"So I bought this novel recently: a foreign publisher gave me a tip, long story short, the agent and the author and me, it's one of those love-at-first-sight things..." --Mar. 24, 2005
Hi, it's me. Max.
Long ago and in a land far, far away, I wrote in this space about editing a novel I'd acquired, and of the singular satisfactions that came from that experience. Of the dozens of posts I wrote during the six or seven months of BookAngst 101, "What makes it all worthwhile" was my favorite, the one that best captured the myriad rewards that the editorial life can provide when the stars allign.
It seemed to strike a nerve with readers too--perhaps because it was about the joy of the process, as opposed (for once) to the innumerable frustrations and disappointments experienced so frequently on all sides of the writing/publishing/bookselling universe. Or maybe it was because it was a story with a happy ending. An editor fairly in awe of his talented author, and grateful to have been granted such access and trust; an author, it might be inferred, who gets the editor she deserves.
Whatever the case, that "report" seems to have represented the high-water mark in the short, happy life of Mad Max Perkins. I gauge this both by the nature of the comments that it elicited, and by the fact that so many of you expressed interest in finding out more about the author and the book.
That interest was both gratifying and encouraging; for me it had the effect of making a little bit less preposterous the preposterous notion that's at the core of every author/editor partnership. Not just that we might be able to make a great book, but also that, somehow, this great book might wind up being embraced to some reasonable degree beyond the walls of our little two-seat incubator.
* * *
Ten months later, that book now exists. It's got a handsome cover, blurbs from a number of generous authors whose work I admire, and handful of pre-pub reviews (including a starred Kirkus, sez he proudly). A second printing is already in the works. Sometime in the next week or two, I'm going to have the experience of walking into a bookstore and seeing this book "live" for the very first time. (A special feeling, that.) One thing that I know for sure: if the books aren't where I want them to be when I arrive, they'll be there by the time I leave. Another thing: I'll linger in a semi-predatory fashion. On two prior such occasions that I know about for sure, my innocent comments to a book-in-hand browser have resulted in confirmed, watched-'em-all-the-way-to-the-cash-register sales. I'll be gunning for more this time around.
* * *
Back in March, a lot of people sent me comments to the effect of
Wow. I want to read this book. How are we going to know to run out and get it when it hits the shelves?
If you're still interested? The novel--DOPE--goes on sale any day now. The author--Sara Gran--has a website, and a blog, and two previous novels. And an editor who, though he should know better, can't help but be excited about what might unfold in the weeks ahead.
I. The Slippery Slope.
You try to be strong, to be patient, to take the zen view that worrying it will do no good anyway.
You try to take the advice of your editor, your agent, your friends, fellow writers, your shrink, your analyst, your podiatrist, your psychopharmocologist, your mother [that's how bad it's gotten: you're soliciting advice from your mother], that the best thing you can do now is to block it out and just work:Work on your next book. Work on your garden. Take up a new hobby. [Blogging, anyone?] Take up smoking.
You try to hear--I mean, really hear--those same members of your League of Support Professionals as they say, with that patronizing earnestness that makes you want to slit their well-meaning throats, that it's the Inner You that matters: you've written a great book, you're an artist, you can't let external circumstances over which you have no control become a measure of how you feel about yourself--
--and then you say, ENOUGH! Quit with the laying on of hands! I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in a womb or a plastic bubble or a sensory deprivation chamber. I'm a grownup, and
- I'll smoke if I want to! And--
- yeah, I know about identity theft & all, but SOMETIMES, dammit, I just don't FEEL like shredding my bills after I've paid them! And--
- OK--they can legislate my obligation to wear seatbelts, but not since I was sitting in a fucking CAR-SEAT were they in a position to forcibly strap me in!!!
For a time, this declaration of independence feels freeing. Until...well, there's that clock, in the kitchen--boy does that sucker get loud, late at night when you're all alone. A little less deliberate, but no less maddening, is the slow plink-pulink-puuuuuh-LINK! of the faucet-from-hell as droplets land with unexpected percussive resonance in the basin of the sink. And then there's the irritating buzz of--whatzit, a skeeter?--and as you squash that skeeter and scratch at the one actual site of attack, suddenly it feels like you're covered with insect bites, or fleas, or some horrible skin disease, you're scratching madly at your arms and legs and belly, until at last you throw your head back and howl (again),
A junky needs her dope, a bulemic needs his Twinkies. Writers?
Well, what you'd prefer is real data, feedback, some sense that something is happening out there--anything?!?--with/for/in relation to the prospects for your forthcoming book... Absent that? Invariably, you'll look back on this as the moment where the wheels came off--that first time you typed that fateful URL into the Address bar of your computer and hit return. And so it begins.
The vigil....The stakeout....
The hourly Amazon.com sales-ranking check-in.
Gotta get that fix...It doesn't matter that the "data" Amazon provides tells you nothing, of course, or at least nothing you can make any sense of. In the weeks leading up to publication--a moment you've spent much of your life imagining--Amazon.com will be more often visited by the average writer than Nerve or Skank or PornPro or any of the other usual favorites.
And when Amazon fails to deliver the desired reassurance? Well, like those anti-drug lecturers always told us back in grade school: what starts innocently invariably leads to the harder stuff.... And so it goes: the little devil on the left side senses your weakness, taps you on the shoulder, and whispers those two syllables whose effects will prove ever more insidious, ever more seductive--
"Huh?" you ask.
That left-shoulder Beelzebub hisses encore:
GOOGLE!And this, my friends, is when the trouble really begins: because once you've taken that maiden voyage--once you've signed your name into the log-book of that turbo-charged search-vessel--you've conscripted yourself to a life of hard labor on the turbulent seas of narcissism... For if you live long enough, and manage to create enough trouble (however minor), you, too, can run a Google search and find that somebody, somewhere, has written about you--an alumni magazine, a catalog for a writer's workshop, a piece of hate-mail identifying you as part of an industry wide conspiracy to fill-in-the-blank ...
Trouble is, no number's big enough... Believe me: I know.
II. A Cautionary Tale.
Friends: Tonight, at long last--having hit rock-bottom; and being beyond salvation, beyond dignity, beyond redemption--I raise my tchukus off this plain pine bench, stand before you all, and say,
Hi. My name is Max
and I'm a Narcissist.
A Google-Junky who's lost his way.
Then--Halleleujah!--the new wave of reality television hit. Knowing myself ill-suited for an actual personality overhaul, but consumed, now, with the Lotto-like jackpot potential I'd witnessed so frequently during the Sweeps-Week finales of so many of the shows (to say nothing of a deep-seated [or is it -seeded?] desire to appear on David Letterman), I knew that my time had come. A mid-life makeover was nigh on the horizon. All I needed now was the vehicle through which to create an alternate personae.
Then, in the fall of '04, Time Magazine named Mark Sarvas "Man of the Year" and declared ours The Age of the Blog. And Mad Max Perkins was born.
At first, of course, it was bliss. The controversy! The accolades! None other than Maud Newton (who we'd call "legendary" if she weren't way too fly to wear that style) characterized BookAngst as "an indispensable source of information about the inner machinery of publishing. " The afore-mentioned Mark Sarvas declared "We can't remember a blog becoming indispensible as quickly as Mad Max Perkins' BookAngst 101 has." As "Max" I received mentions in the Denver Post, New York Newsday, the Boston Globe, Crain's New York. Even NPR wanted to know: who's this Mad Max fellow, and how do we get him on our show?
A month or so after the launch of BookAngst--it was late, I was hungry--I ran an innocent search through Yahoo or MSN. In the "search" field I typed
"Late night delivery, chocolate cake"and hit return. The result failed to satisfy. So I turned then to another search engine.
I was so impressed with the results of THIS "chocolate cake" search that I tried Google another time: I typed in my own name. The result was predictably unsatisfying: it came back with a scant 17 matches, 12 of which rightly belonged to a San Diego-based attorney famous, briefly, for defending a serial killer.
Without giving it much thought, I typed in
"BookAngst"and fell quite out of my chair. The number of matches read 652,003.
Dr. Grumpy O. Bookman recently presented a fascinating post on the subject of narcissistic personality disorder, which includes a list of tell-tale personality traits.
- A grandiose sense of self-importance.
- A need for excessive admiration.
- A sense of entitlement...not justified by [his] attainments.
The list goes on. Every item fits me to a "t".
The particulars of my fall are too humiliating to repeat in detail--yet I cannot help myself... Suffice it to say that, as delighted as I was by my IGO [Initial Google Output], I was disappointed that my subsequent Googlings didn't reflect a similarly exponential growth pattern. As my number plateaued--flatlined, really--I spent more and more of my late-night hours trying to find new mentions of the good deeds of Mad Max Perkins. One hour a night became two, then three; this in addition to the time spent on new posts themselves, which became ever-more transparent in their desperation. I was begging for more links, for more mentions, for the bloggists' equivalent of column inches.
Cruel, fickle bastards all! They'd moved on! M.J. Rose's popularity grew and grew, while visitors to my site dwindled to a dozen or so a day. Maud, Mark, Sarah--they no longer paid any attention. The cruelist irony? In late 2004 I won Honorable Mention in the "Bloggist With A Bullet" category; in 2005, mine was named "Blahg of the Year." In barely eight months I'd gone from hot-stuff to has-been. I'd become completely irrelevant.
But the humilation doesn't stop there. So much Googling-till-the wee-hours left me with more than just pale skin and bags under my eyes. In March my supervisor called me into his office. After months of falling further and further behind in my work in the contracts department, he'd had enough. I was given two weeks' severance, plus a half-hour to pack up my things. I stole a stapler.
Gotta get my shit together
Cuz I can't live like this forever
I've come too far & I don't want to fail
I've got a new computer and a
Bright future in sales--Fountains of Wayne "Bright Future in Sales"
You know that old saw about how you learn who your real friends are when the chips are down? For a long time I'd been out of touch with my #1 touchstone, Dexter (aka Deadly Dee)--I figured he'd corralled a mid-six-figs contract for a whip-wicked comic memoir about life in the land of bookmaking (part THE INFORMATION, part Dave Eggers) and was now waiting in Paris with his new gang of celebrity pals to greet Lance Armstrong as he crossed the finish line of the Tour de France. So I was quite touched--humiliated, too, of course, but those who love you best tell the truest truths, even when it hurts--that, as I stumbled about in these, the last days of Max, Deadly Dexter appeared again:
you might get "sadly missed" on your tombstone, max, but by revealing yourself like some old flasher in the park you'll actually become what you really are, an anonymous cog in the satanic mills of book production, whose mid-life idealism crisis petered out into embarassing showmanship and the kind of ambiguity that makes me, for one, really fear for the future of publishing, if this is all that an insider's effort to change things leads to.... and now, at the end, you rely on hired wizardry and sleight-of-hand, like it was all a staged act to infiltrate your opposition. or maybe you're just the bloke who comes to do the magic tricks at the bloggers annual tea-party. you're quitting a sinking ship if you abandon this blog. shut the fuck up about who you are and keep fighting your corner like the real max perkins would've done. otherwise you'll just mirror your own executive career and let eventual world domination by one publisher takes its course. stay and help the writers, put a beret on instead, join the resistance to establish three things: split the multi-nationals back into indies, put a low ceiling on advances and get rid of the agent system. if you're not up to it then get off my screen for good and stop over-writing your final bow.
About this, Dexter is, of course, right: it is time for me to go, and I am overwriting my final bow, or at least taking too damn long to get it over with. And my posts have shifted--away from those of an insider asking potentially useful questions [about an industry moving further and further away from serving anyone well (including itself)]; tending instead toward easier, more clownish pieces that draw attention to Le Max rather than to Le BookAngst per se.
Narcissistic, that is, rather than something more broadly utilitarian.
On this front, I offer no apologies: it's hard work, this, even when the feedback has both been so energizing and made it so clear how great a hunger there is for some sort of industry perspective, for some sense that people on the inside aren't wholly disconnected from those on the outside.
I agree with Dexter regarding at least one of what he sees as our industry's three deadly ills (as articulated above)--the seemingly endless consumption of one publisher by another--when our only REAL hope is greater diversity & independence, not less. But there's finally nothing much that can be done about this by those of us among the rank-and-file, unless one has a Don Quixote complex and happens to be sitting on huge vats of capital, two variables that don't often co-exist.
If I had a particular goal when I started, it was to better understand how the machinery works, and to learn some new tricks of the trade--and I'm not sure how much we accomplished on that front, to be honest. The business is so f***ing hard now, and there's so much pressure on those working inside it, that either they don't have the time for (shall we say) pro bono discourse about (say) how to do some of the little things better; or they feel that giving away what few secrets they possess will put them at the sort of competitive disadvantage that might, soon, cost them their jobs.
Nonetheless, a whole lot of people--editors and publishers and agents and writers and others with industry experience in marketing & publishing (often under cloak of anonymity, which frankly served everyone well, me included)--DID share their expertise, on a whole lot of topics (midlist, anyone?), for which I'm enormously grateful.
From the end-line, I see that what I really hoped to do was to expand--for my own sake, if nothing else--my sense of what constitutes Our Community. And in this regard--speaking for myself, if for no-one else--I'm enormously pleased by the outcome. As Max I've made friends I'd never have made as not-Max, and feel, now, part of a universe that's much larger and much more generous than I'd understood it to be previously. The rise of blogs generally made it inevitable that a more intimate and honest discourse would emerge, one way or another; but I'll always be thrilled to have been an active part of that conversation, and to have had the excuse to get a close-in view of the passion and intelligence of so many lit-bloggers (there are way too many to mention individually), who if nothing else have demonstrated that books--and readers--are alive and well. And, deserved or otherwise, I take a modicum of pride at having perhaps spurred the emergence of other industry-bloggers such as Agent 007, Sepulculture and Miss Snark.
As for me? I'm off to work the program, the 12 steps of Narcissists Anonymous. And to apply myself, whole-cloth, to the business of being an editor. I'm not quitting a sinking ship; I'm just stepping down from the quarter deck (I was never officer material in the first place), and resuming my duties as deck-swabber first class. I return--refreshed and rejuvenated--to "fighting my corner" in the way that suits me best: one book, one author, at a time.
P.S. If there's a use for it, BookAngst 101 may, in some limited capacity, continue to exist--as a forum for other industry-folk, say. News on that score to come at a later date.
Bloggers ("Blahgers"--Mark Sarvas, TEV) Panel, BEA June 2, 2005. From L-R: Moderator Mark Dressler; Michael Cader; M.J. Rose; Max the Unmasked; and Robert Gray
As our time together reaches its end, I feel a great sense of relief that I can finally reveal my true identity. It's funny: in the comments to the Mighty Mouse/Fuller Brush post (wherein I dispelled the rumor that I might, in fact, be Karl Rove), an astute reader called me "poncey"--from which he then (rightly) extrapolated that I must be "a Brit." In the months since, I was apparently successful in disguising my poncey-ness--but that early reader had been right all along.
I must say I'm disappointed, a bit, that nobody "got" the hint made so explicitly with my BEA get-up! My costume was variously identified as representing Gandalf; Merlin; and Professor Dumbledore on crack--yet the truth was right there under your noses! That's the trouble with you kids these days--you've lost touch with your roots! I see you on the subway ("and walking all over/Manhattan") as you rock out to Britney singing her version of SATISFACTION ("a man comes on to tell me/how tight my skirt can be") without a clue about where that song came from in the first place!
But here's one more chance, dear people! Instead of telling you my identity, I'll give you one last try at figuring it out for yourselves.
Step One: Look at the picture (above) taken at BEA--notice the fellow in the pointy hat?
Step Two: Now look at this album cover. Notice, again, the fellow in the pointy hat...
Ladies and Gentleman, this individual claims to have been, in a more glorious past, a member of "The Editors' Club"--described (so aptly) as
that group of talent-finders and dream-makers who instinctively know what the fine readers of the world will embrace.But at a certain point our poor Anonymite lost the way, and began to exhibit all the tell-tale signs... Took to watching television (network television!) till all hours of the night; to selling, without remorse, books received via "bigmouth" mailings to the Strand; to admiring, then acquiring, jewelry and wristwatches and eye-wear of a far more gaudy nature then had ever been the case before; and discovering, over time, that the idea of picking up the lunch tab at Michael's was becoming more and more repugnant. The final straw came when, after screaming mercilessly at a poor overworked editorial assistant (and ENJOYING it), this individual realized that there was no horror in the world so horrible as writing YET ANOTHER PIECE OF CATALOG COPY.
"Fini!"And it was at that moment that another member of that rapscallion breed was born. No, but we must refrain from judgment! Please, all:
Welcome Agent 007!I have not yet seen the (expired) union card, so I cannot vouch for or verify said (former) membership in the esteemed Editors' Club. There is, however, something about the cadences of Agent 007's inaugural posting that suggests at least a passing familiarity with the secret handshakes and the ol' wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more! insiderisms known only to We the Gatekeepers of [etc]...
Friends, whether this individual is honorable or not (and if Agent 007 is truly an agent, we can be sure that Honor is more a flag flown than a way of walking), there is no doubt that we must respond to this cry for help. Please, I beg of you: pay a sympathetic visit, and offer a few kind words, and remember:
There, but by the grace of God...
Credit cards have gone missing. Keys have been copied. Inappropriate voice-mail messages have been reported...To Whom (etc):
If you are approached by someone representing himself as "Max" or "Mad Max Perkins," proceed with caution. If contact is made, steer conv. if possible away from media-related topics--known triggers include "David Letterman," "Amazon dot com," "Google," etc. We have no reason to consider him dangerous; however, kindly decline his offers to buy you lunch, housewarming gifts, etc.
P.S. As soon as we find him, he WILL be fired.
Let me say, emphatically, that I think it's a knockout. (If anyone thinks VidLits can only work for funny books, think again.) I was so impressed that I had to track her down and ask her a few questions.
MMP: I loved the HALO VidLit--wonderfully evocative and atmospheric, and it definitely makes me want to read the book. Are you happy with how it turned out?
MJR: Not to overuse the word, but I'm thrilled. I'd seen a lot of Liz's work and knew how well the form worked for humor, as you pointed out, but this was the first thriller she worked on. I couldn't be more pleased.
How involved were you in making it?
MJR: I brought the idea to my publisher and they loved it. And then they blew me away when they signed up to do not one, but three - one for each of the books in the series (July 05, Jan 06, July 06). Knowing that they were going to be putting so much behind this effort, I really wanted to come up with some unusual marketing ideas with the Vidlit once it was completed. But creatively, it was Liz Dubelman's creativity that made it work and her talent that pulled it off.
How long did it take to produce?
MJR: Liz at vidlit.com would be the one to ask--I suspect she can adapt to different timetables. But mine took about three months.
What did it cost?
MJR: Liz charges by the minute--not minutes of her time, but minutes of finished product. It's in the ballpark of $5000 per minute.
How is your publisher using it?
MJR: First we came up with the idea of doing blog ads for the book that link to the Vidlit. So for the next two weeks ads will be all over the blogshpere. I'm thrilled (that word again) that Mira decided to do this. It's pretty innovative and required them to be willing to test an unproved concept. In addition there are some huge email lists that the Vidlit company itself markets each Vidlit to. My ppublisher is also looking for some other innovative venues for this one and future Vidlits but that's under wraps until we know for sure. I do have it on my laptop which I show to everyone I can stop in the street, on the train, at the nail salon, etc., (no, just kidding).
So you're feeling pretty good about this?
MJR: Very. It sure does seem to me like there's a different level of excitement this time than there has been for any of my previous books. Mira has totally supported this novel; everyone from the sales force to the publicity department has been terrific. Yeah, I'm thrilled. (That word again). The icing on the cake is that the book became an international bestseller today. Another first for me.
And what's this "Blog-a-Thon" promotion?
MJR: I got five sponsors to agree to donate a combination of a dollar each to Reading Is Fundamental. So for every blog that links to my VidLit, RIF gets $5. My goal is to get 500 blogs, which translates to $2500.
The campaign is called "Good Books/Good Cause" and if it's successful we'll see about expanding the program to include other authors too. I'm working with publicist Lauren Cerand.
What're you up to so far? How many blogs are on board, I mean.
MJR: We just sent out the first wave of letters to bloggers this morning and there are three more waves to go out. But as of 2 PM today [Wednesday] about twenty-five people have written to say they are already putting up the links.
Who's your editor at Mira? You know me--always looking to get in a plug for a good editor if I can...
MJR: She's not just good, she's wonderful. Margaret O'Neill Marbury, who is executive editor at Mira Books. You know, everyone loves to talk about all the first novelists who get the big push and how lucky they are. That I'm getting this sort of push on book five, well, I'm incredibly appreciative, and I have Margaret to thank.
Kim Ponders is author of a literary novel coming out from HarperCollins this fall called THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. It retraces the tumultuous life of Annie Shaw from childhood—as the daughter of a Vietnam-era fighter pilot—through to her becoming a pilot herself. Kim—and, perhaps not by coincidence, Annie too—served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. Mad Max “sat” with Kim Ponders recently to talk about books, gender, self-promotion and life in the armed forces.
Max: When I say “the armed forces,” I mean, of course, the literary community. Have you ever encountered so savage an enemy as a writer wronged?
KP: Savage, certainly not. Writers are a cultivated, crafty lot, though we might think savage thoughts.
Did you grow up wanting to be a pilot, or a writer? Or none of the above?
KP: I grew up wanting to survive. I had no plans to be a writer or flyer until those opportunities came before my eyes, which they did, roundabout the out years of college. What I am is an opportunist, and if something looks captivating, I’ll go for it.
And which career have you enjoyed more? Or is the jury still out?
KP: Writing, certainly. I work my own hours and don’t have to get my uniforms pressed.
Annie Shaw, Air Force pilot. Kim Ponders, Air Force pilot. Hmmm. Care to provide a de rigueur disclaimer about the difference between life and art?
KP: Hemingway said ‘Write what you know.’ John Gardner said, ‘Write only from your imagination.’ Now, I ask you, who’s better known?
Your honor! The witness is being non-responsive! Will you please direct her to answer the question?
KP: Not non-responsive. Crafty. Yes, counselor, I grew up in circumstances very similar to those I describe in the novel. And the scenes that occur before and during the war are based on things I saw and witness, and yes, experienced—because those scenes I chose were, I think, the most evocative and the most telling. I wanted to get at what I thought was the essence of what it’s like to be a woman flying in the Air Force. For the record, I was an aircrew member with AWACS, but not a pilot.
[Ed. note: Here's more back story regarding the writing of her novel.]
The opening sections of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT reminded me a bit of Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club. Did you read that book?
KP: Of course. It’s a great book. Our lives were not terribly similar. I grew up in Massachusetts, not East Texas, for one thing. My father was a grandiose man and a mystery to me, and my mother died when I was very young. But Mary Karr strikes me, at least from her memoir, as a survivor. The key, the gift, I think, is to be able to internalize things and then articulate them, spit them out again. That’s what Mary Karr did and what I tried to do with THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT.
And then Annie Goes to War. I can’t think of any novels that tell about war from a woman soldier’s p.o.v.—is “soldier” right, by the way, in your case?
KP: No, in this case, it would be airman.
But re: the point of view—and I don’t mean to diminish novels about war written from a female civilian point of view, but are there others about a soldier’s experience from the point of view of a woman? Other than, say, thrillers?
KP: Not that I know of, at least in English. The Russians had women fighter pilots in WWII, and the Israelis have had them for years. Perhaps there are novels from those countries.
What’s the best soldier’s-experience-of-war novel you ever read?
KP: Hands down, it’s Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I’m not sure if that’s a novel—it might be linked stories. In any case, it’s a phenomenal encapsulation of what it must have been like for a vet to come to terms with Vietnam. In terms of pure novel, I’d choose A Farewell to Arms or Catch-22.
You’ve recently launched a blog, FEMME LA GUERRE—“A take on modern war and the American military from an ex-Air Force flyer turned writer and—can we say it (Gasp)—Woman.” That “(Gasp)” is really part of the subtitle, by the way. Why “Gasp”?
KP: People who knew me from early in my life couldn’t believe I’d joined the Air Force. And then, there I was, an outspoken woman aviator who also read books. A real enigma. In fact, I never gave a second thought to being a ‘woman’ through all this. I just did what I wanted to do. All the arguments surrounding women in the military have always sounded irrelevant. Why should it make a difference that I’m speaking from a woman’s perspective?—and yet, that seems to make all the difference in the world.
So what is this blog, anyway—a publicity stunt for your novel, I assume?
KP: (laughs) Damn straight! It’s the converse of “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.”
That went way over my head.
KP: Well, there are a lot of literary novelists out there writing literary fiction about firemen and cops and soldiers and housewives and schoolteachers, whether they’ve actually been any of those things or not. And it doesn’t matter—if they’re good, I mean—whether they’ve lived the life or not.
But in terms of marketing a book?
KP: Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of novels by someone with my background. And everyone says how hard it is to get attention for literary fiction, and it is, obviously. I’m proud of my background, proud of my military career and I feel like I’ve got something to contribute to the public conversation—especially now, with a war on. And if it happens to help sell some copies of my book, too, then great.
In one of your posts you write about the four soldiers—women—who were killed in Iraq last week.
KP: Yes, four women were killed—3 marines and a sailor--in an ambush on a convoy last week. And this incident has everyone up in arms again about whether women should hold combat positions.
Did you have any particular reaction to this news? Different than, say, news that four male soldiers had been killed? I know that the p.c. answer is supposed to be, No, all death is a tragedy--but surely, as someone who served yourself during the first Gulf War, you identified with these women in some fashion, no?
KP: My first (emotional) reaction was one of frustration and sadness. I feel terrible for their families, for all the kids who’ve lost parents over there. But I think your question is a little leading. P.C. or not, I feel the same sense of helpless loss for each of the almost 2000 deaths that have happened. The fact that four women died—the most during a single incident to date—doesn’t effect my emotional reaction, and it doesn’t effect my politics. My second reaction was that, damn, this is going to reignite the issue of ‘women in combat’ that had Congress stirred up last month. I think it’s wrong to resurrect such a complicated argument based on a tragic event and expect the outcome to be some rational solution. The U.S. desperately needs a sane, intelligent national debate on whether and how women will serve in combat. Unfortunately, we’ll never have this debate if the only time it ever comes up is when a crisis occurs. What we don’t need are more emotional knee-jerk reactions, more simple sound bites. The issue itself it not at all simple.
You also talk about a movement afoot presently designed to curtail the number presence of women in combat zones. I read about this in the New York Times, and it mentioned an Army general who was in FAVOR of such a bill. The article indicated that women in the military seemed to take the opposite view--that is, they were in favor of making their presence in such situations more (rather than less) the norm. What's your guess about the mindset of women serving currently? What's your own view?
KP: It’s a complicated situation. The Army isn’t advocating putting women in direct combat positions, but in ‘combat support’ positions. It’s complicated because of the way the Army is redesigning their combat force to be more responsive to asymmetric threats. They want lighter, more mobile units to move around with their own support (i.e. intelligence) personnel—which are by definition ‘support’ positions and frequently women. The problem is that because these units are on the front lines, the ‘support’ positions are coming under direct fire, and firing back. But I believe it’s a political, rather than a military issue. The Army cares about one thing: winning the war. The generals in charge care not a dime about the issue of women in combat. At least I hope they don’t. I hope they’re thinking about the best way to win the war tomorrow. Administrators, policy makers, politicians—these are the people who make the issue confusing—rather that being the leaders they’ve signed up to be, they’re too busy polling the voters to put their spin on the issue. It’s frankly gone beyond the issue of whether women should participate in combat. They do—and they have to. There ain’t enough willing men to fill the roles. Oh, well, I guess we could open the draft. Perhaps that’s a better solution.
Is the General being a chauvinist, or are there reasons why women SHOULDN'T be on the front lines, other than not wanting to be killed? Which obviously is a desire that transcends gender lines...
KP: No, he’s being a realist. Most men are stronger and faster than most women. Fewer women than men can meet the challenges of the front line work. Not all women belong on the front lines—but some do. Some can carry their weight (and others’ too). And, by the way, there are plenty of men who don’t belong on the front line.
No other reason—biases, trauma in POW captivity, sexual issues on the battlefield—strike me as valid reasons to keep women out of combat. All of these things take place with or without women present, though nobody wants to talk about it.
You served on the front lines as well, during the first Gulf War, correct?
KP: It wasn’t the front lines. I flew in a combat support role with AWACS. We flew in well-defended positions behind the line of battle.
How many other women served with you then?
KP: There were a fair number of women flying in those positions with me. I’d say about 10 – 14% of the crew force was composed of women. It’s probably about the same now.
At the time, wasn't there an even more explicit exclusion of women serving under those circumstances?
KP: Yes, women weren’t allowed to fly fighters. After the Gulf War, Congress lifted that ban and the Air Force and Navy started recruiting heavily to get women in fighter cockpits—this, again, was a political issue. Some of the first women in cockpits probably shouldn’t have been there, but the two forces wanted to look responsive to the new allowances. Now we’ve not only got more women in fighter cockpits, many of them are in senior rankings and have combat experience under their belts. They’re getting a lot more respect these days for being strong, competent pilots. And they give up a lot, too. It seems to me that most successful female senior officers are either single or divorced, while their male counterpoints are married with families.
How did your male colleagues—“colleagues,” I guess you can tell I never served in the military—how did the male soldiers treat you?
KP: They mostly treated me fairly and with respect. During a flying mission, a good crew is one that’s extremely professional. You can be horsing around, cracking jokes thirty minutes before take-off, but in the air, we always worked closely and very well together. If anyone ever took any heat in the air, it’s because he or she wasn’t doing the job properly....On the ground, it was sometimes another story. I spent many nights on deployment to Saudi sitting alone in my villa, reading or watching movies. On some crews I was “one of the guys,” but on others, I didn’t quite make the cut. I taught myself French on one of those trips.
So all that stuff about the macho “Top Gun” culture is just Hollywood B.S.?
KP: No—dealing with the fighter pilots was a whole different story. They weren’t used to working with women, like the AWACS and tanker crews were, and you really had to prove to them that you were tough and competent if you wanted their respect.
KP: In 1994 or so, we were flying in a Canadian exercise called Maple Flag. All the flyers—over 200 of us—would brief in a big room before the mission, and then we’d all debrief afterward, with someone different leading the briefings each day. Well, I was the only woman in that crowd of Americans, Brits, and Canadians. Every pilot who got up to give the debrief started with a joke, and the joke was always sexually offensive. I sat there listening to them for 2 weeks, and on the last day, I was offered the opportunity to run the debrief. So, when I stood up, the whole room sort of hummed and went quiet. So, of course, I had to tell a joke. And I did. I made it the most sexually offensive joke I could tell at their expense. What do you think they did? They laughed ferociously, and gave me a standing ovation, and wouldn’t let me buy a beer all night.
Beer’s good. I don’t know what the hell the difference is between “brief” and “debrief,” but I’m going to let you take that secret to your grave. When’s your book coming out?
KP: September 20, 2005.
And there you have it—buy now, buy often! We’ve been speaking here at BookAngst Radio with novelist Kim Ponders, author of THE ART OF UNCONTROLLED FLIGHT. You can read all about her at Femme La Guerre and at Kim Ponders.com.Ed note: We tried our best to link to BookSense, but weren't able to find the book listed there at press time--perhaps because publication date isn't till Fall '05. This may well be remedied by the time you read this. Use this link to navigate the BookSense site on your own.
Jessica Brilliant Keener is a novelist and journalist whose work frequently appears in the Boston Globe and elsewhere. Her thoughtful reply to Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s Misadventures in (Mis)Representation hits on what we here at BookAngst 101 feel is the singlemost important criterion for deciding whether an agent is right for you.Dear Lauren,
Thank you so much for your instructive, forthright post. I think it’s egregious what you’ve experienced, Lauren, but thankfully you have the gift of self-possession and knew enough to get out of those unhappy marriages—or maybe you should think of them as “engagements” because engagements are designed to be broken, if necessary. Obviously, in your case, Lauren, you’ve been right to move on.
I, too, have gone through a few agents but when I think about it, many, many of my writer friends have “gone” through a few as well. It’s not unusual.
Of course, you’ll find many who don’t undergo this shedding process, but if you do, my cheap advice to anyone suffering through it is not to do the typical, writerly thing. Don’t take it all on yourself or decide it must be your fault entirely. It ain’t a crime to find a new agent if the one you have isn’t working.
Before he died, the co-author of my first book gave me some simple advice about agents. It was so simple I didn’t quite get it at first. But I listened to him because he knew about business. He founded Dunkin’ Donuts, and started several other multi-million dollar ventures. (He was appalled by the publishing industry but that’s getting off track--)
He said: FIND AN AGENT WHO CARES.
What does that mean? I think it means several things. It means finding someone who not only loves your work but cares about your work because a caring agent will try harder.
Selling books to publishers is insanely competitive. Agents are competing against how many other agents? (Maybe we should all do some math on how many agents are out there in the marketplace, selling how many books every month? to give us some perspective.)
If your agent cares, she’ll return your calls or respond to your emails within a couple of days. She’ll apologize if she doesn’t get back to you soon enough and will make up for it by being more diligent as you move forward—that’s caring. She’ll let you know, in detail, where she is submitting your work and she’ll follow up with the people she has submitted it to.
An agent who cares will work out problems when they come up, because life is gonna throw you some issues just to mess with your day.
Can you talk comfortably with your agent? Do your personalities click? Do you feel good after you’ve hung up the phone with your agent?
I think these things can’t be overstated. It’s much easier to care when there’s chemistry between you.
If you find yourself second guessing yourself or feeling weird or guilty about things your agent has said, and these feelings begin to overtake what you should be feeling, which is: good, supported, confident, then start looking for someone who cares.
But here’s the funny rub. Much of what I just wrote and what my dear co-author advised me to look for can’t be known or borne out until you enter the new relationship and see how it unfolds. All you can really know at the outset is whether your agent gets your work, in other words, loves it, appreciates it, etc. The caring part, you can only hope, will follow.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted, the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line, herein tells of her life as a romantic--that is, as a writer who refuses to settle for anything less than true love. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1. Lauren can be visited at http://www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com/.
Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July '05.
Back in 1994, when I left my job of 11 years as an independent bookseller to take a chance on myself as a novelist, I wrote the kind of book many first-time novelists write: if not necessarily autobiographical, it was definitely what you would call a wish-fulfillment book. In the comic mystery Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes, Mini Monroe, an underachieving bookstore worker, dreams of being in charge of her world. If only she were running the bookstore, life would be so much better. When her boss is murdered, she gets her wish, getting to run the store and solve the crime.
When I signed with Agent One, I thought I had it made, since “One” said my book was going to be big…really big.
Then the revision process started.
It was One's opinion that, the body not being discovered until page 52, the book was a little too cozy. So, over the next two weeks, I went through four rounds of the book, each time moving the body closer to the beginning. This was back in the day when all I had was a word processor, so it took 13 hours just to print out each version, never mind the time spent revising. After the fourth go-around, with the body now on page 1 – page 1! - One called to say the book looked great, now if only I’d…
I realized then that ours was not a union supremely blessed. So, despite the fact that One represented many best-selling authors, I found the best lawyer in the business to handle my affairs – her name is Dee Vorsay –and had her draw up the dissolution papers. (Which could also be called disillusion papers.) Here’s what she came up with:
Duration of union: three months.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: four.
Submissions made: zero.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #1: a box in my basement.
I’d written another book, this time a bittersweet tale about an undereducated septuagenarian who learns her only child will predecease her. The two spend the next year on a physical and emotional odyssey where they see the world and get to truly know one another for the first time.
When I signed with Agent Two, I was asked if I’d mind that the book would inevitably be compared to Terms of Endearment. While the books have nothing in common except that they both feature a mother losing a daughter, I said, “No, I wouldn’t mind.” Terms of Endearment was an award-winner and a genuine cultural touchstone, both as novel and film. Mind? Of course I wouldn’t mind.
After we’d received a few incredibly glowing rejections from publishers – “this book is so sad and funny, but we don’t know how we’d market it” – Two called to say a major studio had faxed the office, looking for a Terms of Endearment type of property. Would I mind if it was sold first as a film rather than a book? I knew that Two’s agency had quite a bit of success with Hollywood. Would I mind? Don’t be ridiculous!
When you are still outside the Pearly Gates [or so they seem, perhaps, to the as-yet-unmarried—ahh, unpublished] you are hesitant to rock the matrimonial boat, lest you find yourself standing, curbside, with a packed bag in one hand and your manuscript in the other, waiting for that lonely cab-ride back to writerly isolation. So for the next few months, I sat on my hands, even though I was dying to know what was going on with the film deal. But finally, unable to contain my anxiety any longer, I called Two to get a status report.
That was when I was told it was actually Two’s partner who handled the Hollywood end of the business; that said partner had to be in the mood to talk to Hollywood; and that said partner simply hadn’t been in the mood lately...
Were these people nuts? Were they on drugs?
I may have never been an agent in real life, but I know this much: if Hollywood was looking for a particular type of property, and I had such a property in my office, I’d walk on hot coals to hand deliver it if need be.
Once again, I called in Dee Vorsay. The text of this round of disillusion papers read:
Duration of union: one year.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: two.
Submissions made: a few.
Submissions made to Hollywood, even after Hollywood asked: zero.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #5 [Yes, Dear Reader: I’d actually written a few others since Agent 1, but if I get started on those we’ll be here all day]: a box in my basement.
Though Agent Three and I never had a formal agreement together, we worked closely on another book I’d written [Novel #7], this time an erotic thriller.
In November 2001, Harlequin launched an imprint called Red Dress Ink. I sensed that the editorial sensibility behind these books would be interested in yet another of my novels [#6] I had in my arsenal, The Thin Pink Line, a dark comedy set in London about a woman who fakes an entire pregnancy. I mentioned this to Three, pointing out, Hey, it’s always good to get in on the ground floor with a new publisher. After reading The Thin Pink Line, Three said it was very funny but that sort of thing had been “done too much already.”
[Right: that crowded comedies-about-fake-pregnancies genre…]When I asked if Three would submit it to just this one publisher, I was told no: Three claimed to know for a fact the editor of Red Dress Ink did not want books with a London setting. I found this so hard to believe that I asked Three for permission to send it myself. This suggestion was greeted scathingly, and dismissively. I went ahead with the submission, and subsequently sold The Thin Pink Line all on my own to Red Dress Ink—indeed, I was offered (and accepted) a two-book contract. They even decided to publish The Thin Pink Line as the imprint’s own first-ever hardcover and came to me with the offer of an additional three-book contract before my debut had even pubbed. Not surprisingly, Three was shocked—shocked!—to receive the divorce papers, which read:
Duration of union: five months.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: three.
Submissions made: zero.
Books sold: none. [Two books were sold during this time, followed by three more… but I did it all myself!]
Ultimate fate of Novel #7 (it was #6 that I sold to RDI): See “MARRIAGE IV.”
Having felt I’d negotiated the first contract to the best of my ability – I’d read 700 pages of publishing law while waiting for that first contract to arrive – the idea of a publisher wanting to nail down three more books before the first was even out seemed unusual enough that I decided it was time to go back to my dressmaker’s for another fitting. (For one thing, I had no idea what a reasonable advance should be.) So I wooed several agents--
[Memo to CBS:“How to Marry a Wage-Earning Novelist”—think we might be onto something??]
To Four’s credit, the advance finally wound up being negotiated upwards to double what I’d been offered. But were we a good match? Let’s put it this way: if my favorite Beatles song was “Can’t Buy Me Love,” Four’s was “Money”:
There’s a laundry list of ways in which we were incompatible, but space is short, so I’ll confine myself to a single illustrative story.
[Money don’t get every thing, it’s true—But what it don’t get, I can’t use! I want money...]
Duration of union: one year.
Books together: one.
Manuscript drafts: three.
Submissions made: one, but not the book we were working on. The book sub'd was Novel #5 and that was only submitted because I handpicked a place.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel #7: about to be submitted, but obviously not by Agent Four.
Agent Five is the only one about whom it feels slightly uncomfortable for me to tell tales out of school. There was so much I liked, even loved, about Five. And yet…and yet…
Let’s cut to the chase here, because even I’m starting to have problems telling all these agents apart.
Anyone who has been paying attention to this saga so far must realize that, having already basically sold five books on my own, I was not about to let a little thing like this stop me, not when I believed passionately in the book, and certainly not when I felt, as I do still feel, that it was the most important piece of writing I’d ever done.
Duration: eighteen months (hey, I’m lasting longer with agents who don’t sell anything!).
Books together: two, sort of.
Manuscript drafts: four, sort of.
Submissions made: three of one book; none of the YA title.
Books sold: zero.
Ultimate fate of Novel # 7 (yes, that book again!): about to be submitted, but obviously not by Agent Five.
Ultimate fate of YA Novel: about to be submitted, but obviously not by Five.
Unlike some of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands (at least the deceased ones), four of my five agents still have thriving careers. And I am sure they all have done and will continue to do wonderful things for other writers’ careers. But they were not, none of them, the right agent for me.
I’m sure there are those who believe Liz has been married so often because she’s faithless or suffers from lack of sticktoitiveness or is just too high-maintenance. Who knows? I think differently. We—Liz and I—are two of the world’s great Pollyannas. We work hard, we keep dreaming, and no matter what happens, we still believe in the possibility of true love. That our right, special someone is out there, somewhere, maybe just around the corner.
And I’ll go on believing—at least until Friday. Because I’m ready to send out my next novel. And so if I don’t find someone who impresses me enough by then, this time I’m going it alone.
Since this piece was written, Dear Reader, I’ve remarried! Six – as I call her fondly – and I exchanged vows on Monday, June 20. Six already has placed one of my books in the hands of a baker’s dozen of editors and we’ll be moving forward with two other projects shortly. The champagne still tastes wonderful, the sheets are still clean, and I’ve tossed D.V.’s business card away. As for what the future holds:
[The clever watch-dogs among you are already working calculators with one hand as you draft a "rant" with the other. After all: even publishers have to admit that 5≠13...right?]
No, there haven't been 13 reports. Despite the fact that I've used the contents of those surveys numerous times in one way or another, most didn't lend themselves to a sustained narrative. But I went back through the material one last time, and found a few gems that every writer will want to post in a prominent place.
"The only dependable maxim I know of in publishing is 'Drunks buy books.' Thus, I always set aside some cash in the marketing budget for booze at readings."
"I've had some success marketing to libraries. Always be nice to librarians."
"Bookstore signings are about as effective as standing in an alley and sellling books from beneath an overcoat."
"Always carry a couple of copies of your book in your backpack or briefcase. I once made a sale in a parking lot to a Fed Ex driver."
"Beware publishers who boast of their marketing capabilities, and use it as a justification of their meager advances."
Survey Question #9: Based on your own experience, what one or two things have had the most impact on the succeses you've achieved so far?
"My ability to hang on to a day job."
"My own dogged determination & thick skin. Also a sense of humor."
"Big hats." [From an author who dresses in period costume for book signings]
"The fine-tuning of my own bullshit detector."
#12: Final Comments?
"My heart remains set on making the most beautiful, potent stories I can create, not on 'being an author.' "
"For me, it's always been about the writing, and that's what has saved me in the end."
"Do it because you love it.... Write because you can't imagine not writing.... What matters most is writing a really good book, a book that can't be ignored."
When I noticed that M.J.'s "Buzz Your Book" course was being offered again, though, I thought I'd do a little faux-journalism--not just give the sort of friendly (b)log-rolling endorsement one friendly does for another [sidebar for newcomers: M.J. Rose has been a vocal champion of this site], but try to track down someone who's actually taken the course.
One such "graduate" is Andrea Buchanan, whose first book, Mother Shock, about the real experience of parenthood, is perhaps best characterized by its subtitle: "Loving Every (Other) Minute of It." The peripatetic Andi Buchanan is managing editor of Literary Mama, and has several anthologies coming out in the months ahead from Seal Press:
- It's A Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons (Nov. 2005) with Jacquelyn Mitchard, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Lauck, Marion Winik, and others;
- Literary Mama: Collected Writing for the Maternally Inclined (Jan. 2006) featuring the best writing from the online literary magazine Literary.com; and
- It's A Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (May 2006) with Hope Edelman, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Katharine Weber, and more.
Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm Mad Max welcome to Andrea Buchanan! [Crowd, urged on by menacingly-assembled "APPLAUD WILDLY, YOU BASTARDS!" signs, applauds wildly.]
Hi, Andi. So how did you find out about MJ Rose's "Buzz Your Book" class?AB: I first came across it online a few years ago, when I was looking for something to help with guerilla publicity for a website. Then I got to know MJ on Readerville and finally connected the dots.
What made you decide to take the course?AB: I did a ton of work promoting my first book, and as excited as I was about the anthologies I have coming out this year and next, I couldn't shake off the feeling of dread just thinking about the work I had ahead of me in terms of PR for these next three books. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what worked to build buzz for my first book and what turned out to be a waste of time, but I also knew that it was going to be really hard to do alone. In short, I felt overwhelmed. So I thought MJ's class might be a great place to get inspired, become enthusiastic about the promotion part of the publication process, get a fresh perspective on what pushing these books might entail, come up with new ideas, and brainstorm with someone who knows the industry.
Was it worth it?AB: Definitely. Doing the class exercises helped me get motivated again, and helped breathe some fresh life into ideas I'd only half-considered before. Just knowing I wasn't going through it all alone was a big motivating factor. Now I feel excited about things, I feel proactive and prepared, and I have a great plan that will support and complement the work my publicist and publisher are doing.
What would you say is the single most valuable thing you took away fromit?AB: To not be complacent -- to not talk myself out of "pie in the sky" ideas, or be satisfied with the first thing that pops into my head.
To sign up.
I think of this one as the anti-rant, a happy report from Darlene Ryan, author of Rules for Life and A Mother's Adoption Journey.I didn’t start writing to end up on the Today Show or the New York Times best-seller list. But if either of those happens I’ll be dancing in my green yoga pants and calling everyone I’ve ever met. I’m not even writing to get rich. Not that I would be offended by a big advance, should Random House come calling. I write because I like it, because I’m pretty good at it, because I’m a lot nicer to be around when I’m writing than when I’m not.
Yes I want to be published. Yes I want to be paid. I didn’t make enough money last year from my writing to live on. But I did make enough to buy a new refrigerator and pay for my kid’s skating lessons. Pretty cool. I have three books and a dozen or so articles published. No I haven’t been published by a “big name” publisher or in any magazines like Redbook or Good Housekeeping, but I’ve worked with some talented editors at reputable companies. I haven’t given my writing away and I haven’t paid for it to be published.
I’ve been a fitness instructor, a commercial copywriter and a late night disk jockey and I like being a writer more than anything else I’ve done. (And I loved working in radio.) I like it on the days when everything I’ve written sounds stupid. I like it on the days when getting each word on paper is like pulling out my nose hairs with a set of pliers. I make stuff up and people pay me for it. I’m not a doctor saving people’s lives. I’m not a teacher, teaching twenty-five second-graders how to multiply. I’m not a plumber up to my elbows in, well, you know what. I make stuff up.
I had a snazzy book launch party for book number two and I got to sign lots of books. Also pretty cool. A friend found book number three in a bookstore in New York City. That was enough to get me dancing in the previously mentioned green yoga pants. I get a rush out of seeing one of my articles in print. When I hold a new book for the first time I’m a wild as a five year-old who’s had too much chocolate. Sure I’d like to have more readers and make more money. But whining about how unfair publishing is isn’t going to make either of those happen.
Publishing is a business. That means at the end of the year they need to have made a profit. That means they buy manuscripts that will make money for the company. So if the choice is between a relationship book with a catchy tag-line and a flip, funny young author, or a book that suggests relationships are (Gulp) a lot of work, penned by an academic, guess whose manuscript they’re going to buy? Guess which book I'm going to buy? I know relationships are work, but I like catchy lines and flippant people. I also know that a bowl of broccoli is a lot better for me than a Hershey bar with almonds. But guess which one I run for when life gets rocky?
I like my current editor a lot. But if he had to choose between a young adult novel penned by Jessica Simpson or one written by me, I think he’s smart enough to take the slam-dunk.
Publishing houses are not charities. They don’t have to be fair. They don’t have any obligation to nurture new writers. If an agent or an editor doesn’t like my work that may be a matter of personal preference. If sixty-seven agents and editors don’t like my work it’s a pretty safe bet that what I have isn’t saleable. Maybe the market is saturated. Maybe my manuscript doesn’t fit any established niche. Or maybe the writing just plain sucks. So I’ll write something else.
Sure, I want a book that’s a best-seller. Sure, I’d like to be on Oprah or the Today Show. Or both. And I’m trying to make that happen. But if it doesn’t, I’m still happy with my writing career.
"THEY'RE JUST NOT THAT INTO ME"
[The second Rant Invitational reply to be posted at BookAngst 101, following on the heals of FINE WHINE I: An Unpublished Writer's Rant. Max had intended this post to be entitled FINE WHINE II--he found himself torn between the merits of this particular writer's tale of woe and the fact that it is, well, another tale of woe. It seems there's a thin line between rant and whine...]
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s not like I don’t get how the trade publishing game is played. It’s just that I didn’t think it would come down to this. It looks like I’ve I’ve unwittingly (and painfully) become an example of how easily you can slide down the commercial publishing ladder to the rung of unmarketable goods.
For the last three years, I’ve been offering advice by way of forum posts and articles for wanna-be, up-coming and already-published authors on [popular blogs and websites]. I’ve had four non-fiction books published over the last fifteen years, all by major houses. I’ve had the minor success of seeing my work translated into foreign languages. But while I’ve been well-published and received decent but unspectacular advances, I’ve never managed to “break out” as the publishing world calls it, to make real money, much of a publishing name, or more than mediocre sales. I’ll never be a "brand."
I’m just your garden-variety, everyday Expert and Authority with a successful career of gritty, in-the-trenches experience. And I’ve been blessed with a pretty good way with words. But no matter how clever I think I am, I can’t sell my latest proposal. Here’s a brief resume to help you see why it stings so much.
Over a professional career of 30 years, I’ve published (and often been paid for) over a hundred articles in professional journals and popular magazines, dozens of book reviews and commentaries, and hundreds of columns on topics related to my expertise. This doesn’t count all the paper presentations I’ve made at conferences or workshops I’ve given. But let me give you a bit more to make my point.
Because of the intense interpersonal nature of my work, in my private life I’m a rather reclusive guy who shuns trivial interaction and avoids most social gatherings. I’m basically more into the life of my own mind, which includes my interest in creative written expression.
But when it comes time to promote my work or I’m called by a journalist for an opinion, media savvy oozes like nectar from my every pore. I’m verbal, articulate, opinionated, and knowledgeable. Clever sound bites spring from my tongue on demand. And I’ve got the proverbial platform to go with it—although, I’m finding out, this platform appears to be on more shaky legs than I thought.
Here’s what I mean. In submitting this last proposal, we included in the package to editors an eight minute DVD of a live, in-studio tv interview done long ago that was dynamite. My agent wouldn’t have included it if he didn’t think it might help. But it didn’t make any difference. And maybe it even hurt. Maybe these young editors could then see I was too old when it was made and even older today. Of course, if the publishers didn’t want to spend anything or make much effort to market my book, all the media savvy in the world wouldn’t make much difference. But at least I was trying to show them what I had done and could do if they wanted to support me.
The list of agents I’ve managed to run through over the years reads like a who’s who. I started at the pinnacle, with [one of the most prominent literary agencies]. My first agent has become the leading go-to guy for those with industrial-strength platforms, wishing to cash in on their fame and celebrity. They want a book and the ego perks that come with it but most of them don’t know how to write. No problem—-he gets them a good ghost writer and they attain instant success as best-selling “authors.” He routinely makes deals for these people in six and seven figures. I only wish he could have done the same for me.
The next guy literally wrote the bible that writers currently use to research publishers and agents. He’s a skilled entrepreneur but, unfortunately, wasn’t able to help me make a better deal with the publisher than I already had made myself. But at least he had the decency to reduce the commission I still had to pay him for his efforts.
The agent who sold my last book is well-known, highly respected, and very selective in whom she chooses to represent. She has acquired a stable of well-known and reviewed Big Shots who have, over the years, made her a fortune. She didn’t show any interest when I came to her with the idea for the current proposal that hasn’t sold. In fact, she told me she had sold something similar years before that “bombed” and that I should find someone who didn’t have a bad memory of this type of topic. She thought the topic would be better as a movie than a book, that the written medium wasn’t the best for it. Not wanting to give up on my idea, I considered myself politely dumped and moved on.
The guy presently representing me has sold more books over his long career than any of [my] other agents and owns one of the largest agencies in the business. It’s not like he hasn’t gotten the proposal in the right hands. That’s not the problem.The problem is they’re just not that into what I’m offering.
Maybe this sting of rejection is what it feels like to be pushed aside just at what ought to be the height of my writing career, just at the time when thirty years of expertise and four books ought to make a difference.
I think what it’s come down to is this: Who needs a middle-aged expert in relationships to tell twenty and thirty-somethings about the importance of gaining insight into the past of the partner they’re trying to get a commitment from? All you need to do is listen to a totally unqualified “dude” in the same age group who will gladly share his experience and conclude that “he’s just not that into you.”
This afternoon I overheard two forty-something women in a bookstore. One smiles to her friend and says, “I wish that book was around when I was younger.” And I’m thinking, my God, it’s not that simple. Relationships are much more complex than these kinds of cutesy slogans.
But who wants complicated answers when simple ones are so much easier to understand? Nobody wants to be bothered having to read fascinating, complex stories of men with commitment hang-ups, as they struggle to understand themselves and find they’re way toward intimacy. Today’s readers—both men and women—want their prescriptive answers in a gulp-down form, something they can drink like a slush—not something they have to chew on.
Who wants to know about personality types or problems that prevent men from committing to women when you’ve got all kinds of off-the-cuff unqualified authors who will be happy to give you the benefit of their limited real-life experience? Have you read some of this realtionship advice stuff? I mean, way too much of it is just embarrasingly amatuerish in style and content. And yet, it sells. Publishers buy it and so do readers.
Who needs to peek behind the consulting room door to learn what makes men tick when everyone’s personal business is hanging out there on nightly reality tv, tabloid journalism and digitally splattered out on blogs? What used to read like stimulating and captivating case histories now seem tame in comparison to the everyday publicized Misgivings of the Guilty and the Shameful. Anything less than someone being caught in flagrante delicto isn’t juicy enough to capture our attention, you know?
Look, the truth is that most of these unqualified authors haven’t lived long enough to have much idea of who they really are—let alone offer advice to others. But this doesn’t stop the publishing world from not only welcoming their pablum but paying them a pretty penny for it.
How about the editors who are the gatekeepers for what gets taken seriously? The scary thing is that these editors sitting in judgment of my proposal are often barely old enough to grok what they are being offered. From their point of view, it doesn’t matter—they just need to know what sells.
I have lived long enough to see the demise of the expert—at least in the trade publishing world genre of advice and relationships. Everyone is now an instant expert, an instant Amazon reviewer. The internet has allowed everyone to have their voice, even if they still have to search deep within to find it.
So, it looks like another mid-list non-fiction author goes down in flames, unable to sell his latest proposal. Track record not good enough. Topic not hot enough. Too old, not cool enough. Now I know what it feels like to be marginalized. But I know, it's not personal--it's just business.
I suspect there were some musicians of the day—now aging acid-heads, retired software-developers, Arizona real-estate brokers (you know who you are)—who resented George’s early post-Beatle burst of success. Who claimed it wasn't about talent so much as a certain cuteness factor, accented ever-so-slightly by being in the right place at the right time. [And who would've had a legitimate gripe if it were Ringo, rather than George, they were targeting.]
"Wah-Wah" (from ATMP) showcases everything we like about George Harrison: his wit and self-awareness and humility, his sense of melodic drama and his keen knack for the catchy riff. [There's that other thing, too--some like it, some not so much--the sense that, in every song, he might actually be addressing God directly...] As "Wah-Wah" sashays through its seasons, George contemplates the possibility of life without his signature side-kick:
You made me such a big star
Being there at the right time
Cheaper than a dime...
It didn’t hurt to have been a Beatle. But George was (obviously) more than just the wah-wah--he had enough chops that even if they took away his wah-wah (and/or his bandmates), he'd never have to resort to a day job.
I don't need no wah-wah
And I know how sweet life can be
If I keep myself free
From the wah-wah
I don't need no wah-wah
OK, it's true: this post isn't about George Harrison or wah-wah pedals; rather it's a cautionary riff (if you will) meant to scare (some) writers clear of
Fine, Max, very interesting--but where are you going with this?
The Path of the Wah-Wah Peddler
Peddle [sic], which counts among its synonyms words like "flog” and “sell” and which connotes a relative disposability of the items being, umm, flogged. Recently I received a number of "Rants"--replies to the Mad Max “Rant this Space” Invitational--and virtually every one of them, to one degree or another, was both self-promotional and self-pitying. Neither is surprising--first of all, the nature of a "Rant" more or less requires that one has a wrong to Rant against; secondly, what has BookAngst 101 itself flogged if not self-promotion?
And yet. As an editor, as a member of the industry about which both examples [below, to follow] are ranting, I found myself reacting unfavorably--even (I confess) unsympathetically--to the Rants and their authors. My first impulse was to walk on by--to neither respond nor to post them.
Then it occurred to me: Many writers lament never getting any real feedback from editors, about how the "not right for our list" kiss-off isn't even remotely instructive. So I've decided to take that lament at face value, and give some real feedback--
or, to put it another way, I've decided to be a consummate shit-heel, by using two of these Rants to purposes perhaps other than what their creators intended.
It's not that I disagree with them wholly, or that I can't see merit in their respective perspectives. Yes, there are obstacles (lots) to access; yes, the publishing industry, like the culture generally, is disposed toward youth, hipness, currency, platform, etc., sometimes to the detriment of those with more experience and perspective but less likely, say, to win a guest-host's squat on OPRAH.
On the other hand, if these represent the ways in which (some) writers reach out to the publishing industry, and if said industry (represented by Max) is put off by the strategies these writers employ, then these strategies aren't working....And maybe (I'm not certain, but maybe) this justifies my turning the bright lamp of the Rant back upon their creators. Even if they hate me for it, maybe it'll prove useful for others.
The first came to me with a subject line that read, "An unpublished writer’s rant"--and I confess it was two days before I even opened it. Which was exactly his point...
[Next up:FINE WHINE I: AN UNPUBLISHED WRITER'S RANT.]
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."