Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part IX

The Epic Karaoke Novel Arrives at IUniverse

I am a dedicated karaokephile, and have always been fascinated by the instant community that develops when people sing to each other. It's only natural, then, that I would use a karaoke bar as a setting for a novel. Outro follows the life of Channy Lebeque, a karaoke hostess in Gig Harbor, Washington who, despite the merry atmosphere that she nurtures at her shows, seems to be suffering from some great unspoken grief. The source of this grief is revealed by the antagonisms of Ruby Cohen, a talented singer of jazz standards who has come to Gig Harbor after a failed Broadway career. The sessions of storytelling between Ruby and Channy go to places that surprised even me, revealing the ill fates of Channy's young, gung-ho husband that led to a bad ending in Iraq.

Bouyed by the credentials that I earned through my many stories at Writer's Digest, Outro got many, many nibbles from the agents and editors of America, but none that resulted in a contract. Part of the reason may have been revealed by the analysis of my friend Michelle Sutton, who told me that, although Channy's mysterious early griefs definitely pique the reader's curiosity, they're also a little irritating ("Like, what's this chick's problem?"). I tackled this by doing a little chapter-switching, opening with a flashback of Channy's meeting with her future husband at the Alaskan Highway's famed Signpost Forest. I hoped that this would show a younger and happier Channy, before she was beset by the tragedies that have caused her current depressions.

Not enough to get an acceptance, mind you. But I am far past the idea that agents and editors put good writing at a priority - celebrity status and author platforms being much more important - so I took my rejections like a man and re-entered the self-publishing process at IUniverse. As of this writing, I have submitted the text, back matter, author bio and photo (the splendid work of my journalist pal, Anne Gelhaus), all through the online submission process. Most importantly, I obtained another incredible image from my Italian photographer colleague, Paula Grenside, who supplied the startling cover for my previous novel, Double Blind.

The photo, "Warmth," is something I've had my eye on for quite a while. I used it previously as the cover image for my online literary journal - The image satisfies all the elements I look for in a piece of cover art. First, it's a striking image that will help the book to "jump off the shelf." Second, it evokes the themes of the book without overtly spelling them out. The photo portrays a young woman, her identity hidden by brilliant photoshop overlays of texture and color (notably a sublime spring green), cradling an object that gives out a reddish glow. I think of that glow as Channy's grief, which is simultaneously comforting her and keeping her hidden from the world. The title further emphasizes this idea: "Outro" is the opposite of "intro," a word that comes up on the karaoke lyric screen when the singing is over but the music continues.

Third, "Warmth" is a piece of art unto itself, produced by Paula years ago, with no intention toward some novel that her colleague Michael might write. I cherish the idea of contributing to the dissemination of Paula's brilliant images, and intend to keep doing so with future novels. (I have always preferred photography for cover images, and have used it all three times that I have had the say-so in such matters, including my first novel, Frozen Music, in 1995.)

The designers at IUniverse did their usual excellent job with the piece - notably in continuing the luscious background tones as a wraparound to the back page - but gave me a little conundrum. The designer used a fanciful, gothic type for the title word. It was lovely, but "Outro" is not a well-known word, and I feared that people would have a problem making it out through the typography. So I apologized profusely and asked them to change it to something plainer. They went with the type they used for the author name, and it's all ready to go. I found 30 or so typos on my proofread (an embarrassing amount for someone who prides himself on clean manuscripts), and as soon as IUniverse corrects two more the book will be on its way to press.

I am considering some unusual marketing for Outro. I may take a little tour of karaoke bars, using my singing as an opening to give people flyers about the book (and getting that astounding cover image into their hands), and looking for reviews from karaoke magazines and newsletters. I also may reproduce the entire text in a serialized form on this site, with the addition of notes explaining some of the writing processes of each chapter. (I am currently publishing a serial version of my earlier novel, Gabriella's Voice, on my opera website,

If Outro ever did make it big, I am not so sure that I would sell out to the major publishing houses. I love the artistic control afforded by the IUniverse system, and could be very happy just selling my future novels through their site and gathering up the royalties. I have been through way too much publishing hell to trust an industry that has become overconglomerated, tasteless and cowardly, and have often fantasized about accepting some huge literary award and taking the opportunity to tell them all exactly what I think of them.
Image: "Warmth," manipulated photograph, Paula Grenside.

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