I had an epiphany 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 didn't recall knowing any Sues. Nevertheless, a small, determined blonde woman marched up to me with a huge smile and said, "How are you? I heard all about your Random House deal! Isn't it wonderful? I just knew you'd make it!"
"Thank you, " I mumbled.
Now, you think San Francisco is a big city, but when it comes to gossip this is really a small town. I've told friends, of course, yet somehow my good news has mushroomed until it seems anyone with a passing acquaintence with me knows about my "Random House deal." Wierd. I had no idea who'd told Sue, however, and as I searched 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 once 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. decided to go ahead and self publish her novel after getting over twenty rejections from agents. Or, as she puts it, 'independently publish.' Please. As if that made a difference."
My sandwich paused inches from my mouth. I knew Mary. She wasn't a friend, just a writer I met after my first book was published. She'd been kind to me. She bought my book at an event held by the association and later e-mailed me to tell me how much she'd enjoyed it.
"Twenty rejections, can you imagine?" Sue's chuckle showed 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 can write 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 you?"
I regarded her in silence. I'd lost my appetite, but now, at last, I had something to say. "It's POD."
"I said, it's POD. Not POT. Print-on-demand. I believe the other is used for cooking. Or smoking."
She cackled. "Oh, you're so funny! Nothing's been the same at [the association]since you left the board!"
Now, I admit it: I'm human. I'm as receptive as the next person to flattery. But not this time. "You never seemed to like me before," I said and then I watched her expression undergo a series of rapid transformations, from incredulity to bewilderment to calculated response.
How could you think that?" she finally purred. "You're one of us. Of course, I like 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: a real writer. I always knew you had it in you."
"I wasn't real as you define it," I said quietly. "I wasn't represented by an agent and published by a large press. My first book was basically independently published, for all intensive purposes. The micro-press that published it also had a self-publishing side. The ISBNS were from the same block. No bookstore would willingly stock it."
"Yes, but at least you had some kind of press behind you. It wasn't as if you just went out and . . . You didn't . . .?"
"Self publish?" I gave her a smile. "Depends on how you see it. I had an editor, but she was freelance and I paid her. And yes, there was a press, per se, though I later found out it consisted of a shingle outside the owner's apartment. He said he had distribution channels, but he didn't, and I ended up doing all the marketing on my own. My book was mostly available online. Had I known how hard I had to work, I'd have set up my own company and truly self-published. At least that way, I wouldn't have put my hard-earned profits into someone else's pocket. And when the press folded a year later, I was left with 300 books in my basement, with an ISBN that was no longer valid. The Secret Lion would have gone out of print if a few of my friends hadn't founded another press and reissued it."
She was stunned. "But . . . you got reviews! You sold hundreds of copies!"
"I sold thousands. Over 5,000, 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 in my uncomfortable chair. "Do you honestly think that because someone self-publishes it's a reflection of their talent? Do you know how many manuscripts get picked up by New York versus how many are submitted? I think the odds are something like 1 in every 200. I agree, there are lots of people writing these days. Computers and the internet have made it easier to find an audience. It's also made it easier for writers like you and me."
She squared her shoulders. She didn't like being tossed into steerage with the other huddled masses. "I wouldn't write if I had to self-publish," she declared. "It's the height of desperation to pay to be published."
"But, you do pay," I countered. "Every advance you get must 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 from your account later."
"Much bigger money," she snapped back. "You surely can't compare some vanity company with New York!"
"No, you can't. But the risk to the writer is comparable. You're putting your work out there. Self publishers and independent presses have to fight 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 other things anymore."
"As a debut author with one 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 those 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 in half-open shirts and pliant women in flowing gowns on the covers, when these 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 and middle-aged fantasies. I realized that the same careless disregard Sue had shown today lurked in me, as well. I had judged her, assuming she wrote crap because, I mean: well, just look at it. It was the exact way she viewed self publishing. She didn't look at the merit of the work. She saw only status.
I have good friends who've self published wonderful novels I love, 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 much like me.
A careless encounter had thrown open the doors of my publishing closet. I must say, it's good to be out.