushed until I had the answer.
PB: You’ve had nearly 20 books published by publishing houses. Why did you choose not to pursue a traditional publisher for this particular book?
MT: I knew this book was not mainstream enough for a traditional publisher. Unless it’s about Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing books typically don’t sell. Publishers today want home runs and my argument is, what’s wrong with a double or a triple? The market has changed dramatically and publishers are struggling to stay afloat. Look at all of the Top 10 books for nonfiction. It’s dominated by media figures who are either in films, rock music, televison or have a syndicated radio show. They have a built-in media audience to promote their book and the old-school method of a definitive biography is rarely going to be a bestseller even though it’s the hardest book to write. It’s like the 1970s adult thriller: it’s extinct simply because they no longer make money even though everybody acknowledges they’re the best movies to watch. The book publishing world is not much different than the film world in that it suffers from the blockbuster mentality. I also knew that the Folley story wasn’t worthy of a full-book length work (mine is 93 pages) because it would have been too boring. Zora Folley was a distinguished gentleman throughout his life and his mysterious death and my investigation was really the crux of the story. Every year I get royalties from my other books and that has surprised me because print runs are finite. However, the past few years I’ve noticed most of my royalties are derived from the ebooks. With the death of the traditional bookstore and the emerging popularity of ebooks being sold through the Internet, I felt it was time for me to test the waters. I’m so happy that I did and I plan on doing more ebooks.
PB: How was the process of self-publishing different than working with a conventional publisher?
MT: Day and night. First and foremost, I didn’t have to go through the 18-month cycle of writing a proposal, submitting it to a publishing house and hearing a bunch of young people under the age of 30 tell me why my book wasn’t commercial or “hot” enough. Like you’ve said, I’ve done close to 20 books and every one has had an element of rejection. But, three of them have been bestsellers and have been optioned as films, so my instincts are good. I’ve always been at war with editorial boards because a.) you don’t select books/make decisions by committee and b.) they want to appeal to the under 30 demographic. My contention is that people under 30 aren’t as interested and don’t have the disposable income of people over 50 to buy a book, especially a hardback. People on these editorial committees often have no frame of reference for the people I write about because they’re too young. For example, I once pitched a project on sixties counter-culture figure Timothy Leary to a committee. I actually had to explain to them who Leary was, what he did and why he was important. It was really sad because growing up in the 1970s, I knew all the important political, social and pop culture figures. However, it seems like the younger generation doesn’t have the same appreciation for the important 20th century figures that I do … but that’s only part of the story. I also liked the fact I didn’t have to face a deadline. Deadline pressure in some ways is like having a noose around your neck and it has gotten worse in more recent years. Before, you could take your time and do the research necessary to turn in a quality book and they might give you two or three years. Now publishers require nine months or less. One major publisher asked me to ghostwrite a celebrity memoir in four months. That’s just ridiculous. Think about it – you have to do major research to ask the right questions, find time with the celebrity to sit down with them, transcribe the interviews, find the right perspective and then write it. Not to mention it takes time to feel someone out, get a pulse of them, find their voice and then there’s the whole editing process. I managed to do it in four months, but it was a major strain. I didn’t live in those four months; I simply existed. Let’s just say that I’ll never do that again. With this book, I was still just as motivated to get it published (I had this nagging fear that someone would break the story before me!) but it was nice that the pressure was inward and not coming from a publisher. The really cool thing about this book is that it has my fingerprints all over it. It’s my voice and it’s the first time I’ve ever written in first person. As a biographer, I have always wanted to maintain an unbiased third-person narrative, but with this story and because I produced it, I felt as if there were no rules I should have to adhere to. I wrote the text, selected the photos, took many photos on my own, illustrated it with documents and memorabilia and turned it into something that I’d want to read. The only thing I didn’t do was design the cover. However, I did pick the photo and told the designer, “No rules … design it and create something you think is special.” She nailed it on the first try.
PB: How did you use Pressbooks in your workflow?
MT: It was very easy. I usually wrote on weekends but the great thing about Pressbooks is that the information is kept in a cloud so I could use different computers. I could write at home or do something from work on my lunch hour, or work from a laptop if I was waiting in the doctor’s office or was out of town in a hotel. No one had to show me how to use it and it was self-explanatory. I was pretty proud of myself because I’m not tech savvy. I even installed the photos and wrote the captions. In some ways I cared more about this book than the others I’ve had published because it was just me.
PB: By day, you do public relations. How will you promote and market your book? And what did you do before you launched to lay the groundwork?
MT: I will reach out to my press contacts in traditional media but I’ll also promote using social media such as Facebook, Twitter, posting in boxing forums and posting free press releases using keywords. I also have my own website (www.marshallterrill.com) and can post press releases anytime I wish. What did I do before I launched the book to lay the groundwork? I posted excerpts of the book on Facebook and Twitter and got great response from those who read them. What I learned from doing that exercise is that everybody loves a mystery. It doesn’t matter that Zora Folley was a boxer or was once a celebrity. They want to know how I solved the case … of course, I’d tell them they’d have to buy the book to find the answer!
You can buy Zora Folley: The Distinguished Life and Mysterious Death of a Gentleman Boxer here.