On Whole New Worlds…

Posted on: January 11th, 2013 by Steven Womack 6 Comments

 

A long time ago, I decided I wanted to spend my life writing novels. Back then, if you wanted to be a novelist, you wrote a book—all of it, on spec—and then you went to Writer’s Digest or The Literary Marketplace and you studied the literary agents listings. Then you wrote query letters. You slaved, agonized, over how to pitch your book and yourself in the snappiest way possible, with the most firepower, in one page.

 

Back in the Seventies, it was customary to query only one agent at a time. That agent—being incredibly busy and having no idea who the hell you were—might or might not respond.

 

In any case, it took weeks, if not months. And you, the aspiring novelist, were expected to wait patiently for an answer to your blind query.

 

Very often, you never got one. So after one or two follow-up letters, which were also rarely answered, you went to the next agent on your list. And the waiting game all over again. Rinse and repeat…

 

If you were lucky—really lucky—you might find three or four agents who were willing to read your manuscript over the course of a year. Of those three or four, maybe one or two might actually give you a response worth reading. Mostly, it was one form rejection after another. Oh, and you could always submit material “over the transom,” which meant blindly sending manuscripts to editors at New York houses. What no one told you was that over that transom, there was a chute that led directly to the dumpster…

 

Meanwhile, you kept writing. You worked on your next book, constantly polishing your chops. If you were really lucky, you found a day job where you could apply your writing skills. I was lucky for awhile, as a newspaper reporter for a small daily in New Orleans, then later a staff writer for United Press International, and then writing press releases and catalog copy for a publisher in New York.

 

All that, though, was just preparation for the big time: publication—preferably in hardcover—by a major New York house…

 

A long time later—sometimes years—you finally gave up and shoved the manuscript box into a closet.

 

For me, this was an exercise in futility and frustration that went on for almost two decades. Despite the opportunity, I never learned patience.

 

I considered self-publishing, but back then self-publishing—aka “vanity press”—commanded very little respect. You paid a bunch of money to a company who printed your books, and did little else. No bookstore would take them; no respectable publication would review them. The books languished and you were forever slotted as a loser who couldn’t get published by a legitimate, real, publisher.

 

I thought of starting my own publishing firm. I even came up with a name: Spearhead Press. I liked the name—a spearhead, after all, was an attack. And that’s what I wanted to do, an end-run attack on a publishing industry that had refused to let me in.

 

That took money, though. Tons of it. I’d have to pay a typesetter, a layout artist, a printer. And I’d need to have a place to store the books, a way to distribute them. Like everyone in the day, I started by reading Dan Poynter. Somewhere in a box in the garage, I still have my battered, dog-eared, highlighted old copy of his self-publishing manual.

 

In the end, it was just too daunting. I wanted to write books, not publish them. So instead of starting my own publishing house, I went to work for one, and spent the next eight years as a typesetter and layout artist for a couple of large publishing houses.

 

As I wrote on the homepage of my website, I started my first novel when I was eighteen. A short couple of decades later, I finally sold one. In between I wrote five completed, unpublished novels, and had about a dozen more false starts. On the other hand, I’d published literally hundreds of articles, essays, reviews, and features. Anything to keep my hand in while I endlessly trolled for that elusive book deal.

 

What finally kicked the door open for me was not one of the hundreds of queries I wasted postage on over the decades. It was what breaks down all doors in the professional and business world: I met someone. I had a friend who knew a friend who knew a literary agent, who was willing to make an introduction. I met the agent; we hit it off. He liked my book, and this time there was a face to put with the name. He sent the book out. It didn’t sell.

 

I panicked, afraid he would drop me. I went back to one of my five unpublished novels, a book that had been turned down by twenty-two publishers and been declared by one editor “absolutely unpublishable.” I did a down-and-dirty rewrite and gave it to the agent.

 

Six weeks later, it sold, and became the only first mystery on the 1990 New York Times Notable Book List.

 

Go figure.

 

Fast forward a couple more decades. The business has gone through one evolution/revolution/upheaval after another. After a dozen years or so of supporting myself as a full-time novelist/screenwriter/freelancer/fill-in-the-blank, it all came to an end when the mass market paperback world collapsed. My numbers (and income) went down; I left my long-time publisher, convinced I could do better somewhere else.

 

I was wrong.

 

To survive, I turned to teaching full-time and discovered that I liked teaching and was actually pretty good at it. My writing career suffered, though. I soldiered on anyway, still hoping.

 

A little over a year ago, I was offered the chance to collaborate with someone, a screenwriter in New York who was trying to finish a novelization of a screenplay. We partnered up and finished the book. It’s in New York now, looking for a home (more on that later).

 

At the same time I’m trying to revive my once-promising writing career, the publishing industry has continued remaking itself, evolving in ways no one could ever have anticipated beyond a few visionaries.

 

Suddenly, over the period of a few short years, the game’s turned upside down. Now you don’t need a ton of money to become a publisher. You can publish digitally, distribute electronically. Amazon.com, Smashwords, Kobo… the list goes on and grows by the day.

 

So I have this stack of unpublished novels and several published novels that have are out-of-print. I’m a longtime member of Novelists, Inc. (the best writers’ organization on the planet, by the way), and I read every day on the NINCLink about writers bringing their work back into print on their own.

 

Only now it’s not “vanity” publishing. It goes by different names now (my favorites being “boutique” and “studio” publishing). More than anything else, though, it’s a business. It’s about reaching readers, selling books. Making a living and becoming an empowered writer…

 

So I started thinking, again, of Spearhead Press.

 

And several months ago, I went to work. I decided, however, that I was too emotionally invested in my own stuff to launch an imprint with one of my books. My wife, Shalynn Ford Womack, spent years as a freelance newspaper columnist. She had hundreds of columns published.

 

So why not an anthology of her work, I thought? She’d always wanted to publish a collection of her articles and essays, but since she wasn’t Erma Bombeck or Anna Quindlen, that proved to be a tough do.

 

So, I—we—took the leap.

 

I bought the domain name and began learning how to prepare books for digital publication. I’d spent years typesetting books and had designed a few websites already, as well as taken a course in web design. So I had a leg up on the technical aspects…

 

The investment, so far, has been almost all sweat equity. The total outlay for the creation of Spearhead Press has been less than a couple of hundred dollars. The hours involved?

 

Let’s not go there.

 

Instead of taking years querying literary agents and searching for editorial interest, we went straight to work. Less than sixty days from the time we started work on the project—called Ice On The Wing: Essays on Life and Other Difficult Situations—we launched it through Kindle Direct.

 

The CreateSpace trade paperback edition went up a few weeks after that. We did most of the work over the Christmas holiday, while I was on break from my teaching job…

 

The epublishing revolution has, without a doubt, brought about the biggest change in writing and publishing since Guttenberg invented the printing press. And it’s just beginning. No one really knows where this is going to take us, or what it’s going to mean for writers, readers, and publishers in the future.

 

One thing’s for sure: there’s never been a more exciting time to be a writer. It’s never been easier to get published.

 

Is it any easier to reach readers or make a living at it?

 

We’ll see…

 

SW

 

p.s. If you’d like to take a look at Shalynn’s book, it’s up on Amazon.com right now.

 

Thanks. More later…

6 Responses

  1. Joy says:

    Great news! Glad to hear from you again and look forward to reading your novels again. Unusual comment thinggy but I think I managed it.

  2. Ryan O'Connell says:

    Keep up the good work! I have enjoyed the Harry James Denton series several times, and just purchased By Blood Written on Kindle. Thanks for the great writing and best of luck in the e-publishing venture.

  3. Turner M. French says:

    Mr. Womack,
    I have followed your writing career since your very first Harry James Denton novel. I was in the planning stages of my own initial Nashville P.I. novel in the 1990s. When I read your work, I sat down and bemoaned my lateness in coming up and beginning the writing process. My thoughts after reading your novel were that Nashville wasn’t big enough for two P.I. novel series. I gave it all up and put it away. Tonight, after reading your own blogs about the highs and lows (I’m here because I still admire your writing) of your own life’s trials, I have decided to start again. Thank you for your efforts to keep on keeping on in spite of all that Life throws at you. One day, I’d like to meet you and thank you for what you’ve done and restarted in me. NaNoWriMo is coming soon, an extra incentive.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Mr. French. I really appreciate them. And my congratulations to you for deciding to return to your own writing. I wish you the very best of luck. Perhaps someday our paths will cross…

      • Cristina says:

        I could have sworn that someone asked you this beorfe, but I couldn’t find it in your tagged section so I’ll ask now– My question is in regards to finding and getting an agent. Generally what does one do to find an agent, get their attention and then figure out whether they’re reputable/come from a reputable organization or not. What is the difference between a reputable agent and a disreputable one? (I ask this because I’ve seen people mention “reputable agents” constantly, but it never comes with an explanation of what that means, really.) What is their purpose, anyway, asides from bringing your books to the publishers? Do they help at all with the content of your books, or is that strictly the job of the editor? Are they supposed to be a sort of… level 1 filter/editor that a writer needs to bypass beorfe going near a publisher– sort of like a beta reader in the fanfic world?

        • Christina, finding a good agent and developing a long-term, mutually beneficial professional relationship with that agent is one of the biggest challenges for any writer. Agents work in different ways. Some agents represent your work to publishers and negotiate the best deal possible for you and then try and sell ancillary or subsidiary rights. The extent of their editorial feedback is often whether or not they think they can sell your project. That’s the traditional role of an agent. Nowadays, though, in the constantly changing and often treacherous world of publishing, many agents are moving toward being “managers.” They look at the long term in career planning and advise writers on which projects to pursue, which ones to let go of. My agent is mentoring me in developing my admittedly weak social media skills.

          How do you find a good agent? Like anything else, you have to dig and research. If you’re looking for a book agent, the professional association of literary agents–which I believe is called the Society of Author’s Representatives–is a good place to start. If you’re a screenwriter, the Writers Guild of America maintains a list of agents who have become signatory to it code of ethics. Also, just Google around and see what you can find. Talk to other writers. Join writers organizations. If you’re writing romances, then start with the Romance Writers of America. Aspiring mystery writers can join the Mystery Writers of America. There are lots of places to gain knowledge, and as Mattie Hayes said in “Body Heat,” knowledge is power…

          And good luck to you!
          Steve

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