"He called the store one day," Jean Hardy remembers, "and said he'd completed the Bridges sequel and wondered if we would like to see it." If she and her husband liked A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, Waller said, he would be pleased to have them publish it.
Jean read the manuscript, assured her husband that it was "the best thing Waller's written" and they began preparing a contract that would launch a publishing adventure that has become as much fairy tale as a Waller plot. "It just fell in our laps," she says. "This," her husband admits, "is kinda scary."
Soon, The Associated Press, Publishers Weekly and Entertainment Weekly were spreading the news of the unlikely deal struck between the high-profile author and a publishing house nobody had ever heard of in a place few could even locate on the map. While Waller refuses interview requests, his agent, Aaron Priest, explained the decision to Entertainment Weekly thusly: "Money is not a major consideration to Robert, and we just figured we'd have more control over everything working locally with a small company." Terms of the contract have not been made public.
In a prepared statement released shortly after his agreement with the Hardys, Waller said only that he "...got my start selling my books out of the back of my pickup truck in small towns in Iowa. I like to do things on a small scale."
Thus, while Jean Hardy edited the manuscript, her husband began busying himself with the details of cover design and arranging for printing and distribution of the book, which is due out at the end of April. His first hurdle came when, following a copyright check, he learned that there were already two Iron Mountain Presses in existence. Waller's book will now be published under the newly incorporated John M. Hardy Publishing imprint. "Everything got out of hand pretty quickly," Hardy says. "Initially, we talked of a first printing of 25,000, which, for us, is huge." Soon, however, the flood of interest and media attention convinced them that figure was woefully low.
When it was decided that as many as 100,000 books would better satisfy the anticipated demand, he had to contact an eastern company that could handle such a print run. He's also contracted with a book distributing firm that will ship and warehouse the book and has set up an accounting system he never dreamed he'd need.
Despite the attention and growing anticipation, however, there will be no expensive promotional tour for the author. Waller has made it clear to the Hardys that he has no interest in hitting the book-signing and the "Wake Up With Ken and Barbie" talk shows as he once did. "He did that for Bridges and says it was enough to last him a lifetime. He signed so many books that he developed carpal tunnel syndrome," Mike says. This time around, the author will sign only 1,500 special first editions. Waller, Hardy says, may give a few television and radio interviews after the book has been published. For now, however, he's not talking--to the Dallas Observer or anyone else.
And while it is unlikely that the Hardy-published sequel--whose story line is a closely guarded secret--will rival the celestial numbers that resulted from the publication of Bridges a decade ago, there is legitimate reason to anticipate the new book's success. There are, no doubt, enough curious Waller fans eager to learn whatever happened to the fictional Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson to make a couple of neophyte publishers semi-wealthy.
Dallas literary agent Jim Donovan, who has dealt with numerous regional and national publishers over the course of his career, is among those in the industry who believes the Hardys have a potential hit on their hands. "Because of the precipitous decline in sales of Waller's subsequent books, his reputation was tarnished," he says. "But the fact remains that The Bridges of Madison County had an enormous number of fans. Even if this sequel sells a tenth of what The Bridges of Madison County did--and I think it just might if properly marketed--you're talking about a million books. Half that is considered a remarkable number for any publisher."
The Hardys hope he's right. Jean, who ultimately wishes to spend her time photographing and writing about the botany of the Big Bend, and Mike, who dreams of full-time life in little Marathon, both laugh nervously at the suggestion of success.
"I just hope," Jean admits, "that we can make enough to retire."