Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More About Money

Writer Jeremy James has responded to my posts on advances over on his blog, and he makes some very good points. I won't attempt to summarize what he says (it's worth reading his whole discussion), but he makes two important points: 1) Writers work from a mix of motives, most of which remain unacknowledged, and 2) Publishers and agents tend to be very clear about their goals. These factors tend to work to the disadvantage of the writer.

I hope I haven't come across in my earlier posts as thinking money is utterly unimportant. Money is nice, and a minumum amount of it is necessary merely to survive, but it certainly isn't the primary motive behind my writing. I can earn a very tidy sum consulting, and spent many years doing so; now I've cut back sharply to allow more time for writing. From any financial point of view, my behavior makes little sense, and I assure you, my pocketbook has felt it.

That doesn't mean I'm an Artist with a capital A, a saint, or a being wholly devoid of ambition. What I try to be is what editor Pat Walsh defines as the ideal author to work with: One with high hopes, but reasonable expectations. When I first signed up with MNW, I mentioned in an e-mail to my editor Will Atkins:

Of course, you'll hear no complaints from me if you take my novel, translate it into fifty languages, sell it to Hollywood, and create lines of action figurines and spin-off sportswear; but you'll also hear no complaints from me should it make it no further than modest sales in the UK. Many fine books sink, and many awful books thrive, and, at least as far as I can see, apart from producing the best book possible, neither author nor publisher seems to have much control over the outcome.

(I'm sure somone out there will want to contest that last line, so I'll leave it there just to provoke that special someone.)

It would be nice to earn a living with one's writing--sure it would. Even nicer would be to earn a good living, though James Michener famously called America a country where a writer could make a fortune, but not a living.

I wouldn't turn down the fortune, either, but I'm not counting on it. As the Russian proverb has it, Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

The position of the writer in the business of publishing is distressingly like the position of the actor in show business. A few earn outrageous sums; most greet each other with, "Hey, Bob! You working?"

I'd never advise someone not to pursue an acting career if it were what they wanted to do with their life. But if someone told me, "I want to be rich, so I've decided to actor!", I'd sling my arm over their shoulder and say, "Bob...we need to talk about this."

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Do Editors Edit? Part I

Jump to Part II

The Conventional Wisdom

If you spend any time listening to talks by literary agents or browsing through books on the writing business, you will soon hear that the days of intensive editing are long gone. No more, the agents caution, will a manuscript less than letter-perfect catch the attention of an editor. Agent (and former editor) Lori Perkins says, “The description of what a good editor once did is now the definition of what a good agent can do.” We are given to understand that if Maxwell Perkins (no relationship to Lori, so far as I can ascertain) were still alive, he would be working as an agent, not an editor.

Move a little further down the food chain, however, and you will be told your manuscript must be polished before it even arrives on the desk of an agent. Agent Noah Lukeman writes, “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript—and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.” Despite Lori Perkins’ comment above, at conferences every session on getting an agent emphasizes you can’t send a manuscript to an agent if it still needs work.

That any manuscript a writer sends out ought to be close to publishable seems self-evident. Isn’t that the writer’s job in the first place? An agent or editor may make suggestions to make a manuscript a better book, but it ought to be a good book before they set eyes upon it. Right?

When Michael Barnard announced the launch of Macmillan New Writing, he made it clear they would not be acquiring works that required massive editing. This seems in line with the policies of virtually every commercial publishing house—are there any houses that are searching for books that are promising but far from being publishable? (If so, those houses ought to speak up, as agents routinely reject such books. There’s plenty available.)

Tempest in a Thimble

Apparently, many considered Barnard’s observations outrageous. In some places his remarks were willfully misconstrued, while in other venues people put forth wholly imaginary scenarios of what MNW planned to do…and then worked themselves into an apoplectic fit about their own conjectures.

In effect, some folks asserted that Macmillan planned to dump books directly from the slush pile onto the market with hardly a glance at the content. One somewhat hysterical observer argued—on the basis of no discernible evidence—that the MNW process would "take away the exercise of taste and judgment from publishing", as though Macmillan planned to print every manuscript hurled into their offices, and as if the only defenders of "taste and judgment" in publishing were the literary agents. (It isn't explained why any publisher would choose to make huge investments in well-produced hardback volumes without at least skimming the manuscripts before send them off for typesetting.)

At the same time, there were assertions that Macmillan would only publish books where the authors paid from their own pockets for editing services. (I’ve seen some recent bestsellers where someone, somewhere ought to have paid for editing services—and possibly even for remedial classes in composition—but that’s another matter.)

With all this noise over editing—or rather over the lack thereof—I was very curious indeed to see how MNW would approach the editing process on Smite the Waters. Would they demand that jail be rewritten as gaol? (I hoped not, as there are some things to which I will not stoop. Not many, but a couple, and once you give in on gaol, you’ll have them insisting on whisky as uisge, and then they'll be improvising--it'll be whale as uiol, and lord knows how you’ll be expected to render James Joyce. It’s this sort of thing, and not the tea tax, that precipitated the American Revolution.)

I’d never taken seriously the idea that, as some had speculated, I’d be charged for editing services by my publisher, since there was no mention of the concept in the contract. And how could such a thing work? Would I be charged (ka-ching!) every time the editor scribbled awk! or wd chce? or sent frag in the margin of my manuscript? (I’d be in trouble, as I’m known for awk sent frags, and odd wd chces, which together form an admittedly shaky pillar of my so-called style.) Would a single Post-It note reading Unclear Eleanor’s motivation re: speaking Count at manor re: Rudolfo’s parentage cost me fifty bucks (or, even worse, fifty pounds)?

As I waited to find out, I trembled, and not only for myself. No, I feared for Rudolfo and Eleanor as well.

Well, I at least maintained a lively interest. And if you want to know what happens in MNW editing, you’ll have to read the my next post. (And if you figure out who Rudolfo and Eleanor are, let me know.)

Jump to Part II

Monday, January 29, 2007

Another MNW Writer's Take

Aliya Whiteley, whose novel Three Things About Me came out in July of last year, has written an essay on her experience with MNW. (I confess I haven't read the novel yet--it's still in the mail from the UK, but there's a good amount of favorable buzz about her writing scattered across the web.)

She addresses many of the same issues I've discussed, but does it rather more concisely. Okay, no big surprise there.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Do you do it for the money? Advances, Part III

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part IV

(In which the author at last answers the initial question: Why go with MNW rather than hold out for the traditional model?)

This whole issue reminds me of a great Mankoff cartoon from the New Yorker. An author at a cocktail party is saying: "We're still pretty far apart. I'm looking for a six-figure advance and they're refusing to read the manuscript."

It's not as though I were offered a choice between a big advance with a major imprint and the MNW model. As I described before, the big NY houses had already declined the book. It would be more accurate to say that I had the choice of approaching small presses, all offering very limited distribution and very modest advances, or approaching Macmillan New Writing (which pays no advance but gets books into bookstores, gets books reviewed, and knows how to sell subsidiary rights).

I'd held MNW hardback editions in my hands, and seen how much care and cost went into their production; they're a class act. I'd also had time to read the books, and to listen to the buzz about how MNW was handling their releases, and it was clear that MNW had a commitment to the books in their imprint. (To be frank, if the MNW model were offered by a press I'd never heard of, I probably wouldn't have pursued it.)

[Note for Americans: if you don’t travel much outside North America, you might not have heard of Macmillan, but Pan Macmillan is one of the largest and most important publishers of fiction in the English language. Heard of St. Martin’s, Tor, Henry Holt, or Farrar, Straus & Giroux? Those are US imprints of Pan Macmillan. MNW is a new Macmillan imprint, but Macmillan itself has been around since before the Civil War. ]

As an alternative, I suppose I could have refused to publish the book, stuffed it in a drawer, and gone on to write other books and try for a better deal. (Though I've never heard of an unpublished writer choosing not to publish a book because the best offer he got didn’t meet his financial expectations. Does anyone know of any cases?)

And it's possible, of course, that a UK agent (when and if I obtained one) might have placed the book with a UK publisher for a better financial deal. But I thought it equally likely that the sale would go to a minor publisher with a modest advance, lower royalties, and poorer distribution--if indeed it sold at all.

In any case, if this were about money, I wouldn't waste my time writing in the first place. Only a tiny fraction of published writers of fiction earn a living from their writing. (George V. Higgins says you have a better chance of playing pro baseball or being elected to the US Senate, and he's not joking.)

I know an author who made it onto the bestseller list, and still has the same day job. Why do you think so many novelists also teach college? (Hint: it isn't just because they love grading papers.) Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize, won it TWICE, fer Chrissakes...and teaches in the MFA program at Hunter College.

I know this comes as a shock to most people (who seem to think that publishing a novel is a road to fame and fortune), but most first novels, even with major publishers, net the author thousands of dollars. Not hundreds of thousands, not tens of thousands—just thousands. Low five-figure, middling four-figure, and even three-figure advances are typical of the first novel. Not all first-time publishees are Marisha Pessl or James Frey. (In fact, it turns out even James Frey wasn't James Frey.)

According to surveys, the median income from books of authors in the US is on the order of $5,000 per year. Maybe things are better in the UK—agent Simon Trewin says writers over there typically pull down something less than 9,000 pounds per year, which is around $17,000 these days.

Given the time it takes to write a publishable book, on an hourly basis you’re far better off flipping burgers. I started writing fiction with my eyes wide open to the financial realities. If I make money, great, I’d love it. But in the same way a composer wants her music to be played by an orchestra rather than remaining notes on a page, I want my book to be out in public. People can't read it in my drawer.

In your comments, you said, "I think I'd rather go the opposite way: agree to no royalties, but demand a much higher advance." I'm not so sure about the wisdom of this, as royalties might expand as your reputation grows (or after you've been arrested for dropping your trousers on the Rush Limbaugh Show, or revealed as Condi Rice's sex toy). Royalties potentially have a very long shelf life.

But even if I agreed completely with your preference and tried to demand a higher advance rather than royalties, I'm not sure anyone in publishing, heartless fiends that they are, is terribly interested in my demands at this point.

But I'll show them all some day! Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha…!

(Ow! Don't you hate it when you're briefly possessed by a bad graphic novel?)

Jump to Part I, to Part II, or to Part IV

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Pay Me First, Big Guy: Advances, Part II

Jump to Part I, to Part III, or to Part IV

Huge advances obviously aren’t part of the story of most debut literary novelists—but to many people’s surprise, they also aren’t part of the story of how most blockbuster authors began.

Most people know the story about Stephen King getting the call telling him they’d just sold Carrie for $400,000. Woo-hoo! Overnight success, right? (Well, disregarding the previous three novels he couldn’t publish.)

What people forget is that the call was from King’s editor (not his agent, mind you) to tell him about the paperback rights sale (which Doubleday split 50:50 with him, just the same way that MNW splits subsidiary rights with their clients). But King’s original advance was a whopping $2,500 (that’s about $8,600 in today’s money)—small enough that he kept his high-school teaching job, and he and his wife continued to worry about how to make ends meet. I seriously doubt that Doubleday really pushed Carrie harder because they had $2,500 invested in King’s advance; the $2,500 was more in the nature of a courtesy than a major financial commitment.

After being turned down by dozens of other publishers, John Grisham’s agent sold his first novel (A Time To Kill) to tiny start-up Wynwood Press, reportedly for a $15,000 advance. $15,000? Not bad for a first novel, no matter what the press might have you believe. (By way of comparison, JK Rowling got about $6,000 for the first Harry Potter.) Unfortunately, Wynwood had little distribution, and Grisham eventually bought up copies and sold them from the back of his car to try and get the book to readers. (Hence the legend that he self-published his first book, which is nonsense.)

For Wynwood, $15,000 was a huge investment, so I’m sure they ‘pushed’ with everything they had. Problem is, they didn’t have much with which to push. Do you suppose Grisham would rather have had that $15,000 advance from Wynwood, or, say, a $5,000 advance from Doubleday? (Or even [gasp] a $0 advance from Doubleday?)

(I’m sure someone will say, given the benefit of hindsight, that Grisham should simply have put away A Time To Kill and gone on to get publishers worked up about his bestseller The Firm. The problem with this logic is that Grisham had no real reason to believe The Firm would be a breakout. A scout got hold of a bootleg copy of the manuscript and began hawking it around Hollywood, managed to stir up some heat about a book the scout didn’t even have legal rights to, and suddenly Hollywood wanted it—even before the book had been sold. Grisham himself categorizes this as a very lucky fluke.)

In the 1990s HarperCollins wrote off $270 million in unearned advances and excess inventory. These big advances and extra books weren’t the result of fat payments to deserving unknown literary novelists. They didn’t go to discovering the next King, Grisham, or Rowling, either. They went to established ‘name’ authors who didn’t have the audience appeal the publisher assumed, and to overhyped debut authors who generally dropped from sight after the first overadvertised, overfunded, book hit the stores.

I don’t think this is good for the industry. I don’t think it’s good for most authors—neither for those paid large sums for books that didn’t earn out nor for those whose books were neglected because of the urgency of recouping someone else’s big advance. In the long run I don’t think it’s good for the reading public. Big advances reduce diversity and make for risk-averse publishers.

There is a tendency to speak as though the only stake publishers have in a book is the author’s advance, and that, lacking a big advance, they have no particular reason to try and recoup any money. This may be true of e-publishers, and of presses where Print-On-Demand is the central production technology, and I would indeed steer clear of e-publishers and POD presses that don’t offer a significant advance, because they literally have almost nothing invested in your book.

But publishers who print books with traditional offset technology and try and sell them through traditional channels are sinking quite a bit of money into each book. Doubleday’s real commitment to King’s Carrie was an initial print run of 30,000 copies—not the $2,500 advance.

Jump to Part I, to Part III, or to Part IV

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Matt Curran's book already in second printing...(!)

I don't intend to be 'newsy' with this blog, but I happened to pass through Matt Curran's site, and read that his brand-new book The Secret War has already gone into reprint. (It's also had at least one major foreign rights sale already.)

It goes without saying that I'm thrilled for Matt--but tis news also seems germane to the ongoing discussion here, where the question is whether MNW would bother pushing a book given that they aren't out-of-pocket for an advance to the author.

Perhaps The Secret War didn't need much of a push, but I know writers who received significant advances from major presses yet fared far worse in their opening sales and publicity.

Now if Matt will do us all a favor and climb onto a bestseller list or two...

Monday, January 22, 2007

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Advance? Advances, Part I

Jump to Part II, to Part III, or to Part IV

The advance for a book should be at least as much as the cost of the lunch at which it was discussed.
--Calvin Trillin

The estimable Jeremy James posted the following in the Comments trail, and I thought it was worth bringing up front:

Hi David. Another great post...

After following the links you referenced about MNW's controversial business model, & reading up on why it's controversial in the first place (no advances, non-negotiable contracts, granting of all rights to publisher, etcetera), I'm curious to see if you'd expand a bit more on your reasons for signing with them.

I've read a little of your writing, and it's pretty clear to me at least,you've talent to spare, and if not SMITE, another book of yours would probably find a home with some U.S. publisher of note.

I guess I'm stuck on the "no advance" concept of their contracts. Others have argued that an author shows more confidence in their work if they're willing to take a low (or no) advance, hoping they'll make it up in royalties. But I remain skeptical of this logic. To me, that's really a show of faith in your publisher's ability to market and promote your book--something which you have very little control over, no matter how much you believe in your work.

I think I'd rather go the opposite way: agree to no royalties, but demand a much higher advance. That just makes more sense to me, because then I'm getting paid for the value-added work I put in (writing and delivering an entertaining story)--not for work I won't be performing (marketing and selling the book after it's printed). Plus it turns an "advance" into an investment by the publisher--one they'll need to get their butts in gear to realize a return on.


Hi, Jeremy, thanks for dropping in. You raise some interesting points—interesting enough that I’m afraid it’ll take me more than one post to reply. (In fact, I’m thinking three—and I’d like to also thank you for giving me an excuse to tackle a topic so large, and thereby put off doing honest work.)

Let me start by noting that most of your points would garner widespread agreement. Some people (particularly agents) think it nearly immoral to publish without advances, and the argument that only a large advance will force publishers to market your book is not uncommon.

Prgamatically speaking, you’re right that the main issue with the MNW contract is advances. Except in the case where an agent has somehow caused mass hysteria to descend upon a whole crowd of editors who busily outbid each other for a first novel, I don't think an unpublished novelist typically has much room to negotiate their contract with or without an agent, whether it's in principle negotiable or not. Nor are subsidiary rights typically of much value in the hands of an unpublished novelist. The Indonesian e-book rights probably aren't going to create much of a stir, and as to Hollywood options, I think a well-connected publisher is more likely to sell them than I am (even with the assistance of an agent), leaving me with 50% of something rather than 100% of nothing.

It may help a little to consider the history of the ‘advance’, which, of course, is short for ‘advance against royalties.’ Impecunious writers (and, if I recall, ‘impecunious’ literally means ‘owning no cattle’, which I should think would include most writers) often borrowed money from their agents or publishers to make ends meet. This ‘advance’ was the same idea as an advance on one’s wages—that is, a no-interest loan against future earnings.

With reliable, published writers, books were often ‘sold’ for an advance prior to being written, often based on a synopsis or outline, with perhaps half of the advance up-front, and the rest on delivery or publication. Novelist Lawrence Block writes:

“Some years ago, when I was more prolific than I am now and landed virtually all of my contracts on the basis of an outline or a brief proposal, I could hardly avoid the realization that I was writing a couple hundred words for half the money and then had to write an entire book just to get the other half. It seemed economically sensible to stick to outlines—I could write dozens of them in the course of a year far more easily than I could produce half a dozen actual books. But sooner or later, I found, you have to deliver the actual book…”

The main purpose of the advance was to make sure the writer wouldn’t starve until he or she had finished the book. Advances weren’t generally paid to first-timers: who knew if they’d ever finish a book?

(Macmillan New Writing only publishes writers whose novels have not been previously published, and they only look at manuscripts that are complete. In such cases, the original rationale for the advance is obviously not relevant.)

In time, and with the increasing role of agents in the process, the advance became a standard item in contracts, even for first novels. Advances became the major item of negotiation, and advances swelled to the point where they became news. In fact, today they are a major tool of publicity. The most exciting thing about a book nowadays—to People magazine, at any rate—is apparently the size of the advance paid for it.

Many debut authors receiving large advances (and there are only a tiny number, though they get a lot of print) don't earn out, so they never receive royalties anyway. Big advance + Big losses = Small chance you’ll ever publish again.

In the case of mega-advances, yes, the publisher needs to push the book harder—often to the detriment of other books on their list. That’s great, I guess—unless you’re the guy who got the $10,000 advance, and you’re with the same imprint that gave another author $500,000.

The size of the advances received by debut novelists seems to have little to do with their ultimate success in the business. We'll return to this topic in the next post, but I think it's useful to play agent Simon Trewin's Whatever happened to... game: gather together your friends, get a list of the debut novelists who were given giant advances and massive hype a few years ago, and now see who in the room can remember what the authors published next.

Jump to Part II, to Part III, or to Part IV

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Road to Macmillan New Writing, Part II

Jump to Part I

Go East, Young Man

Having parted from my New York agent, there was nothing for it but to try and get an agent…again…this time in the UK. I went to a local philatelist and bought enough UK stamps to pay for a dozen SASEs, went to the post office and bought a dozen International Priority Mail envelopes and stamps, and settled in to query a few UK literary agents.

Meanwhile, back at stately Wayne Manor…

A couple of years back, Michael Barnard, with the enthusiastic support of Pan Macmillan publisher Richard Charkin, decided to start Macmillan New Writing. Although in many ways the terms set by MNW are little more than a return to traditional publishing practices, the howl that came from the industry—agents, pundits, and even a few novelists (who damn well ought to have known better)—carried right across the Atlantic.

For those of you who somehow missed that shitstorm, here are two of the opening salvos in the battle, the first one critical of MNW, the second favorable.

My sympathies from the start were with Michael Allen (Grumpy Old Bookman), whose attitude seemed to be nothing more than sensible and pragmatic. (A little grumpy, sure, but who isn’t?) Anything that subverted or sidestepped the current so-called system without venturing into the realm of self-publishing seemed to me like progress. (If you want to read more about the genesis of MNW, pick up a copy of Barnard’s Transparent Imprint. All proceeds go to charity.)

The MNW plan sounded like a damn good idea to me, and I was jealous that no American publisher had that kind of vision; but for a few months Macmillan-bashing was a hot new sport on the web. This dwindled after the facts about MNW's plans turned out not to match the wild accusations critics had created out of thin air. Authors will pay for editing! (No, Macmillan has its own editorial staff and pays them itself.) The books will all be cheap PODs! (They are traditionally printed hardbacks, and better produced than most.) They'll accept anything that comes in! (MNW accepts about 0.3% of the manuscripts submitted, or about 3 in every thousand.) There will be a flood of novels! (Yes--if you consider 12 new books a year a flood.) No bookstores will carry them! (They do.) No legitimate sources will review them! (There have probably been more reviews than for most debut novels, and reviews have come from sources up to and including the Times Literary Supplement.)

The only element of controversy that was correct is that they pay no advances against royalites (though they pay a 20% royalty on the sales that are made).

Once the pundits realized their conjectures had nothing to do with reality, things grew quieter. Some damage was done as some people never learned the accusations were false. On the other hand, it did generate publicity, and gained the venture support from some surprising sources, including the buying manager of one of the major UK book chains.

Back when I was still planning on selling Smite in the US, MNW had offered the first six launch titles for 50% off the cover price. I ordered them. It was a slow boat that brought them to our shores, but the books were good. I dashed through Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (effing brilliant!) and then started into Fuchs’ fast-paced existential thriller The Manuscript, followed by Conor Corderoy’s eclectic crossgenre Dark Rain (which is so cinematic I’m surprised Terry Gilliam hasn’t snapped it up). Brian Martin’s North was elegant and recalled for me the repressed, moody sexuality of John Fowles, and Cate Sweeney’s Selfish Jean had me snorting coffee out my nose (her “letting the wine breathe” scene was so funny I read it aloud to my long-suffering POSSLQ Pamela. [Pronounced possel-queue. Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters according to the Census Bureau, those incurable romantics.]) Finally, Suroopa Mukherjee’s Across the Mystic Shore accomplished what the novel does better than any other medium by taking me into someone else’s worldview.

Hell, this was the most fun I’d had with a seemingly random set of books since my grade-school teacher first took us to the library. I cursed the accidents of fate that had me born in America when such fun was to be had back in the Motherland. (Ignore my surname, I’m from a long line of Drakes and Davidsons. It’s a long story—and yet surprisingly uninteresting.)

It seemed unlikely to me that MNW would accept an American author. Mind you, there was nothing official stating they wouldn’t, but my former agent had told me I had little chance of publication in the UK, and there were a number of UK agents who stated upfront that they under no circumstances acted as primary agents for writers based in the United States. Perhaps the idea of literary asylum in the UK was a dead ideal. Yet I'd been told the only things that stood between me and publication in the US were that the bad guys were Americans, and there was no real hero…and Smite seemed like a publishable book…

What the hell. I sent my novel off to Macmillan New Writing. The worst that could happen was rejection, and rejection in this business is the norm. I also mailed off a few query letters to UK agents, and got back to work on another novel.

I was on travel when Pamela called to tell me I’d received an e-mail from Will Atkins, MNW’s editor. She read it to me over the phone. It opened by saying some very complimentary things about the book, and I began to feel queasy—in my experience, kind words were typically a prologue to Unfortunately, however

Instead, to my astonishment, the message went on to say MNW would be delighted to publish Smite. Delighted? I would have settled for Grudgingly willing. I made Pamela read it again, and again, and even asked her to forward the e-mail to a nearby computer so I could read it myself. There was no small print, no maybes—I was being offered publication by one of the world’s great houses.

Did I say yes? Does Spring follow Winter, and doth pride, like Summer, goeth before a Fall, and does ontogeny really recapitulate phylogeny? (And will this be on the exam?)

The book is due for launch in September, 2007, about three years after I finished writing it, and I couldn’t be happier with my publisher.

Jump to Part I

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Road to Macmillan New Writing, Part I

Jump to Part II

Getting and Losing an Agent

Why is an American publishing his novel with Macmillan New Writing? After all, I reside in the US of A, where we have publishers of our own (Admittedly they mainly sell diet books, with the occasional novel by Nicole Richie or Pamela Anderson, but they are publishers nonetheless. No, really.)

Actually, I’m not the first American to publish with MNW. That would be Michael Stephen Fuchs, whose excellent novel The Manuscript was one of the six MNW launch titles. And it’s been slated for US publication, and UK paperback, and optioned for film, and deservedly so. But Michael lives and works in London, so he’s one of the locals.

So what’s my excuse?

Glad you asked. Gather round, kiddies, and after he secures the perimeter to prevent escape, Uncle David will explain.

In 2004 I completed Smite the Waters, a novel about a group of Americans who decide to fight terror with terror. (Spoiler: Their ultimate plan is to nuke Mecca.)

Now, before you get riled and start sending hate mail, let me note that this isn’t a jingoistic, flag-waving fantasy where untainted, home-bred good conquers unmitigated foreign evil It’s more in the nature of a cautionary tale. I suppose it’s a “thriller,” and perhaps even a “technothriller,” but its ancestors are more Graham Greene than Tom Clancy.

I admit Smite isn’t easy to pigeonhole. There are two protagonists. There are five points of view, and, although there is a noir tone overall, the book also has a heaping helping of techno-candy, and even some caper elements. It abounds in moral ambiguity and nuance, and is more character-driven than most recent thrillers. A description of the story line sounds like (wince) Men’s Adventure, but the embittered female soldier who leads the terrorists is the book’s main selling point. Despite all those facts ("features" to me, "drawbacks" to most of the publishing industry) it wasn’t hard to find representation—two excellent literary agents simultaneously offered to take me on while seven others were still reading. To someone with a couple of previous novels sitting in my drawer (good novels, I hasten to add, but perhaps a touch too quirky for the market), it seemed as though I’d finally arrived.

My agent was a good one—well-connected, and able to go directly to the high-level folks at each house who could flip on the green light.

Those green lights all stayed red. I’d heard of being damned with faint praise, but the rejections we received damned the book with effusive praise. They loved the characters, the plot hook, the prose, the pacing…at any moment, I expected to hear that someone loved my 12-point Times New Roman. There were just two tiny, but fatal, problems.

One editor came right out and said it, after larding on the compliments: “The fact that the bad guys are Americans makes this a hard sell for us.” There were variations on this message, most of them more subtle, but the overwhelming response was that New York was shying away from “9/11 fiction” in “the present climate,” and it was explained that if they went down that road they wanted a “real hero” to “lead the narrative charge.”

Another editor even offered that she was sure she “would be kicking myself for turning this down.” (I haven’t yet checked to see if she’d like me to save her the work by dropping by and kicking her myself, but if she happens to read this—hey, I’m willing.)

By the end of 2005, my agent was giving up on the book. Not on me, bless her heart—she wanted to pick up another of my earlier books and get to work—but after only a handful of rejections, she’d decided that the subject matter and the characters of Smite would preclude publication.

I’d been steeped in the tales of folks like James Lee Burke, whose breakout novel was rejected by 111 editors, so less than ten rejections struck me as barely having begun. Not so, my agent counseled—this was “a big, commercial book” and only a few houses could “give it what it needed” in terms of distribution and promotion. She refused to consider smaller presses; she refused to consider more literary imprints, even though the lack of a “real hero” and the ensemble nature of the book made it a touch more thoughtful than many thrillers.

Fine. Over the years I’d heard of many fine American writers who had to go overseas to publish. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, now considered a classic, was turned down everywhere in the US before it was published in England; James Purdy’s novels were all considered unpublishable in America until he’d built up a body of work in Europe; folks like Chester Himes and Jonathan Carroll finally moved to Europe altogether because they were appreciated abroad and comparatively ignored at home. More recent debuts by Americans like Carol O’Connell’s Mallory books also found a home in the UK before NY publishers would touch them.

I asked two friends, who are well-established American novelists, if I were crazy to consider publishing in the UK. Neither of them thought it odd—and both of them informed me that their UK sales were typically twice their US sales.

I asked other friends, and they laughed. The general impression they gave me was that “The fact that the bad guys are Americans” would make no difference in Europe, and might even be a selling point.

So, I asked my agent if she would try to sell Smite the Waters to houses in the UK. Her agency boasted outstanding overseas connections, so I expected at least a few trial submissions. Instead, she told me that my book was far “too American” to be of interest to any publisher in the UK

I think there often comes a time for writers—usually long after the process of writing is over—when it isn’t about you, the author, any more, but instead about the novel. What do you owe the book? I thought Smite needed to be given a real chance.

But it’s nerve-wracking for an unpublished novelist to drop an agent voluntarily. After your novel’s been shopped to the top half-dozen NY houses, no other agent is going to want to pick you up. Unagented, you have no track record; agented but unsold, you have a negative track record, because your other agent has already, to use the industry’s charming term, “pissed in all the ponds.”

I contacted my agent and said I wasn’t ready to give up on Smite. She said she understood, added that it really was a good book, and wished me luck.

And so we parted company. Many writers have compared leaving their agent to getting divorced. If so, it’s a strange sort of divorce, as the agent still has dozens of other spouses. It’s more like leaving someone’s harem…except that you no longer have the admittedly limited advantages of your virginity.

Jump to Part II

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Speeding the Cyberspace Apocalypse

In one of the lesser-known Black Books of Prophecy of Abdul Alhazred, it is foretold that the day will dawn where the number of bloggers* will exceed the number of non-bloggers, and that when that hour comes round, the Earth will groan, tombs will yawn wide, and the Dead shall pour forth from their uneasy rest, crying, “Hey! Will all you people shut the hell up?

Doing my part to hasten that day, welcome to my blog.

*(n.b. Alhazred, as quoted by HP Lovecraft, used a somewhat-ruder and less-specific term, but I'm pretty sure he meant "bloggers".)