I’m an old dog. Not literally, of course, but anyone who can remember the dawn of cable television—with that utlilitarian black channel changer box the size of a small watermelon, which had to sit prominently on the 200-pound wood grain finish TV—is ancient in our nano-second world of changing technology.
So as a lifelong book lover and reader, and for the last 20 years an author, I was firmly entrenched in what constitutes a “book”: felled trees, words stamped onto pulp and pages stitched and glued into various hardbacks and paperbacks for infinite pleasure both cerebral and tactile. “Real” books emit sounds and, over time, collect dust. They crack, yellow and age like old friends. They march through our hands and the world and back onto used bookstore shelves to await a new home. To find the soul of a home and its residents, I would say: Show me the book shelves. No books, no soul. (To wit visit the tony suburbs lined with McMansions in any American city).
Against that worldview, I soundly rejected any notion or even mention of eBooks, a passing fancy for technology wonks and prolific text-sters who can’t stop staring at their smartphones. But then something happened that affirmed the cliche and has this pooch doing a new two-step.
I traditionally published my first novel ZigZag in 1999. “Traditionally published” means I spent the eight years prior to 1999 writing, submitting and organizing a truckload of form rejection letters into neat files. Whether to a prospective agent or publisher, the general tenor and template of a form rejection letter usually includes, “This might be one of the single greatest narratives penned since William Shakespeare himself was living and breathing and writing with only the light of a warm fire and dim lantern, your words rich and eloquent and miraculously capturing that same palpable essence of raw humanity… However, it’s not right for us.”
Somehow, in 1999, during perhaps the final waning chapter of a newbie being able to crack into a major New York house with nothing but writing ability, I breached the outer walls: Henry Holt paid me a handsome five-figure advance. Bloomsbury in London followed suit as did publishers for translation deals in Germany and Portugal. Barnes and Noble selected me for its Discover Great New Writers, and I was a finalist for that year’s overall award. Then Hollywood A-lister David S. Goyer came along—he’s part of the story writing team behind the most recent trilogy of Batman films—and adapted my novel into a smart and touching independent film starring John Leguizamo, Oliver Platt and Wesley Snipes. I racked up great reviews, including high praise from Publishers Weekly and starred plugs from Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal, and figured at that point I’d summited the highest peak I’d ever face. However, if you think selling Book #1 to a major publisher is difficult, just wait until you try to sell Book #2! First novels, at least, have the shiny allure of untapped potential. But unless Book #1 is a runaway bestseller, Book #2 is anchored and doomed by the black flag of publishing death: sales figures (unless 100,000 or more, but 500,000 would be better).
If anything, the persistence that got me published in the first place only increased. I continued to write and submit and collate more form rejection letters. By 2009, I’d written a legal thriller The Rules of Action that later garnered some high praise from Kirkus Reviews (more on that in a minute): “Briskly told and well-drawn… this legal thriller does what many courtroom-based novels and television shows do not: It stays true to the actual practice of trial law… A fast-paced tale of justice in action and a remarkably accurate portrait of a trial lawyer’s daily grind.”
High and Deep
My agent in London was so excited by the prospects of the manuscript he carefully plotted a plan for world domination: a simultaneous submission in London and, with a top co-agent stateside, in New York. Anyone who’s worked with agents knows it’s a rare feat to submit a narrative that elicits any response much less works them into a giddy frenzy and breathless lather: We had as sure a thing in publishing as sure things go. The major houses would step up and squabble amongst themselves to see who could throw the biggest suitcase of money at us. Biggest wins! Another film deal would surely follow. My new novel would breakout and be stacked high and deep in the brick-and-mortars. To kick it all off the big dual-country, simultaneous submission went live and, drum roll please… nothing happened.
Bewildered and increasingly perplexed, my agent’s notes to me with each subsequent rejection, by yet-another major house, carried stronger and stronger expletives. Some would make a sailor cringe. In the end, we had no takers. Instead, I pressed on and released my own print edition in 2010, which was the beginning of learning my new tricks.
Down to the River
The marketing director at Changing Hands Bookstore, one of my all-time favorites and one of the country’s last great independents, took notice of the book, me and my labyrinthian 20-year journey as a writer. Sitting daily at the fore of the book world and publishing, Brandon Stout had two bold proclamations: 1) Change the cover—just compare the old cover to the new one—and 2) Do a digital edition. After recoiling and then recovering from such blasphemy—from Mr. Stout, a diehard book devotee and 100% indie guy who won’t touch Amazon with a 100-foot stack of 50 Shades of Grey—I had to take notice. In January of 2012, I began my digital conversion on two fronts.
On the first front, I went to work to create new digital editions of my four novels: ZigZag, The Rules of Action, Deep Wicked Freaky and The Flatirons. The latter two were previously unpublished altogether and required major editorial work. In the digital arena, one becomes one’s own publisher, so the first key is to hire the best supporting team. To do it correctly, at least for me, converting to digital is not a hit-the-button-and-next-week-you’re-Kindlelized process. For me (old dog), a new edition means upgrading everything: prose, cover and format. And to do that to four books simultaneously, while supporting myself otherwise with my ongoing workload of paying writing work, is no small feat.
Embracing the Process
Luckily, Brandon is also a crack designer and, coupled with his all-around book prowess and prescience, I hired him to create four new covers. Brandon found the perfect cover image for The Rules of Action, taken in a park in Argentina by an amateur photographer named Javier Vargas, which had me tracking him all the way to South America and setting up a Western Union account to wire usage rights fees. I hired my go-to copyeditor Jim Moore to vet all the books. And Brian Schwartz did the digital conversion. In the end, we spent an entire year—much like the major houses in New York—and collectively produced four eBooks of a high standard. Now back to that Kirkus Reviews praise: In this new age one can plunk down $425 for an objective review from one of the most respected purveyors of prose. The pay-for-play Kirkus Indie program doesn’t guarantee a good review, only that the book will be reviewed. But it’s another sea change in the book industry that was previously not available to the masses of “uns”: the foul and despicable un-agented and un-published.
Seeing the Light
Equally important, my longterm spiritual conversion is now complete. As I took complete creative direction of my books in a way I never had, month by month my anathema to anything digital started to fade. And then, it disappeared altogether. I will always love my traditional books. But I also saw that rejecting digital was just plain silly: sort of like digging my heels in and refusing to get a car just because I’m so comfortable with traveling by horse. I grew to love the idea of just how green an eBook really is: no trees, no ink, no printing plant, no cardboard boxes to ship books and no trucks and trains delivering books. No brick-and-mortar warehouse to build and heat and cool. I love that authors can create their own works and set their own price and garner a commensurate royalty percentage. Sink or swim, now authors can’t blame the idiot publisher for the horrible cover. (See the first edition of my novel ZigZag for a prime example. Ugh!). I love that eBooks are a fraction of the cost of traditional books. eBooks are also searchable and allow reader-specific niceties such as adjusting the font size, brightness and layout. I love that we can select a book and be reading it almost instantaneously. And in the end, reading is words hitting your cerebral cortex: The delivery medium is essentially irrelevant to the personal experience (unless we make it otherwise).
To be sure, publishing is still a lottery: For every breakout Twilight success about which we hear, there are 10,000 titles we’ll never discover. If my new efforts push me into that rare category of “bestselling author” that will be the ultimate icing on the cake. But I certainly don’t recommend any author, artist or musician tie self esteem and the notion of success to sales figures; I think there are some factors we can control that influence sales (write a good book and market it well) and most of the other factors—including which books get a sprinkle of that magic pixy dust—are completely out of our control.
What’s most important are the things the savvy self-pubber gains in this new age: artistic integrity. Creative control. Complete ownership of one’s works and the ability to market directly to readers. The business model of publisher as all-knowing gatekeeper may not be completely obliterated, but it’s rapidly crumbling. Along with its deterioration is the vanishing of any stigma for the self-pubber, which is actually the new indie cool. Sure, the digital “big box” (Kindle Store) is moving a large chunk of eBooks sold, but there are cool indie options such as Kobo as well. Their eBook partnerships with Changing Hands Bookstore and other top indies—Books Inc., Book People, Tattered Cover, Village Books and others—ensure that you can purchase eBooks without selling your independent soul to Amazon.
Rise up readers and authors: If this diehard book aficionado can see the light and give eBooks a try, surely anyone can. I think when you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised*. My reading life will now include both: traditional books and eBooks. And unless a publisher somehow gets a severed horse head beneath my bedspread, my professional life going forward will be to “publish” and release my new works solely as digital eBooks. And in three to five years, certainly seven to ten, that will be the most unremarkable statement an author could make.
(*Please allow 6-9 months for full conversion to occur)
Let’s chat: Please comment on this post and/or email me.