Tuesday, November 30, 2010
LAUREN BARATZ-LOGSTED: THE CAREER THAT SHOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENED
Sixteen years ago I walked out on my 11-year job as an independent bookseller. The position came with a good salary and full medical benefits plus four weeks of paid vacation a year. It was a lot to walk away from but I’d always wanted to write a novel and I’d come to realize that that was never going to happen if I kept working a job that took 55 hours a week door-to-door out of my life. It was finally time to take a chance on myself and my dream.
Book 1, Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes, was a typical first novel, a wish-fulfillment comedic mystery about an independent bookseller who believes the bookstore would be a better place if only she were in charge. She gets her wish, and a chance to play amateur detective, when the owner is murdered. For a while I had an agent, Agent 1, but she was nuts. She said the book would be better if the murder – originally taking place around page 40 – happened earlier. So I moved it up, and kept moving it up at her urging, until finally the dead body was on page 1. Agent 1 said it was great, now if only I’d…and she proceeded to describe the book exactly as it had been before I made any changes. We parted company.
I did try to submit it on my own to publishers, and I got glowing rejections. One publishing director called to say she was laughing on every page and would be taking it to sales conference that weekend. I was sure I was in; you know, like Flynn. Two weeks later, she called and in an entirely different tone of voice, said she couldn’t buy it. Eventually, someone else in publishing explained that since one of the villains was the CEO for a made-up chain bookstore, and that I’d portrayed that pretend CEO as no better than a Mafia lapdog, no publisher would ever touch it for fear of upsetting the real-life chains. I set the book aside.
Book 2, Falling for Prince Charles, was an alternate-universe romantic comedy wherein an underachieving Jewish cleaning lady from Danbury meets and falls in love with Prince Charles. Having grown tired of agent searches, and having learned that I had a knack for phoning editors directly and getting them to agree to read, I submitted it myself. In August of 1997, arguably the most popular woman of the previous century, Princess Di, died. In September, a vice president of one of the biggest publishing companies in the country called me on the phone. In pre-Internet days, wisdom used to dictate “no comes in a letter, yes comes in a phone call.” But she wasn’t calling to say yes. She was calling because she wanted to tell me personally how much she loved my crazy book but that she couldn’t buy it and nobody would be able to.
Having written one book that was offensive to chain bookstore CEOs and another that was offensive to certain lovers of the Royal Family, I decided to go for broke on Book 3 and offend everyone, or at least everyone in publishing. Book 3, The Reviewer, was a dark comedy about a frustrated reviewer/would-be novelist who kidnaps an editor, an agent, and a reviewer with a higher profile, and holds them hostage in increasingly larger basements. No one wanted anything to do with that book.
Book 4, Plain Sight, was a bizarre mystery ala Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians but with a twist: told from 10 viewpoints, no two of the main characters are ever seen in the same place – meaning there’s nothing to tie them together – until the very end.
Book 5, If You Should Die Before I Wake, represented a departure. It was a serious book about an undereducated septuagenarian who learns that her editor daughter will predecease her. For Book 5, I managed to secure Agent 2, who proved to be just as nuts as Agent 1, only in a different way. Agent 2 called one day to ask if I’d mind if she sold the book as a movie first because she’d received a fax from Viacom/Paramount saying they were looking for Terms of Endearment types of properties and she’d always thought of the book that way. I knew all about John Grisham and The Firm, and told her I did not mind at all. A few months went by and I finally got up the nerve to ask how things were going with the movie people. That’s when she explained that her partner handled all the Hollywood deals but he had to be in the mood to submit something, and he just hadn’t been in the mood lately. The book had never been sent, even though a film company was looking for something just like it. We parted ways.
And then came Book 6, The Thin Pink Line, a dark comedy about a British sociopath who fakes an entire pregnancy. I probably would have tried harder to submit it, but I kept getting glowing letters that would end in rejections, saying bizarre things like, “Americans don’t like to laugh.” Chick Lit hadn’t hit yet, certainly not as big as it would. So I wrote a seventh book, Vertigo, a suspense novel set in Victorian England about a woman who ultimately decides that the only way to get what she wants is for her husband to die.
Vertigo got me Agent 3 and I was working on revisions when, in late fall of 2001, I began seeing reviews for books from a publisher I’d never heard of: Red Dress Ink. I was sure that the editorial sensibility behind this new line would be a match for my fake-pregnancy book and asked Agent 3 if he’d read it with a view toward submitting it. He read it and said he liked it very much but that he couldn’t see it selling; there were too many books like it already. I asked if he’d send it to just this one publisher and he said no, that he knew for a fact they weren’t interested in any books with London settings. So I submitted it myself.
In May of 2002, nearly eight years and seven books after leaving my day job, Red Dress Ink called and offered me a two-book deal. The book was published in 2003 as the line’s first-ever hardcover and was the first book published by any Harlequin imprint ever to receive a starred review from Kirkus. It was published in 10 countries and optioned for a film, never made. Needless to say, somewhere in there, Agent 3 and I parted company. I negotiated the contract myself, having read 700 pages of publishing law while waiting for it to arrive.
Before The Thin Pink Line was even out, the publisher offered me an additional three-book contract. While I felt confident that I could negotiate a contract pretty good on my own – I’d argued, and won, 17 points on the original contract – I knew it should be for more money than was being offered, but how much, I had no idea.
I had no problem securing Agent 4, and Agent 4 did get me substantially more money than was being offered. But Agent 4 didn’t do much else during the next year, and made one huge error, so we parted company.
Then there was Agent 5, who was supposed to sell Vertigo, but never submitted it. And so, in late spring 2005, running the risk of becoming the Elizabeth Taylor of publishing, I moved on to Agent 6.
I have no complaints about Agent 6. To date, Agent 6 has sold 18 books for me and by the end of next year my grand total of published books will be 23. In addition to Red Dress Ink, my books have been published by Random House, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bloomsbury, and BenBella. I’ve written for adults, teens, tweens and even young readers (The Sisters 8). Defying the publishing wisdom to brand oneself and avoid “selling meat in your fish store,” I’ve sold just about everything in my store. Both comedy and drama for adults and, in terms of YA alone, I’m all over the place: an earnest novel about teen pregnancy (Angel’s Choice); a seriocomic sort-of mystery about an online predator (Secrets of My Suburban Life); a re-visioning of a classic fairy tale (Crazy Beautiful); a Victorian suspense novel (The Twin’s Daughter); and next, in August 2011, a time-travel story involving a contemporary teen and the classic novel Little Women (Little Women & Me). This is not a way to have a career that makes sense to most people’s definition of a writing career these days and yet it makes perfect sense to me. From the first time I ever called an editor on the phone, Larry Ashmead at HarperCollins, to ask if he’d read my book, I’ve never been about walking the tried-and-true path.
Oh, and during those eight years of unsold books, how did I keep the mortgage paid? I talked Publishers Weekly into giving me a job as a reviewer, eventually reviewing 292 books; talked a publisher into giving me a job as a freelance editor, editing nearly 100 books; the local library created a position for me where I led book discussions and writing groups, and arranged events; and I washed a lot of windows for my husband’s window-washing business. I used to get up and begin writing between 2:30 and 4:30 in the morning, before my one-job-two-jobs-three-jobs-four began and before the fear set in.
Do I wish I’d sold my very first book? No. Because my path would have been different and I would not have learned half so much along the way.
Just because I’ve been lucky enough to have so many books published, does that mean I have it easy? No. Every day, there is some pain or rejection or frustration or worry. But if I am writing, there is always joy too. Because that’s been the thing, the unifying theme of my writing life from the very beginning: I have written, not to be published – although once a book is finished, I want that for the book, very much so – but because I love to write.
Sometimes, interviewers ask me to pick one word to describe my greatest strength as a writer, and that is an easy question to answer: resilience.
Resilience got me through seven books in eight unpublished years and it has seen me through every day since.
When asked to give out writing advice, I always say the same thing: the only person who can ever really take you out of the game is you. That is true of me and it is true of any writer reading this. People can reject you, they can reject you until the cows come home, but no one can stop you from writing if that is what you want to do.
Phew! And, as I say, that’s the Cliff Notes version!
OK, here’s today’s giveaway: One person will get a signed hardcover copy of The Twin’s Daughter and another person will get a signed hardcover copy of Crazy Beautiful (which is due out in paperback on January 3, by the way!). You do need to comment to enter. I will select the winners at random and notify them by email.
Be well. Don’t forget to write.