Sunday, 13 September 2015

Writers Write by Naomi Elana Zener

Newspapers, trade publications, and the media became the harbingers of doom. The headlines were mired in gloom. “The Book Business is Dying,” read one headline. Another screamed “Self-Publish If You Want Your Book Read.” And, so on. Eric felt bewildered, outraged, despondent—a sheep without a flock. Abandoned by his first literary agent after she focused her energy on selling out by pitching young celebrities’ poorly ghostwritten books to traditional publishers, Eric felt as he was voted off the island.

“How can you pitch them over me?” Eric whined.

“Trust me,” his agent said. “These tent pole books sell, allowing publishers to be more speculative with first timers like you. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’m telling you that these easy sales are your career’s best friends.”

Six months later, Eric’s agent’s commissions off the swill she’d been pushing had amounted to millions, while Eric’s manuscript languished in slush piles littering editors’ offices around New York City. Finally, after much prodding at Eric’s end, his agent placed his novel at a small independent press that couldn’t afford to pay any advance. As a gesture of good faith, Eric’s agent waved her commission, while simultaneously waving goodbye to him as a client. He dreaded the thought of having to query agents anew, despising the rejection process. Yet, he took comfort in the fact that at least this time around when he sent his queries out into the ether, he’d be a published author, which he hoped would help him land a new and better agent who’d be committed to his career.

“So, what’s the marketing plan?” Eric asked his editor, in whom Eric placed all his hopeful eggs to help him achieve a successful career as an author, sat across from him at a dirty spoon where they held their infrequent meetings. The press being so small and having deep pockets staffed with people with short arms, there was no space available to meet with authors at the office.

“C’est what?” the editor chortled. Eric looked confused. “Dude, temper your expectations. We put out maybe ten titles a year that are each neglected as ugly, forgotten stepchildren. You are your book’s marketing plan.”

“What do you mean?” Eric asked.

“Self-promotion, baby, is the name of the game. You need to get to 2,000 plus followers on Twitter. Build a Facebook author page filled with great witticisms to draw more ‘likes.’ Get snapping on Instagram. Sell yourself and your book on LinkedIn. Say hello to Ello. Get it?”

Eric’s befuddled gaze was frozen.

“Oh, and your book must get reviewed.”

“How do I do that? I’m a writer, not a marketing expert.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to become one, and you’ve got a month’s head start until your book comes out. You need to have author profiles up on Goodreads and Amazon. They are an indie author’s, fuck any author’s, best friend.”

“But, I thought that Amazon was no author’s friend.”

“Dude, practically no one is buying books at the bricks and mortar spots anymore. So, while you still have to pimp yourself out to them, begging to do free readings, you have to make nice, no make love, to Amazon.”

Eric nodded his head.

“And, that means, look up all of the book reviewers living on both Amazon and Goodreads, including the ones reviewing coffee makers and fishing rods. You offer to send them copies of your book in exchange for a review. And, you’ll keep your fingers crossed that it will be positive, as in no less than 4 stars. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted your money on sending them books.”

“Wait, aren’t you sending the reviewers copies of my book?”

The editor was not amused.

“Seriously, man? Who do you think we are? If we didn’t pay you an advance, what makes you think we’re gonna dig into our civ-like pockets to eat the cost of printing and sending copies of your novel to reviewers, many of whom will likely pan it.”

“But, I thought you loved my book?”

“Don’t get me wrong. We do. It’s the stuff that Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker, Giller-prize winning dreams are made of, if we could be bothered to put the money and man hours behind submitting and supporting it to those awards for consideration. But, our P&L sheets weigh heavily on the loss side. So, to answer your question about what our marketing plan is for your book, in a word: none. We’ve got no plan to market your book. It’s on you. But, we’re here for emotional support, if we have time to get back to you.”

The editor took a sip from his tepid over-creamed coffee, looked down at his watch, and saw that he needed to leave.

“Look, I’ve gotta run, but I believe in your book and you as an author. Just get busy on social media, and the rest will take care of itself.”

“So, if I do all those things, my book will sell like Heisenberg’s blue meth?” Eric asked, searching for signs of faith and life in his editor’s cold, blue eyes.

“Not fucking likely. But, you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Eric hung his head. Feeling a pang of guilt, the editor wanted to cheer Eric up. “Buck up. You’ll probably sell a few hundred copies. Maybe more if you get your relatives to buy them. Talk soon.”

Eric’s editor made like the wind, and blew out of the diner. Eric loitered for twenty minutes, deflated. Staring at his empty water glass, his editor’s half-drunk coffee and empty breakfast plate, and the $4.25 cheque that the editor left for him to pick up, Eric reached into his pocket slowly drawing the last fin to his wallet’s name. With only a month until his book’s release, Eric’s anxiety was mounting to a level that no amount of Xanax could temper. Having used the remaining five bucks in his wallet to pay for his editor’s breakfast, Eric realized he’d have to walk home from the corner of Manhattan’s 46th and Park Avenue to the dodgy part of Brooklyn he called home.

Eric’s long walk home was not one that promised freedom, but one that resembled prison. He despised being social in any medium, but most especially online. He was a writer to his core. Not a Tweep, troll, blogger, sharer, liker, and certainly not one to participate in hangouts of any kind. A happy, hermetical Luddite, on a good day, Eric’s Twitter followers fluctuated between 75 and 76 Tweeps, and that depended on whether or not his mother had unfollowed him the night before. He took some solace in the fact that some heavyweight, critically acclaimed authors had given him great blurbs for his book jacket, in which they’d extolled the literary virtue of his magnum opus.

Midway across the Brooklyn Bridge, Eric stopped dead in his tracks. Looking out at the water, straddling the corporate and hipster worlds that confined him, he swore he’d do the opposite of what his editor demanded. I’m going to take a six-month hiatus from the world and write my next novel—a novel that a new agent will represent and sell to one of the big publishers that turn into a Pulitzer Prize winner. No more social media. Nada, zip, nothing, he thought to himself. Feeling slightly more optimistic—knowing that the best thing a writer can do is write in order to break free from the pressures of promotion—Eric trudged home prepared to shut out the outside world to focus only on his next masterpiece. But, just in case it might help, he set up a Facebook author page per his editor’s advice, before tuning out the outside world.

Or, at least, he semi-tuned out the outside world. Like most humans, Eric’s curiosity got the better of him, and two months after hitting both the bricks and mortar and the online bookshelves, he took a gander at the buzz circling his novel after it’s release. While his debut received some good reviews, it failed to gain any critical mass out of the gate since, as promised, his publisher gave him no marketing support. He logged into his Twitter account and Facebook page, feeling nauseous upon seeing that his Twitter followers had barely hit 200—forget reaching 2000 plus—and he’d merely garnered a pathetic 73 Likes on his Facebook page. He even checked his Facebook messages to find a particularly nuanced post from a reality and children’s TV show staff writer—a member of a Facebook writing group he’d joined—who felt the need to tell him that he didn’t know how to write. Period. Immediately after clicking on ‘delete,’ Eric called his mother and left her a voicemail message. He told her he was cancelling both of his phone lines and that he would be incommunicado for a long while, explaining that his future writing success depended on it. He then retreated into recesses of his laptop, to pound out his new novel, stalwart in his refusal to log into any of his social media accounts, including reading any emails from either his publisher or his mother, or read press of any kind about his debut novel, until his next one was finished.

Ten months later and four months past his self-imposed deadline, Eric finally remerged to see both the light shining over his Brooklyn walkup and the light emanating from his computer screen, like an angelic halo, when he logged into Twitter after his self-imposed exile to find that his Twitter followers jumped to 5432 followers. Even his own mother was still following him. Somewhat buoyed by the new state of the union, he took a gander at his Instagram account—something he never used because he hated having his picture taken, or even using a camera—to find that he had over 10,000 followers. Emboldened with courage of a lion, he decided it was high time to see if anyone on Goodreads or Amazon had deigned to read his book and give it even one star.

“Holy shit!” Eric cried out to his dying fichus. “Six thousand reviews? A solid four star rating on both Goodreads and Amazon? How can this be?”

Eric was on Cloud Nine. He continued down the blossoming garden path of wonder, googling himself to find he’d received critical praise from Publisher’s Weekly, Galley Cat, and even the Washington Post’s book critic.

“Ok, I’m no New York Times best-seller, but this is amazing,” Eric beamed prideful to no one, as he sat and stared at his computer screen, tented underneath the safety of the womb provided by his bed’s duvet.

Having cut off his phone lines, both land and cellular, months before when his bank account got depressively low, Eric finally logged into his email to discover that his inbox too was overflowing with messages from his publisher, his friends, and moreover, thirteen literary agents, each of whom were begging him to sign with them. He grabbed his coat and a quarter, and ran down ten flights of stairs to find the nearest payphone.

“Ma,” Eric boomed into the phone. “You’re never gonna guess what’s happened.”

“Who is this?” his mother replied.

“You’re hilarious. It’s me, Eric, your only child.”

A long silence ensued.

“Oh, the one who hasn’t spoken to me in almost a year? I almost forgot that I ever pushed you out of my vagina after thirty-seven hours of grueling labor, since you haven’t bothered to check in on me. I could’ve died and you wouldn’t have known”

“I didn’t stop reading the paper. I’d have seen the obits. Didn’t you get my voicemail message?”

“Of course I did. But, you clearly didn’t get mine. You were so depressed over your book and the publishing industry that I thought you might throw yourself over the Brooklyn Bridge.”

“Um, if you were that concerned, then why didn’t you come to see me?”

“What? Leave Palm Springs? I knew you were fine. You’re such a drama queen.”

“Well, let’s forget about that. I’m calling to tell you that I’ve done it. My book is huge, and a whole bunch of literary agents are trying to get me into bed, so to speak. I have thousands of followers on those social media sites I’d told you about, including Twitter. By the way, thanks for continuing to follow me.”

“Of course I follow you, you’re my son. And, it’s not like you tweeted anything that pissed me off,” his mother interrupted.

“Well, you stuck with me, so thank you. You’re the first person I wanted to share this big news with. Once I sign with a new agent, and show them my new book, I hope to have even bigger news to share with you.”

“May your new agent and novel set off a seven-figure bidding war amongst the big publishing houses. May it become the ‘IT’ book of the year when it comes out on the market. After all my hard work it better be.”

Eric was confused. He wrote the book, not his mother.

“Sorry mom, but what do you mean when you say ‘your hard work’?”

“Who do you think made you the media darling you’ve become?”

Eric was silent.

“When I heard your voicemail message, I immediately called you back and told you that I’d take care of things for you, like a good mother always does.”

“What did you do?”

“You think you and your little book suddenly became popular when you weren’t looking? I’ve been schlepping my arthritic ass across this great state of California over the past ten months, going from Internet café to Internet café, paying in cash, wearing disguises, opening thousands of dummy email accounts to follow you on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Shminterest, liking your Facebook page, writing four and five star reviews for your book on Goodreads and Amazon, and god knows what else, acting as your one-woman marketing team.”

Eric was dumbfounded.

“So, say something.”

“I don’t know what to say. Th, th, thank you?”

“Thank you? You can start by saying that when you get your next book deal, you’re gonna dedicate your novel to me, take me out for a nice steak dinner, and pay me  twenty percent of the advance you get for it and not one dime less. I am your mother after all. And, if you don’t, I’ll unfollow you on Twitter.”

© 2015. Naomi Elana Zener. All Rights Reserved.