Sunday, March 02, 2008

Answering Pollyanna

It's been a complicated week, here in Lake Woebegone. Time's been short, the questions have piled up, and in the interests of flushing the buffers, I need to post some answers.

First up, Nate asks: "It's just SO much easier finding my way around Saint Paul. BRB - is there a convenient pistol range out your way?"

Well, Nate, when I want to shoot, I always go to the Oakdale Gun Club, in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Of course, my definition of "convenient" may be a bit different from yours, as for one thing, it's only about five minutes from my house, and for another, I'm not merely a member, I'm on the Board of Directors. As for a third consideration, while our shorter ranges are fairly well-protected from the elements, we are an outdoor range, and as these photos from last year's Frozen Chosin Match attest, this is not the place for weather wusses.

frozen G.I.s

By the way, we hold the Frozen Chosin match each February to honor the 1st Marine Division and their actions during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Given that most of our club members are veterans of one foreign unpleasantness or another, and that some of our members are in fact 1st Marine Div. vets who were there at Chosin in December of 1950, we feel it's the very least we can do.

Next up, Rachel posts: "It looks as though you spend a lot of time on something that doesn't pay (doesn't pay directly that is, because it makes me want to buy and read everything you've ever written). I can only see someone doing a blog like this because they really enjoy it."

Which is, in a sort of oblique way, poses the question: why do I do this blog?

To tell the truth, I often wonder that myself, and about two months ago I was seriously considering calling it quits when I hit the Third Anniversary mark on February 1. But then I got a fresh infusion of energy — from where, I don't know — and decided to carry on.

The answer, I think, is that for me this blog is sort of like an ongoing interesting conversation, or a talk show decoupled from real time. Whatever it is, I enjoy doing it, and continue to learn new things from our conversation, so I'll continue to do this blog for the foreseeable future. Many thanks to all of you for all your encouraging words, and remember: you are the ones who make this happen. Without you, I'm just another old guy sitting in his rocking chair, babbling to himself. And I've never much liked the sound of my own voice.

Now, as for Bane and BoysMom: you two have asked a battery of questions lately that require a plethora of convoluted [ yes | no | but | maybe] answers, so I'll just dive right in. Is there still a stigma attached to self-publishing? Yes, but it's diminishing, and there are a number of things the self-publisher can do to hasten its diminution.

The first thing to remember is that "self-publishing" describes an awful lot of territory, not to mention a lot of awful territory, and covers everything from the serious small-press efforts down to the absolutely utterly worst of the bottom-of-the-barrel crap. At one end of the continuum you've got outfits like — no, I don't feel like getting sued today, so I won't name them — who exist solely to feed parasitically on the dreams and naiveté of would-be authors, and who consistently peddle the illusion that you too can become a rich and famous bestselling author, just like Vince Flynn, if only you fork over a @#$^load of cash and trust them to take whatever it is you've written, pour it into one of their preformatted templates, and nonpromote it into oblivion. ("Okay lady, you ordered the Number 5, full color, hold the seagull. Will this be Visa, MasterCard, or Discover?")

generic cover #5

There, that might be a useful indicator for you. Unless they were actually directly involved with Term Limits, the more frequently someone invokes the name of Vince Flynn, the more likely they are to be a shyster mostly interested in separating you from as much of your cash as possible.

Flynn's story is worth examining in some detail, because he did break the rules and parlay a self-published book into bestsellerdom. But, it's worth noting that before he ever started, he got a degree in economics and worked as a marketing specialist for Kraft General Foods. In 1990 he quit that job to join the Marine Corps and pursue his dream of becoming a combat pilot, but just before he left for OCS he was medically disqualified from the Marine Aviation Program because of a seizure disorder he'd suffered as a child. Released from the Corps, he returned to the Twin Cities area and another marketing job, this time for United Properties, but after a few years of that he quit his job again and moved to Colorado, this time to chase his second dream, of becoming a published author. It took him five years and more than sixty rejection letters before he finally decided in 1997 to take the radical step of self-publishing Term Limits.

Please note that in this case, "self-publishing" does not mean that he took his manuscript to McBooks-R-Us, ordered up a thousand copies of Rich & Famous Package #5, and sold them out of the tailgate of his minivan. Rather, as you might expect of a marketing expert with plenty of affluent private prep-school and private college friends, he first lined up a group of four investors, sold the group a 25% interest in the book, and hired a design firm to create the best hardcover package possible. Then, after spending $20,000 to print 2,000 books and thus equipped with what amounts to the most expensive business card you ever saw, he used his business connections to engineer a local media blitz, hit the bricks, and hustled his butt off, until he was a local media darling with a new agent and a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster.

So in this case, self-publishing worked for Flynn, but it cost a lot of money and involved a lot of risk. Had he failed to recreate himself as a local phenomenon, his investors would have been out $5G's each, which some people might consider serious money. Even after he'd sold through every single copy of the first-edition hardcover, Term Limits lost money. It was the mass-market paperback deal with Simon & Schuster that made that book pay off, and his ability to keep writing one bestselling political thriller a year ever since and sell the film rights that has made him a millionaire.

In an interview published last year, Flynn said he now realizes this was a crazy stunt, and that most would-be authors have nowhere near the cash, connections, hustle, or pure chutzpah required to make self-publishing anything but a waste of money. The Internet being the ever-changing thing it is, of course, now that I want to link to that interview, I can't find it. However, I did turn up these two interviews in the University of St. Thomas alumni magazine, which you probably won't find readily and which reveal some interesting details about Flynn's writing method and self-publishing experience:

Winter 2000:
So You Want to Write a Book? Four alumni novelists talk about what it takes

Spring 2006:
Flynn's Success Has No (Term) Limits: Distinguished alumnusVince Flynn moves from dyslexia to best sellers be continued...