It’s been well over a year since I announced the completion of my most recent novel, “Ruins of Camelot”. A few wonks out there have giggled good-naturedly about the promo on this page, announcing the release of RoC in “Fall of 2010”. (It’s still there now. Click on the image to see.) Hardy har.
So what went wrong? I made the mistake of trying to get “for real” published. That’s right, I called it a mistake.
It isn’t really all that shocking. Anyone who has ever put pen to paper in pursuit of becoming a writer suffers from the same love-hate relationship with the traditional publishing world. We desperately want the affirmation of people in the industry. There is (I am told) no greater satisfaction for a writer than to have the gigantic professional literary machine scoop you up and get behind your work.
On the other hand, we suspect that a lot of literary agencies are much less interested in great books than they are in sure things. We are offended by the amount of copycat dreck that gets published every year from known authors while our invariably far superior stories are rejected with form letters.
This love-hate mentality was crystallized recently when a world famous author gave the following two bits of advice: 1) take your stories straight to publishing house editors, since most agents wouldn’t recognize a truly good book if it came with a written certification from Charles Dickens’ zombie*; and 2) respect your book enough to never, EVER self-publish it.
In short, traditional publishing is the only legitimate choice, but literary agents will likely never give you a chance. (The advice about simply approaching editors directly is instructive but not particularly helpful. It’s a bit like telling a struggling pole vaulter to “simply jump higher”).
And yet I tried to follow the advice. I spent the better part of the last year trying to get “Ruins of Camelot” into the hands of editors, decent literary agents, and Oprah Winfrey. OK, not really on that last one, although it probably would have been an equally worthwhile endeavor. I got nowhere. I did get several agencies curious enough about the story to request a manuscript, but that’s pretty much where it all ended.
Now, I am a pragmatist, so I have to assume this means one of two things: either my story is stinky, or the publishing world just isn’t willing to take the risk on me. I don’t think it’s the former (although I struggle with the same plague of self-doubt that most writers do, and if they don’t they probably should, or are Dean Koontz). I have had the good fortune of having an awful lot of readers. My previous self-published book, “The Riverhouse”, hit number two on amazon (and if you are sick of hearing about that, too bad). My short story, “The Long Way Home” was bought and published by Orson Scott Card, who had unusually high praise for it. And my beta readers, whose opinions I trust very much, say that “Ruins of Camelot” is possibly the best thing I have written so far.
So I am going to go out on a limb and say that the story doesn’t stink.
But what do I do? Since the “legit” literary world isn’t willing to take the risk on me, and self-publishing is for wannabe amateurs with delusions of grandeur, is there any option? Do I just stick my story in the bottom drawer forever and move onto the next thing?
I think not.
Deciding that, I began to wonder if seeking to get “for real” published was, as mentioned above, actually a huge mistake.
To wit: I’ve read enough about the world of fiction to know that most published authors don’t really make any money at it. I, however, have. “The Riverhouse” didn’t make me rich, but it made more moolah than I ever expected. Why? Because I have some things going for me that most unknown authors don’t: 1) I have a built-in readership, thanks to the JP series. 2) I have the artistic talent to promote and package my own books so that they don’t look like the work of a wannabe amateur with delusions of grandeur (although I probably am).
And so I began to wonder– what, really, would I gain by working through a traditional publisher? Is it not entirely possible that I might actually earn less money if I had to share it around? Is it not possible that they might promote my story much more poorly and less enthusiastically than I would on my own? Is it not even possible that the literary machine might assign some horrible cover to my story, far worse than I would have made myself?
Yes. Those things are very possible.
So now here I am, realizing that not only do I not really need the traditional publishing world; they might actually prove a hindrance. This is a unique and revolutionary new perspective.
Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes. Perhaps I am just talking myself out of wanting what I can’t have anyway. Perhaps, despite my bravado, I would leap at the opportunity if some big publishing house called me with an offer.
But that doesn’t make any of this untrue.
So I am stepping off the cliff again. This time without looking back, and willingly. It isn’t a last resort. After all, at this very moment RoC is still in the hands of two agencies. I have written them both stating my change in plans, and telling them, basically, that if they want to make an offer, they’d best do it quick and make it good. Because I am truly beginning to think that I can do this better myself. I can make a better cover, a better promotional website, and a better pitch to my existing reader base. I think it is possible that I can take “Ruins of Camelot” farther than the legit publishing world could. I have the commitment, the ambition, and the resources. I have high hopes that I can get my story on the bestseller lists. Again.
So what do you all think? Is this endeavor fearless or foolhardy? Am I being brash or brave? Because at this point I honestly don’t know. I am hoping for the best. In the end, of course, it’s up to you, the readers. What I am hoping is that you will buy, buy, buy. I am hoping you will tell all your friends. Not just because the story is worth reading, but because there’s something interesting about the idea of bypassing the traditional system, something that might be worth supporting.
So… is it?
*paraphrased. I think he actually mentioned zombie James Joyce.
First, if you don’t already live there, move to St. Louis, Missouri. It’s best if you do it in the fall, for reasons that will become evident at a later step. Get a job that requires you to be to work around 9 AM. If this is not possible, arrange to have an appointment at that time, perhaps with a librarian or an accountant, someone who prizes punctuality but can’t really complain if you are late. It’s best to do this on a Monday.
Now. Start by heading along Highway 64/40. It doesn’t matter which direction, although the morning light will be a bit better if you are coming from the East. Get off at the Skinker road exit. While you are at the stoplight, marvel at the ginormous Amoco sign standing over what is unmistakably now a BP gas station. Try to imagine the mixed feelings this would breed between those two entities– the sign and the gas station below– if they were somehow alive. Would it be like two long-time enemies (perhaps an FBI agent and a mafia boss) forced by the Witness Protection Program to live as neighbors on some quiet suburban cul-de-sac? Or would they have long-since forgotten their differences and perhaps play checkers at night when the streets were quiet and no one was watching?
When the light turns green, turn right. Notice Forest Park on your right. There will be lots of runners and bicyclists there. It’s always fun to watch other people exerting themselves when you are relaxing on your way to coffee. Wave at one of them.
Turn left onto Northwood. Notice the interesting old brick apartments that line the left side, as well as the old-growth trees that front them. Now slow down as you approach the grade school on your right. There are often some attractive moms hanging out there at this time of morning, chatting in the wake of dropping off their kids. Smile at them if they make eye contact. This is a close neighborhood and most of the people are pretty friendly, despite the snarky liberal bumper stickers on most of the cars that line the road.
Northwood ends at a large park. I don’t know the name of it. Do pause to notice the brilliance of the autumn colors, and the way the trees are spaced out enough that each tree is lit with its own halo of morning sunlight. Now look left. Kaldi’s coffeehouse will be there on the corner.
You will likely have to park somewhere along the adjoining boulevard. You won’t mind this because of how absurdly quaint the boulevard is, lined by the park on one side and a row of old shops and restaurants on the left. You will see that this is a classical boulevard, with a grassy berm bisecting the lanes. Find a spot seventy or eighty yards away from Kaldi’s and enjoy the mundane challenge of parallel parking between what will likely be an ancient four-by-four AMC Eagle with fake wood panels and a Volvo Cross Country with a labrador grinning at you from the back.
Walk back to Kaldi’s. Peek in at the fancy Italian restaurant along the way. You might see the owner inside sweeping the floor and some of the cooks standing around out front smoking their morning cigarettes.
The coffeehouse, as you will see, is sort of oldish. While the Kaldi’s brand has done fairly well throughout the area (there are three or four hip new Kaldi’s joints scattered here and there) this is the original location, and still has that sort of grungy, college-y feeling, with its hand-made wrought-iron railings around the outdoor seating and the community dog water bowl and the corner entrance plastered with advertisements for naked bike rides and local drama performances. This location, you sense, is more hippie than hip. Go on inside.
Notice the smell. Notice the huge silvery carafes along the right wall, beneath the hand-lettered chalk board, next to the too-small table with the creamers and sweeteners and lids and stirrers, set somewhat awkwardly close to the entrance to the crowded seating area.
It is likely that there will be a little bit of a line. That’s OK. Even though you are already rather late for your appointment, you will somehow manage not to be in a hurry. That, in fact, is why you have the appointment– to give you a place not to be yet; a place to be playing hookie from. Waiting in line gives you an excuse to stand around in the lovely, crowded little serving area, with the huge jars of whole coffee beans lining the window on your left (and catching the sunlight blindingly) and the little tables behind you crammed with people reading Tolstoy and the Bible and Advanced Statistics and working on their iPads and chatting happily about a million things.
If you happen to be male, notice the women working behind the counter. They seem to enjoy the hustle of the morning rush, and all of them are interestingly quirky, almost accidentally attractive. If you happen to be female, feel free to check out the thirty-something bicyclist guy standing by the counter, chatting up the female employee who looks like she might have come from some interesting Eastern-block country. The bicycle guy is dressed appropriately for his hobby, trying hard not to look like he doesn’t want everyone to notice his tanned, rock-hard calves beneath the black biker shorts.
Look over the confections inside the glass case next to the cash register. Consider a sugar bun then decide, at the last minute, that you probably don’t need it. You’re here for the coffee, after all.
Once you reach the register, resist the temptation to order anything with the words “soy” or “skinny” or “macchiato” in the name. Ask for a large coffee. Hand over three dollars and put the change in the tip jar.
Cup in hand, take two steps to the right and read the chalkboards over the carafes. Amuse yourself with the way coffee descriptions have evolved. Notice the use of phrases like “toffee undertones” and “smoky caramel” and “receding citrus aromatics”. DO NOT POUR YOUR COFFEE YET.
This is important.
Approach the too-small table to the right of the coffee carafes. Squeeze in next to the mom with her two toddlers, waiting for the double shot Americano, and locate the tall glass bottle with the pump stopper. This is natural liquid sugar; it will blend much better into your coffee, thus avoiding the too-sweet last few sips of most large coffees. Pump one and a half squirts into the bottom of your cup. Add some half and half to this. Swirl the cup in your hand. Now you are ready to add your coffee.
Read all the coffee descriptions again, then choose the Cafe Kaldi. Gently swirl the cup beneath the carafe as the coffee pours in, mixing all the ingredients thoroughly. Lift the cup and take a deep breath of the result. Satisfied, put a plastic lid on it and turn carefully, wending your way back through the amiable throng of morning people, all waiting their turn at the magic caffeine fountains.
Step back outside. Enjoy the contrast between the crispness of the autumn air and the hot cup in your hand. Check the time on your phone, knowing you are already late for your next destination, but that the world will still continue to turn nonetheless, and that you are not a slave to it. Return to your car, taking the longest way along the boulevard as possible.
Notice the park again, with its freight of orange, red and yellow leaves. See the shadows of the trees laid out on the lawns like rented tuxedos. Listen to the kids playing in the yard next to the nearby grade school. And finally, with a sigh, get on with your day.
And, oh yes. Take a sip of the coffee.
I know this is a stylistic ripoff of theoatmeal.com I’m all right with that. Go on and check it out.