Friday, January 21, 2011

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

OK, he's yammering at me again, my alter ego, Allen Appel. Wants to do the blog this week, something on his mind, something he wants to rant about. OK, OK, go ahead, be my guest.

Thanks, TG, for your gracious invitation. I'll try to leave everything just as I found it and turn out the lights afterward.

Today I received an e-mail question: How many unpublished manuscripts do you have? This came in just as I was cleaning out my basement office and throwing away all the proofs from published novels, final manuscripts that had been proofread by the publisher, galleys, cover mock-ups and all the other detritus that goes along with getting a book published. I figured, who gives a crap about this stuff anyway? It's not like I'm expecting a Harvard undergrad to do his thesis on my work, so why keep this stuff around? Into the trash it goes. So I was thinking about publishing anyway, and then the question came in, I had to sit down and think about it.

I counted six unpublished novels and then I Skyped my son (Allen Appel IV) with whom I sometimes write, and asked him. How many books have I written? How many books have we written? He's not only a better writer than I am, his memory is far superior to mine. He came up with four more that I had forgotten about. So here's the list. But first an explanation.

Many, many years ago I worked for the Washington Post as a free-lance photographer and illustrator. One day I looked around at my pals there, who were all having books published, and I thought, I'm at least as smart as these people, why don't I write a book? At the time my first book, Proust's Last Beer, was just being published (I was the illustrator) and I had a very smart editor at Viking, whose name suddenly escapes me. We were sitting at a bar in NY and he gave me some very good advice, which I'm now going to pass along to you. He said, "If you want to write a novel, go to a bookstore and stand in the center of the room. Look around the walls and you'll see words that say, Mystery, Western, Romance, Science Fiction, etc. Pick one of those categories and write a book that should be shelved there." What he was telling me was not to write a cross-over book, a mystery with romance elements, a spy book that had a science fiction element, a book that was too hard for the dimwits in publishing to classify. So I decided I'd write a book that fit into each of the categories at the bookstore. That way I would learn to write. And so I did. Most of the books that resulted were never seen by anyone, a few were seen by an agent but after they were turned down I never did anything more with them. Here's the list:

The Sheriff of Paradise was a western. Lots of fun to write. The Bright Red Swoosh was a detective novel set in Washington, DC, about old guys who were retired from government agencies and who had banded together and opened a private eye firm because they hate retirement. (I was writing that one with my pal, Larry.) Cross was about a human/chimpanzee cross resulting in a hybrid child, The Body in the Paradise Pool was a mystery about a stay-at-home dad who lives in the suburbs and solves crimes. The Hours of Love was a romance I wrote under the name Cecily St. Ives. (There were at least one if not two more romances, maybe more, I've blocked that period out.) The Taken, written with my son, a science fiction novel about alien abduction. My most recent novels are Amazons, where modern day Amazons take over the world, (Volume One) and Abraham Lincoln: Detective, the name says it all, and the unpublished Alex Balfour time travel novel, The Sea of Time which I send out as an electronic file to fans of that series who write and ask for it. If I thought harder I could probably come up with some others. I've got a drawer full of screenplays as well and treatments for at least three or four other novels. A few months ago I was cleaning up and came across 150 pages of a Civil War novel that I have only the vaguest recollection of writing. And it's pretty good.

OK, what's the point here? Why didn't any of these novels ever see the light of day? The first ones weren't all that good; I was just learning the ropes. But the ones after were perfectly fine. That's right, nothing wrong with them, the writing was at least as good as 75% of the novels Thriller Guy gets in the mail every day to review. So, why?

Two things. My agent, who will remain nameless, didn't really push the books. Why? Because I didn't push the agent. To succeed in the publishing business, you've got to be a little bit of a prick. I liked my agent, he was my friend, and I never gave him any grief. When he didn't like a novel very much, he demurred and I just let him off the hook. After all, how hard was it to just write another book? Not as hard, evidently, as insisting that my agent at least try to sell what I was giving him. Eventually I changed agents. The new guy, SuperBob, started off strong but doesn't seem to be doing much these days with Amazons and Abraham Lincoln: Detective. And am I leaning on him, have I learned anything in 30 years in the business? Evidently not.

Oh, I've had plenty of books published, at least ten, which is about the same amount of those that I have sitting around in drawers here, so I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. But I am. I've published many more books that many of my friends who are better writers than I. I should have had more of a career, made a decent living at it. But I didn't. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe not. But I wrote the books, they're sitting here, waiting for someone to publish them.

Like I said: Whose fault is it?


  1. Allen, for me if comes down to personality and interests. I'd rather write (and draw and paint and make and watch tv and eat and sleep) than try to get someone to like and help other people like what I've done.

  2. Allen
    As you well know, I'm making a go at the e-book market. I have a really (really, really) small paranormal series going on Kindle that's averaging 1 to 5 sales a month. Which, from one POV isn't bad and yet, seeing other people's numbers from their own e-books, isn't very good.

    I also have a pretty unique fantasy novel I'm hoping to whip into shape this year to submit to agents in 2012 with an eye towards a hardcover release.

    I'm marketing the e-books as best as I know how with what time I have available in between writing and a day job (and sleep) and yet it's just not taking off the way I think it should.

    You've drilled it into me that this is a very tough business to get into and the media, which focuses only on the success stories, sure makes it seem so easy. You type out a bunch of words on paper, send it off and then spend the day counting the bags of cash.

    Except, it IS much more complicated than that and it is also still a huge crap shoot for so many talented folks out there.

    I think all we can do is keep at it. Sometimes, a few of us make it big and most of the time, many of us don't. For me, so far, the journey has had it's own little rewards. But from my side of the struggle, I'd suggest a good day job for all writers out there-- even after a first sale --because this roller coaster looks like it's going to be staying on an uphill course for some time.

  3. Allen - your Alex Balfour stories are without a doubt those most compelling time travel stories I've ever read. The attention to detail is superb. From things you shared with me it is obvious you had to invest an enormous amount of work into producing them. I can't figure out why they haven't been runaway hits.

    Maybe if they were republished, with new covers, a new generation of readers would be exposed to them, facebook fans would 'like' it, and modern viral popularity would strike it rich for TG's alter ego. Here is an idea -

    When you look at the crap that Hollywood is pushing out every week, and the astonishing amount of desperate adaptations from comic books to toys to try and come up with something original - I have to say you should see if you can find an agent who can get your book in front of someone who could do the stories justice. Contact the Coen brothers (they just did the total clone remake of True Grit). :)

    I'd love to make an indie film one of these days, and if I had a list of movies I could make, some of them would be the Balfour stories.

    The potential for your characters son to be the focus of a hit young adult reader series is an angle that could be your Blue Dog. (google George Rodriquez for that one, it made him a millionaire).

    I can tell you one thing with certainty - in my day job - that we have great technology that rivals anything the big giant name brand guys have at a fraction of the cost - yet the only way we find opportunities to sell our services and technology solutions is the hard way - we have to call a lot of people, who already are tired from getting called by a lot of people - and we have to quickly get across to them the value and uniqueness of what we are selling or we get nohere. An agent, I'd imagine, would have to put similar effort toward selling your work to those who can print it out. I guess I'm saying, from my readers perspective, that the problem isn't your novels. It's either agents unable to 'sell' what makes your stories 'cool' or whoever they are pitching to, being unable to recognize it's coolness. As to the past books you published not taking off - at the time they published, they weren't on the shelves long enough to take off. I first read your book in my small time library. If your books were in the bookstores now, science fiction is I believe more popular now than ever, right?

    I can just imagine a three or four book set, fresh covers - in paperback in one of those neat little boxes. :)

    Then there's the Kindle, Nook, & iBook route.