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Out of the Genre Closet
Two local writers enjoy their niche

Write Stuff

A Telling Tale
With Grandmother's Alligator, local author Wendy Wakefield Ferrin explores the sources and value of stories.

  Write Stuff

First-time authors confront a host of options and obstacles

by Mike Gibson

Would-be authors might well shudder at the daunting task of writing a first book, at the research and the commitment and the indentured slavery of the keyboard, of wringing art out of even the tiniest syllables that dast mar the pristine whiteness of an unsullied page.

Tim Joseph would know; he spent 10 years writing his first, a novel entitled Four-Fifths, the story of one man's quest for love and meaning.

But the former college professor and senior scientist at DOE winces most palpably when recalling the year before his book was released last spring, of the tedious, ego-deflating and largely fruitless task of finding someone to publish it.

"I got all kinds of rejection slips—'Thank you for your manuscript, but we publish 15 books a year and have received 6,000 inquiries,'" Joseph says. "Lots and lots of standard cover letters, people who obviously hadn't even looked at the book.

"That's what thrilled me most when I finally got my acceptance letter (from AmErica House Book Publishers out of Baltimore); these people actually read it."

King. Grisham. Clancy. Surnames that don't need first names, such is their renown. And such names receive the bulk of the money and attention in the world of big-time publishing, a realm perhaps more difficult to garner attention in even than those of music and art.

And thus Joseph's is the lot of the unknown writer, the men and women whose daytime avocations have steered them down some avenue other than that of academic journals and magazines and publishing houses.

For those who have the resources, two options are certain when it comes to publishing that first prized epistle. Vanity publishers such as Vanguard Books will publish any writer's book—for a considerable fee. According to King Duncan, head of his own small local publishing house (not a vanity), the vanities charge as much as twice the going cost-per-copy (ordinarily about $2, perhaps $4 by the vanity's inflated scale), yet offer little or no promotion for the author's work. "It's fairly exorbitant, and most I know who went that route say they were sorely displeased with the results," says King. (He knows of no such publishing houses in Knoxville.)

Self-publishing is another, generally more satisfying option, says Duncan, although the costs may be prohibitive to most would-be authors. In addition to the estimated $2-per-copy publishing costs, the writer will foot the bill for cover art (anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars) and perhaps an outside editor (a one-time fee of a few dollars per page.)

"The benefit is that you stand to earn eight times the return you would get at any other publisher, large or small," says Duncan. "But if you're not sure you could move at least 5,000 or 10,000 copies, it's not worth your while."

But getting non-vanity publishers to read so much as a page of an unsolicited book by an unknown author is a far more formidable task than most young writers could have imagined when they first set finger to keyboard or pen to page.

"If you're not a known author," says Duncan, who recently scored a rare unknown-author coup by inking a deal with a large publisher for his own first book, "you're not going to get much promotion, even with a big publishing house."

So for writers such as Duncan and Joseph, though their books may all be different, their story is the same; building a career from the ground up—with help from a "legitimate" publishing operation—requires perspiration, thick skin and an iron will as well as imagination and talent. This is a sampling of just a few first-time authors and small publishers, of how they sought to overcome obstacles of anonymity and scarce resources in a literary culture consumed with names and numbers.

Joseph, who says he's "always been a writer, since (he) can remember," was a long-time member of the local writer's guild, author of short stories and poetry and aphorisms in his spare time outside his teaching career and his job at DOE. On a particular Sunday morning, during the quiet hours he and wife Marsha often set aside for reading, he noticed tears on her cheeks as she pored through his finished manuscript.

"She said 'I've never cried reading a novel before; you've got to get this published,'" he recalls, smiling. "I said 'It's impossible. You can't get something published.'"

He tried nonetheless. Joseph purchased the Writer's Market CD-ROM at a bookstore, mulled through some 60 publishers nationwide who issued at least 15 books per year, and from that list culled a final 28. All of them requested a synopsis and query letter; most wanted a sample, three chapters or 50 pages.

But once published, Joseph's labors hadn't ended, nor had the slings and arrows of rejection. His book is widely available locally, but only by special order in stores outside the area. And when Joseph sought reviews from newspapers and other outlets, he found the process nigh as difficult as getting published in the first place.

"We couldn't even get it past Oprah's staff," he sighs. "Even the newspapers send letters saying 'we only review big authors.' The Miami Herald (near Joseph's hometown) said they receive 10,000 requests per week, so your chances of getting read are negligible.

"It's a Catch-22. You have to be a big-name author to receive publicity, but you have to get publicity to become a big name. And if you're self-published or on a vanity publisher, it's even more difficult."

So what's a budding author to do? According to Robert Cumming, head of tiny Oak Ridge publisher Iris Press, experiences such as Joseph's are a necessary part of one's writerly evolution, especially for those who developed their voice without the editorial guidance of a career grounded in writing and publishing.

"Part of the learning process is sending things out and getting people to blast them," Cumming says bluntly. "It makes the author pay attention, rather than gather this huge volume of material without any feedback."

An ORNL scientist for 30 years, Cumming pursued his own course of creative writing when, in 1980, he began publishing a multi-disciplinary scientific journal entitled Risk Analysis; An International Journal, drawing on the contacts and resources of a lifetime in the sciences. From there, he became involved in what he calls "the politics of writing," joining any number of guilds and literary societies, serving as an officer in many.

"I'm fascinated by how language works, how it's used to shape people's reality." His interest led to his purchasing of the 21-year-old Iris in 1996 from a woman named Maggie Vaughn.

Iris is small—Cumming says he publishes no more than three to four books a year. It's also selective. Without solicitation, the company receives some 400 inquiries every year. And some of Iris's authors have gained renown in literary circles, writers such as Knoxvillian scribe John Manchip White.

"I think in general, writers are in love with the idea of being published without realizing what hard work it is," says Cumming. "They don't want to bother with journal publications, with nitpicking over every word. It's very important to have a journal publication record; it's important to send things out to journals. It's a process that expresses a seriousness about your work, and it's a way to get substantive feedback. It's important for people to hammer their head against the wall month after month. You learn the tricks."

The Rev. Jerry Anderson is perhaps more fortunate than most first-time authors, in that his only inquiry was to the company that published his book. Hummingbirds and Hollyhocks, a compendium of mostly light-hearted stories culled from years of country living and preaching (he's a 20-year veteran of Knoxville's Cokesbury United Methodist Church, among others), came out in 2000 on Seven Worlds Corp., a small Knoxville-based operation.

Anderson's attempts were precisely-targeted, however. Founded by former minister King Duncan, Seven Worlds is oriented primarily toward inspirational publications, having arisen from a do-it-yourself newsletter and periodical for ministers Duncan founded in 1981.

"I don't have any huge ambitions; I published the book because my wife told me I had enough good stories that someone should print them," says Anderson, a stout and kindly 70-ish gentleman. His book is in its second printing now, having sold 1,000 copies since its release. Its author has since dabbled in a number of other writings, some of which he may submit to Seven Worlds next year.

Duncan's company is both low-profile and limited in its niche; he rejects most of the few inquiries he receives. "Some are outside our field, which is mainly inspirational materials," he says. "But a few just aren't quite up to our standard. We send generic letters; 'It doesn't fit our needs.'"

Fortuitously, Duncan's own first book, The Amazing Law of Influence, a hopeful tome relating "the ripple effect of how one person can make a difference," was accepted by a major publisher. And perhaps appropriately, Duncan offers the most hopeful advice to fledgling writers seeking an outlet. His book came out only last April, and though the genteel reverend had never written anything outside the stories and anecdotes in his newsletter, he solicited and negotiated his first publishing deal with corporate-owned Pelican Books.

"I did what everybody says not to do; I sent a manuscript to the top 30 publishers, and a year later I got a call," Duncan chuckles. "Any writer who doesn't start at the top and work their way down is cheating themselves."

June 28, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 26
© 2001 Metro Pulse