What I as a Writer Learned by Becoming a Publisher
I didn't become a writer because I wanted to. I was tricked! I was flattered early on, by minor success in preparing twenty-minute homilies -- and then it turned into an obsession.
It is a lonely obsession, mostly. Virginia Woolf put her finger on it in a novel called ORLANDO, in which she describes the protagonist, "She shared the delusion of all writers, that things written are shared." The process of writing something, figuring it out enough to get it written down, creates the sensation that you have shared it with someone, but you haven't, yet. Things that are written, only, are not yet shared, and may never be. Things written and shown to someone else are not yet shared either, for sure. Family members, people you thought were best friends, people you thought cared about your insides -- they'll often disappoint you by failing somehow to read it. I know. It happened, and still happens, to me, and many others report the same observation.
I didn't start out as a writer. I had two previous lives. One was as a missionary/pastor, which resulted in an institutional failure and disaster because it had become a campaign against phoniness, my own and that of others. From all that I did salvage my area of expertise, which is mythology, and I still call myself a mythologist.
My next life was as a teacher. I liked the kids, and I liked helping them find things and find out things. Smart kids often turn up in my stories. But I suffered from burn-out a second time, and quit teaching -- to write. I do not recommend that others do such a wild and crazy thing. It is a sure sign of insanity, of being obsessed.
The phone rings. I answer, "Amador Publishers!"
A voice says, "Hey! I'm thinking of writing a book. How do I get it published?"
I have learned to be cruel. "Try to forget about it," I say. "Lie down until the urge passes. If you can't help yourself, then you'll have to take the next several years to write it, and rewrite it and rewrite it. Do that first, before contacting a publisher. Don't believe any of those celebrity-fame-instant-success stories. Writing is not the easy way to riches."
A wise older friend told me, "You have to write a million words before you have anything that amounts to much." He thought it was Thomas You-Can't-Go-Home-Again Wolfe who said it.
It may well be so. It was for me. "What do you count?" I asked. "Do rewrites count?" Count whatever you like. "I rewrote that 100,000-word novel three times. Does that count as 300,000?" You decide..., the voice said.
You will encounter rejection. Some handle it better than others. There are real masochists in the world, who seem to like it. I do not like it. Girls have always found it easy to get rid of me -- one little hint of rejection, and I'm gone for good.
I suspect that my response to rejection is rooted in my Calvinist upbringing, which says consistently, "You're no good. If anything goes wrong, it is your fault. If they don't like it, it's because it's no good," meaning that piece of crap you sent.
But there was another element in my genetic roots and upbringing. When it was under attack it was called stubbornness, or contrariness. It can also be thought of as a virtue, under other names Persistence and Perseverance. At any rate I stubbornly persevered. A body of work took shape. I was strangely encouraged, reading about the original critical reactions to Ludwig van Beethoven and Vincent Van Gogh.
The rejection letters began to demonstrate a theme. "This is excellent, but we're not going to do it." One agent sent back the manuscript of a full-length novel with the note, "This is excellent. It is fresh and new and heartfelt and the world needs it, and I'm not going to do it!"
Who will do it? For years I resisted the lesson of the Little Red Hen. Her worthless friends won't help her, so she responds, "Then I'll do it myself." And she did.
I didn't want to self-publish. It would distract from writing, I feared. It would drive the Muse away. And besides, old Calvin whispered in my ear, "If New York won't do it, it must not be any good."
But they're all saying it's excellent! And, so help me, it is! I found myself reading books on self-publishing, in spite of myself. I was mightily impressed with the list of excellent authors who were self-published Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and many, many more.
I read THE COMPLETE BOOK OF SELF-PUBLISHING, by Tom and Marilyn Ross. Then I reread it, and every time they used the imperative mood, I stopped and did it. I don't remember deciding to do that. I woke up and found myself doing it. "Order your ISBN numbers." "Name your company." We almost called it The Little Red Hen Press, for obvious reasons that would have been lost on all those who don't know that old story. Instead we selected my wife's maiden name, which she has since made well-known through her own writing -- Amador. It means "lover" in Spanish, and is very fitting for the material we have published.
The first two titles were blatant self-publishing. First, Duke City Tales, thinking a local audience would be a good solid beginning from which to grow. We hadn't taken into account jealousy and a strange taboo against self-publishing. We committed a couple of publishing errors, also -- no mention on the book that Duke City is Albuquerque -- a reviewer in Connecticut thinks I invented Duke City along with all those strange characters who do such strange things! No blurbs, because there weren't any. No photo of the author on the back cover, because of false modesty and that old Calvinism. These errors were corrected in the second printing, and the book has taken on a life of its own.
The second title was the novel that the agent said the world needed, even though he wasn't going to do it. A World for the Meek -- my Noah-myth. In it the dolphins adopt the last human in the world. This disaster-novel is definitely not a downer. There were good reviews, except locally, including one which said, "Strange! but magically written and full of wisdom."
The third title took us from self-publishing into what is called "risk" publishing, as if the other were no risk! We did a novel that I didn't write -- Crosswinds: A Darkly Comic Modern Western, by Michael A. Thomas.
From there it has grown to more than 30 titles -- six by me and three by my wife, Adela Amador. Her first was her novelty cookbook, Twelve Gifts, our best-seller, now in its fifth printing. All the publishing lore said, "Great literature is fine, but if you're serious about business, get you a cookbook." I resisted for years. Then the fog lifted -- we have a cookbook, a Christmas present she had prepared for all the family years earlier. "On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love made for me..." And instead of a partridge in a pear tree and that other stuff, we have sopaipillas, bizcochitos, empanaditas, and more, including no-salt truth-serum margaritas.
Since then Adela was asked to write the food column, "Southwest Flavor," for THE NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE, and has been doing so with great popular success since 1993. We brought out a collection of Adela's short stories, Undercurrents: New Mexico Stories Then and Now. NEW MEXICO MAGAZINE brought out a beautiful book based on Adela's column, also called, Southwest Flavor.
I used a pseudonym to honor the Little Red Hen. The children's story is set in the southwest and is called The Little Brown Roadrunner. Our artist, Claiborne O'Connor, gets the credit for its success. She added the charm and whimsy which make it delightful.
We have two prizewinners on our list Caesar of Santa Fe, which won Best First Novel from Western Writers of America for Tim MacCurdy, and Hunger in the First Person Singular, which won Best Book of the Year from New Mexico Press Women for Michelle Miller Allen.
We have published Eva Krutein's autobiographical trilogy, beginning with Eva's War, her description of the year 1945, in which she fled Danzig westward with her infant daughter, giving us a worm's eye view of the end of World War II. In the second book she describes the family's sojourn in Chile, having emigrated from Germany. In the third book, she describes the family's move to California, and all the adventures involved in rearing five teen-agers in the 60's, while her husband Manfred's diary interrupts her narration. He is on secret assignment with the CIA to help raise a sunken Soviet submarine off Hawaii, all unbeknowst to his family.
Manfred was a submarine expert, and we published his fictional tale of an alternative coda to the ending of World War II, called Hitler's Last Gasp, the much-rumored wunderwaffen [secret weapon].
Another of our authors came to us because no degree of academic success could interest any main-stream publisher in his fiction. Gene Bell-Villada is well-known for his definitive biography of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but no one would do his fiction. So we did. The Carlos Chadwick Mystery: a novel of college life and political terror -- before "terrorist" and "terrorism" were such widely used and misused words. Then we did The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand, a semi-biographical minimalist collection which lampoons blatant selfishness.
Another local writer has become my helper -- I call her my sidekick. Zelda Gatuskin and her husband, Frank Johnson, are my computer gurus, webmasters of Amador Publishers' website. Zelda has two marvelous pieces of fiction out, The Time Dancer and Castle Lark, which is reminiscent of Harry Potter, but, so help me, better, because it has more depth and deals with more important matters. And her Ancestral Notes: a family dream journal is a masterpiece.
From a literary standpoint, I'm frankly impressed, but the result has been unimpressive from a bottom-line business perspective. The quantity of inventory on hand, boxes of unsold books, that is, is daunting, more and more so as we and they age. Amador Publishers is not now open to submissions of new material, because of commitments to future projects, that is, unpublished stuff by me, and Adela and Zelda and Eva.
Amador has done three more titles of mine. It didn't feel like self-publishing, when it was done amid all that "risk" publishing. Souls and Cells Remember is a love story, a sexy re-incarnation novel, which includes racial and family tensions. Vermin: Humanity as an Endangered Species is multi-genre short stories, essays, a long fable, a novella -- they've been described as "cautionary tales." Freedom From God: Restoring the Sense of Wonder is a memoir, centering around my developing belief system, moving from conservative Protestant, to neo-orthodox, to anti-war peacenik equality activist, to God-is-dead, to bewilderment, to rationalism, naturalism and humanism. It has been described as zesty, and very helpful to others whose belief systems are in flux.
The writing of unpublished material verges on the obsessive. The muse is still doing her thing, even though I berated her seriously in Vermin for expecting me to write satire in these interesting times. Remember, Henry Kissinger, that great war criminal, won the Nobel Peace Prize! Meanwhile, my worst fear, that my own writing would dry up, has been unfounded. Ten full-length books of mine are "ready." I wrote a column called "The Old Guy," for THE WEEKLY ALIBI, which primed the pump incredibly. A collection has been published by a California publisher, This'll Kill Ya And Other Dangerous Stories -- it seemed to justify the original audacity of self-publishing.
For ten years I have written a Rant of the Month for the Amador Publishers website. The response is mystifying and gratifying, but so far has not led to any additional publications.
In an attempt to sell additional manuscripts I carried out for years what I called "Zen marketing" -- which was almost the same as not marketing at all, except that I noticed that success came, when it came, with almost no effort. Finding the California publisher, proposing the column to THE ALIBI -- both things happened in each case in an effortless instant. Then one New Years Eve something snapped -- and my personal Y2K resolve was to send out one proposal per day, until something popped. It amounted to taking on a part-time job, but I kept my resolve. Nothing came of it, and after a year I quit obsessing.
I am aware that your ship can't come in unless you send some out. Zelda is studying the Printing on Demand phenomenon for us both, but we haven't found the deal which suits us. Meanwhile, we try to get those manuscripts really, really ready.
v So, what did I learn? Ten things
1. The roots of rejection are infinite. At book fairs, or mailing out proposals to publishers, or trying to cajole distributors to take on books -- rejection does not mean that the rejectee is at fault. It may have as much to do with what the rejector had for breakfast. Calvin was simply wrong.
2. The publishing industry stinks. The people who run it are obsessed with best-seller mythology, trying to repeat the last success. Marketing geeks, who do not comprehend the invention of the book, are in charge. They use the same methods to sell cars, chickens, screwdrivers, stocks and bonds. Big fish eat little fish. In publishing big fish mostly ignore little fish. Distributors, however, are shameless in their attacks on small publishers, and so are local independent book stores. We seek outlets that are not bookstores, in which to place our books art galleries, farmers' markets, boutiques. Zelda has suggested a sticker for the books, "Not available in bookstores."
In the publishing industry incest is rampant, affecting the intelligence of decision makers. The dinosaurs are doomed. Some little fish, and those little shrews scampering in the bushes, will survive the pending die-off.
3. The editor really is busy. I as publisher used to waste much time on people who don't understand any of this and simply want me to pay them to take over their project, which isn't ready yet.
4. This proposal really doesn't "fit their list." Callers ask me, "What kind of books do you publish?" Callers need to know that already before calling, and know it very well, in order to stand any chance of interesting me in their project. I ask them if they are buying or selling. They are always selling an unpublished and unready manuscript.
5. Writing is the new meditation. Writing opens the mind to infinity. Writers may be the new saints. I have the following bit of age-ist advice for writers. If you are young, find out what they want in New York, and do that. If you're old and have a story to tell, or an insight to share, or a long unique perspective which informs everything you see and hear and read and think, tell that. Maybe someone will publish it, and maybe no one will. They can make a best-seller out of anything. You cannot. So meanwhile, you do the work which life assigns to you.
6. I want half a day to write -- I don't always get it. I find there are two stages in the writing process. The first stage is usually more fun. I call it "belching forth." It is like the Cosmos creating marble. The second stage is what Michelangelo has to do to the marble, which is remove all the marble that doesn't look like Moses. Rewrite, which for me is mostly, "Delete, delete."
I try to spend the other half of the day in the real world, gardening, cutting firewood, caning chairs, doing something which Howard Cosell would call, "physical."
7. There are now more writers than readers. We all need to get into the literacy movement, because illiteracy is a huge and growing problem. An astonishing number cannot read at all. An even larger number do not read. And then there's that alarming number who can't, or don't, read correctly. They are called critics and reviewers.
8. This is an obsession, not a job.
9. You'd better follow your bliss, or you'll miss it.
10. Anything can happen.
Copyright Harry Willson, 2006
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