Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part IV

Frosted Glass

The Editor-Go-Round

Dead End Street signed me up for my next novel, Frosted Glass - about a down-on-her-luck marketing executive who falls for a beachcombing eccentric on the Oregon coast - and we immediately ran into problems. The novel is narrated by the protagonist, Sandra Lowiltry, and my editor, Christine Mrazovich, hated her. She also didn't like the style, which was much more "unreined" than Gabriella's Voice. In a way, I could understand Christine's feelings. From what I knew of her, she was a divorced mother, and Sandra's profile - a self-involved businesswoman who desperately wants a baby, and who acts like a complete twit when it comes to her personal life - would not be someone Christine would be fond of. Nonetheless, I had the ultimate faith in Frosted Glass, and it was clear that I couldn't work with an editor who would prefer to rewrite the whole thing. So I asked my publisher, John Rutledge, to assign another editor to the project.

The next editor was an absolute train wreck. He had a PhD in Creative Writing (a degree which I've always viewed with great suspicion), and he seemed intent on completely rewriting Glass in his own style, in accord with many great theories of literature that he had picked up in college. When I protested his machete style of editing on my first chapter, he responded, "No author has been allowed to have a personal style since John Updike." Excuse me? I decided to use some of the cache I had earned with Gabriella's Voice, and asked John to dismiss this editor, too.

Then a rather marvelous thing happened. Running out of options (and editors), John decided to take on the project himself - and became the best editor I've ever had. John Rutledge's "day job" is as an intellectual properties lawyer. At the time, he was working for a firm in Marin County that represented the Grateful Dead and many other Bay Area artists. I teased John one day when he mentioned a conversation with "Carlos." I said, "Come on, I know you're trying really hard not to name-drop, but I know who 'Carlos' is, pal." In any case, John's life mission, it seems, is to cut the unnecessary verbiage from traditionally overwritten legal documents (I noticed this with DES's author contracts, which were actually understandable!). I had come to understand that I had intentionally overwritten Frosted Glass, and that it did need some hacking and slashing. The difference with John was that, while he was tough on me, he let me be a part of the process, and allowed me to review and rewrite changes that he suggested. This removed many of the adverserial feelings that can creep into an author-editor relationship. Not that we didn't argue - boy did we argue! - but he was nice enough to let me have my say. In the end, once we whittled the excess away from Glass, we had ourselves a beautifully crafted novel, one that I still consider my best.

I learned so much about the editing process from the Frosted Glass experience that I soon became one of DES's editors, and it has always been my hallmark to include the authors in on the process - and, in fact, to give them final say over all changes, thereby gaining their trust. I received excellent reviews from my authors, because I gave them the same consideration that John gave to me.

The cover design for Glass was a marvel of synchronicity. In researching the image, my designer, Holly Smith, had gone to websites featuring the finds of beach glass aficionados. She chose to use as her subject a gorgeous piece of cobalt blue with a faint star at its center, and framed it with bits of seaweed, sand and foam. The piece she chose is perfect for the story, which features a large piece of the "rare and lovely blue" as a pivotal sign of affection between the beachcomber and Sandra. It turns out, however, that Holly had not read that far into the story - had simply picked the blue piece because she found it to be the most stunning piece on the website.

The book came out in July 2002, and I managed to assemble a Northwest tour - including a stop in Lincoln City, OR, very near the novel's setting, and other appearances in Washington, Montana, Colorado and Nevada. After a memorable stop in Great Falls, Montana, I drove head-on into a blizzard, and spent the night stopping every few miles to chip the ice from my windshield. (My brother-in-law, Rick, had graciously loaned me his 4WD truck for the trip, and I needed every of its power to make it.) I called it a night in Casper, Wyoming, and had to cancel my Colorado appearances when they closed down I-80 due to all the ice on the freeway.

During the planning of this trip, an unsettling trend began to appear: bookstore managers began to balk at arranging appearances for POD authors, citing distribution problems and returnability issues (DES's guaranteed return policy did not seem to impress them). These issues would intensify in later years.

As a side note, John asked me to write screenplay adaptations for Gabriella's Voice and Frosted Glass. Unlike many authors, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to adapt these stories to a visual medium, and hacked and slashed wherever needed. DES eventually published both adaptations in soft-cover. We received some notable interest from John's Hollywood mailing list - especially Sam Waterston of Law and Order fame - but failed to land a contract. A small indie company in New York made a play for Gabriella, but John turned it down, citing indications that the company didn't really have its act together. With perfect hindsight, I wish we had signed them up, anyway, because I'm not exactly Michael Crichton, and why not take a chance?

Next: The Legendary Barons and the Autobiography Bug
Find Frosted Glass at:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part III

Gabriella's Voice
The Breakout

My great love for opera inspired Gabriella's Voice, the story of a young opera singer and her mysterious patron. After a couple of interesting rejections from an academic press that said it was "too plot-driven" and a commercial press that said it was "too intellectual," the book was accepted by Dead End Street LLC, a new publisher in Washington state dedicated to using the new ebook technology to give exposure to worthy books that might otherwise get overlooked.

For a brief while in the latter days of the millennium, the ebook trend appeared to be working. I attended an ebook convention in San Francisco, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a new electronic reading device, The Rocket, was developing a cult following, and that my novel was becoming an increasingly popular entry into the Rocket's memory banks. The Rocket was eventually re-manufactured by RCA, and basically vanished from sight. Wish I could tell you more.

But there were other, plentiful signs that the consuming public was just not ready to read their books in this form - a notion bolstered by the ever-rising prominence of traditional-book chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders. My co-publishers, Ivan Black and John Rutledge, were savvy enough to see this reality, and to switch to the mid-point technology of print-on-demand. Thus, the real "book-book" version of Gabriella arrived in 2001. (And a real book, of course, was what I had been after all along.)

The editing of Gabriella, by Christine Mrazovich, went very smoothly, but we had some consternation with the cover design. The artist had assembled a montage of items related to the story, and it sorely lacked a strong central image. Taking camera in hand, I took my opera-singer pal, Jennifer Der Torossian - the woman who inspired much of the title character - and set her in a pose from the novel's final scene: Gabriella, weeping atop a pile of wardrobe in the dressing room. I sent the photo to the artist, and he came up with his own version, a pleasingly rough piece of art that people seem to really respond to. (Years later, DES came up with a "smoother" cover design, but readers seem to prefer the original.)

I lacked the time or money to pursue an extended tour for Gabriella, but I did manage some local readings. The first featured Opera San Jose soprano Barbara Divis, who joined me in reading dialogues from the book and then performed related arias. The performance, at the Borders in Los Gatos, CA, drew 200, which pretty much blew me out of the water (I suspect most of them were there for Barbara, but I was perfectly willing to make use of her popularity). Two years later, Barbara and I re-created this performance at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, directly across from the home of New York's Metropolitan Opera. Gabriella also garnered a $3,000 fellowship from Arts Council Silicon Valley. Things were looking up!

Next: Frosted Glass and the Editor-Go-Round

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part II

Courting the Seventh Sister

Doing the EBook Limbo

After the usual round of universal rejections, I had actually relegated Sister - a story about the world's most perfectly run adulterous affair - to the "cold case" file, and had gone on to marketing my next novel, Gabriella's Voice. In one of those rare moments of simultaneous acceptance, I received two offers for Gabriella, two days apart. (Before you begin the ethics investigation, they both requested samples, but not exclusively.) It ended up going to Dead End Street Press (more on that later), and then I had the awkward job of telling the second press, an ebook publisher called Online Originals, that the book was no longer available. Bless their hearts, they were gracious enough to look at Sister as an alternative, and seemed to like this one even better.

Based in the UK, O.O. was one of the first all-ebook publishers. I saw no reason not to give the new technology a whirl, especially since ebooks were suddenly a hot topic in publishing and technology circles around the world. Besides, it gave me a chance to dig Sister out of its undeserved grave and give it a chance to be read. Very soon, it received a featured spot on the well-designed O.O. website, and we were on our way.

To, pretty much, nowhere. As much as people were pushing the new technology, no one was actually buying ebooks. People were just too attached to the traditional paper-based book.

I have had high hopes of resurrecting Sister yet again - I really do love the story, and the setting, inspired by my years as PR director at the Villa Montalvo Arts Center and mansion in Saratoga, CA - but have largely been blocked by the publishers. A conversion to print-on-demand entails a large fee to the author, and a much-needed rewrite (a rewrite that I have already performed) would require even more fees. The only way out would be an offer from a standard-print publisher - and even that's tricky, because any potential publisher would also, naturally, be interested in ebook rights, which are held by O.O. I currently count Sister as a lost work - perhaps waiting for that day when my Pulitzer win/Oprah appearance/marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow thrusts me into the spotlight and forces somebody to pay Online Originals massive sums of money for the rights. Meanwhile, I have consoled myself by resuscitating two of the main characters, Scootie Jones and Audrey LaBrea, and inserting them into subseqent novels.

Next: The Breakthrough: Gabriella's Voice

Art: The title image for Courting the Seventh Sister from the Online Originals website:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Life in Publishing Hell, Part I

Even though I am a contributor to writer magazines, I am not entirely trusting of their contents. The articles are often too one-size-fits-all to be of any use whatsover to the individual writer. With this thought in mind, I decided that a blow-by-blow account of my publishing history might be of use. I've had extremely varied, sometimes bizarre experiences with publishing. Take from it what you will.

Frozen Music
Dodging the Scam

My first novel, based on my experiences in a college choir, was accepted by Northwest Publishing in Salt Lake City in 1994. There was a catch, naturally: a $3,000 price tag for "subsidy publishing," in exchange for a guaranteed printing of 5,000 copies.

My first editor, gifted with the uber-literary name Gwen Bloomsburg, was a doll. She made few changes - changes that inevitably improved the text - and she became a personal in-house cheerleader for my novel and its humorous, rambling narrative. ("Half the fun is getting there," she was fond of saying.) Our mutual proofing was so immaculate that it took two years before someone discovered a typo. I had described Jesus on his way to "Cavalry," which to this day inspires a mental image of the Messiah on horseback, dressed in a Union uniform.

Northwest allowed me some say-so on the cover, and I had just the right image, a photo by my friend Susan Merrill. The pigeons in Susan's photo were "frozen" in flight, portrayed in gray tones against a sepia background, produced through the decidedly low-tech process of covering them with rubber cement before dipping the photo in a sepia bath. The Northwest designer wrapped the photo around the spine, applied some tasteful typography, and I couldn't believe that my very first cover could look quite so good.

These were the days when Barnes & Noble was still the new kid on the block, and anxious to fill its calendars with author appearances. I managed to arrange a 25-bookstore tour, from Las Vegas to Brunswick, Maine, and was accompanied by two friends in a VW Vanagon (the particulars of that tour made an interesting chapter in my subsequent novel, The Legendary Barons).

Soon after the tour, I began to hear rumors about my publisher. The company was making use of a new technology called print-on-demand, in which entire books were stored digitally and then printed on high-tech copying machines whenever orders were placed. The resultant books were actually rather remarkable in their quality - only an expert could tell the difference between these and standard-print books. The scam, apparently, was that they were printing the 5,000 copies designated by author contracts only if those copies were actually needed.

Even considering this possible scam, I couldn't see how NWP could make enough money to continue operations unless they actually did market their books effectively. And I had certainly damaged their little operation by placing some 1,000 copies on shelves across the country. But I, like all NWP authors, was about to be screwed royally; I had no idea till recently how deep the scam went. The following is a report I recently found online, from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (

"Northwest was a fraud right from the start. The idea was to use a small portion of the author's investment to print a few hundred of the several thousand books promised by contract, and convince the author that the rest of the books were being warehoused. Meanwhile, the balance of the money, converted to cash, went directly to [company founder James] Van Treese, who--according to charges later brought against him--took most of it to Las Vegas and gambled it away.

"Inevitably, income from author contracts ceased to be sufficient to replace the funds being taken out of the company, and the scheme toppled of its own weight. Northwest began ducking creditors and bouncing checks. Royalties were sent out against insufficient funds; later, they weren't sent out at all. Toward the end the company abandoned even the pretense of publication, stonewalling authors with excuses and delayed publication dates.

"In 1997, Van Treese and his son Jason were charged with 22 second-degree felony counts of communications fraud, securities fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering. In 1999, a bankruptcy judge ruled that the Van Treeses were personally liable for the company's debt, freeing bankruptcy trustees to go after their personal assets. In February 2001, James Van Treese was sentenced to up to 30 years in prison. The sentence is the result of a plea agreement: Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to four counts of communications fraud, two counts of securities fraud, and one count of failing to pay income taxes. Jason Van Treese pleaded 'no contest' to two third-degree felony counts of failure to pay taxes, and entered guilty pleas to four class A misdemeanor counts of attempted communications fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

"Despite the resolution of the Van Treeses' criminal case, questions remain about the number of Northwest's victims and the actual amount of money stolen. It's estimated that as many as 500 writers may have been defrauded, for as much as $10.5 million. It's unclear at this point as to what (or even whether) future action will be taken to clarify these issues. And as usual in such cases, restitution has not been forthcoming."

Despite everything, I managed to get some valuable things out of my NWP experience: a good-looking, well-edited first book, the experience of setting up and conducting a national tour (an experience I have yet to repeat), and the invaluable advice of the NWP marketing guru I spoke to during a visit to Salt Lake City: "Watch what's on the best-seller list," quoth The Man, "and then write something similar." Genius!
Find Frozen Music at

Next: Courting the Seventh Sister and the joys of ebook limbo.