“Of course it’s hard; the hard is what makes it great. If it was easy, everyone would do it.”
~A League of Their Own
I knew trying to become a published author would be a difficult, uphill battle; I had several strikes against me going in. One: my first book was a memoir, and I am not famous. Two: my book contained no shocking revelations; I didn’t overcome a drug addiction, or beat a terminal disease. Three: there are no homosexual vampires in my book.
A lack of compass in my hand, I set out aimlessly wandering the same path so many hopeful authors before me have. I researched an exceedingly lame “How YOU Can Get Published!!” trickster book by a con artist of a literary agent selling snake oil to the masses. I designed and refined a query letter, and took the trouble to snail-mail to as many outlets as possible, my hope being that in the world of e-commerce a physical letter would seem quaint, and draw a smile to certain lips. I examined agent websites, and made sure to only apply to those who specifically stated “Interested in unknown writers with compelling stories.”
What I discovered almost immediately is I had an important fourth strike against me: my story lacks a perfect elevator pitch. While I believed I had a decent story to tell overall, when reduced to a 30 second summation that really grabs you, I was completely bereft. In my ignorance, I did not realize that the attention span of the literary world has reached Michael Bay levels.
I don’t want to complain too much; I understand how important it is to be able to summarize a concept for the masses. My problem comes with the absolute importance placed upon that concept. When I realized what I was lacking, I researched many, many memoirs, and what I found disturbed me. More than a few books I manhandled had fantastic pitches that I could glean from glancing at the back cover:
- I’m a Conservative Christian, and I fell in love with an atheist!
- I was a teenage prostitute, but quit after meeting the right man!
- My lifelong battle with nose-picking, defeated through cocaine addiction!
And so on.
The problem was, past that summation, most of those book had nowhere to go. Suddenly, someone with a great one-sentence story had to fill 300 pages based on it. All too often the books read like those Saturday Night Live sketches that are fantastic for 30 seconds, but run for five agonizing minutes.
After over 100 rejections based on pitch alone—no one bothered to read my transcript to see whether or not it was interesting, they didn’t even want it taking up their time—I decided to go the only route available to me: self publishing.
The flip of my switch came because of a high school friend. I know an actual author, with an actual agent, signed to one of the largest publishing companies around. I’m not naming him here, because he told me in slight confidence, “When it comes to my next book, I’m self-publishing.”
Because being in the big leagues isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Since they’re fronting the money, the big publishers get to “help” you with your book. They “suggest” changes that could (meaning should) be made. They hand you a cover they think is marketable, which isn’t always one you find aesthetically pleasing or necessarily all too in tune with the contents of your book. Oh, and if they sell a copy of your story for $14.99, you receive a smaller cut than had you sold your own copy for $2.99 on the Kindle.
So, that information in hand—combined with a lack of interest by many, many agents—I decided that getting my product out there on my own wasn’t such a bad choice; ego be damned, I didn’t need the validity a major publishing house offers.
Unfortunately, others like that stamp of approval.
I approached a small, Midwestern publication in Wisconsin with my story: “Born and bred Wisconsin boy takes his jokes out into the world. Performs for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turns life story into a memoir.” Hoping for some press, I was instead given a smile and pat on the head. Good for you, little boy; come back when you’re a real author.
You see, the problem with self-publishing is literally that anyone can do it.
Digest that a moment.
So, if the mini-magazine wasn’t interested in promoting me, because I was (and am) an unknown nobody, who did they push? Doing a little research, I discovered that a few months prior the publication had fawned at masturbatory levels over a different local author, one who had signed with a major publishing house for an advance of $600,000. Looking over the article, I noticed the signing amount mentioned repeatedly. That number, those zeroes… In the world of Hollywood, $600,000 might not be much, but regarding books, well, you have to kill a lot of trees to make that back.
Like any business, the publishing world is a machine. After investing north of a half-million dollars, the gears get to grinding. I looked up the $600,000 man and noted that many prominent authors and reviewers had praised his book. Quotes aplenty adorned the “Editorial Reviews” section of Amazon. This doesn’t happen by accident; strings are pulled to get authors and major publications to talk about art. They generally don’t go discovering it on their own.
The thing is, Amazon also has a “Customer Reviews” section, and the common folk discussing the $600,000 book were scathing in their judgment. People hated the book. Outright hated it. With anything artistic or involving an opinion, a leveling will generally take place. Some will love the work, others won’t, and the truth lay somewhere in the middle. Go to any Amazon page and you will generally find a mix of positive and negative, with positive almost always coming out in higher numbers. With the $600,000 book, the number of 1-star reviews was almost as high as the number of 5-star reviews. Such a phenomena is difficult to find outside of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie review website.
I’d love to think that such a weak foundation could support no business, but the publishing industry has been around a long, long time. E-books and modern technology are challenging it on all fronts, and a tsunami of unknown authors is taking their product directly to the people now…
…hopefully the tide will turn and soon old games will exist no more.
Maybe the literary houses, agents, will go back to trying to find good works, and not just chase trends and thirty second pitches. And maybe the press will care less about how much something cost and be more concerned with how good it is when deciding whether or not to promote it.
Helpful people are out there, for the record. Just because you face rejection, doesn’t mean you give up.
You keep sending query letters, and every so often someone takes an interest in the little guy. A kindly soul, an Erin Schroeder, a Little Village Magazine…
The gratitude I feel toward these people and entities is limitless.
Here’s to hoping more of them become the gatekeepers of power in the future.