Category archive: Traditional Publishing

The Year I Turned Down a Publishing Contract

I was offered a contract for my first novel back in 1993 and refused to sign, effectively killing that sale.  Crazy?  No.

I was following all the rules back then and submitting to one publisher at a time with thoughtful query letters and sample chapters.  It took a year to slog through five New York publishers at that rate, so I checked out my heavy copy of the 1993 Writers Marketplace and discovered Northwest Publishing of Salt Lake City, Utah.

I know, I know.  Utah is not the center of the publishing industry, but as a newbie I decided I had to start somewhere small and earn the acceptance of the big publishers and big agents.

So when I got a message from Northwest to call them because they’d like to offer me a contract, I just about jumped out of my work boots and ran for the nearest phone.

Sure enough, after asking me what I did for a living, the gentleman from Utah said, “Well Mike, we’re impressed with your novel and we’re going to offer you a contract.”

Stratospheric!  I’d done it!  I could forget the construction industry, where I was working while waiting for the film industry to take off.  My friends from university who had complained that I was wasting my degree would have to eat their words.  I had made it.

Then the gentleman from Utah proved he possessed the ethics of a great white shark.  Actually, a shark is more ethical because it never pretends to be anything other than a shark.

“So Mike,” he said, still all chummy and familiar.  “Every year millions of novels are submitted for publication but only a very few make it to print.”

I was falling and I had no parachute.  I know a sales pitch when I hear one.  Even before he got to price I knew I’d been stung by a vanity press.  Price tag to get published: $9000.  This, according to the shark from Utah, was only one quarter of the publishing cost.  They were graciously going to cover the other three quarters.  Yeah, right!

I turned them down, even as I prepared for a long stay in the film industry.

I actually don’t have a problem with self-publishing, or indie-publishing as one writer I know calls it, as long as the publisher/printer makes it clear that they’re not a traditional publisher, not even close.  If a writer wants to make a go of it on their own in the indie scene–or just wants a nicely package book that they can hand out to their friends and family–then a self-publisher can be a great service.

But unfortunately most of them are sharks, using euphoria to make you vulnerable and compliant.

Northwest Publishing was even worse.  I assumed that if I’d said yes I’d at least get those vanity copies, those boxes of books that I’d have to sell door to door.  Thanks to SFWA, I later found out just how lucky I was that I’d said no to the contract.  Near the end Northwest was still taking authors’ money but stopped even printing the books.  They had gone from unethical business practices to just plain thievery.

The good news out of this sordid little tale is that the owner got a long prison sentence.  The bad news is that there are smarter sharks out there, ones that know they can get away with unethical behavior as long as they’re careful with the wording of their contracts so that they’re not actually criminal.

Perhaps I should start a list.  Here’s one I’ve been warned about by several authors.

My Dirty Little Secret

I wrote a vampire novel.  There’s nothing like it to let your creativity flow.  You’re unencumbered by reality and free to concentrate on characters.  Unlike any other kind of fiction, the vampire novel immediately brings up all of the fundamental moral problems that face mortal humans.

What would you do to live forever?  Would you become a serial killer?

How will you face the end of your life: fighting or surrendering?

Do you believe in heaven and hell, reincarnation, a greater universe than what we see?  Are you secular, agnostic or atheist?  What would you do if incontrovertible proof of an alternate reality walked up and said, “I vant to suck your blood.”  Preferably stated with a Romanian accent.

Oh yeah, and since Bram Stoker, vampires have always been about sex.  What’s not to like?

But a writer with a vampire novel is invariably branded as a loser chasing a tired cliché–unless they get the wild success of Stephen King, Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer.  Each of these writers produced wildly different flavors for that same soup–all tasty and all unique.

So what’s a writer to do with a vampire novel?

I’ve been warned by many pros over the years that your first novel is your brand, and forever after you must write in that field.  One agent compared it to a retail store: if you arrive one day for coffee and donuts but the next day the store is a sit-down gourmet restaurant–well the coffee crowd won’t be coming back, and the gourmet crowd probably won’t ever go because they thought it was a donut shop.

So my dilemma?  I’ve got my literary novel, In a Country Burning, about a lost young man caught up in Afghanistan’s war against Soviet occupation.  I even traveled with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1988 to research it–truly putting my life on the line for this novel.

But it’s my first, and despite endless rewrites, tweaks and effort, The Fogel has slammed it, stating that I need to look at the fundamental plot.  Not just an edit but a sit down and do-this-all-over from scratch deal.

But my vampire novel has a strong plot and unique story.  It’s tight, probably because I wrote it for fun–probably because I didn’t risk my life for it.

So do I send it to The Fogel?  Do I break all conventions and open up my store with a vampire novel and hope that the literary crowd will read In a Country Burning, my true passion, when it finally comes together?

Will my brand be forever tainted?

Or am I the brand.  This blog is about breaking all the traditional publishing rules.

Choosing the Road Less Traveled

We’re everywhere.  We write in basements and in attics, in closets and offices.  Stephen King used to take his typewriter into the bathroom of his trailer so that he could write in privacy.

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