An Angel in Disguise

#4 Passage to Purpose: Angel in Disguise 

I tossed my manuscript on a shelf to collect dust. I didn’t know how to find an agent, and I didn’t expect to hear from Publish America (PA). The pain of no longer having a place to teach subsided to a dull ache when the possibility of teaching a class opened. I had forgotten about the query I’d sent to PA when I received a contract from them in the mail.

Publishing didn’t interest me, but I read the contract and did some research on traditional, Print on Demand (POD) and self-publishing while I waited for my class to start. The difference between the three types of publishing is who bears the loss. Traditional publishers purchase the author’s manuscript with an advance payment and then print thousands of copies to keep printing cost low. The author does not see a penny in royalty until the publishing house recoups the advance they paid the author. If the book does not sell, bookstores return the books for a refund. The publisher bears the loss and the author does not see another penny. That is why traditional publishing houses invests additional money market the book they purchased the right to sell. They want to make a profit on the rights they purchased. When an author self-publishes, the entire cost of producing and marketing a book is the burden of the author. POD produces the book for, in most cases, a nominal fee, but will not market the book they produce.  

Publish America billed themselves as a traditional publisher because they did not charge the author a fee to produce the book. Multitudes rejected by traditional publishers now had an affordable way to be published since PA turned down few, if any, manuscripts. Many cried “Scam” when they failed to receive the perceived pampering of a traditional publishing house. In my opinion, the slander was not justified. Their website and contract clearly stated that marketing was the author’s responsibility.  They were not a scam but a new way of doing business that threatened the guardians of publishing.

When the time drew near for me to teach, I picked up the church bulletin and saw the Pastor’s wife listed as the teacher of the class promised to me. No one bothered to tell me that I had been replaced. Depression reared its ugly head. I needed something to keep me sane.

There was nothing to lose if I signed the contract with PA, so I did. True to their advertising, PA produced a book comparable in quality to books produced by traditional publishing houses except for editing and formatting. Whatever program PA used must have removed my formatting before their editor received the manuscript. I had written a teaching book with many scripture references. In places too numerous to count, the editor failed to separate my words and Bible quotes. She also decided to capitalize pronouns that referred to God but could not tell which pronouns referenced God. I had fifteen pages of corrections that didn’t include the pronoun disaster. There were too many pronoun problems to find them all in the two weeks I was allotted to review the manuscript.

I sent PA the corrections and told them the pronoun problem could not be fixed. They did not apply any of the corrections I requested. I ended up with a nice looking overpriced book that I could not, in good conscience, market. In my opinion, PA shot themselves in the foot. Why bear the cost of producing a book the author cannot sell? Based on the small royalty checks I received, I doubt enough copies sold to recoup what it cost them to produce it. I did little to market the manuscript that became A Reason to Believe, which is no longer in print.

PA was barely three years old and breaking ground on a new way of publishing when I dealt with them. The company has been much maligned via the internet but have many satisfied authors. The problems I experienced could be attributed to a young company struggling to establish and define itself. Except for editing and formatting, I received a book equal to one produced by a traditional publishing house.  

At no cost to me, I became a published author. In retrospect, the editing disaster that prevented me from marketing the book was an angel in disguise. Learning how to write was the next step in my education. More about that in my next post.

This Force of Love 2/2

David Lummis at Book Signing

PART 2: Living the Artist Way

David Lummis possessed a strong desire to write a novel long before he tapped out the first sentence on his laptop. “I have always written,” said David. “I have a lot of poems and some short stories that few people have seen. I wrote a novella in French my senior year at Yale, but never tried to sell anything.”

David moved to New Orleans in 1991, where he developed into a nationally known consumer market analyst and met screenwriter Csaba Lukacs, who became his life partner.  As the years slipped by, his desire to write a novel grew stronger. He often cursed the intensive business writing his vocation required for keeping him from doing what he really wanted to do. By 2001, David and Csaba found themselves at a fork in the road. They could increase their business writing or focus on art. National and personal tragedies pushed them toward art.

David recalled the events that led to their decision. “I had recently turned forty. Then 911 happened, deeply affecting me as it did most Americans. When I lived in New York, my former partner worked as a florist at the top of the World Trade Center, and I’d been there many times. He wasn’t there when the towers fell, but the event sent me into a depression.  After that, he died suddenly of HIV related complications. I found myself in another depression that required six months of medication to cope. Those events made Csaba and me take stock. What are we doing? What do we want to do?”

A friend had recently given David and Csaba The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  Cameron believes everyone is creative and our creativity is God’s gift to us. Using that creativity is our gift back to God. She presented creativity as an authentic spiritual path consisting of two basic tools, The Morning Pages and The Artist Date. The first tool required starting the day with three pages of longhand stream of consciousness writing. Every thought regardless of how negative or silly is transferred to paper. The intent of the exercise is to empty the artist of distracting thoughts that block creativity. The second tool is a once a week date with yourself that is fun and pushes the artist beyond his or her usual routine. The intent is to fill the consciousness with new experiences to create from.

David and Csaba declined the business opportunity and committed to the artist’s way of life. They read Cameron’s book and completed the exercises. David was sitting in CC’s Coffee House dutifully writing his three pages when the first line of The Coffee Shop Chronicles was jotted onto paper. He perused his three pages, surveyed the patrons in the coffee shop, and concluded that observations made sitting in coffee shops would be fun. His morning exercise produced a series of short sketches. Months later, he shared his sketches with Csaba.

“This is kind of interesting. I think this could be something,” said Csaba.

“It could almost be a book,” replied David. His marketing background told him the New Orleans and coffee shop angles would be popular, and he began working in earnest on his debut novel.

Pieces of his life fell like snowflakes onto the manuscript and melted into the story. He coincidentally met an antique shop operator named Catfish, whose ancestors owned plantations. David wondered what it would be like to directly inherit a legacy of slavery. How would one reconcile current comforts produced by a sordid past? David molded the narrator of the story, B. Sammy Singleton, from the clay of his own life and the experiences of a close friend (the actual son of a Baptist minister) and then smoothed them into a unique personality with an equal dose of fiction.

For seven years David wrote, studied the art of writing fiction, and wrestled to suppress his perfectionist tendencies. He had produced one-hundred pages when the event New Orleans natives divide time by struck – Hurricane Katrina.

“Katrina exiled us to the safety of my mother’s home in Kentucky, and I found myself in another crisis,” said David.  “Does a selfish desire to write a book matter when people are dying on the streets of the city I love? It was another moment of why am I doing this and should I even continue. After much soul searching I decided to continue writing the novel.”

Two months after the storm, David and Csaba returned to a city in shambles. Working on the manuscript became David’s solace as New Orleans slowly cleansed the putrid mire the receding flood left behind and struggled to redefine itself.

“I knew my city would never be the same and I doubled my commitment to preserve on paper my love and gratitude for everything pre Katrina New Orleans had given me,” said David.  “And I still wanted to write a damn book.”

The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans — Part 1 was published in 2010 by River House Publishing.  Part 2 of the trilogy will be available Spring of 2012.