One of the best things about writing this blog is all the new people it has brought me into contact with—not only readers, but other writers as well. I always assume everyone knows my back story, which is a little embarrassing and not something I like to revisit, although I did mention it in my author’s note for The Novice Master. So for those who have asked…here it is. Take it as a cautionary tale, even though it happened so long ago, it probably doesn’t have any relevance in today’s crazy-mixed-up world of publishing. And your experience with traditional publishing could be completely different. I sincerely hope it is.
My very first novel, Secret Vow, was published in 1996. Looking back on that book now, from a distance of two decades, I cringe a bit: It’s a typically earnest first novel, full of rookie mistakes, but even more galling, it’s a compromise novel, full of all the concessions I made to my agent and publisher out of desperation to get the damn thing published. I know I should be grateful to have been published at all, to have gotten my shot. But I wish the experience had gone a little better. Getting published for the first time is a lot like losing one’s virginity, but not in a good way: One hopes for a great experience, but sometimes it’s just kind of icky and embarrassing, and one feels used and abused afterwards.
So there I was back in the 1990s, a relatively new mother, with a part-time job and all kinds of other distractions, but I had managed to bang out a coherent novel. At the time, I was pretty sure I was writing a literary novel. I was intrigued with religious people (I’m not, but I’m endlessly curious about people who are) and wanted to explore the relationship of religious faith with mental illness, having worked once in a mental ward. So my main character was a definitely bipolar priest who suffers a harrowing breakdown, abandons his calling and takes up with a nurturing older woman who has her own reasons for talking up with him. And amazingly, the very first agent to look at it took it on, immediately. Now at the time, the big bestseller had been a novel called The Thornbirds, about a cynical, libidinous priest, which was made into a miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. My novel was nothing like that. There was also another bestseller, called Bridges of Madison County, about an extramarital affair between a wandering photographer and an Iowa farmer’s wife. Again, no relation to my book. And yet, my book would constantly be compared to those two—unfavorably—again and again and again. Because in that era of publishing, no one was allowed to be original.
Now, one of the first things you must learn, if you manage to acquire an agent: They are NOT your friend. They could care less about you, as a person. Your book is a product for them, a possible revenue source. There are some rare cases where a warm friendship may blossom between author and agent, but I believe those are very, very ,rare. And this quickly became apparent when the agent told me I needed to rewrite my book. I was told it was ‘unmarketable’ in its present stage, that it needed to be clearly classified into a genre (I was assigned to ‘upmarket contemporary romance’), that my male protagonist could not possibly be bisexual, and that the ending was too depressing for words. “You can’t have him dying at the end, there has to be a happy ending, you can’t let the reader down.” Sigh. So I swallowed my pride and rewrote it to her specifications. After that about a dozen publishers turned it down.
The day my agent called me to tell me she had sold my book—for a low five figures, but more money I had ever seen in one place at a time—she first angrily harangued me for five minutes solid about not being able to get in touch with me sooner. But she did her job, got me the money, and pretty much abandoned me after that. An agent, I learned, will not be your advocate, your mentor, or your friend. Now enter the publisher: It was Dutton, which had just been snapped up by the mega-giant Penguin/Putnam. I learned that the editor who’d bought the book was also Stephen King’s editor. I was invited to New York, taken to lunch, regaled with stories about how wonderful the book was (“It’ll be the American Thornbirds!”) So far, so good. But all I had to do was change the title. I liked my title: Phases of the Moon. I resisted (i.e., became the ‘difficult’ author), but to no avail. The editor called and told me it was now ‘Secret Vow,” even though there are no actual vows in the book, secret or otherwise. I don’t even know what that title means, to be truthful. I was sent a picture of the cover, which was kind of pretty, but did not give any indication what the book was about.
About three months or so before a book makes its debut, the publishers generally start to publicize it, and send out galleys for reviews. I felt uneasy when I realized I was not seeing any sort of publicity about it. The reviews that came in were mixed; it appeared my book was a love-it-or-hate-it sort of affair. I think I wrote here in the blog about my horrific experience with Kirkus (before they sold out and started charging money for reviews)—I had been three months pregnant at the time, and the very day I read the devastating and mocking review they published (“a Bridges of Madison County wannabee”), I suffered a miscarriage. Now maybe Kirkus was not to blame for killing my unborn son, but…I suddenly realized there might be an unbearable price to pay for being published.
My editor stopped calling me and communicating. I was told by others, who had been through this wringer, that if a book looks as if it’s not going to earn out its advance, the publishers try to dump it as soon as possible and not waste precious promotional funds on it. So this is what happened to Secret Vow. It came out very quietly. With a whimper instead of a bang. A few weeks later, my agent called: “It’s not exactly flying off the shelves, if you know what I mean.”
Well, she was wrong in a sense: The book did sell. I did earn out my advance, thanks in part to paperback sales and the Frankfurt Book Fair, where German-language rights were sold. The books also seemed popular in the UK and other non-American English speaking countries–I could not tell you why. And, the book was very popular locally here in New Jersey: I remember, to my delight, seeing a sign in an independent bookstore nearby: “We Have Secret Vow!” I was besieged with offers to speak, at many libraries, at Barnes and Noble, at book clubs around the state. I was even on TV, interviewed by former Entertainment Tonight correspondent Lee Leonard on a News-12 celebrity show, “Jersey’s Talking!” Officially, I was an author. But because the book had not been the critically acclaimed blockbuster bestseller the publisher wanted, they had no interest in seeing any future books I might write. And my (now former) agent bluntly told me that unless I could come up with a “better” novel, I really had no future in fiction. I do admit that my next efforts were less than stellar, but I wasn’t really in a good frame of mind to write quality fiction. So there I was, washed out at the very beginning of my career. Self publishing was not an option then; we called it ‘vanity’ publishing, and it was only for losers. I tried to find another agent, but agents only want hot young things, they don’t want to revive a faltering author’s career. And in those days it was impossible to contact a publisher directly; I think it still is.
Yet, I continued to write fiction. I don’t know why, even though I had no hope of ever publishing it again. I turned to business writing, and found some success there; and eventually became a teacher of English, which I found I loved. But that whole Secret Vow episode of my life rankled me for a long time, and then, exactly five years ago, I was lying in bed early one morning, and read an article on my iPod (remember those?) about the rise of ‘kindle’ publishing, and the huge success some self-published authors were having. It was a revelation: No agents! No overbearing publishers! Complete control over your product! And there seemed a new cachet attached to the process: Independent publishing.
So I went to work, and pulled out an old manuscript for a historical novel, set in medieval Ireland, which I thought would work in a young adult genre. I uploaded it, pushed the button…Voila! I was a published novelist once again. I did some rudimentary marketing, but surprise, it sold, eventually up into four figures, it got some excellent reviews, and it continues to sell to this day. Not a blockbuster bestseller, but enough to keep me going. I released two more in a series and then, I decided to tackle my shame over Secret Vow, and ‘redeem’ it somehow, by revisiting the main character from that book as an old man. That became The Novice Master. I’m still contemplating re-releasing SV as an ebook, but not sure what the legal situation is there, or how to go about winning back the rights. It seems to be enjoying a flourishing afterlife in the second-hand book market; every time I visit a new city, I always check out the used book stores and have actually found it a number of times. How many copies did Dutton print up of that thing anyway! And I get letters, still, about it, from as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
So that is my sad crazy story, but with a good ending. I’m just thrilled to be publishing my own books. And you know, I’ve found most readers do not care who publishes a book; they only want to love reading it. I love choosing a title, thinking about the covers (which I know, have to get better…), even formatting them and seeing them emerge as real books. I don’t love proofreading and marketing, but it’s got to be done. And bad reviews are still painful. But I love being an ‘indie,’ being part of a movement, a publishing revolution, and not having to kowtow to anyone. Being true to my vision and all that. Being part of a writing community, not the prima donna with the flashy author photo and a lapdog. (I’m really more of a cat person) And I’ve finally reached an age (I’m not that old, but I am getting there) where, having done without it this long, I could care less about fame and acclaim and extreme popularity, so it’s all good.
Would I go back to a traditional publisher, if I were wooed and flattered by one? Hard to say. I wish I could answer a firm and unreserved ‘No!” but… I think I would have to give such (an unlikely!) offer some consideration. I don’t think publishing in the 21st century could possibly be as painful as it was in the 1990s. And there are decent agents and editors out there…somewhere…
But I’m not changing any titles, dammit!