Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic
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(Will complete with other cover art later. BF wants supper!)
I've said for a number of years that I will never ever ever go back to traditional publishing. When I discovered author-controlled digital publishing in 2011 or so, I thought I'd gone to heaven. I wish in the intervening years that I had been able to write more and publish more, but mostly that's my own fault. I love self-publishing. I love it all to pieces.
My route to self-publishing is probably not unique, but I wanted to throw some information out to my friends and readers and even to other writers just so you will know how I arrived here and why I so thoroughly loathe traditional publishing. You might as well pop a big bowl of pop corn or open a nice bottle of wine. This isn't going to be short.
I began writing historical romance with the serious intention of publication in about 1975, with a book titled The Ivory Rose. It remains unpublished, and probably destined to remain that way. It has its strengths and weaknesses, mostly weaknesses. I shopped it around a bit, even paid an agent, but nothing happened. By 1977 I had two babies to take care of as well as working full-time, so I didn't do a lot of writing until about 1980, when I started another historical titled Legacy of Honor. The babies were a little older but I was still working. It took me two years to write Legacy, and another two years to find a willing publisher. Leisure Books published it in 1985.
I had wanted to be a writer as long as I could remember, and the publication of Legacy was my validation. I was ecstatic. Though I had made some major revisions to the book over its four year gestation -- some on my own and some at the suggestion of editors who had ultimately rejected it, plus trimming some excess verbiage here and there to fit Leisure's length requirements -- 99.9% of what was published was my own work. The other 0.1%, to be blunt, was Leisure's typos. Still, I didn't complain. I was published, I'd been paid for it, the cover wasn't hideous.
I had more difficulties with my next book, Firefly. Somehow or other, I landed one of the biggest agents in the business, Richard Curtis, but when he managed to sell the book to a rather odd cooperative publishing venture called Pageant Books, the editing experience was pretty awful and Curtis seemed reluctant to back me up on certain issues. Ultimately, however, the book was published in 1988 and went on to some success. It didn't make me a household name, but it won an award and people who read it seemed to remember it with fondness.
There followed another dry spell until I sold another book to Zebra, which was published as Secret Fires. My editor for this book, Carin Ritter, changed about four lines from my original manuscript, and all the changes were silly, taking out "naughty" language and making it "nice," which also took the humor out of it. Again, I didn't argue, and the book was published in 1991.
And yes, there's a reason why I'm going into all this detail.
My next sale was another single book contract to Zebra, this time for the book that would be titled Desire's Slave. A truly terrible title, but I had a new editor and wasn't going to argue. She asked me at one point if there was a bearskin rug in the story because she wanted to put it in the cover art. I said I'd write one in, and I did. The cover is pretty awful, and the rug doesn't show up.
But what bothered me was that the editing was awful, too. I had had to make some changes -- I'm not sure now exactly what the reason was -- and they had altered a certain sequence of events. Some crucial dialogue was messed up as a result. Though I had fixed it, the change wasn't made when I got the page proofs. And a bizarre accident left the original, messed up dialogue in the final edition. How the editor missed it, I don't know. I was mortified to find it in the print version.
After that, I sold again to Zebra, this time a two-book contract, for which I had only the first book in progress. The editor who bought the book, John Scognamiglio, moved on and I was assigned to Denise Little. The book I had titled Shadows by Starlight ended up as Starlight Seduction. I wasn't happy. When I saw the cover -- Denise had promised a beautiful step-back -- I was livid. An antique gaslamp and big pink roses? There were neither a gaslamp or roses in the story!
Denise also meddled with the writing, and not in substantive ways. She split compound sentences into short, choppy Hemingway-esque bits. She combined short, emphatic bits into incongruous compound sentences. It felt as if she were meddling for the sake of meddling. I was not a happy camper.
But even that nonsense was tolerable, if irritating. There were other changes that were not.
In one particular scene, a character takes a shotgun into a barn and fires it. Denise changed one reference to the weapon to a rifle. Now, I'm not a firearms expert, but I know the difference between a rifle and a shotgun and I know they're not interchangeable. I insisted the "rifle" be changed back to "shotgun," and Denise yelled at me over the phone, angrily informing me that she was from Texas and she knew guns!
There were a few other tidbits like that. I persisted and I won, on all counts. I did not like Denise, however, and we were already having issues about the second book on the contract.
After three westerns, I'd taken my creative effort back to England with a story I was calling Escape to Ecstasy. Denise didn't like that -- she said there was a very famous porn film with that title -- but she hadn't yet come up with something "better." I was really struggling to write this book because I was afraid of what she'd do to it.
In the meantime, however, I had come up with another book idea.
Firefly had come to me in a flash -- pun intended -- and so did this new book. The whole thing was just there, in my head, beginning to end. I was in love with it the way I'd been in love with Firefly and I couldn't wait to write it.
I took the outline and sample chapters with me to the 1991 New Orleans RWA conference in hopes of finding a new agent. I had had some really bad experiences with agents after leaving Richard Curtis -- including an agent who sent me rubber checks but who was protected by RWA! -- but too many people were telling me I needed an agent if I wanted to get out of the Zebra ghetto. I was introduced to an agent who told me she wasn't taking on any new clients at all but she would take a look at my samples over lunch.
She, too, fell in love with Moonsilver, and agreed to represent me. "Don't give this to Zebra," she told me. "It's too good for them."
She began shopping it around, while I continued to work on Escape for Denise Little. It wasn't going well.
Then came the day my agent sent me a rejection letter with a card attached saying something like "Frame this!" (I'll dig in my files and scan it later.)
The letter was from editor Caroline Tolley at Pocket Books. She loved Moonsilver, loved my writing, but didn't have room on her list for it. We should all get such glowing rejection letters! I pinned it to my bulletin board, and kept on writing.
A year or so later, for whatever reason, my agent sent Moonsilver to Tolley again. This time there was room on her list. We entered into negotiations. An offer was made. The offer was accepted. Moonsilver, the book of my heart, was going to be published by Pocket Books. I was out of the Zebra ghetto. There were still some hoops to be jumped through, and some financial considerations -- I had to buy back the second book from Zebra and it's never been finished or published -- but I was okay with all of that.
The contract from Pocket, however, didn't arrive. Weeks and then months went by, but no contract. That meant no advance. That meant it could still be cancelled. I was nervous and growing impatient. I was starting to have doubts about my agent, too.
Then, finally, things started to come together. The contract was finalized. We were moving forward.
Off the top of my head, I don't remember the exact sequence of events, though I could certainly look them up. Maybe I recorded it in an earlier post here on BL or maybe on my blogger blog, but it doesn't really matter all that much. But on the day the deal was finalized, either by way of the contract being signed or whatever, Caroline Tolley got on the Long Island Rail Road to head home after work and some guy in the car started shooting.
When it was over, six people were dead.
The trauma of witnessing the event, I was later told, devastated Tolley. She was off work for an extended period, and it seemed to have altered the way she thought about both me and my book.
What was proposed as a big, fat book of 130,00 to 150,000 words was now restricted to 100,000. Even though there were to be scenes in which the female main character was not present, Tolley wanted everything from her single point of view. She wanted more description of the characters, but not by way of looking in mirrors or other characters' POV. And when I asked her in all honesty how was I supposed to do that, she screamed (on the phone) and said, "Then we just won't have any description at all!"
She wanted me to submit each chapter as it was written and wait for her approval before writing more. I told her that wasn't possible because I often wrote in first person, present tense for drafting, with insertions and notes, and how could I write a single chapter and then wait two or three weeks for her approval before continuing?
I could tell she had grown to hate me and hate the book. I was devastated. But as publication time neared, she asked me for suggestions on cover art and I hoped maybe we were back on the right track. Before the 1994 RWA conference in New York, she told me she had the cover and it was gorgeous and "to die for."
The suggestions I had given her were based on the cover of another book for which I knew she had been the editor and which had a similar highwayman/outlaw theme. I told her stylized trees against a full moon, a rearing horse, maybe some snow. She wanted inanimate objects -- the trend in the mid 1990s was away from the clinch covers and toward more arty themes -- so I mentioned the highwayman's silk mask, the sapphire necklace, and perhaps the dueling pistols.
All of those items were clearly described in the text, but especially the mask and the necklace.
At the Simon & Schuster breakfast during the conference, Caroline presented me with the cover "to die for." In front of half a dozen star authors, I was speechless. I wanted to cry. The cover was horrible, and I knew it.
The stylized trees looked like seaweed. The strip of black silk the highwayman had tied over his eyes was now a plastic New Orleans Mardi Gras mask trimmed with pearls. The necklace was all wrong. The pastel colors were just the opposite of what this dark story demanded. And the flowers! Ugly, ugly flowers that were nowhere in the book!
Tolley knew I hated it. There was no way I could disguise (sorry) my horror.
I walked back to the hotel from that breakfast with Judy Spagnola, who at the time was one of the main book buyers for Waldenbooks, if I remember correctly. I showed her the cover and asked her what she thought.
"Do you want my honest opinion?" she asked.
"Of course I do!" I answered.
"It sucks. This cover will kill your book."
I couldn't argue with her, because I thought the same thing.
And I no longer cared about the book. I just didn't care.
After getting a short extension, I delivered the manuscript and Moonsilver went into production. I began work on the second contracted book, to be titled Touchstone, but my heart wasn't in it. By then I knew Tolley hated me and hated my book -- she made a point of snubbing me at a subsequent RWA conference -- and my career was over.
(I won't even go into the way she treated me at the NYC conference, from spilling marinara sauce on me to telling me what to eat. The saga of the blue steak will have to wait for another blog post.)
I delivered the second book and rejected the first proposed cover, which featured a portrait of George Washington's ugly stepbrother. The end result for Touchstone was flowered wallpaper, a candle, and a strand of pearls. I knew the book would go nowhere.
I sent in an option book of some sort, I have no idea now what it was, and Tolley rejected it. That ended my career at Pocket Books, and when you're rejected at the top, the lower tier publishers don't want you. I walked away from writing for publication in 1996, went back to college in 1998, and there you have it.
Except for one thing.
When I stumbled upon the information on the All About Romance site regarding digital self publishing, somewhere around 2011, my very first thought was about Moonsilver. I could at last write it the way I had originally intended and put it out there as my book, not the truncated jumble Pocket Books had published.
Getting the rights reverted was an issue. Zebra didn't even answer my query, so that meant I had the rights to those three books back. I don't think Pageant did anything either, so I had Firefly, too. Dorchester/Leisure was in the process of final bankruptcy, but I eventually got that cleared as well.
I started the republishing with a revised version of Desire's Slave, returning it to something closer to the original title, so that now it's Secrets to Surrender. The cover art cost me WAY more than I had intended, but I'm actually kind of happy with it anyway. Not that I ever made that much back on the Kindle edition, but at least I fixed all the editing errors.
Then I did the same with Firefly. Again, I'm not 100% happy with the cover, but it has some little personal goodies in it that I'm delighted with, and since I had complete control over it, I can't complain.
Power over one's career can be a heady thing!
Then I went after the rights to Moonsilver and Touchstone.
My contract from 1993 had no clear provisions for electronic publishing, other than that any such deal would be worked out "in good faith" between the parties. Since neither book had earned out its advance, Pocket Books was still in the hole, and they refused to revert the rights to me. Even though they had reissued Touchstone in a format that gave them a tidy profit and gave me nothing, they wouldn't revert the rights.
Instead, to keep the contract alive, they threw up print-on-demand trade paperback editions at outrageous prices on Amazon and B&N, knowing that they'd never sell but effectively keeping me from getting the rights back. As far as I know, those editions are still listed, but it's been years since I even looked.
So Legacy of Honor got a new life, as did the gaslamp-and-pink-roses Starlight Seduction, which I returned to its original title of Shadows by Starlight, with a cover I was much, much happier with.
But all the special things of Moonsilver are lost to me. Even if you find a used copy, I don't recommend buying it; it's not worth it. There's a huge hole in the story because I had to cut out a 10,000 word section that explained it. In essence, the story makes no sense now. My heart still aches for it. And there is nothing I can do.
Maybe some day I'll have the nerve to approach whoever is in charge at Pocket and negotiate some kind of deal, but I don't have that kind of confidence, not even after all this time.
When, in 2016, I started writing again and the project from 1996 blossomed into The Looking-Glass Portrait, I reveled in the idea of having complete and total control, beginning to end. Is it the greatest book ever written? Of course not! But it's mine, all mine. And yes, there is still a typo in it that no one else has caught . . . yet . . . but I am proud of this project for so many reasons.
I will always grieve Moonsilver and to a lesser extent Touchstone, too. But I will never, ever, ever give a traditional publisher power over my work again.
It's not just the puny royalties -- I've argued that for so many years it isn't funny, and I have the cost accounting background to challenge slimy weasels like Steve Zacharius to his face. It's not the even punier royalties from book clubs and subscription sales and "deep discount" bulk sales -- like what Pocket did with that special printing of Touchstone or what Leisure Books did with so many "Book Margins Inc." reprints. It's the demeaning attitude thrown at writers, especially the overwhelmingly female writers who write romance for an overwhelmingly female readership.
I have no respect for traditional publishers. None. I never had a truly decent editor, and only one who I considered even competent. I never had cover art I was truly excited about. I know that not every writer, regardless of genre, is a great proofreader or even self-editor. I'll live with my mistakes, my shortcomings, because I still believe I did a far better job on The Looking-Glass Portrait with no input at all -- no beta readers, no proofreaders, no editors, no critique group -- than any traditional publisher could have done.
Is that arrogant? Maybe. But it's also a survival mechanism. Because after all the bullshit, after all the stress and creative stifling, I had enormous fun writing again. I will never, ever, ever give that up again. Never.