It is December 2010, and I am as depressed as I have ever been. Normally, I am a happy, “glass-half-full” guy, an optimistic person imbued with a sunny disposition, a wicked (albeit sometimes cruel) sense of humor, and a virtually inexhaustible capacity to engage in hard work, no matter how mind-numbingly boring the work might be. I seldom find myself demoralized — even if unpleasant or arduous tasks lie ahead. I wish I could take credit for this personality trait, but I am just built that way. I had nothing to do with the hard-wiring in my brain.
But December 2010 has knocked me on my ass. My personal life is in shambles. My finances, hardly robust even in the best of times, resemble a desolate battlefield following a gargantuan bloodletting — perhaps a Gettysburg, Verdun, or Terrible Tarawa. And 31 months after we signed a book contract, my publisher has summarily rejected the manuscript I have labored on for four long years.
“You should sue,” says my friend, the non-lawyer, to me, the lawyer. But I have reviewed the contract, and it contains loopholes galore. Even if I were inclined to be litigious, I have no case. Even if I had a case, I don’t have the energy to pursue it. I want a publisher to accept my manuscript because he thinks it is wonderful, thought-provoking, beautifully written, amazing — a book that must be read by all literate people. I don’t want him to publish the book because he is under a court order for breach of contract. I remember what Mark Twain said: “I was never ruined but twice; once when I lost a lawsuit and once when I won one.”
No, I will throw myself a “pity party,” shamelessly wallowing in a pathetic stew of my own juices. At some point, perhaps after the holidays, when I have finished grieving and feeling sorry for myself, I must rinse off the stench of failure, revise the manuscript yet again, and move forward into 2011.
Years ago, I counseled my stepson that the difference between a winner and a loser is that the winner stands up and will not be denied even though he gets knocked down repeatedly. The loser lies down and surrenders.
I have always spewed out bromides like water leaking through a sieve. Now, I must practice what I preach.
Somehow, I find the strength to persevere. Between December 28 and January 6, I slowly, thoughtfully, methodically work my way through the book line-by-line, cutting extraneous words, reworking awkward sentences, polishing my occasionally florid and frequently torturous prose, checking my sources for accuracy. It is painstaking, tedious work, but “painstaking” and “tedious” are my middle names (as is “Michael”).
Even as I edit the text, I search for a new publisher. A large part of the success of a manuscript depends on finding the right publisher. This does not necessarily mean finding the most prestigious publisher or the one that pays the largest advance, although those are wonderful features of a fine partnership. It means finding an outlet where the talents of the author and the merits of the book can mesh with the editor’s sensibilities.
Thanks to the internet, research into a suitable outlet is easier than ever.
Approaching a large, well-known publisher such as Random House, HarperCollins, Knopf, or Simon & Schuster without the services of a reputable literary agent is similar to buying a lottery ticket. You can try it, but you are well-advised not to pin your hopes on the outcome. Few reputable New York publishing houses pick through the “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts in search of a rare gem. It requires too much work for too little reward.
Thus, when it comes time for my search, I limit my queries to small independent publishers that handle nonfiction and uninvited submissions from unagented writers.
You may wonder why I don’t approach literary agents to represent me and my work. I have followed that route on numerous occasions. Throughout years of submitting my work to agents, I have progressed from receiving no response to receiving “dear author” postcards to receiving letters saying, “Dear H. Miceal Martinex, you are marginally talented; ask me again when you have something better to offer and something interesting to say.”
In my experience, sending queries to literary agents only prolongs the time it takes to sell my manuscript to a publisher. It is ironic: I need an agent to sell my work to prestigious publishers, but I can find a less prestigious publisher with far fewer problems than I can find even a mediocre literary agent. Maybe if I become successful enough to no longer need an agent, an agent will come groveling to me.
Book publishing is a screwed-up business in a screwed-up world.
Early in January 2011, I stumble upon a small publishing house called Ivan R. Dee. The description on the company’s website seems ideal for my manuscript: “Ivan R. Dee publishes serious nonfiction for general readers, with emphasis in history, politics, biography, literature, philosophy, theater, and baseball. We are a non-ideological house, publishing on all sides of the political spectrum. Our books are routinely reviewed in major media such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, and other influential publications. Ivan R. Dee paperbacks are also used extensively in college courses as supplementary reading.”
Ivan R. Dee appears to be exactly the outlet I need. My Lincoln manuscript has found a home! I hope so, anyway.
On Friday, January 7, 2011, I mail off a revamped, “new-and-improved” book proposal via snail mail to the acquisitions editor at Ivan R. Dee. The book is now titled Lincoln, the Radical Republicans, and Race. As with so many publishing activities, I resolve to wait as patiently as I can. So that I will not drive myself and my colleagues crazy, I focus on other activities.
It is easier said than done.
January 2011 is an agonizing time in my life. Snow blankets Atlanta on Monday, January 10. The Southeast shuts down, leaving me isolated and alone in my house. I am deep into the research and writing on the manuscript that eventually will become The Swords of Wicked Men: Terrorist Attacks on American Soil. This means I must spend much of my free time in the company of despicable characters. My friends step out and frolic in the snow with their friends and lovers while I am ensconced inside with Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, and Osama bin Laden.
Oh, happy day!
My sense of isolation is extreme. I am traveling a great deal on my full-time job. I am teaching four classes — a criminal procedure course online to undergraduates at the University of South Dakota as well as an administrative law course online to graduate students at the same university — and two sections of American Government 1101 to undergraduate students at Kennesaw State University. When I am not snowed in, my life consists of performing online research, visiting the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta, and grading student exams and term papers. I begin to feel that every waking moment is devoted to work. I simply have no life outside of the drudgery of my day-to-day existence.
Despite the self-pity and sacrifice (or perhaps because of them), my diligence yields dividends.
Sixteen days after I mail the book proposal to Ivan R. Dee (an astonishingly rapid response time), I receive an email from my editor at Rowman & Littlefield. Let’s call him Mr. X. (The name has been changed to protect the guilty.)
I am mystified. I sent my book proposal to one editor, but I am contacted about the proposal by another editor.
“Dear Mike,” Mr. X writes, “I hope 2011 is off to a good start for you. We wanted to let you know that your materials for Lincoln, the Radical Republicans, and Race were forwarded to me by our publisher. Ivan R. Dee is no longer commissioning manuscripts, so I’ve been fielding all submissions for the IRD imprint in American history.” He concludes on a hopeful note: “I'll look forward to reading through your materials and will be back in touch as soon as I’ve had a chance to do so. Best wishes in the meantime.”
Oh, what a small playing field exists among independent publishers. In submitting my Lincoln manuscript to Ivan R. Dee, I have failed to notice that Rowman & Littlefield, my publisher for The Swords of Wicked Men, has acquired Ivan R. Dee. I suddenly find that I have submitted my completed manuscript on Lincoln to the same publisher that purchased my terrorism book.
It is an embarrassing situation because I have repeatedly requested deadline extensions for submitting The Swords of Wicked Men so I can revise the Lincoln manuscript. Now my secret is revealed. Mr. X can see exactly why I have been late.
As I recover from my initial embarrassment, I recognize the advantages in using the same editor and publisher for my two books. If Mr. X already likes my work and knows something of my reputation as a writer, perhaps he will offer me a publishing contract for the Lincoln manuscript. As I said, I generally am a “glass-half-full” guy.
On January 28, Mr. X sends me another email. “I’ve now had a chance to look through your sample materials and would be pleased to consider the complete manuscript. Could you e-mail it to me?”
I can, and I do. I email the manuscript that same day.
I love you, Mr. X. I love you.
We’re almost home, Lincoln, almost home!
Well…maybe not. Not so fast, Mr. Buster.
Another interminable period passes with glacial speed. January becomes February becomes March becomes April becomes May becomes June. The snow clears. Pollen fills the air. The days grow longer. My semester concludes. I travel to Egypt between the Arab Spring demonstrations to ride a camel and visit the sites of ancient evenings with a Norman Mailer novel clutched in my hand.
Still, I receive no word from Rowman & Littlefield.
By June 9, I cannot wait any longer. “I hope this note finds you well,” I write to Mr. X in an email. “I wanted to provide you with a quick update on the progress on my manuscript about terrorism. I am almost finished writing Chapter 9. That leaves chapters 10, 11, and 12, as well as a short conclusion to write. Fortunately, I have completed about 90% of the research, which is the most laborious, time-consuming part. I also have all the photographs, as well as the requisite permissions, in my possession. My plan is to deliver the entire package to you on or before November 1, 2011, if that is satisfactory.”
I add a postscript that is actually the most important point: “By the way, what’s the word on the Lincoln manuscript?”
I am unprepared for the response. An editor I do not know sends me a terse email the next day: “I regret to report that Mr. X has left R & L. I will pass your note on to his successor. Thank you.”
What happened? Did Mr. X steal money, get fired, run off with a Kardashian? More importantly, sweet Jesus, where does that leave me now?
Can I never catch a break with this manuscript?
The denouement is the subject of a future posting.