In November of 2012, my novel, Murder on Murderer’s Row, was published. Or should I say, I published it myself on Amazon as a Kindle ebook. What’s the big deal? Aren’t Indie authors popping up all over the place, publishing their own books by the score instead of going the traditional route? They sure are, but in my case it was a radical departure. I’ve been a full time freelance writer for more than 40 years and have had more than 200 books published conventionally, by both major and smaller publishers. I’ve written for children and adults, both fiction and non-fiction, have worked with a number of different agents and have experienced all the ups and downs that most freelancers face.
You name it and I’ve basically done it. I’ve written books at the first and second grade level on up, have done biographies of such diverse personalities as Lance Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and former President Andrew Jackson, have written sports histories and interviewed a variety of athletes from the earlier days of baseball and basketball, as well as from the world of extreme, high risk sports. I’ve worked with well known people on their books and have ghosted a complex family memoir. It has been quite a long ride.
But don’t get me wrong. This isn’t meant to claim any kind of bragging rights. I’m just a working writer who started as a newspaper guy before deciding to write books. Having never written a bestseller I’m certainly not rich, and for most of my writing life have had to go from book to book as quickly as I could. As with so many other professions, freelancing was often a real hustle down through the years, but one I loved. With all those books behind me and an intimate knowledge of the publishing business, why go Indie and why do it now?
Let’s talk a bit about publishing. When I began in the early 1970s it was a far different business than it is today. You worked closely with individual editors. If one wanted to give you a contract after you voiced an idea, it just took just a single phone call. No elaborate proposals, no committees to convince, no P & L sheets to be generated. If you were owed advance money and happened to be meeting with your editor, he or she would call down to accounting and they would cut a check on the spot. You could even call royalty departments to learn if you were due money, then get it a few weeks early if you asked. Imagine trying that one today.
Editors today no longer have the same kind of decision making power. Many of them seem to be running scared, afraid for their jobs if they make a costly mistake on a book. Whereas in the past, editors and publishers bet on authors and allowed them to develop, today they bet only on what they think are sure things, mostly backed by some kind of celebrity promotion to sell their product. Several years ago I did a proposal with a young Spanish nutritionist for a diet and health book. We had a top agent send it out and an editor at Putnam-Penguin wanted to do the book very badly. She told me she felt it was cutting edge material that would make a great book. Surprise. She couldn’t get it past her “committee.” The powers that be chose to ignore the merits of the book because the author didn’t have a “platform,” such as a cooking show on TV to give her exposure. Despite the editor’s best efforts, she could not get us a contract. She seemed almost embarrassed about it. We ran into the same brick wall of a “platform” with several other publishers and the book never sold. This despite the fact that the author was very photogenic, spoke extremely well, and could have been a great promoter for the book. Even our agent suggested she go out and build a platform. Because of this way of thinking, many books that would have sold easily 15 or 20 years ago just don’t sell now.
Which brings me back to Murder on Murderer’s Row. I started the novel several years ago before being sidetracked to write the aforementioned family memoir. The memoir was brokered by a high-profile agent in New York. While I was working on it, I decided to send her five finished chapters of the novel. She told me she thought it had promise, but that I had to finish it, something I already knew. Once the memoir was done, I returned to the novel and completed it. I then sent it back to the same agent with high hopes. She emailed me within minutes informing me she was no longer shopping mysteries. Just like that. Didn’t even read it. Right away, the little here-we-go-again bell went off in my head.
I then sent the manuscript to several other agents I knew, and who knew my work. You could almost predict what you were going to here. It’s very good and you did a great job recreating the 1920s, but I’m afraid as a period piece the audience will be limited. It’s a good story, but first time adult fiction is a very difficult sell today. Editors are just not buying. If they don’t think it can be an immediate bestseller, they don’t want to shop it. While I certainly had the credentials to send it out myself, I came to yet another realization. If I sold the novel to a small, or even a medium sized publisher, I’d get a very small to modest advance, they wouldn’t spend a dime to promote, and the book would die on the vine. Then, when I suggested a sequel, I’d be told that because the first one didn’t sell well, they couldn’t take a chance with a second. Game over.
That’s when I decided I would not go the conventional publishing route any longer, at least not with Mike Fargo, my 1920s New York City detective. I wanted to create a series, write about a time that always fascinated me and, for better or worse, control my own destiny and write as many Fargo novels and novellas as I could. And that’s what I’m doing.
Had I continued to pursue selling conventionally and finally found a buyer, the novel would not yet be out, probably not until fall. Then it would take another year before the publisher decided whether or not to pay for a sequel. This way, the novel is out and has already been joined by a novella, Death of a Flapper. Soon there will be a second novella and then maybe a third, giving me a real product line. At that point, I can begin a second full novel. At least that’s the game plan right now.
Will it be successful? That, I cannot predict. As most of you who follow the Indie route know, it takes time to build a following and an audience, especially if you are essentially doing it yourself. I’m still learning about that. But I feel good about going Indie and that’s the important thing. Sure, if I’m contacted by a publisher with a book deal, I’d most likely still do it. That has happened several times in the past couple of years. But I’m probably having more fun developing Mike Fargo with my mind living in New York City of the 1920s than I’ve had at any other point in my writing career.
Retire? Never. The work is just too fulfilling and has become a total part of me. Five years ago I probably would have been agonizing right now about trying to sell my novel. But to be able to write it my way, then go Indie and publish it myself. Priceless.