Friday, July 19, 2013

Guest Post by Joe Flynn

Joe sez: If you've missed the previous guest blogs, they've been fascinating and informative.

You can read Richard Denoncourt talking about cover art here: 

You can read Ann Voss Peterson talking about pacing here:

You can read Nick Spill talking about his path to publication here:

You can read Constance Phillips and Jenna Rutland and Joe Konrath talking about their path to publication here:

You can read Ian Kezsbom talking about Fuzzbomb Publishing here:

You can read Gary Ponzo talk about first lines here:

You can read Chris Everheart talking about technophobia here:

Now here's Joe Flynn...

Thanks, Joe, for the opportunity to honor the memory of a fellow writer’s father, help a good cause and introduce myself to your audience.

My story as a writer began on the CTA. I took a Monday morning L ride to Loyola University for my first day of college. I intended to become a lawyer. Somewhere between the Sheridan Road and Loyola stations, though, I got the idea for my first short story. Came to me out of the blue. Put the kibosh on a career in law.

Only twenty years later, I got my first novel (traditionally) published.

Of course, a few things happened in between. I completed my studies, graduated and searched for a job in my hometown that would let me write and earn a paycheck. I looked at writing for one of Chicago’s newspapers, but the people there told me the papers were looking for great reporters not great writers.

I turned my attention to the ad agencies in town. After a mere six months pounding the pavement, I landed my first job as a professional writer. Started at $13,000 a year. It was wonderful. I was writing and working with smart art directors. I got to wear jeans and polo shirts to work. On Friday afternoons, the agency provided free beer and wine, and people would roller skate through the halls.

The one big drawback to most ad agencies is the account executive, better known as the suit. Suits scare easily, and the thought of taking “risky” ideas to a client terrifies them. Safe ideas, ones that will kill a writer’s reputation as a creative thinker, are what they prefer.

Dealing with that reality over the years, made me think I’d better spend my free time working on my own ideas. I was living in L.A. by then, so I tried writing screenplays. I wrote a dozen of them and had one optioned by 20th Century Fox. That ratio put me in mind of Pauline Kael’s famous line: “Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement.”

Not wanting to die of anything, I switched to writing my first literary love, novels. As with many novelists, I started by drawing on what I knew best, my own life. I set my first novel in the part of Chicago where I grew up, just north of Wrigley Field. I wrote the story of a former cop looking for a missing boy in his own neighborhood. He’s forced to treat his neighbors as suspects, and they don’t like it. I called my novel The Concrete Inquisition.

I sent it to an agent in New York that I’d found through a contact in L.A. She submitted it to two publishers, got two rejections and quit on me. Persistence was not her middle name. I found another agent. She sold “Concrete” to Signet Books to be published as a paperback original. That was okay. I got paid $8,500, my novel would be sold in stores throughout the country and my editor said he saw big things in store for me. I was happy. But I dedicated my novel to all the people I love most, in case it was the only chance I got.

For a while, it looked like that would be the case. My editor got caught up in a shuffle at Signet and lost his job. My agent got seriously ill and wasn’t able to work for over a year. I felt I owed it to her to wait for her to recover.

In the meantime, I kept writing and completed my second novel, Digger. It’s the story of a Vietnam vet who fought in the tunnels of Cu Chi. His best friend disappeared in one of them. After he comes home to his small town, he and two other friends secretly recreate a portion of the wartime tunnels. The town is divided by a vicious labor strike, and then there’s a murder. When the town’s major employer, who’s trying to bust the union, learns of the tunnels’ existence, he responds by bringing in a former member of the Viet Cong to hunt down the vet.

After waiting as long as I could for my agent to get well, I had to find new representation. My new agent knocked the ball out of the park. He got me a two-book deal with Bantam. The first book, Digger, got a high five-figure advance; book two was pegged at a low six-figure advance. Even better, I got an additional audio-book deal, and Bantam gave me a reprint deal for the rights to “Concrete” that had reverted to me.

Things couldn’t have been better — until they all went downhill.

The problems started with the first phone call from my new editor at Bantam. She told me that I’d have to do a fair amount of rewriting on “Digger,” but if there was anything I really wanted to keep, I could. I wanted to keep the ending. My editor wanted me to change it. When I reminded the higher-ups at Bantam of what my editor had promised to me, the publisher sided with me and my editor bailed out on me.

The editor who took her place … well, we weren’t a match made in heaven. Bantam rejected the novel I submitted for my second book, and I had to come up with something new. While I was writing the replacement novel, the term of the contract for the reprint of “Concrete” expired.

I had made several phone calls to Bantam warning that the expiration date was coming up. What I didn’t know, because I wasn’t told, was that my agent had informed Bantam he’d get me to sign a free extension. Well, the expiration date came and went. I was asked to sign the free extension and I said no. That pretty much killed things with Bantam.

They published the second book of the contract — The Next President, a political thriller that anticipated the election of Barack Obama by eight years — but gave it a halfhearted publicity push at best.

Fast forward eight years, a period during which I kept writing. I went out looking for a publicist and found a publisher instead. It was a small startup house with big ambitions. The publisher had been given a copy of my novel The President’s Henchman, the story of James J. McGill, the first private eye to live in the White House. He’s married to the first female president, and solved the murder of her first husband. I was offered what, by my old standards, was a modest advance, but it was enough to pay for a trip to Paris to do the research for the second novel in the series.

The publisher told me that he was going to do all sorts of publicity for the book, and would buy front-table placement for it at Barnes & Noble. Only B&N refused to sell him space because his company was new and small and located in the sticks. That was where that relationship started to unravel, and I got the publishing rights to The President’s Henchman back just last month.

It was the last of my traditionally published books to return home.

What made that good news was that a few years earlier somebody told me about this blog called A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. What an eye opener that was. I bought the ebook of the same name. Shortly after that, my wife and I started indie publishing all those novels I’d written over the years. We have twenty-one titles on KDP Select right now. With a collection of McGill short stories and the reissue of The President’s Henchman we’ll have twenty-three titles within the next four weeks. A novella and two more novels are scheduled to round out the year.

My novels span different genres, but they all fall under the umbrella of what I call smart entertainment. Character is stressed as much as plot. And a keen sense of humor runs through all my books.

I’m much happier working through the publishing company my wife and I started, Stray Dog Press, Inc., than I ever was in traditional publishing. I’m closer to my readers. I get direct feedback. I get paid monthly, and I publish on my schedule not someone else’s.

All that and I make a living, too. The challenge now is to make an even better living by reaching more readers and adjusting to changing conditions. That and, as always, to keep on writing.

If you’d like to read a free copy of The President’s Henchman, the first novel in my Jim McGill series, it’s free now through July 22, 2013 on Amazon. 

Thanks again, Joe.

Joe sez: I'd love to say that Joe's story is atypical. But it isn't.

Remember the line in Jurassic Park? "Life finds a way."

Well, if there is some possible way to eff up a writer's career, "Publishers find a way."

Not to mix quotes, but I can also appropriate Tolstory here. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

Except substitute "families" with "authors."

I have quite literally lost count of all the ways my peers have been screwed by the publishing industry. Each has their own unique tale of woe and outrage. Each had a giant, uncaring machine kill their hopes with ennui or malice or accident or bad ideas or broken promises or (insert woe here.)

My happiness these days stems from control. I no longer have a group of self-important NY publishers responsible for making sure they keep the promises they made, without which my book will tank. This isn't to say that publishers are evil (though some are). Publishing has a lot of smart, good-intentioned folks in the industry.

And yet, time and again, we see stories like Joe's. A happy, successful author isn't the norm. It's the rare exception. Everyone else gets served a shit sandwich with extra corn, and told to finish every bite and smile while doing it or else You'll Never Work In This Town Again.

That's possibly why many mega-bestselling authors (I'm looking at you James Patterson and Scott Turow) defend legacy publishing and can't comprehend how any author would want to go indie. There are a few dozen authors (possibly a few hundred) who got the star treatment and drank the Kool Aid and look at the ebook revolution in disbelief. Marie Antoinette eating cake while Paris erupts in violent outrage.

Guess what? If my publishers had made me a big success, I'd probably be signing their praises too. 

Unfortunately, that's the big exception. The vast majority of authors wind up getting screwed. Hell, a boilerplate publishing contract is a license to screw.

Thankfully, authors now have a choice, and people like Joe Flynn can earn a living without the incredible hassle that comes with an industry deal. 

Some folks say that I'm angry and bitter. Some folks don't like my tone. Some folks erroneously attribute my self-pubbing success to the (non) push from my legacy publishers.

Some folks have Stockholm Syndrome. I knew about this three years ago, and I don't preach about it out of anger or bitterness. This blog exists so authors have access to data and opinion that might help inform their decisions. And based on emails and comments and people I've met, the message seems to be getting out there.

That said, anyone who automatically follows what anyone says on the Internets (me included) needs a reality check. There is no one size fits all. Every writer's goals, and path, are different. The secret to success is keeping an open mind, experimenting, learning for yourself, and never taking anyone's words as gospel.

This isn't an ideology. This is a business. Figure out how to make it work for you.