The 2400 words that follow encapsulate three years of struggle to produce and publish a book into a somewhat coherent memoir. Should your interest start to flag as you skim through, don’t abandon ship; simply scroll to the end for a summation and a special offer.
~ Geoff Dutton
Once upon a time, when my life was in upheaval, in an urgent act of therapy I channeled my angst into a novel. It seemed necessary at the time, but as my situation improved my motivation ebbed and I abandoned it halfway through. Twenty years later, I began another one. It too was an act of therapy, but for society rather than myself. And because its topic—the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—was all over the news, I wanted it to be reality-driven, socially relevant, politically provocative, and an antidote to Islamophobia.
My unaccountable passion to tell that story and my determination to finish it drove me to write 120,000 words over 18 months and badger dozens of literary agents and publishers. After nine revisions, it weighed in at 105K words and just under 400 pages, a bit obese for a first novel as some literary types informed me. But it is what it is, I decided, and started peddling it again. Six months later—just a few days ago—it was published, but not as I had envisioned.
Let me tell you how all that went.
No doubt you recall the the international refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, when Afghani, Syrian, Iraqi, and African war refugees—Muslims mostly—fled their homelands to hoof it toward Mediterranean coasts and float in rickety crafts to Europe. Many gave up their life savings to smugglers or sold themselves into slavery to escape depredations by government forces, armed militias, and salafist warlords.
They came by the tens of thousands. Several thousand perished at sea. Others got stuck in limbo, interned in sprawling squalid compounds where they could not reunite with relatives or earn livings. Those that made the crossing carried on, pressing northward by foot, bus, train, and bicycle traversing arteries leading into the heart of Europe.
How quickly politicians battened down borders and pundits brayed that allowing entry to refugees (meaning Muslims) would entail grave risks of terrorist infiltration. A resurgent right ratcheted up fear that the migrants would mongrelize national identities and even lead to imposition of Sharia Law. Such fears were as rampant in America as in Europe, even though few Middle Eastern refugees ever made it that far. A year and a half hence, we have a Chief Executive who gleefully stirs up and legitimizes xenophobic sentiments. Fear and loathing of Muslims and other asylum seekers has become official American policy. Just this week, in fact, the US State Department dropped its quota for refugees to 30,000, the lowest it has been since the program began in the 1980s.
Although the exodus of refugees from Middle Eastern war zones has ebbed, those making their way today are more likely to be refused or penned up indefinitely. And thanks to the propagandizing of emboldened reactionary forces, even more citizens on both sides of the Atlantic now fret that towel-heads are bent on raping their daughters, destroying their institutions, and mowing down innocents with bombs, trucks, or automatic weapons.
My bubbling ire at know-nothings who condemned victims of brutal, senseless conflicts, many of which my country had instigated or stirred up, exploded. I vowed: I will give you your “Islamic extremist” who you say hates democracy and wants to destroy your way of life, and make you weep for him and began writing my rejoinder to hate and fear. I gave it my best shot. Now, it’s up to my book’s readers to decide if I am good for my word.
Some novelists sketch out the plot, inventory characters, and make an outline before starting to write. Some, I’m told, write the last chapter first, but that was also out of the question for me. My creative process has always been to plunge in with a nebulous vision of what I intend to produce and then wing it. At least I had a title; I would call the novel Mahmoud’s Jihad, after the title character, whose identity quickly emerged. As much as I liked that title, I eventually abandoned it after suspecting it might be a little intimidating and maybe not so marketable.
As I drafted chapters, I serialized them on an online writers community I was active in. Eventually responses dwindled, until by my 45th post only three or four hardy souls were still paying attention. Rather than leave first drafts twisting in the wind for all to see, I put them to sleep. By then I was with an editor, a friend who was a published author. As I fed her chapters, she gently alerted me to their deficiencies, and when she got a look at the last chapter she sternly informed me that the ending sucked. Someone needs to die, she insisted, suggesting several candidates, mercifully not including me.
I reluctantly agreed that the ending was an anticlimactic cop-out, but almost quit the project rather than kill off any of my darlings. Not yet willing to twist a knife in, I went back to the beginning and started revising. The second pass brought a new ending that transformed the story from farce to tragedy. After several more revisions, naïvely believing I had a viable manuscript, I started sending out synopses and chapters to literary agents and publishers, something that turned out to be a waste of everybody’s time.
My more intrepid friends volunteered to read the damned thing. Most of what they told me concerned little thing like quirks of characters, phrasing, plot inconsistencies and typos, not the arc of the plot or the manner of its telling. One gave the opinion that perhaps there were too many adjectives. What I garnered from them was helpful, but did not stop my inner critic from fretting that the story was hard to follow or swallow, or worse, boring. But after prolonged wrestling, I pinned my critic to the mat, croaking Whatever you say. Let the reading public decide.
Easy for him to say. He wouldn’t have to face consequences should my novel be circulated in certain quarters beyond the lapis waters of the Mediterranean Sea. You see, in an effort not to spoil things for you, I withheld critical plot points such as who was the target of my evildoers’ jerry-rigged operation. He’s characterized as someone who has ascended to the pinnacle of state power, belayed by dutiful minions who define sedition rather broadly. Should my obscure thriller come to their attention, it wouldn’t surprise me if I and possibly people close to me were declared persona non grata over there.
Hoping to duck trouble, I made the timorous decision to publish under a pen name and made up a good one. Yes, that would keep my name out of the news and my loved ones out of trouble. But reality dope-slapped me when a publisher wrote back with regrets, saying that while the work had merit, using a nom de plume would make the book impossible to publicize. Visions of appearing in bookstores and on TV sweating under a balaclava were enough to convince me he was right. The perp had to be me.
The Windup and Pitch
Spring was fainting into the sultry arms of summer when I buckled to reality. Conceding that not even a small press would take on publication—and, believe me, I had pestered the lot of them—I resigned myself to the ignominies and expenses of self-publishing. Having read all sorts of tips to budding novelists, I was aware that many of the outfits that print books for hire seldom delivered all they promised. Typesetting and production might be inferior, editorial and design services overpriced, distribution channels wanting, and worst of all, I could end up with a huge stack of books that would end up either shredded, remaindered, or molding in my basement.
But then I heard about co-publishing. Unlike the get-rich-quick schemes of vanity presses or casually indifferent DIY publishing facilitators, a smattering of publishers exist that truly partner with authors, who of course, still must pay. They are not your Amazon CreateSpace / Kindle or Ingram Spark type of operations to which authors upload finished manuscripts and cover art for books to be printed on demand or ground to bits for eBooks. No, they partner with authors at any and all stages of publication to put out books under their or an author’s imprint, and then inject them into distribution channels.
I spoke with representatives of two co-publishers whose reputations I had vetted and chose the one that cost less, had a better distribution network, and left me with all rights and royalties. After a frantic week of tweaking and proofreading, I turned my manuscript over to them in late July. Seven weeks hence, after dozens of emails to correct copy and vet cover designs, my book was a tangible thing. (Sort of; as copies are churned out only upon order, it only becomes a thing when someone decides to buy it.)
The rapidity of all this astounded me. Had I bagged a traditional publisher, that process would have taken one or two years from submission. Their editorial oversight would be punctuated by months of benign neglect. And had I landed a literary agent, it would take even longer. The agency would surely demand revisions and offer no guarantee that a publisher would accept my manuscript. As it was, it took three years from inspiration to publication. Short enough, according to some authors, but not by my lights; I’d had enough of the publishing industry’s insouciance and wanted my life to move on.
The Hard Sell
Now that I had product, all the marketing was on my shoulders, not that it wouldn’t have been under a Penguin or a Macmillan ten-page contract. There’s a difference, you know, between publishers and publicists. Publishers only go to bat for big-name authors. More obscure ones pay publicists hoping that once they make them famous royalties will accrue, but search their fine print in vain for any such promise.
So I gleaned marketing advice from self-publishing gurus on podcasts and blogs, and boiled it down to a modest set of tasks I could undertake to pitch the book:
- Develop a website for it (I had three sites, but none seemed right.)
- Cull my from my personal contacts a list for a marketing campaign (yielding about 100 names of people I hoped would forgive the spam)
- Impale that list on TinyLetter.com and draft a series of email blasts
- Set up author and book pages on Amazon (Did you know that 70% of all books sold come from amazon.com?)
- Join a trade group for independent publishers (I chose the Independent Book Publishers Association.)
- Generate collateral in the form of press releases, flyers, and “Rack cards”
- Line up appearances at book festivals, bookstores, and radio and TV shows
- Place ads in book catalogs and magazines (for the holidays, especially)
Conspicuous by its absence from this list is social media. All the book marketing gurus say you need a Facebook presence, plus Twitter and Instagram to “connect” with readers. I suppose so, but beyond the fact that I deplore Facebook and have vowed never to submit to its algorithms, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice half of every week updating social media feeds. Let other people talk up my book on their networks; I’ve got better things to do than to engineer one, only to be trolled but otherwise ignored.
But before tackling any of that, I needed to set up a business entity to receive royalties and disburse (tax-deductible) payments for goods and services related to publishing. A few days, 80 dollars, and a bit of paperwork got me a DBA (doing business as) certificate and a bank account for a publishing imprint I had decided to call Perfidy Press. (Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?)
Name in hand, I swiftly purchased a Web domain aptly named perfidy.press for the grand sum of $0.88 plus tax per year, and set up a hosting account for a few dollars more. It took less than a week to get a WordPress site up and running, partly populated by content I cribbed from my blog.
Two weeks before the book’s release (perversely chosen as September 11th) I gave an interview on a cable TV show at my local public access TV station. It went fairly well, despite suffering a bout of intestinal flu and a somewhat lugubrious host who had at least read my novel. After a spot of editing, I hoisted the video on YouTube and perfidy.press. Then, just ahead of release, with freshly printed copies in hand, I read from the book at our public library to a bemused audience of a dozen of my closest friends and relations and signed copies. Now I was an author at last.
Any day now, my publishers association will blast a pitch from me to some 3000 “media influencers” it keeps track of, at no small cost to me. They say to expect fewer than ten requests for copies from that barrage, but suppose one of them is from the NY Times? (But at least I can write it off as a business expense.) Then, in mid October, I’ll be at a booth at the Boston Book Festival (which draws over 10,000 visitors), pitching, reading and signing copies that attendees will presumably purchase.
The Personal Toll
All this frenetic activity over the course of a couple of months has, as you might expect, depleted my resources. It cost me about $3K out-of-pocket and a measure of vitality. And an intestinal parasite I had picked up subjected me to intense discomfort and subtracted 10 pounds of body mass and left me enervated for nearly a month during the end game.
I’m happy to say my body is on the mend now, but the respite I had hoped for that would allow me to entertain other pursuits has yet to materialize. I still feel driven to do everything in my power to get the word out about a book that I feel is a rare if not unique addition to the hyperactive and so often trite international political thriller genre.
So, if you are still reading, please let your friends know how special it is. Direct them to its website, where there’s a video interview to watch, a chapter to read, a downloadable flyer and a press release to pass on, and where they (and you) can sign up to receive a free eBook (while supplies last). Don’t just do it just for me; do it for truth, justice, ecumenical understanding, and liberation from oppression.