Monday, September 30, 2019

Think You Can Write?

In 1965 the St. Petersburg Times asked seven local writers to submit pieces containing advice to would-be authors who had retired to the Suncoast. Long, long before the internet and eBooks produced a relatively inexpensive self-publishing industry, there were two ways to get a book into print: through a traditional publishing house or by way of a vanity press. The latter method required the author to pay for the publication of the book and the run was sent to the author, to market as he or she saw fit. (Many argue -- quite correctly -- that the online self-publishing industry is nothing more that the modern day vanity press.) Since most of these late-in-life would-be writers had no more knowledge of marketing than they did of writing, many of these runs were sold out of the back of station wagons in grocery store parking lots, given away to relatives, or moldered away in a dank Florida basement.

The seven writers who were contacted were Don Tracy of Clearwater(How Sleeps the Beast and many crime and historical novels), Joseph Hayes of Sarasota (The Desperate Hours), MacKindlay Kantor of Sarasota (Andersonville), Richard E. Glendinning of Sarasota (historical novels and pulp stories), Wyatt Blassingame of Anna Maria Island (hundreds of pulp stories and many juvenile books), Thomas Helm of Dunedin (many non-fiction books on the sea) and, of course, John D MacDonald. All contributed something, a long as you consider Kantor’s one sentence reply “something”: “Good God, boy, there’s no time now for this kind of crap!” The others were dutiful and sincere in their giving of advice, none more so than MacDonald, who’s piece was the longest and was placed last in the article. I’ve transcribed his contribution in its entirety below.

The article, titled “Think You Can Write?” was published in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement Sunday on July 11, 1965, two months before Bright Orange for the Shroud would hit the paperback racks. It was prefaced with this brief paragraph:

Nowhere is there a greater concentration of would-be authors than on the Suncoast, where thousands of retirees dream of writing their life stories. For them -- and for you, if you've also entertained such a dream -- Sunday asked seven famous Florida writers for advice. Here are their letters of reply.

Here’s MacDonald’s contribution:

When a man can afford from $3-5,000 to have a book published by a vanity press publisher, I see nothing particularly wrong about it, provided he understands just what he is doing.

Usually vanity books are adequately packaged. He has ample copies to inscribe to old friends. The general public will not know or care that he paid to have it published. His name on a book makes him an author. It is a tiny crumb of immortality, a hedge against the blackness, a reference source for his own blood line. And, during the television commercial, he can look over and see it on his book shelf.

He must understand that the odds against his ever breaking even and getting out of it without a substantial financial bruise are at the very least 100,000 to 1. The vanity house will plant some small ads, may even arrange some minor reviews in minor places...

One aspect of the venture may trouble him in time. A few will be sold. He gets a royalty statement. Royalties are generous – 40 per cent in some instances. The book is priced at $5. His statement will show a credit of $2 for each copy sold. Great! But it might occur to him that inasmuch as he has paid the cost of the publishing venture, one might more logically think of it as $3 royalty to the vanity publisher on each copy. They are in business to make money. And do.

Their advertising materials, once the would-be author is in direct touch with them, make much of the books the house has published which have more than broken even. These special instances occur in two ways:

(1.) When an author is not sufficiently diligent in exposing his book to the regular publishing houses, and thus hands over to the vanity press a genuinely saleable book. Twenty submissions and 20 rejections would be a safe indication it is not good enough for the regular publishers. This instance is as rare as a sleet storm in Tarpon Springs.

(2.) When an author has special leverage to use upon unwilling customers. Executives still active in large corporations have let it be known that buyers of their book will be looked on quite happily. Politicians have managed this in their own gentle ways also.

I suspect that the man who can afford a vanity venture might do better to operate on his own, once he has proven he cannot vend his wares to a regular publisher. With manuscript in hand, he can deal directly with area printers, and they can show him samples of the books they have done, and quote a price on X-number of copies. He will have books to give to friends and family. He will take a financial whipping, but possibly one a little less severe than he might get from a vanity press publisher. And the royalty on every sale would be 100 per cent, minus the profit margin to the retailer he has talked into giving it display space.

But if it is immortality he wants, I believe the man who can afford it might better take his $4,000, pop it into a good interest account, requesting that each year the savings institution send the interest by check to his alma mater, having explained to Old Ivy U. that it is to be a partial scholarship grant in his name.

On this business of buying dreams, two or three times each year someone will get in touch with me to say he has written a book, and it is full of exciting material, but it needs the "professional touch." And they seem quite hurt when I say I am not interested in that sort of arrangement, not on the 50-50 basis they suggest, nor on a 70-30 basis, nor even, to their consternation, on the basis that I would keep all of the profit.

Their confusion is the result of not understanding the profession I am in, its demands, obligations and requirements. Equal in value to the skills I have acquired over 20 years is the quality of the invention I can bring to my work. No writer worth his salt is going to have the slightest interest in dealing with someone else's materials - except when that person is a figure so unique, so important, so solidly placed in contemporary history that one senses a cultural obligation to deal with the substance of his life, to put it in a structured and meaningful form.

But it is always possible for the gullible to find some talentless hack who terms himself a professional, and can give a breathtaking appraisal of how, by working together, they will come up with a book that will rock the world. And then he says, "I always work on this basis, sir. You pay me $100 a week during the time it will take me to finish the job, and then when we split 50-50, you take all the royalties until you've gotten back what you've paid me, and then we split from then on." Beware!

There are two other classes of people very anxious to sell you a dream for good money. One is the reading-fee agent, who advertises in the writers' magazines. You do your unsaleable autobiography and send it in with $20. A glowing letter comes back. This is great work! We want to handle it! Appended is the list of changes we require. Accomplish them and send your fine manuscript back. With another $20 basic reading fee, and $11 for registration of the manuscript with our agency, and $25 for special personal criticism and suggestions for revision.

There have been agents who, after advertising and charging reading fees, have gradually hoisted themselves out of this questionable area and have become legitimate literary representatives. You can count them on your fingers without taking one hand out of your pocket. First class agencies neither charge fees nor solicit new clients. Beware!

And the little writing schools, beware of them too. Once upon a time my friend Baynard Kendrick conducted a survey for one of the writers' associations. He wrote a short story, making it just as impossibly bad as he could — pointless, vulgar, illiterate and unpunctuated. He arranged to have 11 copies of it scrawled in barely legible form in pencil on unruled yellow paper, and sent them to the 11 schools then advertising correspondence courses in writing. One, just one, had the grace, the ethical posture, the morality to write back and say, in effect, "Forget it."

Ten wrote letters of glowing analysis, detecting a great undeveloped talent, pleading with the unsung genius to send money and enroll at once. Beware!

To end this properly, I must now take the risk of sounding arrogant and pretentious. Perhaps I am. Writing is my profession. Twenty years, 51 books, 600 magazine stories, 30-million books sold all over the world ... and I am still battling for each small increment in skill I can possibly attain. Often I work so hard at it, so stubbornly, giving such a total effort that when an eight- or nine-hour day is over, I totter away from this machine too dazed and used up to even comprehend the dreary gruntings of the average television drama.

So somebody comes along with the beautific belief that because he has always written interesting letters to Sister Kate, he can certainly write a book.

If you follow this reasoning into another art form, the man who can whistle a tune can compose a symphony. Forget the years of studying theory, composition, harmony, structure. Just dash one off.

I believe that this innocent myth about writing a book is due to one paradox the layman does not comprehend. Writing that looks effortful is usually careless writing. The professional puts his blood, bone and viscera into the chore of smoothing, simplifying, creating a narrative flow and tempo. He takes out the lumps, over and over again. So the end product looks “easy.” Only another pro can understand what it cost to achieve a limpid simplicity.

I don't really think you can buy yourself a dream -- certainly not with money. But if you have a compulsion for the dream, if all your life you have read at least two or three books a week, if you have an IQ of 125-plus, if you are in good enough health to endure 10,000 sedentary hours, if you are content to put down the first million words for the purpose of merely learning the skills, if you are the sort of person whose opinions are not merely rehashed fragments of what you have read and listened to and if in some locked closet in your mind you are more intent on telling it true than selling it once it is told, then you might come up with a Book one day.

Anything else, no matter how impressively your wife decorates your writing room, is going to be a long long letter to Sister Kate, and if you can afford it, you can pay to get it published and give her a bound copy.

Best regards,
John D. MacDonald

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