Send to Kindle

I had intended to write a book for as long as I could remember.  The joke about all attorneys having an unfinished novel on a laptop somewhere was as true of me as any of my peers.  But for decades after I entered private practice, I was in no hurry to finish.  The truth be told, I was intimidated by the whole process.  A lawyer’s trade is expository writing, which means persuading people by telling them what you want them to know, whereas the novelist’s craft is showing readers a story through descriptive narrative, dialogue, and plot.

By the time I graduated from law school I had written a few magazine articles, and these credits were featured prominently on my resume when I went to look for a job.  In one interview a thirty-something lawyer, who I could tell had a novel of his own brewing somewhere, asked me whether I had ever tried writing fiction.  I told him that I thought a man needed “a little gray in his beard” before attempting to write a novel.  With not a gray hair on his head, he chuckled uneasily at my answer as his decidedly graying senior partner beamed.  I didn’t get the job.

By the mid-nineties, I was busy with two young children and my law practice in the small town of New Bern, North Carolina, when a young pharmaceutical sales rep named Nicholas Sparks moved to town.  Nick’s infant son was close in age to my two kids, and all the children were in the Mothers Morning Out program at the church we attended.  I got to know Nick and his wife socially.  I was mildly amused when Nick mentioned over lunch one day that he intended to write a novel.  I remember nodding reassuringly at him the way people do when a kid says he expects to grow up to be president or become an astronaut.  Everyone wants to write the Great American Novel.  Few ever start.  Fewer still ever finish.  A miniscule fraction of the remainder manage to write something that anyone actually wants to buy.

Nick’s company eventually transferred him to a new sales territory in South Carolina.  He and his family moved away, and I lost track of him for a year or two until a banner headline in the local paper announced the one million dollar advance he received from Warner Books for The Notebook.  We were all thrilled for Nick, but in the back of my mind I knew that my own bluff had been called.  I never expected to achieve anything even approaching Nick’s phenomenal commercial success, but seeing him first articulate and then achieve his dream reminded me that I had no excuse not to try to do the same.  As we all learn, though, dreaming and doing are different things.  Over the years that followed, my plans for a novel took a backseat to work, family, and various outdoor hobbies.  When I did write, nonfiction was my preferred medium.

In 2005, I self-published Letters from the Woods, a hardcover collection of slice-of-life essays I had written over the previous eight years.  After it was picked up by a distributor and the chain bookstores, it achieved a tiny measure of commercial and critical success.  In 2012, I wrote a memoir, Once Upon A Gypsy Moon.  That book followed my journey of recovery after divorce, and parts of it had a strong spiritual dimension.  When I finished Gypsy I decided for the first time to shop something I had written to a literary agent.  I received polite rejections from ninety-three of them.  Then an agent in Oregon who specializes in inspirational nonfiction read the manuscript and couldn’t say enough lovely things about it.  He immediately signed me to a two-year contract.  To my utter astonishment, a few weeks later he negotiated a $75,000 advance for Once Upon A Gypsy Moon from Hachette Book Group, which published the book in hardcover in April 2013 under the Center Street imprint.

When my agent asked me what else I had in the pipeline, I told him about The Prodigal, and he seemed intrigued.  He urged me to finish it.  I promised him a polished manuscript by Christmas 2012, and for the first time in my life I got serious about finishing the novel that had been rolling around in my head for twenty years.  I delivered the completed manuscript on time.  It ran roughly 103,000 words, or about the same length as To Kill a Mockingbird and a little longer than The Hobbit.

My agent was complimentary but noticeably less effusive in his praise of The Prodigal.  I soon learned that it wasn’t that he didn’t like the story or the writing.  The problem was that his publishing contacts were primarily with Christian imprints.  He was deeply concerned that the profanity and sexuality in The Prodigal, though mild by trade publishing standards, would offend evangelical readers who looked to these imprints for novels scrubbed clean of four-letter words, sex scenes, and references to adultery or fornication.  He suggested I cut those elements from the book.  If I did, he said, I might have a promising future as a writer of Christian fiction.  But in my view these real-world elements were necessary to give authenticity to The Prodigal and were also part of the allegorical form.  I was loathe to remove them.

I am a rather liberal, northeastern Episcopalian by birth, a Catholic by way of marriage, and Catholic apostate by way of divorce and remarriage without the benefit of annulment.  Until experiencing this initial reaction to The Prodigal, I had never heard of the genre known as Christian fiction.  As I explored the realm of Christian fiction in an effort to educate myself, I learned there is a divide between the evangelical Christian Booksellers Association and the secular American Booksellers Association. I ran across censorship codes on Christian blogs that refused to read or review books containing any profanity or sexuality whatsoever.  I saw a strange abundance of novels featuring Amish women in head scarves on the covers.  I saw a few positive reviews of works of Christian fiction, but more common were scathing reviews in the trade press or no reviews at all.  One trade reviewer described a best-selling book from a large publishing house as “knuckle-bitingly bad.”  Fairly or unfairly, it seemed that Christian fiction writers weren’t being taken seriously by literary critics.  I wasn’t eager to edit my book just so it could show up on that list.  I told the agent that The Prodigal would remain as I had written it.

My agent did his level best to sell my unrepentant writing of The Prodigal.  Over a period of two months, he made calls to acquisition editors at general fiction imprints among some of the larger publishers in New York, using referrals from editors he knows at Christian imprints as his foot in the door.  But he couldn’t get anyone to return his calls much less a chance to present the manuscript to a single editor.  To his credit, when it became clear this approach wasn’t working, he offered to release me from my contract to pursue a relationship with an AAR-registered agent who he thought might have better luck placing the book.  But by then I was older, wiser and eager to move on.

What I came to realize is that the likelihood that one of the Big Six (Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, MacMillan, Penguin) will bet on a work of literary fiction by an untested, debut author is almost nil, today, no matter who the agent is.  Big publishers want genre fiction—romance, crime thrillers, mysteries, horror, science fiction—because they know who buys those books and how to sell to them.  Works of literary fiction are akin to art house flicks that win lots of awards but are seen by only a tiny percentage of the movie-going public.  Sign with a smaller publisher and you will gain some cache as an author and possibly beat the market odds, but you will lose control over an even smaller budget for promoting your book not to mention a good share of what money it does make.  Signing with any publisher also means tying up your book for two years or more in editing and pre-production.  For all of these reasons, in June 2013 I joined the growing ranks of published authors, including many once published by the Big Six, who are flocking to self-publishing.  I decided to publish The Prodigal in paperback and Kindle on the CreateSpace platform.

The results of that decision have been mixed.  On the positive side, The Prodigal has been critically well received and, despite a publicity campaign much smaller in cost and scope than the one that accompanied Hachette’s roll out of my memoir, it has been more widely reviewed—not only on blogs, but in the trade press.  Kirkus and Publishers Weekly actually had kind things to say about it.  Learning about how blogs and blog tours and social media are democratizing book marketing has been fascinating.  When it comes to sales, though, lightning has yet to strike for me.  The rising popularity of e-books has definitely leveled the playing field and diminished the power of large publishers and national chains as gatekeepers to the market.  However, The Prodigal is a work of literary fiction, and self-publishing has not yet come of age as a marketing venue for these books.  I am selling an average of one or two books a day, which offers me the prospect of comfortable retirement as a peasant in Mumbai.

The self-published books that are selling well are romance novels, fan fiction, dystopian science fiction like Wool, and adult new contemporary novels like the Fifty Shades series.  If Hemingway were attempting to find an audience for his work today by self-publishing on Kindle and CreateSpace, he likely would make more money trying to catch a really big marlin to sell to the fish mongers in Key West—if the sharks didn’t beat him to it.

But in the end, as trite as it sounds to say, it really isn’t about the money—at least not for me, at my age, and at this stage of my career.  Hemingway is dead and gone.  So is Dickens.  So is Melville.  So is Tolkien.  So are Faulkner and Steinbeck and Salinger.  In his acceptance speech Faulkner said he held his Nobel Prize merely “in trust” for the body of work that would live on without him, but that didn’t stop his heirs from trying to auction his medal off to the highest bidder.  What remains—what endures—is not the money or the fame or the medals but the language of the story.  If these authors could speak to us from the grave, given the choice between writing their stories for an audience of thousands or even hundreds instead of millions, and dying in obscurity and modesty instead of notoriety and wealth, I expect that all of them would still tell their tales just as they did.  I don’t presume to place myself in their rarefied company, but I would make the same choice.  I aspire to nothing more and nothing less.