It occurs to me that it’s been 10 years, more or less, since my first novel, Lifers, was published. Originally written in 1997, Lifers is the sordid tale of three young men who plot to rob the office where one of them works, more as a rebellion against settling into maturity than anything else. It’s not a very long novel. It doesn’t have a happy ending, really, though there’s no tragedy in it. I didn’t have an agent back in 1999 when I started shopping the book, so I went through The Writer’s Market and just mailed a query and/or samples to any publisher who would look at an unsolicited submission.
I heard back from an outfit called Creative Arts Books out in California, a small press. They sent me your standard subsidy-publishing ambush. Nowhere in their listings did they call themselves a subsidy/vanity publisher (and I believe for a long time prior they actually had been a traditional small press), but suddenly they were offering to “publish” my book for a fee. Despite being young and agentless, even I was not stupid enough to fall for that. This was actually the third time I’d been ambushed by subsidy publishers – twice before I’d sent a query off to a company that made no mention of vanity publishing, only to get what I’ve come to call the “In These Difficult Economic Times” letter, where they claim that it is no longer possible for a small press to publish new authors unless the author is willing to pony up part of the printing costs of the book. Sometimes they offer you a bigger royalty as a carrot in this deal, but the fact is once you pay for the printing of the book they’ve actually already made a profit off of you, and therefore have very little reason to market or even distribute your novel.
So, I told Creative Arts to fuck off. No, really, I did. I wrote them a letter back saying fuck off, burn the manuscript, you suck.
Then, six months later, I got a call from them. Another of their books had sold surprisingly well, and they wanted to follow up with a book with, they thought, a similar audience: Mine. They offered me a small advance ($1000, kids. ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS! I thought I’d hit the big time) and a royalty contract. I still didn’t have an agent; I asked (then girlfriend, now-wife) The Duchess to look over the contract as she worked in book publishing, signed, and was off to the races. I didn’t really expect to be a best seller, but I was deliriously happy to be published.
I did some revisions, and the book published in Spring 2001. The design of the book was great; I was pretty pleased. Creative Arts was a tiny press, and they actually sent me sales slips so I could literally sell copies wherever I went. When I did readings the bookstores could order copies the usual way, but I could also just show up with a bunch and sell them, then mail the slips and the money back to CAB. I was my own salesman!
Then, in June, Lifers was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. To this day I have no idea how it happened. The Duchess and I ran down to the corner store and bought 12 copies of the paper. I thought, well, here it is, the big time! And then nothing happened. Literally. I went to Amazon and stared at my sales rank for a few hours, and nothing happened. We didn’t get calls from agents and Hollywood producers. It was very disappointing. The review was kind of neutral – there were some nice things in there, but it wasn’t exactly a Buy Now! kind of endorsement. And so it goes.
The next year I published a collection of essays from my zine The Inner Swine through Tower Magazines. They distributed the zine in Tower stores and thought a collection would sell well. Now I had two titles from tiny presses, so I put together a DIY book tour. I hit Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, Morristown, and New York City twice. I had some great readings. I had one reading where literally no one showed up. I got some more reviews and write-ups, I sold a very small number of books.
For the tour I’d ordered additional copies of Lifers to lug around in case a store didn’t order enough copies, plus some of our venues were taverns or the like where books wouldn’t be on hand. These were paid for against my advance, the second and third portions of which never came. The Duchess, incensed, launched a campaign to get the rest of my advance. She faxed, called, and emailed CAB relentlessly. I was in stunned awe at her persistence. After several weeks, we finally got a check from them for the balance of my advance, minus the cost of the books I’d ordered.
This might have been the last check they ever issued; Creative Arts Books eventually went out of business and sold me a few hundred copies of Lifers cheap. I have boxes of them. Every now and then someone comes up to me with a copy and asks me to sign it, which is always a nice surprise. In the end, I made a small amount of money, got in the New York Times, and actually had some great reading/signing experiences, so overall I have no regrets. My agent, however, had some when she was forced to review a contract with a company going out of business and tie off all the loose ends. I don’t think she’s forgiven me for that.
As for my copies of Lifers: Send me some money, kids, and I will mail you a signed copy!