Saturday, November 21, 2009

Publishing: Anyone Can Play, Part 1

By Pat Browning

This week’s news: Harlequin created a new imprint, Harlequin Horizons, for self-publishing. A spokesman said it was "a way to participate in the fast-growing self-publishing market … ” You can read the full New York Times article at

Meanwhile, back in California … there’s news from Thomas B. Sawyer, one of my favorite writers. His new thriller, NO PLACE TO RUN, was No. 1 on the list of Malibu’s Top Ten Books for the first week of November.

 The new novel is also featured in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (The Jury Box by Jon L. Breen):

“Thomas B. Sawyer: No Place to Run, Sterling & Ross, $14.95. Claudia Lawrence, twenty-four, is snatched from her happy life, along with her parents and teenage brother, when a secret revealed by a client to her lawyer father Bill lands them all in the witness protection program. The parents are murdered, and the kids go on the run, with government agents as the enemy. However you feel about 9/11 conspiracy theories, this is a model pursuit thriller, with mystery, menace, strong characters, and cross-cutting action managed with a screenwriter's flair. (Murder, She Wrote, of which Sawyer was head writer, was nothing like this.)”

Not bad for a guy whose first novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, was rejected by 22 agents before Sawyer lost patience and published it through iUniverse.

That was 10 years ago. I read the book on the iUniverse web site and was so enthralled that I ordered the book immediately. I’ve been a Tom Sawyer friend and fan ever since, and I still have that copy. It was POD – print on demand – when it was a whole new and almost universally scorned concept.

iUniverse was barely a year old when Tom published his book. I was part of an online group that – as I recall – was sponsored by iUniverse. The pros and cons of self-publishing were cussed and discussed. The more I heard, the better it sounded: quick turnaround for a book costing $99.

iUniverse also had a live chat room, the Café. On May 15, 2001, the guest was Thomas B. Sawyer, calling in from Malibu. I still have my transcript printout.

In the chat, Sawyer explained how he ended up with iUniverse. On rejections of his manuscript for THE SIXTEENTH MAN: “They ranged from, 'Your book doesn't work,' to 'I didn't love it QUITE enough to sell it, but I'm sure you'll find somebody who does,' to the capper from a major agent whose name will remain annonymous who said, 'I have yet to see a screenwriter who can write a novel, but you do show promise, so if you're willing to work with me, I'll teach you to write.' Fortunately, that's when I saw the ad for iUniverse.”

Sawyer added: “I also realize, having gone through this, if I had not been a professional of many years, didn't have a bullet proof ego, this stuff could destroy you... It makes me feel very sorry for the people who were vulnerable to it. You really have to believe in your work.”

Later that year, the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Sawyer. Excerpts:

Wall Street Journal – November 13, 2001
Agents, Editors, Publishers – Who Needs 'Em?
By Matthew Gurewitsch

Thomas B. Sawyer is the author of the thriller "The Sixteenth Man." He is also its publisher, because he was too impatient to wait for a creaky, old-line house to do the job. And because modern technology made it easy for an amateur to navigate the world of typesetting, printing, binding and inefficient bookstores.

Two years in the writing, "The Sixteenth Man" was Mr. Sawyer's first novel after two decades in Hollywood, where as head writer on "Murder, She Wrote" he scripted 24 episodes and plotted some 80 more, collecting a cool $5 million in the process.

In the real world, Mr. Sawyer might still be angling for an agent. "I sit on panels at these conventions with novelists whose work I know," he marvels, "novelists with five or six well-reviewed, well-received books in print. And they have day jobs! In Hollywood, they threw money at me, and I thought that's what writing was. But in this country, unless you're one of the six authors who sell 94% of the books, you're in a world of nickels and dimes."

That was then. When I e-mailed Tom this week for permission to quote him on his experience with iUniverse, he added these comments:

“When I spotted an advertisement for iUniverse -- then very early in the history of POD -- and visited their website, I immediately saw that it was a new wrinkle in vanity publishing, a path I was unwilling to pursue. So I emailed them with my credits, logline and synopsis, said I wasn't interested in paying them, but that I might be willing to serve as their poster-boy for the professional writer who had chosen to thumb his nose at the system. They responded affirmatively 25 minutes later (call me ‘shallow,’ but I admit to being a pushover for that sort of thing).

“Am I glad I did it that way? Yes and no. The no-part: no bookstore sales. The yes: with the excellent inventive help of my publicist, Milt Kahn, and that of iUniverse, THE SIXTEENTH MAN became one of the all-time bestselling POD books.

“For my new novel, NO PLACE TO RUN, I ‘played the game,’ had an agent, sold it to a conventional house. It took two years to find a publisher, Sterling & Ross (the book is a bit subversive), and another 18 months for it to debut. Am I glad I overcame (‘suppressed’ says it better) my impatience? Yes. I am now ‘legitimate.’”

Tom turns out so much work one might wonder if he’s really twins. His how-to book, FICTION WRITING DEMYSTIFIED, is one of three or four that I would never be without. He teaches writing, both online and in workshops. He and Will Holt wrote the book and lyrics of an opera. That’s not a typo. They wrote an opera – JACK –about the life of John F. Kennedy.

From the synopsis at Sawyer’s web site:“… the almost Shakespearean story of a complex, deeply conflicted yet loving relationship – between an obsessed, profoundly driven father, and his near-textbook second son – and how that young man, in overcoming those and other challenges, would ultimately provoke his own assassination.”

I have a 14-minute video of highlights from the 1995 production of JACK at the University of Oklahoma. It’s dazzling to watch and very moving. A detailed synopsis can be read at the web site:

Sunday, Part 2. Honest questions and honest answers about self-publishing from Debbi Mack and Richard Hicks.

Debbi Mack is the owner of Mack Research and Writing, providing corporate communications, web content, and white papers. She has just republished her first mystery, IDENTITY CRISIS, to good reviews.

Richard Hicks is a former trial attorney who has published several books with Xlibris. His latest novel, MURDER BY THE NUMBERS, is an Enneagram mystery.

1 comment:

jenny milchman said...

I appreciate hearing this candid look at self and traditional publishing. It's amazing to me how no two writers follow the same path in this crazy business...