This blog will be cross posted at Notes from the Edge, the Sybpress Blog
What ARE You Asking?
I’m often asked ‘Why do you do your own publishing?’ The question is born out of genuine curiosity from some of the writers. From others, there is the underlying question of whether or not I had tried ‘traditional publishers’ or whether or not I could hack it in that arena. The answer to the former is yes and involves quite a long saga, and the answer to the latter is, I don’t really know. The messages I got in response to various submissions were, to quote Dracula on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ‘strange and off-putting.’
The reason I’m addressing this subject now is that my friend Bruce (of the hot sauce from last week’s blog) sent me a funny though all too painful note from Neil Gaiman’s. The passage is under ‘Why it’s sometimes better to write it first.’ And it featured a link to a youtube video of a writer’s meeting with an editor. That meeting not only reminded me of the rejection letters I used to received from submissions, it is painfully representative of pitch meetings I have (had one not too long ago) for films. After seeing that this highly successful writer was still having such encounters with those who pay him, I was a little depressed, but even more resolute about the independent path.
Black Like Me?
I went to Graduate School for Creative Writing with a full fellowship. My professors were published writers who enjoyed critical acclaim. Our guest speakers were famous in publishing circles and we were given the opportunity to have them read our book proposals and whole novels. Thus, I did not submit cold to editors at mainstream publishers. I had letters of introduction from my advisors and often from the guest lecturers. One of them, David Rieff was an editor at Farrar Strauss and Giroux when he got John Sayles to read my thesis novel. Both of them gave me lovely letters of recommendation. That round of submissions ended with letters telling me that I was either not Toni Morrison enough or not Terry McMillan enough. One told me that my Black Experience was not quite black enough for the market at that time. Since my non-genre prose is autobiographical, I found this to be very strange, indeed. I had never not been Black enough for anything else in my life. I didn’t know what else to do, so I shelved the novel until fairly recently.
States of Reality
The other novel I wrote during those years was about my experience working as a bar tender at Trump Plaza during the 80s and living in a house full of men involved in all manner of shady activities. The protagonist is based on a man I’ve known since my parents rented vacations homes in his neighborhood when I was a teenager. He is a brilliant, irreverent ladies man whose philosophy of life could get him called a pig among the kinder terms. Yet he has a following of women from all walks of life that continues to this day. My advisor on this book wrote mysteries under a pen name that sold very well, and he was critically acclaimed under his own name. He gave me wonderful letters as well. One editor liked the book but took exception to the protagonist, calling him unrealistic. ‘No man like that could have women with any intelligence and common sense falling all over him,’ she declared. And I had toned down what I had witnessed that summer. I shelved that book as well and refused to give the real life man the editor’s contact info.
I was not writing romances or any other genre fiction at the time. My head had been full of the prose I was writing to complete my degree. As a diversion though, I was writing scripts. The Privateers was born then as a Star Trek: The Next Generation script. That got me an agent. A few years later, Jon and I had a script optioned from by an LA production company. Since I was making more headway with scripts, I abandoned the novel until a few years ago.
Before I continue on frustrating meetings, a word about the city I live in. The mindset here is not like any other place in the US. Here is a prime example of an Angelo. The scariest part of that video is these women have driver's licenses.
Jon and I have had over a decade of meetings like the one in that writer video. We have come to prefer finding the money on our own and producing our own films. Recently, we were in the middle of negotiating a very complex relationship with another company to produce the Privateers. They had looked at my list of carefully chosen leading men (people who could handle very formal dialogue and that could get the funding required) and had a better idea: Keanu Reeves. Yep, that’s the name I think of to handle dialogue that is written in very formal English. And when I think of the next Errol Flynn, he pops immediately to mind. In another meeting about The Privateers, we were told our script was too long with too much dialogue, so could we add a 20 minute prologue? I’ve had meetings about our edgy gay detective thriller, Freak Experts that ended when someone said, ‘this is an amazing script, but do they both have to be men?’ I don’t know how the gay part would work if one of them was a woman, so that didn’t get far. Even people I’ve known in the industry who seem wedded to going the studio route occasionally balk at the outrageous. Ron Moore walked away from the WB’s Dragonriders of Pern when they insisted on making the dialogue ‘more Buffy.’
Currently, we our working with independent funding sources who have produced films recently and who have a good record for selling films. The meetings have been much more productive and far less frustrating....so far.
But, back to publishing. When the technology changed enough that publishing independently was feasible, I thought about writing books again. Musicians make and distribute their own CDs when they start out. Independent film is viewed with great reverence now. I view independent publishing in the same vein. The books are distributed by one of the biggest companies around. They get into brick and mortar stores. In the case of A Soldier’s Choice, the sales keep my ranking to no higher than 300k or so (among millions of titles, that’s not bad). It’s been ranked as high as #8 on the gay erotica list. Independent reviews of all of my titles have been positive. On the whole, Independent publishing has been creatively satisfying. I can’t retire on my earnings, but then Toni Morrison only retired after she won the Nobel Prize. So, I’m doing okay on my own, and I’m not wondering about my blackness.