A Marketer Ate My Baby! [If My Baby Was a Book and Not Actually *My* Book]

Pantsless Turgidity
Artist’s interpretation of a romance novel cover.

There is rarely a day that goes by when I don’t feel grateful for my ability to self-publish via the internet. I take a staunch no-advertising stance (any promotional material I share here is due to a personal belief and/or interest in the Thing In Question) and I love being the end-all and be-all of what gets posted in my corner of the virtual universe. Like may people who share their writing and art on the web, I’ve reverse-engineered my Dead Tree Publication bylines by making those connections via the web.  I also know that more people have seen my thoughts on how American Apparel ads look like Eurotrash movies than will ever read my way-more-laboriously-researched pieces in Ultra Violent Magazine.

I feel lucky to have the opportunity to get my work out there without ever dealing with the mainstream publishing industry, because fuck those guys. I’ve seen the way that shit works firsthand and I lack the intestinal fortitude to Go Pro.

When I was a horrible, self-centered tween and teenager (not to be confused with my current state of horrible, self-centered grown-ass woman-dom), my mother typed away at her novel, first on one of those Brother word processor/typewriter combo devices (that took hours to print out school papers, leading to many late nights and lots of nailbiting from this author) and later on an under-powered Macintosh bought secondhand from the local public school. Inspired by Twentieth Century Gothics written by authors like Daphne du Maurier and Joyce Carol Oates, my mother crafted a story that blended mystery, romance and a flavoring of the supernatural. She was well-versed in the tools of genre convention and manipulated them to fit with her contemporary setting.

Once the book was complete, she started the grueling process of printing out and submitting her manuscript to publishers and agents. I’m not exaggerating when I describe this process as epic–that word processor was the level-worst, requiring one to stand by and feed paper into its greedy jaws a sheet at a time, for the duration of the print process. After what felt like scores of submissions, an agent liked what she’d read and agreed to represent the book, leading to having it picked up by a major publisher.

Sadly for her, it was the 90s and Gothic Romances were out of fashion. In order to prep the book for publication, textural elements were removed and altered (in contrast, I would stab a motherfucker with a letter opener if s/he suggested I should make my characters in Super Coven “sexier”). My mother dutifully worked to incorporate these adjustments and at long last, the manuscript became an Official Novel.

An official, marketable novel.

On Christmas Eve, a manila envelope arrived from the publisher, promising to contain the cover art for my mother’s book. She was excited and nervous to reveal the imagery that had been chosen to represent her work. Standing by as she cut open the envelope, I watched as she pulled the glossy printout from its sleeve… and started to cry. Honest-to-god tears, and not of the happy variety. I snatched the printout from her and beheld the glistening, chitinous abdomen of a Hunk. What the 90s lacked in Gothic Romance, they more than made up for in Fabio. At the moment The Cover Hunk was revealed, my mother realized that this wasn’t her book anymore, and that it had been sold for what amounted to a paltry-ass sum.

There were a couple of book signings, and attendance at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference. The RWA conference was its own brand of weirdness–I remember her calling and telling me how out-of-place she felt in her subdued dress (she was very Martha Stewart in presentation) while her friends and colleagues were armored in sequined gowns and enormous up-dos. She did get to meet Hunk Archetype Fabio, who made quite a positive impression by being patient and charming with the crowds of fans in attendance (to this day, even though I have never met him, I feel very well-disposed towards Fabio as a result of my mother’s anecdote).

Interestingly enough, one of the things my mother learned during her involvement with RWA was that the authors who made romance-writing their career rarely wrote passion projects. In fact, “Category Romances” (people of a similar age to mine will remember spinning racks of these by the checkout at the grocery store) are quite literally written in accordance to a checklist. The authors are expected to write quickly and to-spec, and the experience is closer to that of a corporate PR copywriter than it is to the romanticized image of long nights, garrets and starvation. The ability to write Category Romance virtually precludes starvation–make no mistake that those authors work hard; it’s just a different kind of work from the creative audacity one might imagine as integral to writing fiction.

My mother continued to write, and finished at least two additional novels that she shopped around gingerly. Perhaps these other novels didn’t execute the right genre conventions, rendering them un-sellable, but whatever the case, my mother only ever published one novel. At one point, she got in touch with the artist responsible for Cover Hunk and was shown the photos that served as reference. I remember her telling me that she was impressed that the artist was able to imbue the knucklehead in the photos with the glimmer of intelligence she saw in the finished painting. She was crazy-great at finding silver linings. I give her a lot of credit for continuing to write the stories she felt passionately about, but it’s a bummer that she didn’t get to share them with readers.

What all this means to me is that I’m grateful I don’t have to Go Pro with my passion projects since I have the option of getting my work out there cheaply and efficiently on the internet. Once you accept money from an organization for your work, it’s no longer your work–part of accepting that cash is accepting the fact that other people will be tinkering with what you’ve created. Each person has to determine how comfortable s/he with that, and I’ve chosen to self-publish my personal work so I can be as awful and un-sell-able as I want to be. The only filthy marketer who’s going to shape my work is gonna be me, dammit!

8 thoughts on “A Marketer Ate My Baby! [If My Baby Was a Book and Not Actually *My* Book]”

  1. I hope this piece is widely-read. Every day, it seems, I’m asked for advice by writers (not all of them young) on how to go pro… and I advise them, to a man (and woman), “don’t do it!” I’m not just trying to throw off the posse (even those who are asking, in effect, to take my work away from me and make it theirs). Sure, it’s possible to realize your dream and write for a living but there’s a cost not many are willing to pay. I sort of exist in a middle ground between writers who can’t get published and those who can, but only because they make a genuine living writing the dullest, most corporate-driven material in the world. Being caught in the middle means I’m published, widely-read, I write what I want, and I make almost nothing. So we’re kind of saying the same thing. If you’re going to resign yourself to a soul-less living, make decent money and write what you like on the side. I know many a published author who is doing this and their work is better than the garret-dwelling Bohemian.

    1. Thanks, Richard–it sounds like we are most definitely on a similar wavelength with this. It’s such a deeply personal choice, and I think there’s a basic misunderstanding of what it really means to turn the writing you love into the writing that pays. There’s a LOT of compromise, and if I’m going to be compromising anyway, I’m going to do it for a nice paycheck, you know? Besides, I think I’m so caught up in this weirdo microcosm of friends & acquaintances that my idea of what’s commercially viable is probably all KINDS of fucked up at this point!

  2. This is marvelously written. Your mom’s account of the RWA and the marketing process reminds me of a book I read – for interest, not because I wanted to write a novel – called “How To Write A Romance (And Get It Published).” I read it when I was in my mid-teens and still hooked on trashy Fabio-cover romances, and I recall being surprised at how slick and manipulative the writer made the whole business sound, with absolute sincerity and not a trace of cynicism.

    1. Thank you so much! Your recounting of that book is EXACTLY reflective of the people I’ve known who write this kind of fiction for a living–it’s not that they’re cynical, it’s just that they’ve found out how to turn their skill into a living. They just don’t view it as being this grand. creative pursuit; it’s a fun job they do, with the same kind of discipline that people who dig their day-jobs have.

  3. Since what I’m currently working on is both about alternative sexualities and pornographic as all hell, there’s not a prayer that I’ll ever publish it with a “legit” publisher, but fuck it, I don’t care. I have a business plan and it’s one that doesn’t include selling my soul to the plantation of late capitalism. Viva la revolución!

    1. That’s awesome as hell, Christi and I cannot wait to see the final result! I love the peeks I’ve gotten thus far. And seriously, I mean it when I say “fuck those guys” to mainstream publishers–in the world we’re living in now, it’s not necessary to getting one’s thoughts out there, and even turning that into a viable living. Cutting out all those middle-people results in a net gain for actual creators.

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