Book Publishing, Commercial Publishing, Editors, Fear of a "Black" America, Gameplan, Independent Publishers, Literary Agents, Manuscript Development, Marketing, Revising, self-publishing, Siege Mentality, Stubbornness, Writers, Writing
It’s a new year, and with the beginning of all years is a chance to execute new plans, or for most people, to make resolutions they often don’t keep. Such is the case for me regarding my coming-of-age memoir Boy @ The Window. Hopefully I’ll be in the first category of plans for my new year and not in the latter. After five years of beating my fists on the walls of literary agents, acquisition editors and commercial publishers, I have to do far more than hope.
And my fists have needed a few months to heal after the past few years. In all, I contacted somewhere around 140 agents, editors and publishers since the end of ’07 about Boy @ The Window. One in four asked to look at either the first few pages, the first couple of chapters or the entire manuscript. Only two of those agents agreed to represent the manuscript, and then, with major conditions. One went as far as to suggest that I only focus on my family life, as if my preteen and teenage years in Humanities had no impact on my development at all. The other thought I could sell Boy @ The Window better if I turned it into a work of commercial fiction.
I should’ve seen the writing on the proverbial commercial book industry wall long before today. Between the shifts in the commercial publishing marketplace since my experiences with Fear of a “Black” America between ’99 and ’04, the Great Recession’s impact on the industry since ’08, and the rise of the ebook in the past decade. All three pointed to one simple fact. If one wasn’t already a successful author prior to a decade ago, or famous, or with a significant connection to commercial publishing (e.g., a journalist, an editor, or even an editorial assistant), one would face a long, hard walk through the traditional route of publishing a book.
But I’d made up my mind the moment I began working on Boy @ The Window in earnest in the summer of ’06. I didn’t want to self-publish my second book, not after a year and four months of promoting Fear of a “Black” America. While on some level I successfully promoted my first book (I have receipts of my royalty checks to prove that), selling a thousand copies while spending $3,500 to do so for a semi-academic book on multiculturalism was nothing like I had envisioned the process back in ’99.
I persisted in the idea of traditional commercial publishing for the manuscript. I dutifully attended writers conferences, book fairs and other opportunities to meet other authors, potential agents and a few editors. I wrote and rewrote my query letter and proposal, with more revisions than I probably did on the Boy @ The Window manuscript itself. I sent out my letters, took phone calls when they came, reached out to folks for help. And all to end up concluding that I would be in need of dentures by the time a commercial publisher would lukewarmly pick up my manuscript for its list.
Now, even my harshest critics (myself included) consider Boy @ The Window a solid manuscript. So the issue has never really been the quality of the story or the writing. The issues come down to an industry in seismic flux and to me as a person. With my own career in transition and without the obvious examples of success (I’m not regularly booked for TV programs, I have yet to make my first $1 million), I can’t say that I’m in the public eye enough to sell 10,000 copies of my book per week for three weeks, and at least 5,000 a week for three months. That’s the industry threshold for groundbreaking nonfiction success these days.
So dreams of sugar plums or $100,000 advances aren’t exactly dancing in my head these days. But much has changed since I published Fear of a “Black” America in the past eight and a half years. For one, ebooks rule the book publishing marketplace, enabling any aspiring (if not talented) writer to self-publish or to publish independently. Add to this the mix social media, like my blog, Twitter, Facebook and other connections, and nontraditional publishing may well make as much sense as working with an agent.
This means much more work — and money — on my part, though. I’ll need to hire a copy editor, figure out artwork, finalize pictures, implement my proposed marketing strategy, plan a date for publishing to coincide with marketing, and so on. But I also realize that few commercial publishers do this work for authors anymore, anyway, as they’ve slashed their promotion and marketing budgets. The advantage, then, goes to people like me, with some means for publication and enthusiasm for my book.
I realized all of this at least two years ago. Apparently, so did my wife. When I finally decided to go this route for Boy @ The Window a few weeks ago, she said “I thought you should’ve done it two years ago, but you weren’t ready.” Meaning that I wasn’t ready to dismantle my siege guns and remove my land minds around the commercial publishing castle. Now that I have, I can say with a high degree of certainty that I will publish Boy @ The Window this year, 2013, short of an apocalyptic event.