Art, in its purest form, is for the pleasure of the artist, as well as for those who might appreciate the work for its intrinsic value. But life in a capitalistic society insures that when we take the time to produce our work, we will also probably take the time to try to sell it, if for no other purpose than to pay the rent.
I once had the dream. I wrote a couple of novels, sent out a hundred and fifty query letters, or so, even paid one guy who said he loved my work about two thousand bucks to get me on my way. It turned out, however, that my way wasn’t all that far away after all. In fact, I could see it from where I was, and what transpired only amounted to him taking my money out of my bank account for no provided services whatsoever. The real problem with this paid agent was ultimately the two years that he tied up my work, while I thought that publication was right around the corner, and I was simply leaving the details to him.
I nearly died inside from the impersonal responses that the agents sent in the stamped, self-addressed envelopes that I had provided for them. Some scribbled out a couple of sentences on the query letter itself. Others returned faded out form letters with ink so light that it was hard to read, if not for the message conveyed by the poor quality of the letter alone. Some were properly aligned on the paper; others listed one way or the other like a ship taking on water. Some agencies didn’t even bother to respond, while I, carefully keeping track of the queries sent and received, kept hoping against hope that one of the letters still out there represented my break. It wouldn’t be so sad if it wasn’t so sad. This process went on for years, and during that time, not being schooled in the ways of the industry, I made a fool of myself in a hundred different ways.
I became a fool to my friends and family who knew how much time I had spent writing my two novels. Some of these had read them too. Some loved them, others said that they loved them, and all the while, I harbored the illusion that I was the next great fiction writer on the horizon. I wasn’t. Ultimately, I gave up hope. I assuaged my pain stating that the goal had been to write the novel. I had done that. The industry was downsizing. Fiction was hard to sell. Publishing houses had cut by two thirds the titles that they published annually. The stars were aligned against me but I had accomplished what I had set out to do.
The manuscripts were tucked away; actually collecting real dust that had to be wiped away with real rags several years later when the pain wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t even bear to look at them. I thought that my failure to become the next great American novelist was painful: it was nothing like the pain that I felt when I finally had the guts to start rooting around inside of those two novels again. The writing wasn’t bad – it was hideous. It proved to be a catharsis for me. Once I was able to see the bad writing, I was at last able to accept that I had not become the next great American writer for a valid reason. This allowed me to begin work assessing whether the novels could be salvaged or should be scrapped.
Whether or not I made the right decision may or may not stand up to scrutiny depending upon the perspective. I totally reworked both, electing to attack the second book first, probably because it looked more like a novel since I had the benefit of having written the first, learning along the way, and then repeating the process a second time. I also liked the second novel better personally. I had written the first to bring me commercial success. I wrote the second because I loved to write and felt as if I was beginning to figure out how to do it.
I started on the first page and left nothing out in my review. I made character and plot changes, removed the clutter, and tightened up the grammar and structure. If I had been proud of the manuscript the first time through, which truly had represented three drafts, I was in a state of near-euphoria after I had reworked it. I had been the recipient of career steps that most writers only dream of making, when as a young man I became chief deputy coroner for a well-populated county in the Pacific Northwest that had both urban and rural areas. During this time I also worked as an autopsy assistant for the Oregon State Medical Examiner, and by the time I was done, had assisted with approximately one thousand autopsies, and had a forensic death investigation course that would be difficult to duplicate under any circumstances. I had also learned a lot about life in the process.
It took me about five years to learn that death investigation was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I’m still not sure how that happened, except to say that I woke up one morning and realized that there weren’t any happy endings in my professional life, and if I had been truthful with myself, my personal life wasn’t much better. It was then that I decided to go to nursing school, and after graduating, transitioned directly into the emergency room due to associations that I had made while at the coroner’s office. In the old days, newly graduated nurses could not move directly into critical care areas until they had first done time on a medical-surgical floor, but my prior experience had allowed me to circumvent the usual career path.
I started writing in college, winning a couple of short fiction contests and being published in the university literary magazine, drawing then on four years as an army paratrooper during which time I was fortunate enough to live in northern Italy, and my five years of forensic death investigation. Naturally, I wrote much about those periods in my short stories. Having others take an interest in my writing led me to think that I should perhaps do more of it, and maybe I might even be successful enough to get published. I was right. I have been published. But the road was much longer than I had anticipated and much less lucrative than I had hoped. I have also not yet been published in the ways that I have wanted, but there have been some unforeseen and pleasant surprises along the way.
With the reworking of my second novel completed, I still had to face the cadre of agents that were out there, and I was sure, still quite lukewarm about my work. I dreaded facing them again, but during the intervening years the technology of personal computers had grown by leaps and bounds and the work of preparing an appealing proposal was much more easily accomplished. I went to a photographic studio and had a professional portrait completed and then inserted it on page one of my proposal. I wrote a new outline and synopsis, both much more professionally done, and went to Kinko’s and had my copies made. This time I was going to be ready.
With all of the new options available to find and research literary agents, it was no longer necessary to buy copies of The Literary Marketplace, and The Author’s Guide to Literary Agents. I had Google and Yahoo and the results to my searches were immediate – how gratifying. It wasn’t long before I came across Publishamerica, with their large fonts and bright colors, and their stories of how they treated authors the old fashioned way. For a writer like me, who had been raked over the coals for years, it was music to my ears. I did what they asked me to do. I sent an online query. And when they asked for an electronic manuscript, I sent it right off. It wasn’t long before I received the hard copy letter that told me they wanted to publish my manuscript, and my new wife and I did a jig all around the first floor. Life was as good as it ever got – professionally and personally.
I had not counted on having to buy so many copies of my own book, or to do all of my own publicity, but they told me that publishing houses really didn’t have the money for many book tours these days, and this is how it was now done. The online author’s message board discussed the issue and many writers stated that it would only be a matter of time before all of the publishing houses went to this new way of publishing books called print on demand. Gullible me, I sucked it up and did what I was told. I arranged for signings at local book stores but this only lead to my questions about why my books were not being stocked in these same stores. It was then that I learned the dirty little secrets of the publish-on-demand industry and Publishamerica’s nasty little no return policy. But I spent hours on the author’s message board, a place where only the published authors could go, and my spirits remained high. I was one of the idiots who remained loyal to my publisher – never having a negative word to say, but some of the arguments were compelling, and some of the defections shocking, but I was in. It may be an unconventional way to get your work published, but hey, I was published and the royalties would come. I immediately got to work on the first novel, and within months it too was ready to go.
I like to think that I am honest with myself. I am also aware that I can be naive, but if the truth was known, this is one of the things that I like about myself. I love to pass through life with a certain sense of wonder and I often elect to believe that the world is not populated by those who would deliberately set out to rip me off. I know that this is a blindness that may someday get me killed but it is still the way that I want to live, and so for a time I continued to live the dream: I was a published author and I had the books to prove it. The first few royalty checks, paid semi-annually were small, usually in the range of twenty dollars, and having some idea of the number of copies sold, if only from the people who had called or written, the royalty statements that I was being given in no way reflected what I knew to be true . I was getting ripped off. I did contact the publisher regarding online sales at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and they assured me that it was just a matter of time. The online outlets were reportedly slow at reimbursing the publisher, up to six months, or so I was told, but rest assured, “you will get paid when we get paid”.
It was also during this period that some of the other writers started asking me to read their books and to post online reviews. Sure, I was only happy to do this. What I was about to learn, however, was that the books were absolutely atrocious, with spelling and grammar errors further tarnishing weak or unbelievable plots. I could not believe that these errors had not been recognized and reworked in the editing process. My books looked good but as I looked more closely, they looked good because I had taken the time and gotten the help that produced a better finished product. I did have to admit, though, that my publisher had not done anything in the way of editing. I had a product that I could be proud of because I had taken the time to work out the bugs.
I write medical-legal suspense. It is what I have done in my life and I have had some unique professional experiences that allow me to write relevant, factually correct fiction of this genre, and at the time, this is what the public seemed to be interested in. When people bought my books, they ran the gamut from doctors, lawyers, cops, nurses, and everybody that these folks recommended the books too. In all honesty I can relate to you that the comments were uniformly positive. I was assured on any number of occasions that I was destined for big things. They would be bestsellers. Movies would follow. I was on my way. But like I told you before, I was not on my way.
Do you have kids? Have they ever gotten into trouble, or have you been told that they had engaged in an activity that painted them in an unsavory way? Have they ever lied to you? And despite all the evidence in the world to the contrary, with your blinders securely in place, you just went on believing the falsehoods that they were painting for you. Writing a book can be a lot like that. They actually feel like children that you have sent into the world. So when you start to hear the stories, and the evidence begins to mount, and you hear of other of your peers who are hiring attorneys and filing lawsuits, and “do you want in?” you continue to believe that it just can’t be. It is actually impossible to accept that your partner in this lifetime dream could actually do this. C’mon, man, we’re in this together. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Let’s make some money – sell some movie rights – get the novels on Books-on-Tape. Guess what, loser? You’re an idiot!
There was one period when I knew for a fact that at least twenty-five books had been sold and my royalty check was for $0.98. What an insult that was! Ninety eight fricken cents: give me a break! I still have the check, as I do every other piddly little check that Publishamerica sent to me. They are in a stack of broken dreams that my association with that organization spawned. I got out but I look in on them occasionally and the rip-off continues. They simply recycle the players but there is no more diligence being exercised with the new batch of writers than there was with the old batch.
At first I just kept my mouth shut and stayed out of the way. Then one day, one fateful day, I got one of their little marketing letters where they offer writers these discounts that are based on the copies ordered, and these deals are usually in some way associated with a holiday, or some ridiculous milestone that Publishamerica has reached. Something inside of me snapped and I had the audacity to respond to the marketing email. My words were in no way genteel. I think, if memory serves me correctly, I even used some profanity, but this would not have been ugly profanity, just carefully placed words to accentuate my sarcasm. I told them in a couple of short paragraphs what I thought about their offer, their operation, their bullshit claims of how they had taken the publishing industry by storm, and guess what, they didn’t seem to like it very much.
My father died on February first of this year. It was the morning of an ice storm here in Ohio and he and I had been out spreading salt together in an attempt to get our cars out so we could get to work. You see, he and my mom live up the driveway from us, back in a beautiful woods that we both love so much. After we were done my dad called and asked if I had any additional salt. He then came down to get it and used my little 4 wheel drive farm utility vehicle to pick it up. I had already slid all over creation that morning, and I didn’t feel good about Dad out tooling around in the vehicle, but he insisted, and well, I didn’t argue. As he was backing up to the bed of my truck to get the salt he needed, he began to slide, in front of my eyes as I looked on in horror. He and the vehicle went over a seventy foot cliff that our house sits on, and he was gone. I ran to him and performed CPR while we waited for medics but it was not to be. My dad died that ugly icy morning.
The day that he was buried was also a rainy day. It was a beautiful funeral, as funerals go, and was well-attended in a marvelous cathedral. We rode to the cemetery as a family, in a well-appointed limousine and the bag-piper was standing on a hill nearby. The moisture in the air rendered his pipes inoperable, something that hurt me deeply, but after the services were over, my wife and I stopped at the post office on the way home to pick up a certified letter that a little yellow notice in my mailbox had alerted me was there. Guess what? On the worst day of my life, bar none, just as I had buried the father that I loved deeply, I got a certified letter from Publishamerica informing me that they were severing our relationship. I suppose that I should have been happy. I had gotten nothing from our association. But there was something about the demeaning tone of the letter, seeking to suggest to me that my books would no longer be found, anywhere, that left me on this horrible day feeling as if somebody had just shot a missile through my gut, just like one of the old Road Runner cartoons when Wile E. Coyote was able to bend over and peer through the hole in his stomach.
I had pretty-much given up on writing another novel. What was the point? It is an impenetrable marketplace reserved only for those who had a break and now dominate the market. I began to write poetry, much of which has been published here at Authors Den. I fantasized about what might be a fitting end for Publishamerica, but in the end, I have accepted that what comes around goes around and there will be a special spot in hell reserved for those folks. The new novel will be finished soon. It is better than the first two for whatever reasons I cannot render to you now, but I have no idea whatsoever what my chances are of garnering an appealing contract from a reputable house. Only the future knows the trail. I can tell you, if you have not already guessed, some turns that I will not be taking this time around.
And this, my friends, has been the purpose of this dissertation. I do not want for anyone to suffer what I have suffered. Write the very best manuscript that you can write. When you are done, write it six more times with an extremely critical eye, pass it to someone you trust, not your stoner buddy who sleeps until ten and eats Spaghetti –Os for breakfast. Find somebody who knows their way around a split infinitive and ask them to give it a look. It is then imperative that you write a cogent synopsis, recognizing that even if your query letter gets you a look, if your synopsis does not set the hook then you are sunk. You must also write an accurate outline. Not everyone will ask for it, but those who do will want you to be able to do it correctly.
You must then find an agent. You may not think you need one and you may find others who tell you that you can get by without one – but you can’t. Without an agent you can’t get access to publishing houses, and without that you are sunk. You will hear more and more the option of self-publishing as well as the publish-on-demand route, but if I have not addressed that sufficiently, well, I doubt that I can do any better at this point. You need an agent. It is hard work and it is imperative that you follow instruction. If they say query letter only don’t send them your entire manuscript. It won’t work. You must always include a self-addressed stamped envelope or you will never see your work again, but the larger issue of following the rules is really what I want to convey.
I am a nurse who specializes in oncology. In recent years, when I have not been writing novels, I have been writing magazine and journal articles about different aspects of oncology nursing. They don’t pay much and they are a lot of work, but they are publishing credits and agents know the work that you have put into them. I also wrote an article for a sporting magazine about a hunting trip that my father and I took out west. Once again, a lot of work, and in this case, no money, but it was another publishing credit. It is also a family treasure now that Dad is gone. Hopefully, as I re-enter the marketplace this time around, these credits will help to open doors at the offices of the literary agents. I don’t know that to be true but I do have hope.
I see that this could settle into treatise on the tedium of the industry, and the process, and that is not my intent. It is a brutal industry and the pitfalls are many. It will most probably break your heart and your chances for commercial success are slim. If what you are after is to have a few books to spread around to your friends and family then perhaps a publish-on-demand purveyor is what you need. If you are a serious writer, uninterested in a little local adulation, then you will have to follow the rules. The first rule is good writing. The second is patience. Beyond this, the only rule that matters is that you NEVER DO WHAT I HAVE DONE!