I worked at Universal Records when I was in college and I’ve found that the recording industry is similar to publishing in many ways. It involves writers, agents, and your work ends up at a company that promotes it.
I remember Gary Rossington describing his experience, and heartbreaks, as he, and the band, struggled with their writing. He said that they wrote Free Bird, and the rest of their music, and sat practicing, and broiling, in the Florida sun in a tarpaper shack known as the Black Mirah. They, and their fans, loved their music, but agents did not. Agent after agent came, visited the group, and told them well… their work sucked.
The agents suggested they find new music, change everything about what they did, and well, try something completely different. Ronnie would escort each agent to his car, throw him in, and tell him to never come back.
After four years of sweating and losing their minds in the Black Mirah, their work hit the market. They put out their “Pronounced” album. Freebird is now the second most requested song of all time, it’s been played in countless movies, and it’s used in advertising.
I remember this so well because, as writers, we spend time in our own Black Mirah, writing, editing, changing things. We send out query letters, synopsis’s, chapters and stories hoping that someone out there cares. And agents don’t normally say our work sucks, they just tend to send form letters back saying they don’t want it.
I’ve spent the last year in my own Black Mirah trying to decide what to do with my own work. When I wrote, My Adventure, The Cabin, The Farm, Lancaster County Legends, and The Blue Ocean’s Peace, I wrote them for the fun of writing. The idea wasn’t to produce the best technical writing, to win any awards, or satisfy any critic. I wanted to write a story that people would enjoy. I promised myself that I would never allow them to be published because they were too personal. After much persuasion, by people who read the rough work, I began looking into publishing The Blue Ocean’s Peace and The Cabin.
I did my best to try and edit The Blue Ocean’s Peace and began to market the novel. My second e-mail got a hit from an agent in Florida who asked for the full work. I waited twenty days (which I thought was a long time) and on Christmas Eve I found a letter in my mailbox. The agent asked me to make some changes to the story and correct the there’s, theirs, they’re and other mistakes. I was really upset that the news came on Christmas Eve, but decided to put the novel aside, since I was rewriting The Cabin.
I thought it would take a few weeks to finish the re-write instead it took five months. While rewriting The Cabin I realized that I had an unconventional novel about an unconventional topic. I began sending my query letters out in mass, both by hard copy, and by e-mail. I quickly realized that I was doing everything wrong.
Think about a store. It seems everyone in the store arrives, and leaves, at peak hours. Writers tend to write over the winter, and market their work in the spring. I imagine agents being deluged in April. My mass of queries was buried in the piles.
I made a point of only sending out three queries a day, and studying the web sites, and information, on the agents and publishers. I began to think of why I wanted to send a query letter to an agent, hoping they would ask for the first three chapters. Why not send the first three chapters? Would they drag me out of bed in the middle of the night if I did? I know all the books say not to do this, but none complained. I think in reality that quite a few assumed they had asked for them. But then many, on their web sites, asked authors to send the first three chapters. Some asked for the entire work, upfront.
I began buttonholing agents whenever I could asking that, if they couldn’t represent me, who would? I got quite a few leads. I also began handing out the complete novel to anyone who would take it, agent or publisher, even if I felt it would end up in the recycle bin.
Once a day I began sending a copy of the novel to a publisher, and studied their web sites. I tried to hone in on any publisher that printed adventure novels. One publisher wrote back. I began talking to them. Another also wrote back. I wasn’t really pleased with either.
I felt that if I ever published The Cabin it would get completely lost in a chain store. I’d be glad to have them take it, but I couldn’t image it selling there. Most publishers tend to market to the chains, send copies to the main critics, and hope to sell millions. I wanted to have the ability to market it unconventionally; most publishers would not allow this.
So here I was spending my time in the Black Mirah wondering if I’d lost my mind, wondering if anyone cared. I kept mailing and studying web sites. I kept buttonholing agents, asking if they knew of anyone who would market my work.
Two names kept coming up from agents. It seems stupid but I waited, hoping something else would come around. I finally looked at the web sites of the recommended agents to see what I could find.
All agents described that they accepted work when recommended to them by another agent. But isn’t that what I really had, hadn’t the agents I buttonholed “recommended” the agents or publishers to me?
I had already contacted the recommended agents. I sent out another query noting that an agent had recommended them to me. I also sent a synopsis, and copy of the novel, and waited.
A month later I had not heard from a tiny publisher and I became frustrated. I knew the publishers often waited six months to review work, but I needed to move forward. I called the woman.
“This is Walt Honsinger. I know they say not to call, but I was wondering if you received my work?”
“Oh, you wrote The Cabin didn’t you?” she said. I was speechless because she remembered the novel.
“I began reading it, you know we get about 20 manuscripts a day…”
“I had to put it down and press other engagements, I’ll try and get back to it in the next few weeks…”
“What did you think of it?” I asked.
“I remember it having flaws, you kept repeating characters names, oh and Rodney, he’s a no-no…I’m sorry Walt, I have to get to a meeting.” Click.
Well at least she took a look at it…
I began waiting, mailing, and weeks went by. I remember telling my writing group that I wasn’t ready to have a book published. I didn’t want it anymore. The thought of critics reviewing the work, or bookstores rejecting it, were too much. I mean I wrote it for people to enjoy, not for exactness of writing.
Deb and I prepared to take a few days off to enjoy our 25th anniversary. She had napped that afternoon and got up around 11 pm.
“Walt, you have an e-mail from the publisher,” she said.
Ruin my anniversary like I did Christmas, no thanks, it can wait…Oh what the hell; I’ll look at it. It was close to one a.m. and we were leaving at 9 in the morning. I opened the e-mail.
“Walt, I reviewed you work…flaw in character of Rodney…Names repeated…useless descriptiveness…”
I was at line 24 in the e-mail, I read it, and scratched my head. I read it again.
Am I losing my mind? I’ll let Deb read it to me!
“ Deb, can you read this section to me so I know I’m not going out of my mind?”
“Yes, the paragraph around line 24.”
“Walt, all in all I will be happy to publish The Cabin…I think it will sell,” Deb read.
I guess I should be jumping up and down, but I guess I’m just apprehensive…
“Let’s get to bed,” I told Deb.
I called the publisher three days later and told her my ideas of unconventionally marketing the novel. She was ok with that. I found her to be completely flexible and understanding. I began making the minor changes she asked for.
I thought the changes would take about two hours but it took four weeks. In tightening up the novel I removed some 17,000 words. While I made changes I began hearing from other publishers, some more mainstream than the first. Four contracts arrived in the mail. Authors that visited our group described horror stories of main line publishers pulling first time novels after four weeks on the market. I needed time and flexibility. I needed to find the niche market for my work, but what about the critics?
As far as critics go, I really don’t care. Suppose Oprah somehow got my book and didn’t like it. “Read the book Oprah didn’t want you to see!” I could market that. Perhaps I could encourage every eleventh grade student to buy, and critique, my novel.
And the chain stores are accepting my novel. I have ten upcoming book signings at Borders and Barnes and Nobles. The store managers have been fantastic recommending days and times when their stores are full.
I think I realized that at the end of this whole process, this whole ridiculous Chinese fire drill, it’s all pretty simple. I have a novel that a segment of the population would like to read and I need to find them. It’s marketing 101. I wrote the novel for the fun of it and people who have read it tell me they enjoy it. End of story.