The Future of Publishing …1

7. I’ll Survive in Rome, 475 AD – September 23, 2012

For the past two weeks, I’ve been describing my reactions—some rueful, some furious—to a link that a friend sent me from the Los Angeles Review of Books featuring freelance journalist Joe Peschel on the current state of digital publishing. In the first blog, I likened the print publishing business to Rome just before the sack: under huge stress, with changing markets and a defunct business model, virtually at the point of collapse. In the second, I described how, in this environment, going independent and publishing your own ebooks is not a choice but a survival strategy. But you have to be persistent—shining with the madness of a Captain Ahab—to be an author and not a wannabe. Now here is my story as an author.

I’m a born writer, a force of nature, a shout in the wilderness, a dead-serious, can’t-imagine-doing-anything-else book writer.

I knew from an early age that my purpose on earth was to be a lens through which the world can be seen clearly—or, in the case of fiction, through which a new world is revealed. Every job I’ve held since graduation was either as a writer or an editor. As a technical and communications writer, I helped others make their story, their product, or their project accessible and comprehensible to their intended audience. As a fiction writer, I spin stories for entertainment, about people, places, and times that never existed but might have under other circumstances. As an editor, I help other writers become accessible and comprehensible to their readers.

I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen.2 It took me more than a year of getting up at four o’clock in the morning before school to work on it. Between that and my studies, I sacrificed a lot of social life. I wrote the first draft longhand, with a fountain pen on a writing tablet, and then typed the final manuscript, two copies, double-spaced, with carbon paper, on my grandfather’s forty-pound upright manual typewriter. The book was science fiction, about the scholarly, charismatic leader of a peasant revolt among the star systems of an interstellar empire. It was well over 60,000 words, 472 pages, and completely unpublishable. But I had the guts to see it through.

My interest in writing guided my decision to major in English literature at the university. I studied the history of the language, the development of various art forms (drama, poetry, and stories), and read constantly. In the months before I graduated, I knew I wasn’t ready to start a writing career, so instead I quickly turned and learned—with the help of two of my favorite professors3—book editing. I became a professional editor, first at the university press, then at a tradebook publisher in Berkeley which produced railroad histories and western Americana. That job led to technical editing and writing for a local engineering and construction company, which eventually morphed into public relations and communications. I’m the only English major I know who’s been continuously and profitably employed in writing and editing over a lifetime—and I’ve only had to scramble and reinvent myself about six times. But every industry where I’ve worked has become background information and grist for my imaginative mill.

I wrote my second novel after I’d been in the business world for about ten years. I didn’t bother with the carbon paper, because photocopying was now feasible. But otherwise it was the same route: up before dawn, handwritten draft, final on a typewriter. It was a novel of business fiction, á là Arthur Hailey or Gerald A. Browne, based on my experiences at the engineering company—and also completely unpublishable. But the spark was still there.

A couple of years later, I decided to get serious about this business of writing. I started writing what I thought would be a blockbuster science fiction novel about a micro black hole that falls into the center of the Earth, portending its collapse and requiring humanity to flee to the stars. I traded an old Apple II computer to a writer friend in order to get an introduction to her agent. That agent took me on, sent my outline and sample chapters (I was about a third of the way through the book at the time) to her personal friend, who was a senior editor at Analog magazine. He very kindly informed me that I got the premise all wrong, because I was using the central crisis as a springboard rather than solving the problem, and I had the timing of the event wrong to boot. With so many defects in the story, I considered dumping that book idea and trying something else—but I was being serious, remember?

So I spent a year rethinking the premise, setting up my characters to solve the black hole problem, and researching the science to understand the timing. The result was The Doomsday Effect, which was published for the minimum advance at a paperback house, Baen Books. That first novel lasted about three weeks on the bookstore shelves and disappeared with more than 50% in returns.4 If I had been with a larger publishing house, that would probably have been the end of my career. But Baen was a small house that believed in developing its authors. Founder Jim Baen was willing to try other books from me and link me up in collaborations with established senior authors who were willing to put their names on books with promising newcomers.

I published seven more novels and collaborations through Baen. Along the way, I changed agents and got—at the recommendation of the publisher—Stephen King’s former first agent, a man who was supposed to be able to “call down the lightning.” He got me in touch with the publisher at a larger, better established science fiction house. That publisher bought a novel in concept—what I hoped would be the start of a series—and then, on receiving the finished manuscript nine months later, sent me letters from three separate freelance editors essentially saying the book was indecipherable, unreadable, unknowable, and unrelated to English literature as currently practiced. My agent was not too concerned, and it took me a long time to understand that the fault wasn’t mine: the book’s premise simply wasn’t anything that publisher intended to pursue, so he wanted to make clear that the contract was void through no fault of his own.

But, being serious—and not a little mad—I took that book, rewrote it at least twice, even offered it to my first publisher and rewrote it according to his suggestions, and then, when he hemmed and hawed on receiving the final manuscript, I put it up as a free PDF on my newly created author’s website. That book became Sunflowers. Over the next couple of years, I wrote two other books of more general fiction and offered them as free PDFs: Trojan Horse and The Judge’s Daughter. Having eventually separated from my second agent—who was swamped with established authors who couldn’t make sales in the long, slow backlash to the Thor Power Tools legal decision—I tried repeatedly to attract a new agent and a new publishing career with each of these books. But the traditional market was already closing, even for authors with a track record—more likely, especially for authors with a non-stellar track record.

Robert Bausch’s story in Joe Peschel’s Los Angeles Review of Books article is nothing strange to me. The traditional publishing world doesn’t want mid-list authors. We’re not bait to become million-copy bestsellers. Random agents and editors will try to be helpful and steer us toward different, untried markets—young adult, romance, mystery—because, hey, advice is free and something might work.5

Rather than sitting in a drawer, my novels were languishing on my author’s website—which was like writing messages on the underside of stones and leaving them along a path in the forest—until the success of the Kindle ereader and the rise of digital distribution made self-publishing economically possible for me. I’ve since converted my three PDF books to epubs and put them on sale. Baen graciously reverted the rights to my four solo books published under their imprint and even helped convert them to epubs.6 I’ve recently written an eighth novel, The Children of Possibility, which appeared solely in electronic form. Now I’m at work on The Professor’s Mistress, the sequel to my general fiction novel The Judge’s Daughter.

If you’re a mid-list author, do you have the guts to follow Bausch and me down this path? Do you have the stamina to write one book after another and only get heartbreak in return? Because the traditional market does not want those of us who are less-than-stellar authors. While a scattering of readers out there might like us and even become firm fans, they face a wide and murky sea of unknown writers which hides our works from the dedicated reader’s eyes.

Publishing in the old style was like being struck by lighting. If you had talent, hit the market at just the right time, and became known to the most influential agents and the big publishing houses, you could make it big. But these days, even if you can attract an agent and a publisher, you will still have to produce your own well-edited book, lead the market with an unusual idea, do your own promotion, and experience a heap of good luck to boot. The days of being featured in the spring book list like some kind of celebrity are over.

Being with an old-style publisher was like an actor signing on with an old-time movie studio. They made you a star, you did the pictures they assigned you to (or in this case, wrote the kind of books your agent and editor suggested), and the rest was relatively easy—with a heap of good luck. But for everyone else working as an actor, the life has always been hard knocks, scrambling, and chronic unemployment. (Go watch Dustin Hoffman again as the acting teacher in the early scenes of Tootsie.)

If you’re a real author, do you have the guts to write and publish book after book, knowing that you will likely be ignored or dismissed, your voice lost in the wind? Do you have that sheer Ahab madness? Or can you imagine doing anything else?

1. For the original four entries in this series, published just about a year ago, see:
        1. Gutenberg Economics: What Is a Book Worth?
        2. Traditional Publishing: Through the Eye of the Needle
        3. eBook Publishing: No Inventory, No Logistics, No Middlemen
        4. eBook Publishing: The Author’s Toolkit

2. No, I lie. I wrote my very first novel when I was twelve. It was three pages long—but typewritten—with a cover made of shirt cardboard bearing a crude crayon illustration (I was never an artist). It was a mystery story set aboard a steam locomotive in the Old West that had gone through a tunnel and, somehow, everyone on board had died. Bodies were hanging out of the cab and off the running boards. (I had no way of knowing that asphyxiation was a real problem in the long tunnels and snow sheds of the Southern Pacific going through the Sierras—I only learned that at my second job, in trade publishing—but I had intuited some kind of strange, necrotic agency.) The book had a tantalizing setup but no character focus, no second or third acts, and no resolution—only three pages, remember? Still, something in me wanted to tell a story. I was just a late bloomer.

3. One of my treasured professors at Penn State, the historian Stanley Weintraub, recommended me as a promising young English major to the head of the university press. When I landed that job, another favorite professor, Phil Klass, who wrote science fiction as William Tenn, immediately took me home to his wife, Fruma, who was a freelance copy editor. She ran me through a crash course in the basics of book editing and text markup. Since then, I’ve tried to pay that debt forward by training other new editors in the basics. I’ve been very lucky in the help I’ve received in life.

4. But The Doomsday Effect did win the Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Compton Crook Award for best first novel of the year—my only literary honor.

5. As I’ve noted earlier, one potential agent wanted to know what super powers my main character in Sunflowers possessed, and lost interest when all my characters were merely human. He obviously was looking for a graphic novel to sell.

6. All of my epublished science fiction is available through Baen’s ebooks service, as well as through Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Apple’s iBooks.