01 January 2011


From JOE STRUMMER and the legend of THE CLASH by Kris Needs--“We started the 101’ers with one amplifier and one speaker’, remembered Joe. ‘We built our own equipment… We got some drawers out of a skip and we used to buy cheap speakers down the Edgeware Road and we’d drop them into these drawers and put a facing board on them and turn them up. That would be a cabinet… I used to go to gigs with two bricks in a shoulder bag and these bricks were to sit in the deck of a record player upturned with a broom handle screwed in it, which was the microphone stand. The microphone was taped on the top and the bricks were there to drop in the record player and keep the things steady so the mic didn’t fall over.’

I started writing in October 1998 with one goal--to get a book in print with one of the Big 6. Every writing-related action I’ve engaged in since has been to help me achieve the publication of a novel. I went to conferences to meet agents, went to book signings to meet authors to find out how they did it, I’ve taken query writing workshops, completed a Masters degree, bought writing how-to books, read agent blogs and subscribed to feeds from publishers.

And you know what? It was starting to work. My rejection letters really started getting better and people started telling me that was a good thing. Instead of ‘this isn’t right for us’, I started getting ‘the writing’s great, but we don’t know how to market it’. Some great victory, huh?

And that’s exactly why I’m pulling out now. I have the confidence to realize that my work is better than the form-rejection letter an agent’s intern sends me. Some would call it ignorance, or even hubris, but spending so many years on the outside looking gave me a new perspective on the industry I wanted more than anything to break into. And when I read that little passage from Joe Strummer it hit me…
I’m not waiting anymore.

Musicians don’t wait until they get paid to start delivering songs to an audience. An artist doesn’t paint with thoughts of ‘is this right for the market’ hanging over his head. It’s writing, with its archaic hierarchy of agents, editors and marketing departments that complicates the artist’s relationship with consumers. And with Amazon’s way of e-distributing directly to readers, writers finally have an alternative route to publication. Look at some recent Tweets from Publishers Lunch—“Harvard Square’s Globe Corner Bookstore up for sale”, “Random House closes operations at Tricycle Press Imprint”, “Latest BISG eBook Survey Finds 40% of Respondents Spending Less on Printed Books”, “Aletheia Continues to Trim their Barnes & Noble Holdings”, “New Book Sales Fall 9.3% At Hastings, Which Has No eBooks”, “Borders Announces Yet Another Web Site Redesign”, “Joseph-Beth Files Chapter 11 Bankruptcy; Will Close Another Two Stores”.

Whose fault is it the industry’s going to shit? It’s not mine. I’m not the guy who chooses to represent or publish Hilary Duff or Lauren Conrad or Snooki over writers who’ve been practicing and polishing their work for a lot longer than I have. St. Martin’s Press published J-Wow and Ronnie’s book, NEVER FALL IN LOVE AT THE JERSEY SHORE. Celebrity culture is not literary culture and massive media campaigns will never create the kinds of long-term relationships word of mouth readers and booksellers and good stories can.

If somebody from one of the Big 6 houses would’ve asked me, I would’ve said it was dumb to print hardcovers in such massive quantities that they’d only end up reduces 80-90% on a bargain table three months later. And that it’s a bad idea to rely on a book like THE DA VINCI CODE (or a DA VINCI CODE clone) to support the rest of the house. And that advances, like the $1.2 million paid for Andrew Davidson’s THE GARGOYLE, or Tina Fey’s $6.8 million advance or Tom Friedman’s $5 million advance leaves little or no money for new, developing authors. The kind of authors that turn out the mid-list books that support a house in the long run.

Until Amazon made it easy for writers to produce and distribute work on their own terms, we had no choice but to abide by the Kafkaesque system create by the Big 6 and literary agents. Agents are terrified (assumption is based proportionally on how often I see agents blogging about how un-scared they are) of e-publishing because it exposes them for what they really are. Agents don’t create anything, and they don’t produce anything. The idea of agents as gatekeepers is insulting to writers and to readers. I once heard an agent say at a conference, quite boastfully, he still would’ve passed on the Harry Potter series despite its success because he wasn’t interested in Rowling’s writing.

Jessica Faust of BookEnds,LLC doesn’t even think a writer can stand without agents and editors. She said, “You can’t say enough about how good she (an editor) makes you look, but obviously if you’re self-publishing she won’t be involved with this book. And it shows. Of course readers snatch up your books because they love you, but they’re disappointed. The books aren’t what they’ve come to expect from you, and now they feel like they’ve wasted their hard-earned money and time reading books they found unsatisfying.” http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2010/11/building-your-career-on-kindle.html

So writers are little more than monkeys at typewriters? Interesting.

Here’s what she said about JA Konrath’s success--“In my opinion, he’s an exception to what’s happening, not the rule. Trust me, Joe has a lot of great points, and the biggest is the amount of money one can make going directly to places like Kindle rather than through a traditional publisher. That being said, can you make the money if no one buys your books? Joe was selling books to readers well before he entered the self-epublishing world, he had a fan base, and people were hungry to read more of what he had written. Let me put it this way: For every success story like J. A. Konrath, there are hundreds of authors who put a book out on their own, only to see a hundred or so sales to friends and family and then nothing.” http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2010/11/launching-your-career-via-kindle.html

My favorite is when she says, ‘…can you make money if no one buys your books?’ I don’t know, but I’d try asking Borders first?

Scott Eagan does her one better--“Many of the editors I talk to openly tell me they want to see some great new projects. They are desperately searching for that golden gem. They want that great author. Agents are doing the same thing. The problem is that the stories just aren't there.

I said this a couple of weeks ago, but you can't blame the editors for not buying. The real issue is that the stories just aren't coming in.” http://scotteagan.blogspot.com/2010/10/just-some-observations-e-publishing.html

There you have it--it's the writers fault the industry is failing. Brilliant.

You know, I may or may not be Joe Strummer, but I sure as hell ain’t Snooki. Relying on my writing ability and my ability to sell myself sits with me a hell of a lot better than relying on agents and publishers. I know that the road to legitimacy is a lot steeper going this route, but it’s been virtually impassable querying agents and trying to attain my goals ‘legitimately’. If I stick with the Big 6 plan I won’t have readers until 2015, if ever. By going Amazon’s route I can have readers--for better or worse--tomorrow.

I know a publisher is going to market me and make sure my book sells, right? I know this because it was what our Avalon Travel publicist was supposed to do. And we still set up our own signings and still contacted the media ourselves. We set up all of our own speaking engagements and presentations. The publicist contacted us the month before the release and never again, forcing my tenacious wife to learn more about publicity and marketing than she ever would’ve on her own. So I know even if would ever end up with a book deal, I’d still be promoting it myself. (But if our Avalon publicist is reading this, thanks a million! Because of you we learned to do it ourselves.)

Going through Amazon lets me keep my rights. The loss of eRights and future rights scares the heck out of me. Many authors weren’t so lucky. Joe Konrath has talked about this extensively at http://jakonrath.blogspot.com so I won’t get into it here. He describes the process and his experiences more succinctly than I ever could, and he has the figures and legitimacy to back it up. I personally find the royalty rates given to writers by publishers for ePubbed books absurd.

For me it comes down to what I’d rather be doing--writing. I’d really rather be writing than dealing with industry types. And more than anything, I’d rather fail for something I’d written, rather than for not being able to ever get a foot in the door. If I have to start carrying around a couple of bricks in a shoulder bag, that's exactly what I'll do.


  1. Eloquently put!

    Maybe an agent will take notice of your quality writing?


  2. Funny... this could almost be my story. My novel has been available through Kindle and Nook for almost a month. Sales haven't been amazing, but the responsibility is my own. I can learn from my mistakes and adjust accordingly. If I failed with a major publisher, I doubt I'd have that opportunity.

  3. Hey JJM,

    You're doing the right thing.


  4. Write and write and then write some more. Really enjoyed the post especially the Joe Strummer analogy...