Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part VII

Rhyming Pittsburgh
A Dive Into Weirdness

With my next novel - an account of a failed marriage proposal that I now refer to as "The Long Island Fiasco" - I decided to try a new twist on the autobiographical-novel form. I made my protagonist, Jake Willoughby, into a poet, and used actual poems that I had written to my girlfriend in the context of the story. Even with this innovation, my publisher at Dead End Street was not interested in the title. The struggles over POD distribution had left us all a little exhausted, and trying to market another Subtle Literary Work from Vaughn wasn't really on his priority list. I didn't blame him - and besides, it seemed like time for the both of us to move on to something else. I had also become increasingly self-assured as an artist, and was looking for a publisher who (unless large cash advances were involved) would give me pretty much complete control over the text.

My limbo lasted all of a week, and my subsequent alliance with LBF Books unleashed a string of art-imitates-life-imitates-art that's a little hard to explain.

Jacqueline Druga-Marchetti was the author of my second editing project, The Shroud, a sci-fi novel based on the Jurassic Park-ish idea of cloning the DNA from the Shroud of Turin. It was a brilliant idea, but the prose needed some tightening. I was tough on Jake's writing (yes, that's her nickname), but I involved her in the process at all times, and I gave her absolute veto power over all changes. She really appreciated this approach, and we became friends as well as colleagues.

When Jake heard I was moving to Long Island - with the goal of proposing to my long-time girlfriend - she invited me to take part in a book festival she was organizing in her home town, Pittsburgh. The post-festival party featured her cover rock band, and when their drummer flaked I played a set with them absolutely cold. (The experience was crazy-scary and crazy-adrenalizing. A horror novelist played the second set and managed to bloody his thumb on a drumhead. Typical.)

A month later, when my Long Island trip officially became the Fiasco, Jake invited me to hang out in Pittsburgh for a month, so I could lick my wounds before heading back to California. And also to play a couple of gigs with her band, which had fired the flaky drummer.

All of this became fodder for the novel. I retrieved my soul in Pittsburgh, especially on the artsy, quirky South Side club district, which is why I used the name of the city in my title (and also to reflect its predecessor, Painting Tacoma). While I was writing the novel, Jake got together with an author/physician/investor to start a small publishing firm, LBF Books. When she learned that Dead End Street had turned down Rhyming Pittsburgh, she immediately offered to publish it.

Oddly, the use of "Jake" for my protagonist is complete coincidence. It's a name I had always used at cafes when I got tired of three different "Mikes" trying to steal my latte. Otherwise, nothing in the book is coincidence, and, to summarize, one of the characters in the book had just become its publisher. Weird!

LBF designed the book with some intriguing illustrations by Laura Givens, based on photographs of models in various scenes from the story. These were used on the cover as well as in several interior illustrations - an old-fashioned touch that people really seemed to enjoy (except for my subsequent girlfriend, who realized that one of the photos was meant to represent me in bed with another woman). We debuted the whole line at the West Virginia Book Faire, and had one helluva good time. I drove there with a poet who turned out to be a professional mezzo soprano, and who also could do a mean impression of Cartman from South Park. After that, naturally, I was a judge at Jake's karaoke contest.

Seeing that this book was not a POD, but a small, standard-print run, I looked forward to booking some author appearances, but found myself with a whole new set of obstacles. LBF was wholly ineffective at satsifying the requirements of the distributors, and when bookstore managers couldn't find the title on their computer listings, they refused to even consider me. When I finally found a couple of real pros who could see through the problems, one of my readings, at the University of Washington Bookstore in Tacoma, was cancelled when LBF failed to get the books there on time.

My single reading came at the Borders in Tacoma, and this time I managed to screw things up all by myself. Not realizing that LBF didn't accept returns on autographed books (a silly policy), I signed all thirty copies that had not sold at the reading. The district manager sent me a nasty email accusing me of blackmailing my way into shelf space. I apologized profusely, feeling terribly embarrassed, but then something weirdly wonderful happened. The bookstore manager got ticked off at the district manager for being so nasty with me, and decided to get back at him by making me her personal cause. She placed all thirty copies of Pittsburgh next to the lines for the cash registers, during the holidays. Out of sheer guilt, I bought five copies myself, but the other 25 sold out by New Year's, confirming what I had always suspected: that if any of my books ever got the proper treatment, they would sell. And God bless that lovely store manager, wherever she is, for taking up my banner. I will try to piss off district managers from now on.

After that, Jake became increasingly flaky and incommunicative, and it became counterproductive for me to even bother with any further marketing. The entire LBF line was later purchased by a Canadian press that sends me irritating emails and does absolutely nothing to promote my book.

Next: Double Blind and the world of self-publishing.

Find Rhyming Pittsburgh at

Image: One of the very cool interior illustrations by Laura Givens (see for more).


J. M. Strother said...

I'm enjoying this series, Michael, but it's not very encouraging. I'm hoping future installments will find you on the NYT's best sellers list and a guest on Oprah. ~jon

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Thanks! I hope for that, too. And despite the title, I do hope that people understand there's nothing else in the world I'd rather do than write and publish books. And I have a new one coming out this month, which will no doubt be the subject of a future installment.

Michael J. Vaughn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
... Paige said...

Michael, it may be hell but you are being published and only you can answer if that is a good thing or not.
Any who, I love the title and the art. Speaking of which so far all the books you have mentioned here have had some really great artwork and that is lucky for you in my opinion.

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Paige. This has been an interesting backwards journey for me, and despite the title (which is meant to be somewhat hyperbolic), I have noticed the good things, as well. And the top of my list is the remarkable design work that has fallen my way. What's even more astonishing is that I think only once - with Gabriella's Voice - did I even ask for changes to the artist's first attempt. Lots of talented folks out there!

Michael J. Vaughn said...

PS And check out the latest, for "Outro."