This winter I will hold a book with my name on the cover. After twenty-two years of dreaming, at least fourteen years of toiling at it, a couple of failed manuscripts, more than three bad relationships with literary agents, and well over a quarter of a million written (like, final draft written) words, I will be a published novelist. In the book, I write a little about the changing of dreams—about the evolution of the fantasy of a future baseball player or ballerina into the reality of an accountant or a computer programmer. The process of going from a spiral notebook scribbler to an ISBN owner has not been dissimilar.
I can remember the fluctuating dreams of being an aspiring writer in my teens and early twenties. It was like the fluidity of a middle school persona, shifting with each new author I idolized. And my level of understanding of the publishing industry was so blissfully low. I was like that person you know who whistles a lot. If you ever ask yourself, how nice must it be to walk around like such a stupid asshole with so little to stress you out that you can whistle a jaunty little tune … Well, I can definitively tell you, now that I know much more about the publishing industry, that, yes it is nice. Very nice. The crazy thing is, though, that no matter how far behind the curtain any of us go, most of us still hold tight to that analogy of the big name publisher to the major leagues. We all want the big contract. But, in my experience, it’s not baseball. It’s more like picking a school for your kid. There is no perfect school for everyone. There is only the right fit for each individual student. Not every child fits in a private school or a public school or a charter school. And not every book fits in a big house or an indie or a university. At some point in my process of seeking a home for my most recent manuscript, I came to the decision that an independent publisher was the right fit for me. I was so sure that I (very early on) abandoned any and all search for an agent, essentially killing any chance of landing the big publishing contract. I ended up partnering with Pandamoon Publishing, out of Austin, TX. And this week, I felt completely validated in the choice I made.
Pandamoon is a little different as publishers go. They strive to be different. From our first conversation, the owner described to me her philosophy on book marketing—being willing to try different approaches so that she can place books into promotional windows that are not oversaturated with titles. Although I understood it and appreciated it at the time, it didn’t sink in until I was face to face with an example. During a recent meeting with one of the marketing directors at Pandamoon, he excitedly shared with us an opportunity to partner with a charity organization. To be honest, I almost zoned out during the first part of his pitch. It wasn’t a charity that connects with me personally—not that I don’t care, but there are those of us in the world with only enough empathy to invest in a limited number of sad-song-two-minute commercials. At a certain point, though, he explained how this was an opportunity to distribute our books to people in a very unique need of books to read. Not only would it make us all feel good about lending our talents in a selfless, helpful fashion (even the blackened-souled, dead-eyed writers among us … me, that’s probably only me), but it would also increase our readership, possibly leading to some word-of-mouth marketing. It was a risk, make no mistake. We were talking about giving away a potentially vast number of digital copies of our books. But risk … risk is, I realized in that moment, one thing that makes me love my publisher.
There was a basketball game I remember watching a few years back. I believe it was the Knicks and Bobcats, and I believe this is a J.R. Smith story (but that may be me wanting every basketball story to be a J.R. Smith story). Regardless, whoever the player was—we’re going to say it was J.R. Smith—had played a terrible game. He made the first three that he took, I believe, but then he missed nine or ten in a row. Missed ugly. He was benched for long stretches. He looked frustrated at multiple points. Terrible game. As the game wound down to its final seconds, the Bobcats managed to tip in a miss that put them up by one point. The Knicks called timeout and loaded the court with shooters. If I remember correctly, there was less than a second on the clock—only enough time to catch, turn, and jack it. Despite his struggles, there was no question that J.R. Smith was one of the five best shooters on the Knicks. Hell, it was the Knicks. Spike Lee might have been one of the five best shooters on that bench. It was a given that he would be out there. When the whistle blew, J.R. Smith curled off a screen and found space in the corner. Having no other options, whoever was in-bounding the ball (he was probably foreign, over-drafted, and is now selling cars … sorry, no more Knicks jokes) passed it to J.R. He caught it, turned, and jacked it. No hesitation. Not a thought in his crazy-ass head that didn’t involve that ball finding net. He had missed ten shots in a row, at least one was an air ball. But the key here is that J.R. Smith had become so accustomed to taking risks on the basketball court that he had no fear of doing so when it counted. Of course, he made the shot. The Knicks won by two. J.R. did some crazy dance or sat down in the first row and ordered a beer or something. Then they traded him. Because … Knicks. This is the story that came to mind this week though. I want my publisher to be J.R. Smith. I want to see that crazy-ass fire in the eye that says, I’ll take the shot … I’ll take every damn shot … and I’ll make it.
Even when you don’t make it. This shot—the idea with the charitable distribution of books—it tanked. It went south in less than a day. This is the part of this post where I have to be very careful. At its heart, this charity is gold. These are guys (yep, guys … not a mistake) who are trying to do good things for deserving people. But we (Pandamoon) discovered that there are some fundamental differences between our core beliefs and the misogynistic ideas hovering over this group like a funky cloud of Axe Body Spray. Again, I’m being careful. I DO NOT want to speak disparagingly about a charity which is doing good things. My focus is celebrating qualities I admire in my publisher. So I don’t want to get too deep into specifics in order to not out the charity. I will say that there is a connection between this charity and the video game industry. And I will say that Gamergate became very real for me in light of recent events. Pandamoon publishes a variety of books. Some of those books are romance novels. The guys (guys) involved in the charity (I do find it important to point out that it was not ALL the guys running the charity, but enough) exposed some of their own feelings about romance novels, gender stereotypes, women … you get the point, I’m sure. In light of the events of Gamergate, my hope as a male feminist (that’s what fathering two daughters does to you … or SHOULD do to you) was that the male-dominated video game community would be publicly shamed into either changing their collective mindset or, at the very least, doing a better job of bullshitting us all. Apparently, they may not be making an effort to do either.
My publisher, thankfully, is. The marketing director brokering this deal for us (male, for the record, but that shouldn’t matter … what matters more is that he, himself, has been a self-professed member of the gaming community) learned of these archaic beliefs less than a day after he told us all about this exciting risk he had taken. Any of us can imagine the embarrassment of having to turn around and say, almost immediately, Never mind, you guys. What he did, though, was exactly that. And, with his actions, I realized another quality that makes me love my publisher: principles. We all want to surround ourselves with people who share similar values. It is exceedingly rare, however, to partner with an organization that will so unflinchingly take a stand based on a shared set of values. Could this partnership with this charity have paid dividends to Pandamoon writers? Sure. It’s the very reason I admired it as a risk. But when the values of the people (guys) running that charity conflicted with those of Pandamoon, thoughts of possible book sales never crossed my publisher’s mind(s). No hesitation. It was a classic case of this is more important than any of that.
Everything above is exponentially cheesier than I ever get when writing about anything. I basically just wrote a love letter to my damn publishing company. I rolled my eyes a little at myself even typing that last sentence. But it is important to realize and it’s important to say out loud (print, whatever) the qualities we admire in the people with whom we partner. Analyzing it is important. Talking about it is important. When we start to simply accept things, overlook things, roll our eyes quietly and mumble things under our breath, we end up with situations like Gamergate. We end up too afraid to take that last shot. I love my publisher. And I’m not afraid to say it (write it) (self-shaming eye roll emoticon).