Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lessons learned from trenches: Part 14

British airlift out of the trenches

As I approach present time, I’m also approaching the end of these ‘lessons from the trenches’, and will be wrapping things up with this one, although if people have enough questions for things I haven’t covered I’ll have a follow up ‘lessons learned’ next week with the questions answered as I best I can. I’m sure as I continue my journey through publishing, I’ll find myself stumbling into more foxholes, and may be adding more ‘lessons learned’ over time.

First, about Serpent’s Tail for those unfamiliar with them. They’re a highly respected publisher, and one of the UK’s premiere publishers of crime fiction. They publish among others, David Peace, Stella Duffy and Cathi Unsworth, and have published books that have won the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Orange Prize in Fiction. They’re really picky as hell at what they select. So how did Small Crimes which was rejected by nearly every large NY house end up with the Serpent’s Tail? Well, mostly luck.

When I started these ‘lessons learned’ I talked about how much luck can play into things, and not just luck, but timing. For a number of years I’ve been a member of the Rara Avis hardboiled/noir discussion group, which is a group of like-minded folks as myself (although there are one or two philistines within the group who are blind to the greatness of Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye!—sad, very sad). One of the members of the group is John Williams, who as well as being an author of crime fiction, is also an editor for Serpent’s Tail, and I asked him off list if he’d be willing to take a look at Small Crimes. Normally I don’t think there would’ve been much chance of it except for the right combination of factors—a number of Rara Avians who had discovered my psycho noir novel, Fast Lane, were saying very nice things about it on the list, and two of Serpent’s Tail’s authors, Vicki Hendricks and Ken Bruen, both had really nice things to say about Small Crimes. John did warn me up front that there wasn’t much chance they would buy it, that they only buy books that they’re completely desperate to publish. So while I thought there was a good chance John would like it, I wasn’t holding out much hope that Serpent’s Tail would buy it, especially since no other publisher yet had been desperate to buy it.

Months passed, a lot of months. I told John ahead of time that I’d be showing Small Crimes to other publishers also, and he was fine with that, and I ended up sending the book to Five Star. The thing with Five Star is they’re a small publisher who basically sells mostly to libraries—their pricing and discount policy doesn’t really allow much else. They’re a professional outfit, a good group of people, but their books are going to sell between 500-1500 copies based on the book’s trade reviews. They ended up accepting Small Crimes, and still no word from Serpent’s Tail. At this point I was leaving it up to my agent at the time to contact Serpent’s Tail, and he was telling me they weren’t returning his emails. I pretty much decided if I sold Small Crimes to Five Star, that was it, I’d get the book in print, and then quit writing for good. It just wasn’t worth it anymore. I pushed things out as long as I could, then signed the contracts and sent them back to Five Star. Three days later John Williams called me to tell me how much he and the publisher loved Small Crimes and that they wanted to publish it. After that I was scrambling to work something out with Five Star.

The next few weeks were tough ones, but fortunately the Five Star folks turned out to be really decent people, and they let me exchange Bad Thoughts for Small Crimes. For a small publisher, they’re about as good as you can find, and they ended up doing a nice job with Bad Thoughts, very thorough and professional with the copy editing, and the book ended up getting good trade reviews with Booklist and Library Journal and the book sold at the upper end of what they were looking for, so it worked out well for all of us. And I got what I’d been fighting for years in the trenches for—a top publisher publishing my books. After selling Serpent’s Tail Small Crimes, I next wrote and sold them my South Boston Irish Mob book, Pariah, as well as Killer, a book I hadn’t written yet at the time—which was another thing I wanted badly to do, have a publisher waiting to buy my next book. About Pariah, it’s by far the best thing I’ve written, and it’s going to catch people’s attention when it’s out next year. Small Crimes was a book that Serpent’s Tail felt deserved to be published, Pariah on the other hand is a book that they’re excited about publishing. To say the book is too fierce for NY to have ever published it is probably a gross understatement. Very thankful to have ended up with a great house like Serpent’s Tail, and very thankful to the people at Five Star for being so decent and letting it happen.

There are benefits for fighting for years to break through. One, you don’t take anything for granted when it happens. Two, that chip on your shoulder, to keep wanting to write better books to show them. Three, building a small backlog of books waiting to sell. Over the next year and a half I’ve got Small Crimes, Pariah, Bad Karma (sequel to Bad Thoughts which I’ve sold to Five Star) and Killer all coming out. Outside of “28 Minutes”, I’ve got three other books sitting and waiting. Once Small Crimes and Pariah are out and they start getting me some attention, I’ll send these other books out, and since all three of them are pretty good—dark, but pretty good, at least as good as Small Crimes, I’m confident they’ll be selling.

It’s been a long fight to get out of the trenches, and I guess the lessons from this week are luck, as well as making your own luck, patience, and perseverance. Several times over the years I almost failed that lesson in perseverance, and I think that could be the one thing that’s the toughest for writers to overcome, because it can be so damn easy to just say fuck it.


sandra seamans said...

Hi Dave, I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. So often we hear about the writer who nails the big money with his first novel and wonder why it's not us. Too seldom does someone take the time to write down the realities of this business. Thank you! Your efforts are much appreciated.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sandra, I was happy to write these. I wanted to share with writers who are going through now what I went through, but it was also therapeutic getting it all down. There's so much luck and randomness involved in this business, and it can be so easy to get discouraged and quit. But sometimes if you stick with it long enough it pays off.