On Being a Real Arthur

That expression became something of a family joke, as I came around, by easy steps, from being a teller of tall tales, an intermittent scribbler, an unrepentant essayist, a fairly dedicated blogger … to being – as my daughter put it – a real arthur. Yes, a “real arthur” in that I have a number of books, ranging free in the wilderness of the book-reading public. Not that I am in any danger of buying the castle next-door to J.K. Rowlings’, and my royalty checks and payments for consignments and direct sales dribble in but slowly. Slowly, but steadily, which is gratifying. Readers are buying my books, as they find out about them in various ways; through internet searches, through word of mouth, and the odd book club meeting, casual conversation and interviews on blogs and internet radio stations. It has been my peculiar good fortune to have come about to being “a real arthur” just when the established order of things literary was being shaken to the foundations, so I did not waste very much time fighting it and trying to smuggle my books past the toothless old dragons of the literary-industrial complex, defending the crumbling castle of Things That Once Were.

Time was – or so the older “real arthurs” tell me – there was an excellent chance that if you were a fairly adept storyteller, with a pleasing voice, a discriminating way with vivid description, and could construct a setting and create characters which the general public would want to pay some trifling amount to read about – you would eventually find a literary agent to talk you up to any number of established publishers, or that someone sifting through the slush-pile would fall upon your MS with tears of happy joy. It might take a bit and a couple of tries – but it would happen. The publishing world was small enough, and the body of ambitious scribblers convinced that they had the “next great novel!” within them was small enough that the good stuff would be sifted out from the dross in fairly brisk order; if not at one publisher, then another. And there you go – you would have the benefit of an editor, a printer, a team of publicists to get the word out about your book, ready acceptance at all the established sources for reviewers. The only alternative to that was (*shudder*) the cold hell of a so-called vanity press, the last resort of a scribbler with more money than actual talent. This is what I was assured time and time again, and what I trustfully assumed the case when I was a teenager, scribbling embarrassingly derivative fan-fiction in spiral-ring notebooks.

But the world changes and we move on. Sometime around 1997 I remember going to a local writer’s club meeting, where there was a presentation by a local printer, outlining more than just what was possible, for a writer who was tired of standing outside the castle of the publishing establishment trying to lob their MS over the battlemented wall. What set this little presentation apart was his statement that some authors who had published and printed their books through his business were marketing them to local outlets – and that a good few had gone into second and third printings, due to high demand. He named some titles, which I had recognized because I had seen them, here and there. But even a print run of a couple of thousand copies was well-outside my budget at the time. Still, I tucked that tidbit away for consideration at a later time; I hadn’t written a book, anyway, only some freelance articles and short stories.

Even then, it was becoming harder to get the attention of the major publishing houses; and as I began moving closer and closer to be serious about my own writing, the word around the book-blogs was that you had to have an agent. More and more of the big publishing houses were swamped with manuscripts, and the onus of actually screening them, and searching for the next big literary thing was something that had shifted to agents.

And then, the agencies were swamped, with the flood-tide of manuscripts, to which I contributed my own bits, only to be sadly informed by a couple of them who did take the time to read them, that although I was a very good writer (or at least fairly competent) my first novel just wasn’t what they termed “marketable to a traditional publisher.”  I went back to consulting the handful of professional writers that I knew, and to the various knowledgeable book-blogs; ah, the received wisdom was that publishing a novel, and especially a novel by a new and unknown writer was very much in the way of a gamble for a publishing house. Before going through all the trouble, and the considerable expense of publishing such a book – major publishers wanted to put their chips on a sure thing, or something very close to a sure thing. Sometimes publishers would ask for marketing plan, including a website and blog, as well as a manuscript. More and more, mainstream publishing looked like Hollywood: ten humongous ten-million-dollar block-buster sure-thing movies a year, rather than a hundred one-million-dollar-not-quite-sure-thing-maybe-a-little-adventurous movies a year.

Around the time that I was really getting serious about getting published – Print On Demand technology had changed the whole publishing paradigm once again: unlike the old vanity press, which required an outlay of at least a couple of thousand dollars, it was now possible to get in print for considerably less. Of course there were, to put it kindly, quality issues, now that everyone out there who wanted to publish – could do so. POD-published books had a horrible reputation – still do, in many corners of the traditional book-publishing and reviewing world. I also heard frequently that having done a POD book was the kiss of death in trying for an agent, or a mainstream publishing deal. Submission guidelines for quite a few agencies specified that manuscripts must not have been published.

But the reluctance of traditional publishing to even consider more than just a tiny portion of new authors out there drove more and more first-time authors, and authors with considerable experience with the written and published word to consider POD publishing. Many go with the various POD services, and the truly dedicated set up as their own publisher. If the filtering mechanism provided by literary agents, and publishing houses can no longer cope with the quantities of books out there, then publishing through POD at least allows writers to circumvent that bottle-neck, and have readers themselves to be that ultimate filter. My last book (which was reviewed here at Chicagoboyz)  my next book,  a reissue of the Adelsverein Trilogy , and To Truckee’s Trail all will be published by a teensy local boutique press, where I have an editor, and the services of a design studio for the cover and interior formatting – so then why do I need to go through the whole submission process to agencies and traditional publishers, when I already have an established fan base through my blogging and my books?

There have certainly been some widely-reported success stories over the last decade or so, of books like The Shack or The Christmas Box and The Lace Reader which sold initially and widely as POD books – and suddenly became visible to a traditional publisher. With those books, it seems as if the acquisitions editor at a traditional house came out of a torpid state, exclaiming “OMG, that book has sold a bomb of copies already, we’d better hop onto the gravy-train and sign that author to a deal!” (Note – in 2006, a NY Times article estimated that the average POD book sells 150-175 copies, other experts quoted less than a hundred, possibly as low as 50.) In the last year or so, I have encountered hints and portents that traditional publishing houses may be reconsidering POD books; yes, even to the point of patrolling Amazon.com, searching out those POD and boutique-press of excellent quality and a consistent, but unspectacular record of sales.

At least one IAG author that I know of, Dianne Salerni has a contract with a small, but substantial traditional publisher, on the basis of her first book and an option on her second. Harper-Collins UK set up a website called “Authonomy” which allowed authors to put up all or part of a published or unpublished MS and allow other people to read and recommend. I have read some terrific historical novels at Authonomy, and am considerably mystified that some of the best have not been published with much acclaim months ago. I don’t imagine that the business of writing books – and it is a business, never mind how much one enjoys the writing aspects of it – will ever go back to the old way, of lobbing manuscripts over the castle walls, in the hope that they will magically fall into the hands of a kindly editor.

Seriously, though – I think I’m having more fun this way.

8 thoughts on “On Being a Real Arthur”

  1. I’m an actual “Arthur” and you’d be astonished at how many times people want to spell my name “Auther”.

  2. Congrats on your success. I have had an idea for two books for a long time and even have a rough framework scratched out on one of them. I just don’t have the time after job and family (and quiet) to sit down and write the darned thing. I think after my kids are out of the house I might be able to do it. I think by that time (a decade or so) POD will be even easier than it is now and will be the way to go.

  3. I fancied myself having a flair for the word some time ago. And I still love reading, and would like to be able to contribute other than just with purchases, and recommendations to others, I know that I would be happy to just be sent a notification that ANYONE bought anything I wrote.

  4. Appreciated, LB and Dan – thanks! You know, one of the things I think will happen is that a dandy little printing and bindery gadget (sort of like the Book Expresso machine) will be in every medium-sized or big-box store, which will have the usual run of best-sellers on the shelves, but for other, less popular books, they will just be able to download a digital file of the text, and a cover file – and hey, presto: they will print up your copy to purchase, right there. Think of what it would save on warehousing and shipping, if POD can be done at the point of sale!

    Douglas, I started to think wild thoughts of being a writer for real, back in the early days of the milblog Sgt Stryker’s Daily Brief, when one of the fans — who really loved the memoir-essays I wrote about my family — emailed me to say he loved my stuff and he didn’t have internet at home, so if he sent me a box of CD media, could I copy my best bits to a CD and send to him… and use the rest of the box for anyone else who wanted a copy. Seriously, it was a Sally Field moment: You like me — you really like me! You want to read my scribblings that much! Hey … maybe I can earn a living at this!

    Of course, as Sharyn McCrumb pointed out in one of her books (I think it was Bimbos of the Death Sun, or Zombies of the Gene Pool) writing professionaly is a bit like prostitution – before you start asking for money, you have to be sure that you are darned good at it…

  5. When I set out to publish my medical history book, I quickly found that academic presses were the province of humanities professors and none need apply without the necessary letter after their name. I then started a little publishing business of my own and published my book. It was quite an education. It has been seven years but it still generates a nice royalty check every month from Amazon.

    I have two other manuscripts that might someday emerge but the traditional publishing business is going the way of the dodo. Amazon actually makes it quite easy to self publish, especially if you have any sort of record.

  6. Interesting read Sgt (or is that Cmd Sgt Major? ;-) ) – Hugh Hewitt in his syndicated talk show occasionally interviews authors – I remember Ken Follett and Vince Flynn – Flynn said that he couldn’t get published for his first book and self published it –

    A friend just got a small book published for the first time and he said that he went literally to 300 publishers before getting a “yes”. That is perseverance.

    I have to think that even a Hemingway would have a hard time getting published in this climate.

    But as you said there are more options these days….

  7. This is the the POD trade paperback that Amazon prints and sends me 10% of the sale price. The original hardcover sold out two printings (4,000 copies) and you can see that used copies are quite pricy now. They can do hardcover as POD as well but the trade paperback seems to sell pretty well, even at no discount from the original retail price.

    I have another manuscript, which I actually wrote first, that is a collection of patient histories from my own career with explanations of the disease, what we did 40 years ago and what we would do now. Several of the reviewers on Amazon asked me to send them any more books I publish so that is encouraging.

    I have another, unfinished, manuscript which is the history of the Cal 40 sailboat. I had lots of people promise to send me their stories but many haven’t and are getting pretty old.

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