a story behind the stories/Publishing 101

Author Susan O’Neill sometimes writes what she calls ‘Publishing 101’, a continuing account of her experiences with her book called Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam, which came out in hardcover from a major publisher and then ran headfirst into some brutal realities of the industry and the marketplace. There’s no happy ending here, but makes for (I find) some fascinating reading:

….[My agent] got me an advance—no three- or four-figure wonder, but a fair amount…and in October, 2001, Ballantine published Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam.

The book got a month on a “New Fiction” shelf in the front of Borders. It got a few readings, a few radio interviews, a few reviews in media like the LA Times and Publisher Weekly. These were all positive, except for Kirkus, whose anonymous reader dubbed it “M*A*S*H, with lots more sex and cursing.” I bitched to a friend; she suggested it would make a good T-shirt.

It did.

Timing is everything: In October of 2001, the US was reeling from the death of the World Trade Center. Few Americans eagerly plunked down money on this fiction collection about a war we lost.

Within two months, my editor told me Ballantine would not be publishing a paperback.

A friend, Viet Nam War vet and poet Michael Casey (Obscenities, The Million Dollar Hole, Millrat, et al), gave me a list of college professors throughout the country who taught classes dealing with the literature of war. I created publicity packets-–reviews, excerpts, a letter urging them to include a woman-vet’s-eye-view in their curriculum—and sent these to everybody on the list.

From about 125 packets, I got 24 replies—a fine return, by marketing standards. These educators said they’d use the book if it were in paperback. Each agreed to send me an email to that effect. I forwarded these to my editor. He forwarded them to Ballantine’s Rights department.

My agent also sold the book to a house in the UK. They invited me across the Pond for a week of BBC radio interviews—quite a coup, my agent said.

I arrived the week the Queen Mum was laid to rest. Every misty eye in England was glued to the telly, to the week-long gravity, pomp and circumstances of her funeral.

Few ears were glued to my live radio interviews.

I was not a UK best-seller.

In the meantime, back home, New York publishing houses were using the bleak post-9/11 economic picture to justify downsizing. Ballantine/Random House, owned by the German company Bertelsmann, executed bloody layoffs. My editor survived two early waves of carnage.

At length, he announced that Ballantine would sell my paperback rights to UMass Press. In the same email, he informed me that he’d been axed. I lost a fine editor and advocate; I was bereft.

The publishing houses replaced many of these senior staff members with youngsters who would work for less. Simple economics.

My former editor is now an agent.

The paperback rights sale was a case of good news/bad news. The good news was that a university press would keep the book alive for a relatively long time. The bad news was, I might die before I receive any fiscal reward from its sale.

It was that decent Ballantine advance. An advance is payment given up front to an author. In effect, the publisher says: We’ll give you this money, then we’ll collect all profits from the sales until they equal your advance. After which, we’ll all make profits. It’s a gamble.

In my case, Ballantine lost. But UMass Press paid its modest advance for the paperback straight to Ballantine, to help defray some of that advance they’d lost on me. So I don’t see the money unless UMass sells millions, which isn’t terribly likely.

I’m not complaining; I get to stay in print for a few more years. You’d be amazed how important that is to a writer.

Especially since, right after the paperback came out, Ballantine “remaindered” their edition. The blue-and-white-hard-covered book that had spent one heady month near the front in Borders now languished in a depressing pile at the rear of Buck-a-Book. It seems big houses don’t like to keep “non-performing” books in print because they take up valuable warehouse space.

University presses seldom flog their books beyond a catalogue. They can’t afford to. So I arranged more readings and kept marketing, marketing, marketing. I got a website, solicited reviews, published articles in magazines, gave classes and keynotes, visited book clubs. Etc, etc, etc.

My agent none-too-gently urged me to write a second book. Ballantine had claimed first reading rights for my next opus in their contract, after all; I should take advantage of this.

Life had been poking at me with ideas and scenarios. I sat at my computer and wrote them down. I researched, edited, re-edited, added, subtracted, cut to the quick, re-wrote it all, edited again. I’m a slow writer; it was a long process.

At last, I sent the result to my agent.

In Spring of 2004, after the usual back-and-forth and one final re-write, my agent pronounced it ready. He had lost many of his connections in the post-9/11 layoffs, but he found an old acquaintance at Ballantine and directed my manuscript to her. She kept it past the requisite month. My agent felt that this was a good sign.

Then she rejected it. She just “didn’t fall in love with it.”

My agent was surprised. Yes, she didn’t owe me the same regard as my old editor would have, but it was a good book.

One by one, 33 houses turned it down. Some praised features my agent hadn’t cared for; some criticized the parts he most prized. Some “just didn’t fall in love with it.”

“I’d advise a re-write,” he said, “but nobody agrees on any one problem. I wouldn’t know what to have you re-write.” He returned the manuscript with regret, telling me he was “still a fan” and was disappointed that my fine characters wouldn’t see print.

I have been sending the book to smaller houses myself. Some have waxed enthusiastic, but told me that “fiction is a tough sell these days.” Some have rejected me with form letters. Some haven’t bothered to reply.

I have learned many things in this particular chapter of Publishing 101. Some are reinforced by a stroll through the fiction section of my nearest chain bookstore. There, I see stacks of new novels by authors who are repeat best-sellers. I see shelves of “genre” fiction—mysteries, horror, westerns, fantasy, romance, period drama, “Chick Lit.” I see novels by new authors–usually young, often quite easy on the eye, frequently from foreign countries. Many write coming-of-age fiction featuring drugs or grinding poverty.

It’s hard to find first novels by non-best-selling late-middle-aged women writing about life in the United States.

To be fair, many excellent fellow writers are having a difficult time getting their first novels into print. But they haven’t published a collection of stories with a major house; they don’t have a University Press paperback edition in print.

Also, American Family isn’t a high-concept 250-page lite-lit book. It is about death, birth, life, love, infidelity, alternative lifestyles. It’s about middle-aged characters with declining parents and screwed-up children, in addition to their own demons. It’s about an obstreperous cat named Schopenhauer, who is the reincarnation of an alcoholic grandfather. It’s complicated and 500 pages long. Today’s publishing houses seem to prefer shorter, simpler, younger, more pop-ish works that are not, gods help us, about death.

I have considered setting it aside and starting a new novel. But unlike those volumes in my attic, this book is good. It’s timely. I hate to leave a good work in Limbo; it makes it hard to concentrate on new writing.

And what’s to say a new novel would fare better than American Family?

I have considered self-publishing through some pay-on-print house like LuLu. Self-publication is trendy; it’s cheap. It gets the book into print. It permits the author to control her art, rather than an agent or editor.

However, self-published work gets no respect in the mainstream. Public perception still holds that a book must suck if it’s not published by a traditional house that brokers “real” literature. And there’s no popularly-sanctioned means of enticing readers with reviews. Don’t ask Publishers Weekly or the LA Times or, gods forbid, even Kirkus to review a self-published novel; it ain’t gonna happen.

Most of all, it feels like a come-down, after big-house publication. A blow to my pride. A guarantee that a book I spent years imagining and polishing will languish in obscurity. That I’ll have to kill myself begging people to read something that is worthy of the same respect my first one received.

And that, class, is this unknown older novelist’s dilemma.


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