My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Trevor D. Richardson, the founder and editor of The Subtopian. He is the author of American Bastards, Honeysuckle & Irony, and Dystopia Boy: The Unauthorized Files from Montag Press. A West Coast man by birth, Trevor was brought up in Texas and has since ventured back west and put down roots in Portland, Oregon. He has devoted his writing career to helping others find success by forming friendships and working relationships with other writers and artists. Trevor has written numerous short stories published in a variety of magazines including Word Riot, Underground Voices, and a science fiction anthology called Doomology: The Dawning of Disasters.
My First Publishing Adventure
I was seven years old the first time I tried to write. My father had recovered an old Macintosh computer from his custodian job at the local school and brought it home for the kids to mess around on. It was one of those early models with the green screen and the old floppy disks. I sat down at the keys and began my fledgling attempt, a story about a prince in a medieval kingdom hunting the werewolf that killed his betrothed. The idea was the prince himself was the wolf and didn’t know it, but I didn’t get past chapter three. I looked over my work a few days later and thought, “This is just bad writing.”
Years later I would realize the significance of this moment. Today it seems like I’ve been experiencing it, as if in some Sisyphean loop, ever since.
But that’s not precisely what I want to talk about. My first time publishing a novel is a much more relevant story for the young writer, but I started with the failed werewolf book to make a point: writing is the easy part. Anyone can write badly. A fairly decent cross-section of the population can write well. Anyone can publish now, thanks to all the new technologies and online tools, but only a handful can publish a book and make it succeed. I say “make” it succeed rather than “watch” it succeed because that is the number one myth we need to dispel as young writers: we come up with this starry-eyed fantasy that the book will get published and that will be the end of all our troubles, our insufficient funds in our bank accounts, our day jobs we hate, or our tireless, endless efforts.
It’s not true.
You live as a writer, consumed by telling your story, then you publish it and you have to live as a salesman, a shameless promoter like the iconic fight jockeys of boxing flicks. Not all of us can do that. I couldn’t my first time out.
Inkwater was nothing but kind to me, but they were what some call a “vanity press.” Which is a somewhat dated term for “they make the author cover all the expenses of publishing, including their own profits.” I spent thousands to get American Bastards into print. I was on a payment plan for months, driving over to their offices and handing them a sizeable percentage of my meager paycheck until the sum was paid off. No book would be produced until the costs were paid in full, so I scrimped and saved and starved myself to get it paid as soon as humanly possible. Along the way, we designed a book. The novel was set in an alternate reality, a kind of Wonderland inside a classic rock radio station, and a single road connected all the mythic towns and locales: Highway Zero.
I knew the cover needed to be the Highway Zero sign. I also knew I wanted a photograph, not a drawing or a Photoshop image, so I built the sign myself from a sheet of metal, crackle paint, black and white spray paint, rust texture, and added a few fake bulletholes with my drill for good measure. It came out great and my girlfriend, Erin, now my wife, drove out to eastern Oregon with me to find a desert landscape for my picture. After the three-hour drive, I realized, too late, I had forgotten a post for the sign. Racing the sun, we drove up and down a farm road looking for something to use and I, perhaps shamefully, found a lone metal post at the end of someone’s driveway which I promptly tore from the earth and fled.
The cover design came out pretty well, however, now that I have had some experience in graphic design and typography, I realize that the only thing right about it was the picture. The text was just slightly not right. However, in spite of many set backs, a lot of money, and a lot of learning as I went, we got the book out and I was thrilled to see my baby on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It felt like a victory.
As far as my publisher was concerned, unless I wanted to spend $70 per hour to have them promote it, their work was through. I was on my own. Bumbling into the world of self-promotion, a young writer who knew none of the rules, I quickly encountered some issues I hadn’t anticipated.
First of all, there are different levels of “real” when it comes to a book. A traditionally-published novel, in the eyes of booksellers and reviewers, is more legit than a self-published book. A self-published book and a book from a vanity press are pretty much the same thing, except you spend more money going the vanity press route.
My first reaction was that it all felt kind of snobby. Who cares where the book comes from? Shouldn’t it matter if it’s actually good? This “shades of reality” in the origin of a book continued to haunt me as I encountered my next issue.
If books aren’t returnable, booksellers are not likely to buy them—due to financial reasons. I didn’t know about returning books; it never came up in conversation with my publisher. This was a crushing blow to my odds of success.
There was also a level of resistance to accepting print-on-demand books. This is an attitude that still exists today, though it is slowly diminishing. To my mind, POD just seemed like a logical, efficient way of handling book production. No money wasted on warehousing stacks of books, no leftover books that didn’t sell cluttering up some office or apartment. It just made sense. But the book people out there did not see it that way. It felt like trying to get a foodie to order McDonald’s. I recall making that connection and suddenly feeling like my novel was nothing more than fast-food caliber.
In time, after only a handful of reviews and a lot of “sorry we don’t read PODs,” I gave up. I had run out of money, time, and energy and really just wanted to write something new. I told myself that this had been a learning experience. Then I asked myself, what had I learned?
The main thing I found myself thinking about was the image of that kid, looking at his incomplete werewolf book, saying it was bad writing. I thought that the biggest fault of self-publishing is the same issue with other aspects of the internet. “No editor” means no checks and balances, no filter. A lot of young writers have the same refrain when they get rejected, “It’s the industry, man, people just aren't ready for something edgy or original.”
Sometimes that’s true. Most of the time, however, it’s just the editor politely telling you your werewolf book is just bad writing. My next thought is that maybe the market—the big, bad, impossible market—is also that little kid deciding what’s good. Maybe self-published books, some of them, don’t go far in indie sales for the same reason larger publishers and agents take a pass. They’re just not up to snuff. I asked myself the hardest question of my entire life. Was American Bastards just not good enough? Whether the answer was yes or no, the result was the same. It was time to write something else.
There were a lot of other revelations from my first publishing experience. I learned that, for a fraction of the cost, I could have started my own publishing company and put the book out myself. I learned that if I was going to start making books, I would make sure they were always returnable so I—and other writers I published—could have a shot at getting their work into stores. I had learned a little about distribution, a lot about who to contact for reviews and who to skip. Most important of all, I had learned, by necessity, how to edit better, how to design images, how to edit photos in Photoshop, and so much more.
Coming up as a writer, my constant rejection had a particular phrase that I heard again and again in some variation, “You have talent, but you aren’t marketable.” In a moment of clarity and frustration, looking at everything that had just happened to me, I said, “Forget their market then, I’ll go make my own.”
Some Kind of Monster. Then I reacquired the rights to American Bastards.
It was mine again, finally. I worked with an old friend, someone who had inspired a main character in the book, and we made a new cover. He gave me illustrations for the chapter headings. I got the book set to a reasonable price, relaunched with retailers, set to “returnable” for the book stores. I did all of these things and it didn’t even cost me more than $300—ten times less than what I spent at Inkwater.
In the end, I had moved on as a writer and didn’t care about pursuing much with my first book, but I had it, it was under my own roof again, and I take it with me to readings and book events. I smile at it when I see it on The Subtopian’s website. Today, I have just published my third novel with a real publisher out of California, Montag Press, and I got to have that mythic, side-by-side experience of reworking my novel, Dystopia Boy, with a talented, objective person. It was a wonderful experience, but a hard, long road to get here.
The moral of the story: if you are thinking about giving money to someone else to publish a book, consider just spending that money on yourself. You likely will spend less and gain more because your investor, you, will actually care about what happens to the book. Above all, be the first person to honestly ask if the writing is actually good. If you don’t, someone else will, and bypassing the editors to self-publish may not save you. It might just be the readers that say, “This is just bad writing.”