Friday, March 14, 2008

People are always asking me two questions (Part Two)

2. How did you get your first novel published?

Every published writer will tell a different story. Some will laud their agent for "recognizing their talent" and fighting for its publication. Others will cite a perceptive editor (perceptive in that he or she chose the writer's work for publication.) Some will cite contacts or connections and networking. In today's world where technology has made it almost respectable to self-publish, writers will tell other stories.

Here is my story.

I was over forty years old. I had a young family to support. My writing skills enabled me to set up my own Advertising and Public Relations agency in Washington D.C. I bought radio stations. I put a television station on the air in a small market, Hagerstown, Maryland. Yet, money aside, I considered myself a failure, a traitor to my calling.

I continued to write my novels and short stories before going to work, but I could not get them published. I was drowning in rejections. I could not get an agent. In "Part One" I talked about that quote from Macbeth about which seed would grow. Mine wasn't growing. I was fallow. Until.......

One day a man walked into my agency and asked if we promoted books. His name was John David Garcia, and he had written a philosophical treatise called The Moral Society. It was published by a small publisher in Philadelphia but was not being promoted. He asked if my agency promoted books. I said we promoted everything, although real estate was our forte.

He asked how much it would cost.

Talk about "eureka" moments. Like in the comics I saw the balloon rise above my head.

I told him that we would promote his book at no cost, providing his little publisher Whitman Press would publish my first novel which had been written years before. No advance required. He said he would check with the publisher. He came back with an answer: If the publisher liked it, he would publish it.

The publisher liked it. I was in paradise.

As for John David Garcia, my agency did promote his book, but with limited success. It was a book designed by John to, hopefully, change the world. It was brilliant, inspiring and offered a set of ethical and moral principles that would indeed create a better society. This was 1973 and John accurately predicted the burgeoning problems that society would face.

In many ways The Moral Society was a masterpiece. I later learned that John, a brilliant mathematician, had given up his breakthrough technology business to purse the ideal of making the world a "moral society." This was his dream and his calling. He was a technology pioneer and would have surely become a billionaire. Instead, he chose another path and pursued it obsessively to the day he died.

His arrival at my doorstep that day was the greatest stroke of luck that ever crossed my path. Although, in general, I do not believe in miracles, this episode gives me pause. John David Garcia's arrival in my life was my miracle.

The book was, indeed, published under the title "Options." In setting up my website,, and putting my books in other formats, I changed the title to Undertow. Options sounded too much like a financial how-to book.

"Options" was not promoted, not reviewed or adequately distributed. I undertook an author's tour at my own expense that was of little use except to stroke my ego. There were no books in the stores. From a sales point of view it was a disaster.

But I was a published author and that fact gave me a modicum of validation that made my pursuit of an agent and publisher that much more credible. My second novel, Banquet Before Dawn, was published by a large mainstream publisher, Putnam, now owned by a giant conglomerate. They published six of my novels at a time when publishing was still a cottage industry run by book lovers. The notion of "bigger is better" does not apply to the publishing business.

This was not meant to be a "how-to" or "advice to aspiring authors" material. I humbly offer readers a brief glance into my personal experience. The fact is that the business of novel writing is hazardous, difficult and frustrating. It is tied to reader and publisher's whims and attitudes at the time of publication. Note, I said business.

In an age of declining reading habits (and declining profits) where "genre" writing has gained greater respectability and now dominates best seller lists it is an increasingly hard row to hoe for a novelist who eschews genre writing and pursues a more generalist and mainstream approach.

Business aside, the ecstasy is still in the creation. Real writers know this. Thankfully, there will never be a shortage of them.

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