Okay, while I'm waiting on a new interview to arrive for posting, I thought I'd share an epiphany I had the other day. I was standing in the sandwich line at a deli close at lunchtime when I heard an overly effusive voice cry out: "Christopher! Christopher, hi! It's me, Sue!" I turned around, startled. I don't know any Sues. Nevertheless, a determined blonde woman came up to me with a huge smile and said, "How are you? I heard all about your Random House deal from [so-and-so]! Isn't that wonderful? I just knew you'd make it!"
"Thank you, " I mumbled.
Now, you think San Francisco is a big city, but it's really a small town when it comes to gossip. I've told friends, of course, yet somehow my news has mushroomed until it seems anyone with a passing acquaintence with me knows about my "Random House deal." Wierd. I suspected I knew who had told this person, however, and as I started to search my brain for how I knew her, I suddenly recalled that she was a very successful romance writer and member of a literary association on whose board I'd sat. Until this moment she'd never been more than perfunctorily polite to me at association events.
"Are you getting a sandwich?" she said. "Me, too. Let's eat together."
She didn't give me a moment to respond, turning to the counter to order her food. My belated excuse that I was running late faded unspoken. I found myself against my better judgment seated on a rather uncomfortable steel patio chair (I have thin haunches) holding my turkey on sourdough while Sue rattled on about -- well, just about everything. She mentioned a new deal she had with Kensington ("Very good money.") ; someone we were both supposed to know but whom I didn't remember who had left the association ("She never paid her dues and they had to ask her to leave"); troubles facing the new board ("they're worried that they can't raise enough funds"), etc.
I decided I might as well give into the moment, seeing as I'd never get a word in edgewise, when she suddenly leaned to me and said in a stage-whisper: "And Mary P. has decided to go ahead and self publish her novel after getting over twenty rejections from agents. Or, as she puts it, 'independently publish.' As if that made a difference."
My sandwich paused inches from my mouth. I knew Mary. She wasn't a friend, per se, but rather a writer I met after my first book was published. She'd been very kind to me, buying my book at an event held by the association and later e-mailing to tell me how much she'd enjoyed it.
"Twenty, can you imagine?" Her chuckle had teeth. "You'd think she'd have gotten the message that obviously what she's written isn't worth representing, much less publishing. But the internet and POT have made it all so easy; everyone thinks they're a writer and it's perfectly okay to clutter the marketplace with drivel. I mean, really, do we need another novel about growing up poor in Ohio, I ask?"
I regarded her in silence. Interesting development. I had completely lost my appetite, but at least I had something to say. "It's POD." I finally uttered.
"I said, it's POD. Not POT. Print-on-demand. I believe the other is used for cooking. Or smoking."
"Oh, you were always so funny! Nothing's been the same at [the association]since you left the board!"
Now, I admit it. I'm human. I'm receptive to flattery. But not this time. "You never seemed to like me before," I informed her and I enjoyed watching her expression undergo a series of rapid transformations, from incredulity to bewilderment to calculated response.
"How could you think that?" she purred. "You are one of us. Of course, I liked you."
"One of whom?" I asked, though I knew perfectly well what she meant.
"You know" -- she dabbed her lips with her napkin -- "one of us: legitimate. I told [so-and-so] when she told me about your deal that I always knew you had it in you."
"I wasn't legitimate," I said quietly, "if you mean, represented by an agent and published by a large press. My first book was basically independently published, for all intensive purposes."
"Yes, but at least you had a press behind you. It wasn't as if you just went out and . . . You didn't . . .?"
"Self publish?" I smiled. "Depends on how you define it. I had an editor, yes, but she was freelance and I paid her as the press wouldn't do much in that area. And yes, there was a press, even if I later found out it consisted of a shingle outside the owner's apartment. He said he had distribution but he didn't and I ended up doing all the marketing on my own. Had I known how hard I'd work, I would have set up my own company and truly self-published. At least that way, I wouldn't have put hard-earned profits into someone else's pocket. And when the press folded a year later, I was left with 300 books from the last run in my basement, their ISBN no longer valid. LION would have gone out of print if friends hadn't founded Two Bridges Press."
She seemed stunned. "But . . . it got reviews! You sold lots of copies!"
"It did. Over 5,000 copies, in fact. I worked my butt off. My so-called first publisher didn't do anything except get the book listed on amazon." I leaned back. "Do you honestly think that because someone self-publishes it's a reflection of how they write? Do you know how many manuscripts get picked up by New York versus how many are submitted? I think it's like 1 in every 200. I agree there are a lot of people writing these days, and computers and the internet have made it easier to find an audience. It's also made it easier for you and me."
She squared her shoulders. She didn't like being tossed in steerage. "I wouldn't write if I had to self-publish. It's the height of desperation to pay someone to publish you."
"But, you do pay," I countered. "Every advance you get needs to be paid back, in sales. If you don't make it, you're likely to lose your option. It's just bigger money, paid upfront and deducted later."
"Much bigger money. I mean, you can't compare paying a vanity company with New York."
"No, you can't. But the risk to the writer is the same. You're putting your words out there. Self publishers and independent presses have to work twice as hard to get their books noticed. The whole system, from distribution to reviewers, is stacked against them. Their perseverance is to be admired, not disparaged."
"I -- I wasn't . . ." She started to narrow her eyes, then switched tactics. "Fine. But, aren't you glad you're finally real? I mean, Random House. You don't have to even worry about those things anymore."
"As a debut author with one independently published title out there and the most recent statistics on reading in America?" I had to chuckle. "Of course, I have to worry. We all should." I stood, wrapped my sandwich in its bag. "Sorry, but I have to go. I'm late for work. Take care."
I left her sitting there, no doubt thinking me rude and ungrateful. But I couldn't bear it anymore. She had peeled back the luster of my deal to reveal the petty, competitive, cruel underbelly of the business, where writers are pigeonholed according to publication status and judged even if their words haven't been read by the one judging them. I felt sad, not only for her but also for me.
I've never read one of Sue's novels. I probably never will. I'd seen the impossibly muscular men and pliant women in flowing gowns on the covers when they were prominently displayed at the conference the association sponsored every year. As I walked back to my office, I recalled how I'd giggled with another association member about those covers, about how cheesy they were, how banal. That member and I had comforted each other by saying that while we might not be published by Avon or Kensington, at least what we wrote wasn't fodder for supermarket aisles. I realized the same careless disregard Sue had shown today lurked in me, as well. I had judged her, assuming she wrote crap because, I mean: just look at it. It was the exact way she viewed self publishing. She didn't look at the words. She saw only the status.
I have good friends who self published wonderful novels I love, and friends who've chosen to go their own way rather than enter the commericial publishing machine. Independent publishing had a long and illustrious history, from Virginia Woolf to Walt Whitman to many writers today, whose books were first self published, got noticed by the larger industry and were offered a contract.
Writers like me.
A careless encounter had thrown open the doors of my publishing closet. I must say, it's good to be out.