"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“A midlist author is one whose books are well received but have failed to make a commercial breakthrough; whose work sells solidly but unspectacularly, who’s well known within the writing community but the majority of book buyers have never heard his name.”
– David Armstrong, “How Not to Write a Novel: Confessions of a Midlist Author,” 2003
Reader Advisory: By the end of this story I will have broken the most sacred rules of modern authordom. I’ll tell you how much my publishers have paid me for the books I’ve written. I’ll tell you how many copies each of those books has sold. I’ll share with you some of the secrets, lies and euphemisms told to me by my publishers, editors, publicists and agents in their efforts to comfort, pacify and motivate me, and I’ll share some of the salient facts that make those secrets, lies and euphemisms such common industry currency.
If you don’t want to hear about the noir underside of publishing — if you’re a writer longing for a literary career, or a reader who’s happier not knowing that producing and marketing a book these days involves about as much moral purity as producing and marketing a pair of Nikes — I suggest you stop reading now.
Still with me? Great. But who, exactly, might I be? I’m not saying. Because although I’ve published books and articles about things most people won’t talk about, let alone publish — my sex life and marriage counseling, my quirky predilections and unpopular politics, my worst mistakes and no-longer-secret yearnings — I’m using a pseudonym to write this story, because telling the truth about my life as a writer is one risk I can’t afford to take.
Thinking you’ll put the clues together, figure out who I am? Give it your best shot. If you could identify me based on the story I’m about to tell you, I wouldn’t have it to tell.
Here’s a Clue: You might know me by my number: 40,137. That’s today’s sales ranking of my latest book on Amazon.
Sadly, this is also how I rate myself: Not bad, not nearly good enough.
Interlude: A Midlist Author Friend Writes
“Tales of the midlist author: When [my latest book] came out a few weeks ago, it bounced around the Amazon rankings in the 25,000 to 30,000 range, supported there by the radio shows I’m doing and my buddy who runs [a Web] bulletin board. Then last Thursday, I mailed a 450-piece promotion to my personal list, pitching Amazon that’s selling the book for 30 percent off list. This morning, [my latest book] is No. 1,665. Now, we all know that the Amazon rankings are a distorted mirror and can’t be taken too, too seriously. On the other hand, they’re the only instant sales data midlist authors have. So I’m encouraged. My mailing to 750 members of the [organization presumably interested in my latest book] goes out this weekend. Fingers crossed that I see at least one day in three figures.”
Being the author of several critically acclaimed, moderately successful books has given me an extraordinary, exciting, occasionally lucrative, quite public life. It has also broken my heart.
Nothing makes me happier than writing. And, thanks to the rules that govern publishing today, nothing I’ve ever done for a living — housecleaning, data entry, creating campaigns for big-name, cutthroat ad agencies, full-time motherhood — has been as hard on me as being a writer.
Being an author is the culmination of a lifelong dream. And — because the sales of each book I write determine my ability to remain one — being an author has ruined many of my greatest lifelong pleasures. Reading a book that’s poorly written I pace the floor, beseeching the Muses, God and the editors of Publishers Weekly to explain why trash like this sells so much better than serious books like mine. Reading a book that’s well written, I writhe, instead, with envy.
Relax with a glossy magazine on a sun-splashed beach? Not me, not anymore. The magazine doesn’t exist that hasn’t either published or rejected my work, and there’s a trail of tears behind every story. Sunday morning in bed with a steaming cup of French roast, a well-schmeared bagel, the book review section of the New York Times? Sounds great — if only I could sip, chew and gnash my teeth all at once. Veg out in front of the tube? Impossible. Playboy is nearly the only channel that hasn’t scheduled, then cancelled me — each booking raising hopes of thousands of copies sold; each cancellation a stake driven through the heart of my career.
Never an enthusiastic employee, I quit my job at age 35 to become a full-time writer, to live life on my own terms. After publishing four books — each of them critically acclaimed, several of them award-winners, none of them big enough sellers to ensure my next book contract, let alone the lifetime of book contracts I crave — I feel less in control of my finances, my schedule, my priorities and my well-being than I did when I had bosses and employees to answer to.
Acknowledgment Of Good Fortune
Believe me, I know I’m lucky to be published at all. I’ve read enough talented unpublished writers to realize just how arbitrary that privilege is. I’m more fortunate still to have had publishers who made significant investments in my books, editors who have gone to the mat for me, an agent I admire and trust. For more than a decade I’ve earned a reasonable living as a writer, raised a child as a writer, had a mostly great time being one.
You know that bumper sticker, “I love humanity — it’s people I can’t stand”? Well, I love writing. It’s publishing I can’t stand.
Statement of the Problem
In the 10 years since I signed my first book contract, the publishing industry has changed in ways that are devastating — emotionally, financially, professionally, spiritually, and creatively — to midlist authors like me. You’ve read about it in your morning paper: Once-genteel “houses” gobbled up by slavering conglomerates; independent bookstores cannibalized by chain and online retailers; book sales sinking as the number of TV channels soars. What once was about literature is now about return on investment. What once was hand-sold one by one by well-read, book-loving booksellers now moves by the pallet-load at Wal-Mart and Borders — or doesn’t move at all.
Interlude: Publishing Today Is a Business
“Publishing today is a business, dominated by stockholders and profit margins, run entirely according to the hard, cold numbers. Investors in the major megacorporations that own nearly all of the New York majors want profit, and lots of it. In a business that traditionally makes maybe 4-6 percent profit in a good year, today’s stockholders are demanding 15-18 percent. Gone are the days when a publisher could nurture a writer with potential through several lackluster efforts. Today’s editors can’t afford a single flop.”
— Jeff Kirvin, “What’s Wrong With Publishing,” January 2002.
Mine is what editors call “the human story behind the headlines.” But it’s not just about me; not just about the many wonderful, once-revered writers I know, who — loving the craft of writing, hating the damage that being a writer has done to them — aren’t writers any more.
It’s about the narrowing of the breadth and depth and diversity of our culture: the quieting of all but the blandest voices, the elimination of all but the safest choices. It’s about what it will mean to you if the blunt force of commerce succeeds in silencing midlist authors like me.
Interlude: Excerpt From the Unacknowledged, Unpublished Publishing Glossary of Terms
When they say: “Americans read trash, not meaningful books like yours. You’d need to worry if your books were commercially successful.”
What that means: “Your next advance — if there is one — will be half the size of your last.”
When they say: “Your book will have a long life in paperback.”
What that means: “We’ll be forced to throw good money after bad to recoup our losses on the hardcover.”
When they say: “Your career is building slowly but steadily.”
What that means: “Time to look for a day job.”
As Promised: The Unexpurgated, Possibly Unfinished History of One Midlist Author’s Life
Book 1: Contract signed 1994. Book published 1996. Advance: $150,000.
Book takes one year, no research, pure joy to write.
I love my editor; my editor loves me.
Several publishers vying to buy book means book sells at auction for big advance. Big advance means big publicity budget. Big publicity budget means promotion handled by publicity director, which means reviews in top newspapers, excerpts in top magazines, TV and radio appearances, four weeks on two bestseller lists, seven-city tour. Publisher (Mr. Big) sends handwritten note, thanking me for “writing the great book we all knew you had it in you to write.”
Question to agent: “Is there a downside to an unknown author getting such a big advance for a first book?”
Agent’s answer: “What are you gonna do, turn it down?”
Pitch line: “Welcome a fresh new voice!”
Sales: I don’t ask. No one seems to care. Final tally: Hardcover/paperback sales combined are 10,000 copies.
Current status: Out of print. Small but loyal cult following; 10 years later adoring fans still show up at readings, clutching well-worn copies, eager to tell me how book changed their lives.
Conclusion drawn then: Being an author, working with the best editor and the best publisher on earth is a dream come true.
Conclusion drawn now: There is a downside to getting a big advance for a first book.
The Desperate Years: 1996-98
“A small number of major houses account for the lion’s share of publishing’s annual revenues of about $20 billion … In 1996 [in the U.S.] an astounding 140,000 new or revised titles were issued.”
– Phil Mattera, vice president, National Writers Union
“Crisis of the Midlist Author in American Book Publishing”
Revue Française d’Études Américaines, October 1998
1997: Agent submits new manuscript to Editor Who Still Loves Me (despite disappointing sales of first book). EWSLM, enthused, takes manuscript to pub board. Sales director rejects new book, citing losses incurred by first one. EWSLM acknowledges to agent: It’s not the book being rejected; it’s the author.
Question to agent: “Is my career as a writer over?”
Agent’s answer: “I’m going to need to try something unheard of to get you back in the game.”
Agent offers EWSLM unprecedented deal: If publisher will buy new book, we’ll forgo advance to help defray losses from first one. EWSLM gently advises agent to “pursue other avenues.” Agent gently advises me to “pursue other genres.”
To keep daughter in Nikes while writing short-story collection, I write Web copy for dot-coms, ghostwrite celebrity bio (Book 2). Agent sends out collection; collection rejected by 10 editors. Agent suggests I “take a break.” I start pursuing other agents.
Celebrity bio becomes national bestseller. It doesn’t go on my permanent record, though, since it doesn’t have my name on it.
Question to potential new agent: “Do you think changing agents will help my career?”
New agent’s answer (in so many words): “It sure can’t hurt.”
Conclusion Drawn Then: Even most loyal, powerful editor employed by best publisher on earth can’t override power of profit & loss statement.
Conclusion Drawn Now: Even most loyal, powerful editor employed by best publisher on earth can’t override power of profit & loss statement.
Interlude: It’s Nothing Personal
“Hardcover publishers lose money on most of their titles and depend greatly on a few bestsellers … the large publishers are increasingly inclined to concentrate their resources on books that have the greatest potential to become bestsellers. Like Hollywood, book publishing has become a business driven by the quest for blockbusters.”
— Phil Mattera, op. cit.
Book 3: Contract signed 1998. Book published 2001. Advance: $10,000.
Book takes two years, intensive research, mostly joy to write.
Book rejected by 10 publishers; lone editor making offer promises to “make up for the modest advance with great publicity on the back end.” Desperate to “get back in the game,” I accept advance that’s less than 10 percent of first one from editor who never returns my calls, continues to misspell my name.
Minuscule advance means no publicity budget. No publicity would mean this Second Chance Book will, instead, be Last Book. I hire freelance publicist at $1,500 per city, $5,000 to pitch to national media. I hand over half of advance, sign contract with publicist acknowledging no guarantee of outcome. Spend six months working full-time on own publicity in key cities; publicist focuses on nationals. Publicist books me on 55 radio shows, some local and B-list national TV.
Book hits local bestseller lists on pub date, stays there six months. Book wins awards. Glowing review in Time magazine nets calls from Hollywood producers. Screenwriter spends weekends at my house “to get inside my head,” talks incessantly about her ongoing extramarital affair. One year later, screenwriter tells my agent she’s too busy to pursue our project. Now too late to pursue once-interested producers. Neither agent nor I have received compensation for year spent working/negotiating with screenwriter.
Pitch line: None. Whose job was that?
Sales: Publisher announces print run of 20,000; prints 7,000, then four more printings over next year.
Current tally: Hardcover/paperback sales combined are 25,000 copies.
Question to agent: “How can we capitalize on these solid sales?”
Agent’s answer: “Write a new book — quick.”
Current status: Three years later book still yields $600 royalty checks (after agent’s 15 percent commission) every six months. Total earnings to me, after agent commission and publicist fee, are $21,000.
Conclusion Drawn Then: A $10,000 book advance is only worth taking out of pure desperation.
Conclusion Drawn Now: Sometimes it’s worth taking out a loan to write a book. The trick is knowing when.
Interlude: Publishing Used To Be
“Publishing used to be almost a family business. Often a publisher would see talent in a new young writer and support that writer for many years, printing book after book that didn’t sell, trusting that eventually the writer would ‘break through’ and make it big. The publisher was the friend and champion of the writer, willing to risk again and again for a writer [the house] believed in. Those days are long past.”
– Jeff Kirvin, op. cit.
Book 4: Contract signed 2002. Book published 2004. Advance: $80,000
Book takes two years, hellish research, difficult and delightful to write.
Love my editor at third publishing house; editor loves me. Medium-sized advance based on previous bestseller means medium-sized publicity budget. Book assigned to Sharp Young Publicist, so I don’t hire freelance publicist. Six months before pub date SYP initiates meetings with major media outlets; tells me to choose between “Good Morning America” and “Today,” Redbook and O, advises me to buy “great TV clothes.” One month before pub date, publisher (“Mr. Big II”) calls with bad news: SYP is MIA.
Mr. Big II assigns Junior Assistant Publicist to “lock down” Major Media Bookings made by SYP. After calling several “confirmed” producers, JAP concludes that SYP fabricated bookings while secretly preparing to “pursue other opportunities.”
JAP makes heroic effort, books local media (I wear “Good Morning America” outfit for three-minute interview on local cable news show), is unable to book promised national media. Book wins awards; sales flat, even in areas saturated by local media coverage.
Pitch line: “The much-anticipated new book from the best-selling author of ‘Y Marks the Spot’!”
Sales: Based on major media bookings promised by SYP, publisher announces print run of 35,000; based on lack of national media, publisher prints 10,000. Sales figures not in yet; projections not pretty.
Question to agent: “Is my career as a writer over?”
Agent’s answer: “Write a new book proposal now, before the bookstores start shipping returns.”
Current status: One hardcover copy (or less) available, spine-out, on a shelf hidden deep in the bowels of your local bookstore.
Conclusion Drawn Then: National media undoubtedly would have helped. But — no matter how painstakingly written, no matter how enthusiastically promoted, no matter how glowingly reviewed, for reasons beyond mortal knowing, some books Just Don’t Sell.
Conclusion Drawn Now: Maybe my career as a writer is over.
Just Ask Any Midlist Author — This Happens All the Time
Stranger on a plane, at a party, on a date: “Wow — you’re a writer! Have I heard of you?”
Midlist Author: “Probably not.”
Stranger: “Wow — you’re a writer! Have I read anything you’ve written?”
Midlist: “Probably not.”
Stranger: “Wow — you’re a writer! Will I see your books at Barnes & Noble?”
Midlist: “Only if you look really hard.”
Stranger: “I can’t wait to tell my wife I met a real author! What’s your name again?”
New book proposal written overnight, submitted to editor of Book 4. Editor loves idea, pitches to pub board. Pub board loves idea, agrees to make offer. Editor/agent have celebratory lunch: Despite Book 4′s lackluster sales, publisher is certain Book 5 will be my Biggest Book Yet. Editor No. 2 Who Still Loves Me (despite dismal sales of Book 4) says, “We want you to be a house author. We believe in you.”
Despite eerie echoes of E#1WSLM, my Midlist Author’s heart sings. At last I’ve found what every author wants: loyal publisher for life. Editor leaks terms of forthcoming offer: $80,000, since Book 5 is “so much more commercial” than my previous books.
Editor reassures agent daily that offer is forthcoming. Offer does not forthcome.
Three weeks after celebratory lunch, normally overly optimistic agent calls, sounding near tears. “It’s bad, Jane. They’re not going to make an offer.” Mr. Big III overrode pub board. Citing lackluster sales of Book 4, wants to avoid “throwing good money after bad.”
Comment to agent: “My career as a writer is over.”
Agent’s answer: “They’re not the only publisher in town.”
Comment to agent: “They’re one imprint of the biggest publisher in town, which means we can’t sell the book to any of that publisher’s other 15 imprints. And I’m already banned from Publisher No. 1 and its 15 imprints. How many publishers does that leave?”
Current status: Rewritten Book 5 rejected by nine editors. Most love book; all say it’s “not commercial enough.” Three-times-rewritten manuscript currently under consideration by four — oops, just received rejection e-mail from editor whose boss says it’s not commercial enough — three “interested editors,” two in same Manhattan high-rise as editors who have already rejected it.
Conveying news of latest rejection, agent mentions we’ll be lucky to get $50,000; explains, “Publishers aren’t overpaying anymore. They know they’ll just break even if they pay $50,000 and sell 20,000 copies in hardcover, which few books ever do.”
I realize if I’m “overpaid” I’ll earn $50,000 minus $7,500 agent commission. That’s $42,500 for three years’ work. Agent, who’s now spent five months doing back flips to sell book, will earn $3,000 less than she would have if book had sold to Book 4 publisher as planned.
Despite estimated 20 cents per hour pay earned while in my employ, agent tells me, “Just because publishers define success by the numbers, you don’t have to. You write important books. You should feel proud of yourself. And you must keep writing.”
Sales: Interested editor tells me during phone interview, “Ten years ago, a book that sold 20,000 copies was considered a dud. Now we pray for that.”
Pray, and, apparently, pay accordingly.
Conclusion Drawn Now: When a book “fails to meet expectations,” many are candidates for blame. But whether commercial failure results from market conditions, moon in Mercury retrograde, or publisher/editor/publicist/sales force/author malfeasance, the consequences are the same. Those with jobs keep them. Only the author’s livelihood is threatened. Only the author is punished.
Interlude: A Midlist Author Friend Writes
“‘Celeste’ [my editor of several previous books] offered a measly rotten $25K again. I countered with $35 plus foreign and it looks like I’ll get that. I mean, I didn’t earn out even at the pittance I am advanced so I didn’t expect much. But, perhaps, perhaps, to keep my morale up, you could hint to [publishing people you know] that I have been offered a ludicrous amount of money? Please? If we could start a rumor like that it would be helpful all around. I am sort of relieved that it will just be a one-book deal this time. Even though that makes me insecure, it also means that when I turn [interesting character] into my next book, I will be free to attempt to actually get six figures.”
There Was a Time
“There was a time when writers of serious books not destined to become bestsellers could expect to get contracts from publishers that included decent terms and large enough advances to survive until the next book. Today such expectations are rarely met … While publishers lavish large sums of money and lots of attention on a few high-profile authors, conditions have grown increasingly bad for those writers known as midlist authors.”
— Phil Mattera, vice president, National Writers Union, op. cit.
There was a time, just a decade ago, when my life as a writer brimmed with hope and promise; when the world of work and words seemed open to endless possibility; when the music my editors and I made together — the appreciation and, yes, the love they felt for me, the appreciation and love I felt for them — made my heart sing in my chest and my words sing on the page.
There was a time when my life as a writer overrode my innate cynicism and doubt, moved me to tell my young daughter, cornball as it seemed even then, that dreams do come true, if you really want them to. Because what is a book made of, if not the spun sugar of a writer’s wildest dreams?
“Does it ever get better?” I asked Patty, my most successful writer friend, recounting my midlist author’s tale of woe.
“Not substantially,” she answered. “My books sell well now, but I never stop wondering what’ll happen to me when they don’t.”
“So why do we bother?” I moaned.
“Because this is the thing we do best,” she said simply. “What else would we do?”
That question came home to me last week when, for the first time in 15 years, someone offered me a job. Without hesitation — I’m a writer! — I turned it down. Then I went home to another editor’s rejection e-mail and called my agent, who advised me to take it. Of all the bad news you’ve given me, I said, this might be the worst. Have you given up on me as a writer?
“You’ll always be a writer,” she said. “But you won’t be able to write if you’re as worried about money and feeling as rejected as you’ve been. Maybe the thing that feels like it would strangle you will actually give you some room to breathe. When we sell the next book you can always quit the job.”
My husband, greatest fan on earth of my writing, said the same thing. So did my best friend, and my father, and everyone else I asked. Clearly I hadn’t been suffering in as much silence as I’d thought. Clearly, everyone who loves me had been worried about me. “Taking the job would feel like admitting failure,” I told my now 19-year-old daughter, the girl I raised to believe that dreams do come true.
“You already succeeded as a writer, Mom,” she said. “So what if you didn’t make the All-Star team? You made the NBA.”
I called my new — gulp — employer and accepted the job.
Interlude: A Midlist Author Friend Writes
“I’m having the worst publishing experience ever here. Every day it gets worse. It’s like some kind of out-of-control nightmare that won’t stop until this book has been completely killed and buried. Yesterday, I was debating whether or not to borrow some money to hire an independent publicist, but today I don’t know if I can afford to risk it. At this point, it all seems like gambling. The book went on sale Tuesday (well, supposedly — you can’t find it here in [my hometown], even though this was the only place a review ran) — one of the most depressing launches ever.”
I Count Among the Losses
Looking back on my writing career I count among the losses the relationships — indescribably intimate, more like marriages than friendships — with the editors I counted on, and spoke to nearly every day for all the years of our contractual agreements, and loved and still love, who love me too but will never publish me again.
I count among the losses my conviction that mixing love and art and business is a risk worth taking, and that doing without any of these things isn’t.
I count among the losses the hundreds of thousands of dollars that my books cost the publishers who believed in me enough to treat me respectfully and pay me well, and I count among the losses the profits I continue to generate for the one publisher who didn’t.
I count as my greatest loss of all: hope, the most toxic, precious thing any writer has. Without a writer’s foolish fantasies — envisioning Book 5 piled in stacks of 50 in every airport bookstore, its carefully chosen title appearing on the Times bestseller list, my agent calling with breathtakingly, indisputably, non-euphemistically good news — how can I face the otherwise overwhelming prospect of a book waiting to be written?
If I can’t bring myself to hope that I’ll have the chance to write Book 5, so my heart can be filled and emptied and broken again; if the privilege of being published hurts too much to be the thing I hope for, what will pull me — and the multitudes of other midlist authors, who are, after all, the vast majority of published writers in this country — through the long, unlit tunnel of writing another one?
What will we lose if writers like me stop writing? What are we losing now?
I ran into Patty the day her ninth book became her first to hit the Times bestseller list. She grabbed me by the shoulders, looked deep into my eyes. “It doesn’t change anything,” she said grimly. “My mother still doesn’t approve of me. I still don’t have a boyfriend. I still can’t sleep at night. Don’t let this be what you’re waiting for.”
And yet I wait for my agent’s call, telling me there’s another chance that it could happen for me.
And so I wait. And I wait.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)