The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst

I published three novels at big houses to good reviews. Now I'm my own publisher, and the media wants no part of me

Published May 3, 2013 11:30PM (EDT)

       (<a href=''>rangizzz</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(rangizzz via Shutterstock/Salon)

Stick with me on this.

In 2001 when my first novel, "Slab Rat," was published and I was important for about eight weeks, I was asked to write three very short stories for a literary magazine. I believe the maximum amount of time I was allotted for each story was 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes to get a sentence the way I want it, but I decided to do it. I forget what the other two stories were, but one of them stayed with me: It was about a couple who go to real estate open houses to steal medication.

Cut to early spring 2012.

Thirty painkillers (prescribed for my bad back) were stolen out of my medicine cabinet. I was certain I knew who did it: someone in my building who had access to our keys. I set a trap for him and removed the remaining painkillers and replaced them with an over-the-counter painkiller that resembled them in color and shape -- but certainly did not deliver the same relief. A week later I left my apartment for a mere 10 minutes; when I returned, sure enough, about 30 more were missing. A check of the log revealed who had signed out the keys. As Michael Corleone says to his brother in "The Godfather II": “I know it was you, Fredo.”

Around the same time last year, my third novel, "Pocket Kings," was published. As best as I can remember, it did not receive one negative review. There were some flat-out raves, too. The Washington Post loved it and it was an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review. This was the first time that the Times had liked a book of mine. They cold-bloodedly butchered the first and fatally wounded the second.

"Pocket Kings" got positive reviews, but the problem is it just didn’t get too many of them. As far as I know, only one newspaper west of the Pecos (the Dallas Morning News), reviewed it. Newspapers don't cover books anymore, of course. And then there's the lack of a readership on my part, I’m just not that prominent, etc. But why wouldn’t newspapers or magazines in Las Vegas cover a novel about poker? Why wouldn’t the Huffington Post and Gawker mention a book that drills a thousand new assholes into book publishing? Why wouldn’t every newspaper, magazine and website, after they saw that the Times liked a novel, then grab the baton and run with it and review my novel? After all, that’s what is supposed to happen. That and movie offers and Christina Hendricks on my lap and cases of Cristal and a large advance for the next book.

The next book …

"Pocket Kings" took so long to actually get published that before it finally hit the stores and Amazon, I’d already written another novel, called "West of Babylon," and was ready to shop it around. My agent and I had decided, however, to wait and send out the newer book in the wake of "Pocket Kings." Our hope was that "Pocket Kings" would get positive reviews and that publishers would then chomp at the bit for "West of Babylon."

But it didn’t work out that way. Editors passed on "West of Babylon." It got some great, encouraging rejections but still, nobody wanted it. (I would rather have a discouraging acceptance than an encouraging rejection.) Even now, just thinking about it, I cannot come close to describing the sense of dejection I felt and still do: to go from the soaring high of seeing your book, which you worked on for years, on a table in the front of a bookstore to the low of getting your next book, which you also worked on for years, kicked aside. To go from people telling you — and they appeared to be sincere — they love your new book, to there being no new book. (Writing novels seems tailor-made for people suffering from bipolar disorder or for roller coaster designers.)

This is where an added layer of extreme cruelty comes in: "Pocket Kings" is about an author whose books don’t sell (and who gets addicted to playing poker online, where he is, at last, successful at something). Throughout the novel, he shops a new novel around, but even his agent — spoiler alert to a book you probably won’t read anyway: The narrator ends up assaulting the agent — won’t get back to him. Nobody will get back to him. Toward the novel’s end, he sinks to the lowest, darkest depths he’s ever plummeted to: He takes his novel to a vanity publisher, a lowlife in a rumpled brown suit who will publish any book at all if paid enough, to discuss printing the book. This scumbag of a publisher asks my whiny, self-pitying narrator how he’d feel about “maybe nine-elevening it up” and urges him to make vast changes to incorporate the World Trade Center into the plot, to reverse the genders and come up with a pink cover. They can even give him a woman’s pen name like Felicity MacTavish or Boompha Jalalowitz ... My narrator says he’ll think about it, but he won’t. I made sure of that.

My agent — my real agent — and I agreed that "West of Babylon" was too good to just forget about. I’ve written many books but only three have gotten published — the others are either somewhere under my bed or somewhere on my hard drive. "West of Babylon," I felt, did not deserve that fate. So we decided I should self-publish the book in electronic book format only. I would be publisher, editor, publicist, regional sales manager, mail room guy and everything else. (My wife designed the cover in return for a $50 gift card to the Gap.)

I can tell you that self-publishing is not fun.

As I write these words, I am now in my seventh week of attempting to spread the word about "West of Babylon." I have sent emails to many newspapers, from the Boston Globe down to the Miami Herald across to the San Francisco … well, to just about everywhere. I’ve sent emails to newspapers and magazines in England, too, and to websites and book blogs. In each email I send, I announce that "West of Babylon" will be available online only as of early May 2013. I attach the cover image and stellar reviews of my three novels. I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to.

Sometimes I get replies. Overwhelmingly I do not.

When I hit the send button, I assume that nothing will come of it. (The lyrics from a Rogue Wave song come to me: “But it don’t matter/Because no one comes out to see us.”) Sometimes I cannot even get the correct email address or find out whom to send the book to -- who at the Cleveland Plain Dealer edits the book section now? The Los Angles Times said I could email them the book and that was a truly great day for me, despite the 10 other newspapers that day that didn’t want the book.

In my second week as my own P.R. agent, I did not get one single reply. Not one. Not even a no. To promote "Pocket Kings" last year, I did one radio interview. I thought I would send that same show an email and let them know I was publishing a new novel. I couldn’t find the email address of any contact there, so I sent an email to someone at my former publisher and asked for the email address. She was very nice about it -- but she refused to give it to me.

By this time, I had already sent email to several National Public Radio shows ("Fresh Air," "Weekend Edition," etc.) trying to spread the word, and hadn’t gotten any return email from them. (NPR stands for, I now realize, No Possible Reply. They are dead to me now, and I only wish I was a frequent, generous donor so that way I could now stop donating to them.) When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I'd been on, they did email me back (within 24 hours, too) to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show. But … that was actually great news! I cheered. Why? BECAUSE THEY HAD ACTUALLY GOTTEN BACK TO ME! EVEN TO TURN ME DOWN!

(In "Pocket Kings," my protagonist rips into Red Smith, the [supposedly] immortal New York Times sportswriter, for once declaring that writing is like sitting down at your typewriter, opening a vein and bleeding. I stand by my story. Unless something is terribly wrong with you, writing novels is the easy part. If all goes right, there really should be no bleeding involved. Pushing it, flogging it, getting the word out, introducing yourself to people at parties who’d rather be talking to other people at parties, trying to appear perky when you just don’t have any perk in you: That's the impossible part.)

After a few weeks of this 9-to-5 masochism, you lose your sense of shame. I’m no longer so hesitant about sending emails because, I figure, nobody is going to read the damn thing anyway. The worst thing they can do is turn you down or ignore you, and by now I am used to that. I sent an email to the book section editor of a newspaper I thought would find "West of Babylon" to its liking and, through an intermediary, was able to discover that the editor had never gotten the email. I have to assume that this is just one of the reasons for the great silence: I’m sending queries to people and my email is probably going straight into spam folders, right along with the ads for Viagra and Cialis. I have no idea what’s worse: writing books that don’t ever get published, or writing books that get published but don’t ever get read, or writing emails that don’t ever get read to people about books that don’t ever get published and won’t ever get read.

Another reason is newspapers, magazines and radio just won’t cover a book that is not being published in the Analog Old School sense of the word, that is, on paper. One or two editors have even moved themselves to tell me this (more cause for celebration). As they are overwhelmed with requests to review books or interview authors of books that will appear in print and in physical, terrestrial bookstores, why would they pay attention to me despite the three published novels? If they review me, then why wouldn’t they review any book and every book?

I’ve sent two emails to the editor of the New York Times Book Review and have not gotten a return email. (Recently, it was announced he is no longer the editor of the Times Book Review. I cannot take credit for that.) Is this because he never got the emails in the first place (maybe a 21-year-old intern trashed it) or is this because, despite his publication having reviewed all three of my prior books, he believes that books designated only for Kindles and Nooks just do not merit attention? If my name were Franzen or Chabon or Shteyngart, does there exist the slightest hint of a possibility he might have taken notice? I will never know.

And I’d love to know just how many of these papers, mags and sites that won’t even acknowledge self-published e-books have done stories about how authors are now turning to self-publishing e-books? These base hypocrites! Recently, on the front page of the Times, there was an article about how David Mamet is publishing his next book by himself. David Mamet, who doesn’t need the attention, gets the front page. The rest of us cannot even get replies to our email.

If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List. I have a Facebook friend — I’ve never met her — who works at a not-the-Times newspaper who’s been amazingly supportive; there’s someone I know via Goodreads who told me that Amazon has some sort of print-on-demand capability and has guided me through the process; there’s a friend and former neighbor who’s trying to get the magazine she works for to mention the book; there’s my wife’s boss, who knows a few people at music publications ("West of Babylon" is about a rock 'n' roll band … no one comes out to see them either) who might be able to help; there’s a Manchester-United-loving journalist/author in the U.K. who’s coming up with names and places for me. And so on. But for every one of those, there’s a cold stare, a frigid shoulder and a turned-up snout and probably a fair amount of feigned — or real — gagging.

I cannot wait for those people to ask me for help one day. Because you know what I’m going to do?

I will help them as best I can.

Now, I happen to know a few people at magazines and newspapers; I’ve had novels published and I have an agent. But what is this experience like for Jane and John Q. Self-Publishing Author way out there in South Podunk, who don’t know anybody at all and who have zero connections? My heart goes out to them. I know why I do it (I enjoy the piss out of writing, I believe I might be good at it, I don’t know how to do anything else, and I was laid off from my last job). I cannot explain how I do it, but I really don’t know how those other people — the 99 Percent of Writerdom — can do this. Where do they find the time and the stomach?

And this brings me back to where I started.

I am now going through everything I mercifully refused to allow my former protagonist — who was based on me to begin with — to go through. I just could not do that to him. He got spared. But me, I’m not so lucky.

Had I known that life was going to imitate art in this manner, I think I would have created much cheerier endings for all my books.

And those missing painkillers? I really could use a few of those right about now.

By Ted Heller

Ted Heller's latest novel, "Pocket Kings," will be published in March. He is also the author of the novels "Slab Rat" and "Funnymen."

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