It was a thriller set in Toronto about a nomadic freelance journalist who returns to town hoping to pick up with his lost love only to discover she is engaged to someone else. The journalist begins to suspect the guy is a killer. The plot, as they say, proceeded to thicken. It was published in the United States and Canada by a big New York house, Doubleday.
I’m not quite sure what I was up to in those days. I’m not sure I had any literary pretensions on the one hand. On the other, I wanted to be taken seriously. The novel did all right, as these things go, mostly because I was working at the Toronto Star at the time and thus was able to generate a certain amount of publicity.
In the years that followed, I published a clutch of books both fiction and nonfiction with various publishers in Canada and the United States. The realities of publishing were then, and are now, harsh; publishers really don’t give a damn about you and they certainly don’t care much about your book. The last time I was published by a major New York house, I received a six thousand dollar advance, paid over a two-year period, for a fantasy-adventure titled Magic Man, a novel I had worked on for more than a decade.
My agents, who had championed the book for years, never giving up on it, made a total of nine hundred dollars.
I never met my editor. I talked to him a couple of times on the phone. But if we communicated at all, it was by e-mail. The editor sat on the book for over two years, to the point where I was certain they were not going to publish it.
When the novel finally did come out, it got some great reviews in what they call the book “trades,” but that was about it. A week after it was published, I went looking for it at a Borders store in downtown Chicago. They swore they had it in stock but couldn’t find it. In Canada where I live, I never saw a copy in a bookstore—except in a huge warehouse that called itself The World’s Biggest Bookstore. They had—I swear this is true—one copy.
They told me the publicist was going to call. But the publicist never did.
I endured all this in silence, and you know why? Because I knew this was going to happen long before any of it actually happened—or, more accurately, didn’t happen. In publishing if you map out the very worst case scenario you can ever imagine, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to your book.
I swore I was not going to go through that again. It wasn’t worth it. Why the publishing house even bothered printing the book in the first place still mystifies me. What was the point? It was a waste of everyone’s time.
For several years, I didn’t attempt to publish anything. In the meantime, my career as a screenwriter, such as it was, began to unravel. A look in the mirror confirmed a growing suspicion that I was getting too old to be attractive as a writer in a business that increasingly catered to eighteen-year-old boys. Besides, movies were even more frustrating than book publishing. As the writer, you invariably were the dumbest guy in the room. Everyone involved could fix the script except the guy who wrote it—me.
I began to wonder what I was going to do with myself. The string was running out. I had spent my whole life writing, as a newspaper reporter, columnist, magazine writer, movie critic and screenwriter. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of not being able to earn a living at what I had been doing for over forty-five years.
And then the miracle occurred. The revolution arrived on my doorstep.
I read an article in the New York Times about a sea change in book publishing. Thanks to technology a whole new world of do-it-yourself publishing was emerging and taking on unexpected legitimacy.
The Times pointed out that whereas previously, writers had to grin and bear any and all the horrors of publishing, as I had for years, now they could circumvent the publisher entirely. You could publish your own books. You could control your own destiny. And what’s more, you could make money doing it.
I could hardly believe what I was reading. For the first time since the invention of movable type, power was potentially in the writer’s hands. That article changed everything. It armed me with all the courage I needed.
A few years before, a friend of mine, Brian Vallée, had created his own publishing company, West-End Books. The company had actually published a couple of titles before funding fell through, and Brian more or less put it into limbo.
I suggested we resurrect West-End Books and publish our stuff through it. Brian agreed to give it a try. We experimented with a novel titled The Strange that I had not been able to find a publisher for—that’s a handy euphemism, incidentally, for everyone and their brother turned it down.
I found a printer in Tennessee with digital presses. With digital printing, I discovered, you can print one copy of your book or one thousand copies—print on demand. And do it at a reasonable price. Another revolution. A publisher let alone an author could never have done this on the old offset presses. Technology changed all that. Now anyone can print a book.
A talented magazine designer, anxious to try her hand at a book cover, created the cover for The Strange. I had worked with great editors all my professional life. Now I convinced some of them to work on my book. My brother, Ric, turned out to be familiar with InDesign, the software that allows just about anyone to professionally typeset a book. I put him to work.
Before I quite knew it, West-End Books had produced a real novel. The Strange was set in Paris at the turn of the century, a fantasy thriller featuring a twelve-year-old orphan with strange powers, a mysterious international confidence woman out to sell the Eiffel Tower, and a talking hawk named Peregrine.
When all was said and done, The Strange sold pretty well. But I could see the shortcomings of doing things this way. What we lacked was an identifiable market for the novel and, more importantly, a way to get to that market.
Once again, my brother Ric came to the rescue. He lives on the west coast of Florida. He is the president of the Chamber of Commerce for two unique barrier islands just off Fort Myers in the Gulf of Mexico, Sanibel and Captiva.
Look, he said, instead of publishing books set in Paris, why don’t you write something that takes place on Sanibel Island? You love it here. What’s more, three hundred thousand tourists visit the island each year—and they are all looking for a good local read.
Suddenly, I had the market I needed—a unique one at that. Unlike most authors and publishers who have to go to lots of markets to find readers, here the readers flow into one market. I had always wanted to write a detective novel so I created an unlikely private detective named Tree Callister.
Tree was sort of like me, getting older, at a loss as to what to do with himself, a fish out of water in an unlikely paradise.
Unlike me, Tree encounters the occasional corpse, and he gets into more hot water than I do. But also like me, he stumbles and bumbles around and somehow gets out of the jam he finds himself in.
I called the book The Sanibel Sunset Detective. It came out last year, and to my utter surprise it started to sell and sell very well. More encouraging still, readers began e-mailing me saying how much they enjoyed the book, and when was I publishing the next one? I was discovering that mystery fans like series books. They insist on them, in fact—and they devour mystery novels.
So I sat down and wrote a second novel. Because I am, in effect, the publisher as well as the writer, I did not have to wait two years for an unseen publisher to decide to bring my book out. Less than a year after the publication of the first book, we have the second in the series, The Sanibel Sunset Detective Returns.
These books have turned my life around. In all the years I’ve been writing, I have never experienced so much happiness and satisfaction with what I am doing. Am I getting rich? No, not yet. But I am making money from what I write, which is more than I can say for all those years when others published my work.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you are at an age where you are feeling stalled and useless, there is another life out there. In my case it was making use of a new technology to free me from the dictates of others, and give me the opportunity to continue to do what I love to do.
My advice is simple: If you want to write, write. And if you want to get what you’ve written published—publish it. Now there’s no one to stop you.
In the short period of time since I’ve been doing this, the e-book has taken off. You don’t even have to take the trouble to print your novel. You can simply upload it to Amazon and in about two seconds flat, it’s for sale on-line.
Amazon has the most incredibly democratic way of viewing authors. Instead of doing everything in their power to keep you out—a role well-played by traditional publishers—they say ‘come on in. We’ll give you the space you need, and seventy per cent of any sales. All you have to do is sell the book.’
Again, revolutionary. A totally different approach from the way things have traditionally been done.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not disparaging conventional publishers. They can still produce big sales numbers, and, if they decide you are the next James Patterson or Norah Roberts, they can bring a sales and marketing juggernaut into play that is second to none. The trouble is, these days, they seldom choose to unleash those weapons.
But you don’t have to care about any of that. You don’t need validation from someone you’ve never seen. You can do it yourself, and achieve the success you’ve always dreamed of.
Take it from me.