Last year I wrote three books.
Which isn’t as impressive as it sounds. Actually, if I’m being honest, last year I finished three books. It’s not like I started any of them in January and wrapped them up before New Years rolled around again. I’d worked on a couple on and off for ages, even though they’re not particularly long. And one of them is only a novella.
Number three, the big one, the first to actually be completed, had me steadily busy for several years straight. It took longer than it should have. My only excuse is that it ended up being over 130,000 words and is, by a good stretch, the most complex thing I’ve ever done. It’s more complex than any screenplay I’ve ever written and optioned off, more complex than Longshot Comics (both of them combined), more complex than that four-hour dramatic international co-production miniseries that died on the vine after dozens of months of development. And yet, through all the complexity, I had to make the novel a light, entertaining, fun read. That doesn’t come easy.
All three of them are done now, and they’re all, more or less, ready for public consumption. I’ve nagged a handful of people I know (the literate ones) into giving them a read in an effort to bug-hunt any remaining typos or fuck-ups that might make me look bad. Soon they’ll be the cleanest copy I can produce in-house.
I should be pleased. But I’m not. Mostly I’m anxious and frustrated.
The publishing business has changed enormously since my first printed stories back in the late 1980s. All the rules got broken somewhere along the way, and now nobody really fully understands how anything works anymore. Computer technology screwed up the model for everyone. It’s a shockingly simple thing now to throw together your own eBook and toss it onto the web for the international market. Amazon, among others, has cleared the way and redefined the business. But this has resulted in a glut of sub-par self-published nonsense masquerading as professional publications. They look good, they sound promising, but you’ll probably figure out they’re a dud by the end of the first chapter, if not the very first page.
And as the glut grows bigger and bigger, the competition for attention seems insurmountable. Astute marketers can accomplish great things on the self-promotion front, even if what they’re promoting ultimately doesn’t deliver the goods. I’ve always hated talking myself up. I can barely muster the energy to maintain a blog, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. And when I do, I spend most of my time talking about anything other than my own work. Self-promotion feels crass. I hate doing it, and I’m not fond of other people elevator-pitching themselves at me.
I once had a meeting with an agent who hit me with one of those elevator pitches. It took him about fifteen seconds to tell me all about himself, his hopes, his dreams, his ambitions. It was very smooth, well-rehearsed, and highly efficient. It also made me want to puke. Then he looked at me and waited for me to reciprocate. And I had nothing.
Oh, I have plenty of hopes and dreams and ambitions. But I can’t cram all that into the time it would take to share an elevator ride with someone. I’ve spent my whole life trying to figure out who I am and what I want. I can’t reduce it to a logline or a catchy jingle. And I knew, in that moment, that however highly I’d come recommended to him, we were not going to strike a deal. He was a salesman, and once I’d displayed how shit I was at selling myself, I was dead to him.
The accepted function of traditional publishing these days is promotion. Promotion was always a key ingredient of publishers, even when they were the gatekeepers, the sole means for authors to get their work out there. If you couldn’t land a publisher, nobody would ever see your book. Now, writers can merrily skip right past the gatekeepers and do most of the grunt work themselves. If they’re willing to shell out the cash, they can hire their own editors, their own cover artists, their own layout designers. Or, with the right software, they might be able to pull it off themselves. But publishers, particularly the heavy hitters, still have that promotional card to play. They have the distribution, the have the infrastructure, they have the business relationships.
And one of the most important things they offer – the best promotion of all – is legitimacy.
If you’re thinking of reading a book – any book – the imprint of a major publisher goes a long way to assure you it will be time and money well spent. It guarantees the product in those pages has been properly vetted. The slush-pile junk was filtered out, and THIS book written by THIS author was worthy of their time, their efforts, their money, and all the dead trees it took to put copies on display in those dinosaur book-store chains that stubbornly refuse to go swimming in the extinction tar pits that already ate the video industry.
So, yeah, the traditionalist in me – the kid who grew up perusing bookstore shelves and libraries and reading copies of physical books because there was no other kind – wants to go with a legit publisher. The bigger the better. Oh sure, there are some very nice small presses out there I’d be perfectly happy with, too. But let’s face it, the more boutique they get, the closer they are to being the sort of one-man home-office press I can manage by myself.
Despite my impatience, I’ve been submitting. It hasn’t been a vast canvassing. I’ve limited myself to pitching my novels to places I feel I would be happy with, featuring imprints I would be proud to have appear on the corner of one of my books. I haven’t been going through my agent (the one that didn’t judge me by my inability to chat her up in an elevator). Our relationship has always been about screenwriting, and I don’t want to involve her in this process unless or until there’s an actual contract that needs negotiation. Much like my spike in anthology appearances, and my Eyestrain Productions eBook shorts, this too has been an experiment.
But fuck me if the pace of it isn’t glacial.
It’s been nearly a year since the first pitch went out. That one is still being “processed.” Other publishers tell you up front it will be six months or more to hear back anything. Some even insist they have an exclusive look at your work, meaning they don’t want to see it unless it’s before or after one of those other houses have sat on it for the better part of a year. And while they’re considering, don’t you dare think of showing it to anyone else.
We’re not even talking the full manuscript here. These are sample chapters – about 10,000 words worth – and a one-page synopsis. If they ever get around to requesting to see the entire thing, they’ll have to sit on that for another unspecified length of time. You can very easily piss away years of your career trying to place one novel. And when you finally sign with that publisher, it’s no sure thing they’ll want your next book. You might have to start the whole process over again.
That’s when the self-publishing options start to appear mighty fine. When the idea of shouting for attention from the bottom of a pile of other eBooks and print-on-demand manuscripts doesn’t seem so daunting after all. When plugging yourself and your own work on social media doesn’t quite feel like the hellish humiliation you always dreaded.
Incidentally, the trio of books, Filmography, Sex Tape and Necropolis by Shane Simmons, will be available from Amazon sometime in the near future, from some publisher or other, even if I have to hire unemployed monks to transcribe individual copies by hand.
Yes, that was a plug. And now I feel dirty and must shower.