The first question friends ask me when I talk to them about the Brink City Crime books is: Why self-publish? They say this largely because they know that I’ve worked in traditional publishing, that I socialize with published authors, and count among my acquaintances book editors and proofreaders. The implication being that the regular hurdles of getting some attention within the industry - no small feat considering how many people these days consider themselves authors - and of gaining enough respect to merit face-time with an agent, would be so much simpler for someone with connections on “the inside”. I sympathize with this view, and as a guy who began his working life in an altogether different industry, I still remember that feeling of wondering what it must be like to have contacts within publishing’s inner circle. A miserable state of mind, shared by millions - like a kid dreaming of a Wonka golden ticket.
Truth be told, the feeling evaporates the moment you start interacting with actual writing and publishing people. You might not believe this, but they’re just like every other busy professional, albeit with a few marked eccentricities the higher up the chain you go. Talking to them about writers, about deadlines, about slush-piles becomes no more fascinating after a while than talking to a carpenter about wood.
But that’s getting away from the purpose of this article. Why did I self-publish these books, considering how much trouble I’ve taken to develop a character-driven crime series? Wouldn’t it be easier, more prestigious, more lucrative to try to pull a few favors, and get enough of this material read by the people who count to at least put myself in the position of being a contender? Well, I admit it: I did just that. Self-publishing is not easy, if you want to do it right. It’s not prestigious at all. But then we come down to other factors, like money, like creative control, like rights ownership. These are the not just key elements of the deal, but the only elements any serious author should be considering when they’re embarking on a writing career. Prestige can go to hell, in my opinion. And as for doing things the easy way? No one’s going to convince me that pursuing the point of least resistance achieves very much of anything. But, along with so many other people, I still somehow imagined (or perhaps wanted to imagine) that going the route of traditional publishing remained the way of getting it done.
So how did it go down? Long-story short, a writer friend put me in touch with her agent, who agreed to read the first Brink City Crime book, and sample chapters of the first John Rader novel. Now this was a pretty big deal, because I knew that this woman was capable of negotiating major contracts, and that she wasn’t about to pussyfoot around a book if she thought it sucked just to be nice to her client’s friend. So I admit it; that was a nervy couple of weeks. When the phone rang she made only passing reference to my work, and summoned me to a New York City restaurant where, over meatballs in marinara sauce, my fate was sealed - if not quite in the manner of a character in one of the Brink City books. She loved what I’d done. The characters, the dialogue, the situations all these wiseguys got themselves into. She’d ripped through the pages. She wanted to read more.
How many books are there? Do you have a story arc for the entire saga? Are the characters based on people you’ve met? Is there a real Brink City? On it went. How could I not enjoy the attention she was showing my work? She’d rep’d all kinds of clients, and liked talking big money. I had come here prepared to be disappointed, even intimidated by this formidable lady; but I was charmed, and began to picture her taking my work to the industry. I let her do most of the talking, and didn’t give too much away; but I could see she was holding something back as well. Each time I spoke about publication, and wondered aloud as to how many of these books could be released in a year, her gaze would shift, her tone would harden, and for a few seconds she would complain about the “harsh truths of modern publishing”. I waited it out, preferring the flow of compliments to whatever reality would conclude our encounter. And then, there it was before I was ready to say goodbye to what had only been an hour, during which all of the creative grind had seemed worth it.
“These books are very dark.”
I was still smiling across the lamplight when she said this. “They’re supposed to be. The humor helps with that, but they work best when they’re at their darkest.”
She studied me and said nothing.
“This is a fiery, explosive mob saga. It’s gotta be dark.”
“There’s no clearly-defined hero. No crusading journalist, no rookie agent who’s desperate to bring these people down. It’s almost as though you’re condoning that sort of lifestyle. Before I agreed to take these books anywhere, we’d have to make Gallo into less of a bad guy - show more of his humanity. Same with John Rader. Could he morph into more of an avenging-angel type?”
I knew enough about agents, the industry and business in general to recognize the first sign for the end of the road when I saw it. I made no guarantees, and neither did she.
At least she put the check on her expense account.
In the days that followed, vaguely excited, slightly bruised, I got back to running my business, and dreaming up ideas for the next Brink City novel. She got back to me less than a week later with some more input on the books; and then there was nothing, until almost a month since our NYC sit-down she had word from the industry itself. The news was bleak. In short: Would I be willing to tone down the darker excesses of both Gallo and Rader to make them more market friendly? In publishing, a book editor is one of the gatekeepers, and their opinion counts for everything. It turned out that the editors she’d approached (both women) were of the belief that the saga could take off with more traditionally heroic male leads. That as things stood, as strong and compelling as the stories were, the target market they saw as a good fit for this series would be turned off by these difficult, troubling characters.
As I listened, I knew that if I signed whatever contract might soon materialize, my creative control would fade from the project. From the start, I had a very clear vision for the series. From the tone, right down to the titles. Book names are actually a frequent source of disagreement between publishers and writers; only the A-list authors get to insist on a name. Then there’s the slowness of the whole process. She didn’t need to explain to me that it would take the rest of the year to get the first book “publication ready”; that it would find a place somewhere at the bottom of their lists; and that it could easily take two years from now until the book was actually released. By that point, at the rate I was producing Brink City material, I would have stockpiled so many books that unless sales were particularly strong the rest of the series would never be seen. My plan of two releases per year for at least the first few years - one Brink City Crime book featuring the Gallo syndicate, and a spin-off novel featuring John Rader - was unworkable. And then, of course, there was the money. As lawyers like to say, it’s always about the money.
Everyone has heard of the six and seven figure advances enjoyed by best-selling writers; but what about the rest of us? The guys in the trenches, who got into writing because they love it, and stay there for that reason… only to have to work at least one other job to make ends meet? The advance my would-be agent was quoting was $10,000 for the first book; royalties in the region of 10%. Putting that into some perspective, ten grand is approximately one sixth of the typical salary in many large American cities. Taking into account the fact that the average published writer sells relatively few books, we might be talking about a few hundred extra bucks per year. That is, if it sold in quantities the publisher deemed acceptable. What if though, as is common, they nixed my contract after a couple of years due to middling sales?
After those two years, I would likely have produced six or seven more books, all set in and around Brink City, all featuring the same large cast of characters you’ll find in the two galleries in this site. But my publisher would own the rights not just to the two or three books they’d issued by that point, but also to the characters and settings. So I would now find myself in the position of having to wait for the rights to elapse before I could return to the series. Was this all really worth the risk to a guy whose idea of a good time is working on a novel, and who’s ten or twenty grand richer for his several years enjoying the “prestige” of being a published author? Go do the math.
Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for a sideline (or a side score, as one of the Brink City wiseguys would say). But for something I had invested so much time and energy into? Once I’d blown the entire advance for book one on a vacation, I’d be facing the reality that a giant, coldly-detached publishing house now owned something of mine that I would never get back. Something I knew I’d want in the years to come. The fact that it was of more use to me than it ever would be to them would mean nothing to their legal team. Was I tempted? Sure, a little. But not enough. How did it feel politely retreating from my relationship with this agent? A relief, if I’m honest. Maybe in my twenties I would have gotten a huge, unending buzz from that kind of ego boost. In my late thirties, not so much.
Let me finish by saying that absolutely none of this is intended to assert that the death of traditional publishing is upon us. There are plenty of self-appointed experts who are happy to make this idea the subject of gleeful blog posts, motivated either by the grudge that no literary agent would touch their work even after years of trying, or by the certain knowledge that their writing simply isn’t strong enough for any sane publisher to invest tens of thousands of dollars of their money into printing, marketing and distributing. For the record, I doubt that mainstream publishing is about to disappear, and would be rather sad if it did. Certainly, it has its failings, as every large industry does; and I don’t dispute for one minute that it must be entirely dispiriting to keep knocking on the door with your writing, only to be told no, year in and year out. But there’s room in the free market for both, no? Why the spite towards an industry that brought you the books that made you fall in love with reading and writing in the first place? Some authors (and by that token editors and formatters and book designers, etc.) will always cherish the relative security of working for one of the big houses. And some readers will always prefer buying mainstream product. Maybe I’m slightly biased because of my connection to the industry; but I also know how it feels to be dwarfed by its scale and indifference, and I’m glad to have had the option to go my own way with this unusual and demanding project.