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My Book Deal Ruined My Life
The New York Observer ^ | June 5, 2007 | Gillian Reagan

Posted on 07/23/2007 5:05:12 PM PDT by SamAdams76

Taxes, weight gain, depression, loneliness—book advances are like lottery payoffs

For those who think they have a book inside them just waiting to be written—and, really, isn’t that pretty much everyone?—landing a book contract would be like winning the lottery. Dreams would come true; doors would open. Anything could happen.

“You hear about these big contracts coming in, and it whets your appetite,” said Leah McLaren, a columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail, who landed a book contract with HarperCollins Canada in 2003 for her chick-lit novel, The Continuity Girl. “You start to think, ‘This is my lottery ticket …. It could be optioned for a movie or become a huge best-seller!’”

Indeed, securing a deal with one of the many esteemed editors at publishing houses like Knopf or Doubleday or FSG seems like fulfilling a kind of New York–specific American dream. Visions of six-figure contracts, KGB readings and TV appearances dance through writers’ heads. Even better: no more office, no more boss.

“But then, it could completely disappear and sell five copies,” added Ms. McLaren whose own book was published to little fanfare as a paperback original in the States this spring. “And you’ll never be heard from again. You’ll disappear. And that’s the real risk of writing a book.”

Slideshow My Book Deal Ruined My Life But just think for a minute, by way of comparison, if a book contract is a lottery ticket …. Evelyn Adams, who won $5.4 million in the New Jersey lottery in 1985 and 1986, now lives in a trailer. William (Bud) Post won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery in 1988, but now survives on food stamps and his Social Security check. Suzanne Mullins, a $4.2 million Virginia lottery winner, is now deeply in debt to a company that lent her money using the winnings as collateral.

Could such doom await lucky-seeming, envy-enspiring book writers?

Look at Jessica Cutler, a.k.a. Washingtonienne, the D.C. sex blogger who was paid a six-figure advance for her novel, based on the experiences she chronicled on her blog. Suffering under the weight of a lawsuit from an ex-boyfriend, who claims to have been humiliated by her writing, she has now filed for bankruptcy. She can’t even pay her Am-Ex bill.

Then there are the truly epic downfalls of authors like James Frey, whose fabricated memoir caused his life (and his seven-figure two-book deal with Riverhead) to shatter into a million little pieces. Now he’s writing two novels without a contract and posting on the blog and message boards on his Web site,—the literary equivalent of living in a trailer park.

And even before the potential post-publication humiliation, there’s deadline pressure; crippling self-doubt; diets of Entenmann’s pastries and black coffee; self-made cubicles structured with piles of books, papers and unpaid bills; night-owl tendencies; failed relationships; unanswered phone calls; weight gain; poverty; and, of course, exhaustion.

So forget the American dream! Getting a book deal seems more like a nightmare.

In 2002, Daniel Smith, a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor, received the news that he’d gotten a book contract for Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination in a sweltering phone booth at the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in woodsy New Hampshire. “There was no cell-phone reception at the time, so you had to get into these poorly ventilated—meaning there was no ventilation—phone booths. You sweat like a pig in there, and that’s how I got the news. And it was extremely exciting,” Mr. Smith told The Observer.

Mr. Smith’s book was inspired by the experiences of his father, an attorney who was ashamed that he heard voices in his head. He passed away in 1998. “I basically signed up to think about my father and his most painful secret every day for the next three years. I basically could sign myself up for mourning every day for three years, which is really not a fun way to spend someone’s life,” Mr. Smith said. “Thinking about insanity every day for many years also is very uncomfortable, because it’s like thinking about death—it’s one of our two greatest fears.”

At one point, said Mr. Smith, the writing was so miserable, “I thought about getting into painting houses or digging ditches, doing anything other than writing—making watches or something like that.”

Mr. Smith faced the problem that many authors struggle with: being stuck with their subjects for one, three, even 10 years at a time.

“I want this woman out of my life so much it’s ridiculous,” said Michael Anderson, 55, who has been researching and writing a book about the playwright Lorraine Hansberry for HarperCollins since 1998. “It has been, in essence, 10 years, and sometimes it seems like, ‘My God, why isn’t this thing done yet?’ But at times I think, ‘My God, it’s only been 10 years.’ I never understood why biographies took so much time; now I’m in awe that any of them get finished.”

When he received his contract, Mr. Anderson was working full-time as an editor at The New York Times Book Review, a job he had for 17 years. He figured he would try to take four years to finish the book and publish it by his 50th birthday. “But that was just naïve,” Mr. Anderson said.

He left The New York Times in 2005, sequestering himself in his Washington Heights apartment to devote himself to the book.

For months, each night, he would be startled from his slumber at 3:30 in the morning in the midst of a thought about Hansberry. “She’s a nice woman, but I don’t want to be with her all the time,” Mr Anderson said.

Nathan Englander spent close to a decade on his second novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, released this April. “I was getting upset about all the articles—you know, ‘After a decade of silence … ,’” Mr. Englander, 37, said in an ominous tone during a phone interview.

“Now I look around and wonder—it’s hard to remember who I was all those years,” Mr. Englander added. “I don’t care about anything when I’m in the work; nothing else matters at all …. People I lost touch with, I’m trying to get back to. I’ll write them, ‘Thank you for your letter in 1999. Here’s what’s been going on.’ You work your way through to get familiar with normal life.”

Aside from losing touch with friends, Mr. Englander also struggled with everyday life.

“I look down and see that I’m only wearing one shoe,” Mr. Englander said in a recent interview with the blog Bookslut. “Recognizing it, I think, How can I walk around like this? Why would I walk around with only one shoe? … Why isn’t that shelf organized, or why didn’t I write that person back or … I can’t understand why the person that is me didn’t do these things. And to that question my mother responds, ‘Because you were like a tortured madman working on this book,’ and I remember and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why.’”

“Spouses get very jealous of the biographer’s subject, because it really is what you’re thinking about all the time,” Mr. Anderson explained. “I’ve often thought that if I were married, my wife would’ve sued for divorce.”

The freedom of setting one’s own schedule, of course, is another gift of the book contract—for some, it’s the very motivation to pitch a book in the first place. Work for a few hours, go to yoga, work a little more, eat a sandwich …. It’s a fantasy of independence, without daily or weekly deadlines imposed from above, without being picked at by your nosy co-worker. But then…You miss the co-worker: the ruminations on last night’s Sopranos at the coffee machine, the bitching about deadlines over lunch. You even long for their Z100 sing-alongs and screeching renditions of “Since U Been Gone.

“I found, when I quit The Times, that the biggest problem is loneliness,” Mr. Anderson admitted.

“Basically, I was giving myself panic attacks in the beginning,” said Ms. McLaren, who took a leave of absence from her column-writing job to move to an isolated farmhouse outside Toronto and write her novel in solitude. “As a newspaper writer, people were always walking over to your desk and being like, ‘Where is it? How’s it coming?’ All that was taken away—there’s no deadline.”

And then there’s the self-loathing.

“You’re not letting people read it as you write it. Nobody has ever read what you’re doing. It could be terrible. It could be brilliant. And you start to think, ‘Oh God, this is a complete piece of shit that couldn’t be published—nobody is going to read it.’ But then you have a sandwich and go, ‘I am a genius and I’m going to win the Booker Prize.’”

Rachel Sklar, 34, the media and special-projects editor for the Huffington Post, barricaded herself her in Lower East Side apartment to work on her book, Jew-ish: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and All the Ish in Between, a humorous “guidebook on being a contemporary Jew,” according to Ms. Sklar. “It’s not like you can pack all that into a pamphlet if you’re going to do it right. You can’t just wing a chapter on the Talmud.” (Originally due in mid-February, the book’s deadline has since been pushed twice—once to May and now to mid-September.)

Ms. Sklar took six weeks off from her blogging job to uniform herself in fuzzy sweatpants, tie her hair into a bun, surround herself in books from the library and, guzzle Diet Coke and immerse herself in Jewry.

“The stack of books kept me where I was. I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t shopping …. I berated myself and may have had a few meltdowns. Well, I definitely had a few meltdowns. But you know, a friend of mine came over at 1:30 [after] a movie premiere with a six-pack of Diet Coke and a box of cupcakes, and it was the greatest pick-me-up ever.”

“The interesting thing is that it’s kind of freeing when you have a real good excuse to tell people no,” said Anna Holmes, 33, the current managing editor of Jezebel, a Gawker-sponsored female-centric blog, and editor of Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair. “But there was also that fear that the more I said no, at the end of the whole thing I wouldn’t have any friends left.”

Ms. Holmes stayed bundled in her apartment for about a year between 2001 and 2002, leaving her job as a writer at Glamour to cobble together the book.

“If you have an office job, at least it’s walking to and from the subway every day. When you sit in your house, you seriously gain weight,” Ms. Holmes said in a phone interview from her Long Island City apartment. “I’m eating my Greek yogurt and steamed vegetables—I’m trying to be good about what I’m eating. But I’m still like, ‘I’m getting really soft.’ My idea before the book came out was that I was going to diet, because I had gotten flabby, so that I’d look better to promote it. But that didn’t happen. I was quote unquote dieting for I think two weeks, but I just couldn’t do it.”

After all the months of writing, editing and wrangling permissions to reprint letters, Caroll & Graf released the book in August 2002. But the last thing Ms. Holmes wanted to do was celebrate the publication.

“I was really tired. I wasn’t so much physically tired, I was mentally tired. At the exact moment I was supposed to be promoting it, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it. I had to get all excited about this thing that I had just given birth to. It was like postpartum depression…

“I had a hard time getting myself back into my quote-unquote normal life, because I actually started enjoying my [own] company so much and the solitude of it all. I didn’t even want to go out,” Ms. Holmes continued. “I still tend to kind of want to be at home and read and, you know, [become] a cat lady, with my cats.”

And what about that holy grail—the advance? Even the smallest advance can be justified to death as the ticket out of your office job or bartending gig. But is the money that publishers pay most writers enough to make the suffering worth it?

That money, of course, isn’t just for rent and ham sandwiches and Oreos. It’s also for the sky-high freelance taxes (about 37 percent of any untaxed income will be commandeered by Uncle Sam), agent’s fees, fax and copy tabs at the library, travel for research trips and any other number of things. Think about it: $100,000 is actually more like $65,000 after taxes—not bad. But then there’s the 15 percent agent’s cut (another $15,000), leaving you about $50,000. For a year, that’s a livable salary. But once other book expenses are taken into account—like permissions, travel, copies and the like—you’re looking at a modest pile rather than a mountain. There’s really not much left to enjoy—especially if your work stretches on for years.

“When I hear a book deal, I think, ‘Oh, that person made a 100 grand.’ When I have a low-five-figure advance, I call it, like, a small gift, I suppose,” said Ms. Holmes.

She also learned that her publisher wouldn’t pay for the rights to print the breakup letters she wanted to include in the collection. “The advance I got was not money that I could live on; it was money that had to be used to pay permissions for the book,” she said.

Although Mr. Smith said he was able to survive on his advance, he admits that those six-figure deals can quickly dwindle away over the three or four years it takes to write a book. “You’re basically making 30 or 40 grand a year, and that’s not that great of a salary …. It’s really not as much as it seems. These numbers can be very deceptive.”

Yet, still, the dreamers dream. Brendan Sullivan, 25, moved to New York after studying creative writing at Kenyon College in Ohio.

He hasn’t landed a book deal for his novel, but is determined to find a publisher. “Writing has ruined my life and cost me many, many girlfriends,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have thrown away several careers and one college degree to spend my time working in bars, D.J.’ing in bars and drinking my rejection letters away. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I’ve made many of them since I started …. I also abandoned my agent with words harsher than those I’ve saved for lost loves.”

Mr. Sullivan has held 27 jobs to support his writing career, from selling chapstick on the street to being a night guard in an art gallery (“That was my favorite job ever, because I just sat in a chair and read novels all day,” Mr. Sullivan added.)

He is currently working on his second novel. His first one, well, “There are eight drafts of it—they’re in my basement right now,” he said in a phone interview from his Fort Greene apartment. He trashed the novel after he got into a public fight with his first agent and decided to start anew. “You have to learn how to suppress your gag reflex in order to get anything out. Like in love, you make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them.”

Indeed, despite the heartbreak, the loneliness, the trashed drafts, the rejected proposals, writers will continue to reach for the golden ticket, the fulfillment of their American dream.

“In terms of the most joyous life to have in the world, in terms of pleasure receptors, it might be like being a heroin addict: It’s the most pleasurable thing that you could choose, if you have that constant access,” said Mr. Englander, before hanging up to head to the coffee shop and write. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, it almost killed me,’ but I’m saying that in the most positive way, because it’s all I want to do.”

TOPICS: Culture/Society
KEYWORDS: bookdeals; monsterinabox; publishing; selfpublishing; writers; writing
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Writing a book is extremely hard.

I've been trying to write a book for seven years now. Nobody has seen the drafts, not even my wife. In fact, I have panic attacks about somebody in my family seeing my writings. They might think I'm some kind of lunatic or something were they to read it. And since my book revolves around a dysfunctional family, many in my family would take personal offense. Especially since much of it is based on true events in my life. People would recognize themselves in the book and probably sue me!

The vast majority of books published fail miserably. But some hit the lottery such as J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy and Stephen King. All three of those writers were regular people like most of us. None of those three have advanced degrees - elite members of academia. But they struck a chord and have made themselves a part of our popular culture. There are many others like them. Ken Follet, John Grisham and Khaled Hosseini just to name a few who made it big.

So I'm sure there are a few published writers here on Free Republic. How do you go about getting published? Do you just send in manuscripts to publishers or get an agent first? What can you reasonably expect in a book deal? What kind of advances? What kind of royalty schedule?

And above all, aren't we all insane? People who spend hours and hours writing are just not right in the head. Of course, that would include me. Thousands of pages written in the past 20 years and yet nothing published except what I write here on Free Republic.

1 posted on 07/23/2007 5:05:14 PM PDT by SamAdams76
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To: SamAdams76
I waste time and don't do much. I haven't been published in years. But then again, my life has changed a lot. Whether that's an excuse or an explanation, I haven't figured out. I'm not even sure what I want to write any more. I'm a 98 percenter. I get most of the way there and then move on to something else.

But this will be the summer. Last summer wasn't, but this one will be.

2 posted on 07/23/2007 5:11:40 PM PDT by Tanniker Smith (I didn't know she was a Liberal when I married her.)
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To: SamAdams76

Google self publishing, they can help you as little or as much as you want. If you want you can just publish from 10 to 10,000 books......

3 posted on 07/23/2007 5:11:48 PM PDT by Kimmers (Si vis pacem, para bellum)
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To: SamAdams76

Sam, I’ve read your postings over the years.

You are a fine writer and you’ll be a terrific author.

Now finish that book!

4 posted on 07/23/2007 5:11:56 PM PDT by exit82 (I have a gut feeling: Michael Chertoff is a jerk.)
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To: SamAdams76

JKR is laughing all the way to the bank. She has been ridiculed and accused of being anti-Christian. Yet she has now completed the series of books she envisioned so many years ago.

5 posted on 07/23/2007 5:12:43 PM PDT by tioga (I'll take Duncan Hunter or Fred Thompson for President. Pick one.)
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To: SamAdams76

Sam, I forgot, publish that book and get that monkey off your back.....if your book is anything like your writing here I am sure it is wonderful...... good luck

6 posted on 07/23/2007 5:14:58 PM PDT by Kimmers (Si vis pacem, para bellum)
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To: exit82
Now finish that book!

Hear hear!

7 posted on 07/23/2007 5:15:47 PM PDT by Ben Chad
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To: exit82
Thank you for the kind words! Yes, I have been dreaming about getting published any maybe seeing my name on the best seller lists someday. But perhaps that is not the important thing.

Just being published would achieve some semblance of immortality. My great-grandkids could Google my name 75 years from now and come up with a few hits. And who knows, maybe I'll strike a chord, sell a few copies and end up in some libraries.

8 posted on 07/23/2007 5:16:40 PM PDT by SamAdams76 (I am 47 days away from outliving Marvin Gaye)
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To: SamAdams76

I have just finished writing a book, a novel, based on an idea that I have had for a long time. It took me 8 months to write the story out (many nights working 10pm till 4am before getting up for work. I have spent the last few months doing a rewrite with editing, but I am ready to seek a publisher or agent. Do a lot pf research before you get either.

9 posted on 07/23/2007 5:18:12 PM PDT by feedback doctor (Prayers for the fallen Charleston, SC firefighters - No Greater Love . . .)
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To: SamAdams76

LOL - I wrote a book while in the throws of divorce. I wouldn’t want it to see the light of day even after I’m dead.

10 posted on 07/23/2007 5:18:18 PM PDT by Ben Chad
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To: tioga
Now picture J.K. Rowling before her first book was published. Hanging around cafes in England, collecting government checks and probably figuring life is hopeless. Ten years ago, nobody could imagine some welfare mom selling 325 million books!

Now J.K. Rowling gets a 1500 pound advance (not much) for her first book and only gets a thousand copies on the first print run - half of which go unsold and sent to libraries. Her publisher tells her to get a day job as she has "little chance" selling children's books. And just like that guy who told Elvis Presley to get a job driving trucks, the rest is history.

11 posted on 07/23/2007 5:23:49 PM PDT by SamAdams76 (I am 47 days away from outliving Marvin Gaye)
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To: SamAdams76
I dabble with some not-for-publication writing, just hobby stuff to keep my game up. And I have to admit, when I find just the right sentence, or even the right word -- one that I've agonized over, reworked, sworn at -- it's better than sex.

And it happens about as often ...

12 posted on 07/23/2007 5:26:48 PM PDT by IronJack (=)
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To: SamAdams76

-someone posted that a school book club in the US picked it up and it became a best seller. Interesting.

If you have the dream, don’t give it up.

13 posted on 07/23/2007 5:30:28 PM PDT by tioga (I'll take Duncan Hunter or Fred Thompson for President. Pick one.)
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To: SamAdams76
Just being published would achieve some semblance of immortality. My great-grandkids could Google my name 75 years from now and come up with a few hits.

A killing spree will accomplish the same thing . . . and so much less time-consuming. : )

14 posted on 07/23/2007 5:31:02 PM PDT by Bluegrass Conservative
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To: toddlintown

Ping! ;)

15 posted on 07/23/2007 5:40:45 PM PDT by Diana in Wisconsin (Save The Earth. It's The Only Planet With Chocolate.)
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To: SamAdams76


16 posted on 07/23/2007 5:42:02 PM PDT by Lancey Howard
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To: JenB; RosieCotton; Corin Stormhands; Rose in RoseBear
And above all, aren't we all insane?


17 posted on 07/23/2007 5:42:05 PM PDT by Lil'freeper (You do not have the plug-in required to view this tagline.)
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To: SamAdams76
My cousin, Ian MacNiven, wrote the definitive biography of Lawrence Durrell, a British novelist and poet, who was an interesting and complex man with an equally interesting and complex life.

It took Ian two decades and research in three continents before it was published. He, his wife, plus the entire family, heaved a sigh of relief when the book finally hit the commercial shelves. The agony of writing impacts family and friends to varying extents, not only the author himself.

The book was successful.......and to me who loves biographies and autobiographies it was extremely fascinating. However, as would be expected, it sells better in Europe than in the USA where most folks wouldn't know Lawrence Durrell from their neighborhood Good Humor man.


18 posted on 07/23/2007 5:44:02 PM PDT by MinuteGal (Three Cheers for the FRed, White and Blue !)
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To: Ben Chad
That must have been some connubial bliss. Were you throwing her or was she throwing you?


19 posted on 07/23/2007 5:48:09 PM PDT by MinuteGal (Three Cheers for the FRed, White and Blue !)
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To: SamAdams76

Writing a book is not so hard—it’s the sharing of it that’s breath taking! LOL! And explaining yourself—that’s hilarious!

I have about six novels going right now—I may never even send them in to a publisher. They’re something for me to do, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s any good or not by letting family (extremely biased prejudice!) read your manuscripts, or re-reading them yourself.

Mine amuse me, and they’re much better than a lot of stuff I’ve read that got published.

I have one children’s novel going—the kind I loved when I was a precocious young reader—lots of action, magic, animals, good versus evil—with lots of new, but not too difficult, words in it. Children are so eager to learn, more than just Dick and Jane. I loathed those books, by the way!

My niece read some of it—why did you name the characters this? Why did you do that? So, have you gotten anything published yet? She’s ten, and she cracked me up with her questions! She did like the story, though!

Keep writing, and let your FRiends know when you publish!

And you’re right—we are insane! I’ve always enjoyed the worlds inside my head far more than anything on TV!

20 posted on 07/23/2007 5:58:08 PM PDT by gardengirl
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