Coming out of grad school, polished thesis in hand, I thought I saw a clear path to literary success. Write great novel. Get agent. Sign book deal. Seemed pretty straightforward. I felt confident I’d done the first part. In fact, I had two completed novels I was proud of, which I began pitching immediately upon graduation, and though it felt like it took ages to land my first agent, the truth is I had one within a year. So now we only needed that last part. Simple, right?
I read on J.A. Kazimer’s blog the other day, that the chances of publishing with one of the Big Six is 1 in 300,000, odds that vastly improve with an agent. Even if that 1 in 32,000 lands somewhere between getting struck by lightening and winning a Grammy (I don’t know if that’s true, I’m bad with math, but I do have a new album coming out).
Within a month of signing, we had several hits on my memoir, Junkie Love. Some of these responses were so enthusiastic, in fact, left so little doubt that my ticket was about to be punched, I began texting friends that a contract was a foregone conclusion (even though severe OCD makes such premature jumping preemptive bad juju). If it weren’t so unprofessional, I’d reprint these emphatic emails, which would leave little doubt my enthusiasm was entirely justified.
Then the sales folks got involved.
There’s a whole behind-the-scenes, bottom-line world the new writer isn’t aware of. If an editor, whose job is to pick the books, loves your novel, you’re in, right? Damn bean counters.
Apparently James Frey’s A Million Little Lies had left a bad taste in some mouths, and no one wanted to touch my “junkie memoir.” The book was never a junkie memoir, except in terms of marketing, because I’d been warned the only thing worse than a tapped-out genre is a book that is unclassifiable.
I am not a cosmic kind of guy. Don’t put much stock in horoscopes. But something strange happened when that first big publisher said no. A greater collective consciousness kicked in and it was like a moratorium had been issued on the entire project. The hot girl in high school had deemed me undateable; all other viable options dried up.
My friend, screenwriter Reed Bernstein, says that getting an agent is like asking someone to be your ex-wife. “I still believe in you, honey. I just can’t stick around and wait for it to happen any longer.”
When our contract was up, I didn’t resign with that agent. Then again, she hadn’t asked me to. There was nowhere else to go. We’d hit all the major houses. Furthermore, unless I was willing to rewrite the entire book and change my name, a new agent probably wouldn’t have any better luck. So what to do? I could’ve scrapped Junkie Love and moved on. Except I knew it was a goddamn good book.
In 2006, I had a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Broke my back, shattered my pelvis, snapped the head off my acetabulum. Organs collapsed. Bad times. As a result, daily physical activity became essential. While I was dealing with the loss and these rejections, I was also working out with a personal trainer. A very young guy named Adam. Blasting my pecs one day, I was complaining, and Adam said something that helped me take control on my situation.
“Dude, it’s not like it was when you were a kid in the ’80s,” Adam said. “With digital media, you don’t need these gatekeepers. You can take your work right to the people.”
I am probably paraphrasing because I highly doubt Adam would’ve used the term “gatekeeper.” But he did urge me to start blogging, something my lovely wife, Justine, had been on me to do as well. I don’t know why it registered as much as it did in the gym that day. Probably the surging testosterone. Whatever it was, I took Adam’s words to heart.
I started a blog, Candy & Cigarettes, and I faithfully wrote four to five (sometimes more) posts a week for a year. I revamped my website and amped up my social media presence. Especially Facebook, where I joined several writing groups, and got to know my contemporaries (I was working mostly in noir & hardboiled by this point, finding that community more supportive than the dickish purveyors of literary fiction). I learned quickly the key to social media is the “social” part. As Julie Kazimer says, “People don’t like to be sold; they like to buy.” Simply plastering links to your stories is like superficial people were to Miss July 1988: a turnoff. Basically, I made friends. Which was the real boon of the experiment. Being a writer, I find I get on better with digital people than I do with real ones. I like them better. E-friends don’t borrow my shit and try to sleep with my wife.
The dirty little secret of writing is that the “writing” part doesn’t actually matter. It’s how Dan Brown and E.L. James, two authors with little command of the English language, can sell millions, while myriad other talented wordsmiths can labor in barista obscurity. It is not a bad thing that publishers care about making money. Everyone cares about making money. Except hippies.
With this new approach, I tried to make myself more attractive to publishers. It sounds terrible to use a term like “marketable brand.” And if that is all a writer is trying to be, it would be an unpardonable sin. Or a James Patterson book. But acknowledging what audience wants—whether that is simply a reader or a prospective acquisitions editor—is paramount to the craft. Amanda Knox wasn’t offered six figures because she’s a terrific roommate who is good in the kitchen. Writing the Great American Novel is swell. But how are you going to convince publishers who’ve never seen your pretty face that you will be able to sell books?
That was my challenge. Instead of holding out for Big Six or Bust, I began targeting the smaller, indie houses. I still planned—and plan—on getting to the penthouse someday, but if the elevator wasn’t working, I was willing to start climbing, one stair at a time.
Now I don’t know if I’d call myself a success. But I do have three books out. All released within a six-month span: Choice Cuts and Wake the Undertaker, Snubnose Press; and Junkie Love (now a novel), Battered Suitcase Press. I’ve gotten darling reviews and good press, been invited to read, where I’ve sold out books, and in the process, I have done something I once didn’t think possible: I’m actually making money at this.
I hate to close with a cliché, but given that I spend so much time hocking my wares on the Internet these days, I guess cats are just on my mind, and there really is more than one way to skin one (figuratively speaking, of course. I fucking love cats.)
All this helped me land my current agent, Liz Kracht, at Kimberley Cameron & Associates, who is pitching my latest, a mystery/thriller called LAMENTATION. I am targeting the Big Houses yet again. I am cautiously optimistic.
Writing is a solitary act, and getting a book published requires an awful lot to go right. You can feel pretty helpless at times. The best part of getting my books out there is that I learned there are things we can do as writers to help our own cause, and that success is, at least in part, contingent on the hard work we are willing to put in. Which is nice to know.