THE STORMY ROAD TO PUBLICATION
Every book and every article I ever read about writing insist that persistence pays off.
Roots was rejected by dozens of publishers, after all, before it found a home and became a legendary success. Countless other examples of obscurity to best-sellerdom have been cited — works by brilliant authors, like Alex Haley, and many by far less talented but equally persistent writers. So, I, too, kept trying. “If he/she can do it, so can I,” I’ve told myself (though less convincingly with each passing year as I collected hundreds of rejection letters — many very flattering, but rejections nevertheless).
My aspirations were not lofty. Unlike Haley, I had not written a soul-searing, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching family history, even though I had plenty of raw material. My father worked in the sulfur mines of Sicily when he was only seven to contribute to the support of his poverty-stricken parents and twenty-one siblings (yes, twenty-one!), he was a German prisoner of war in World War 1, and later he came to America as a stowaway. A few years after that, my Sicilian mother crossed the Atlantic at the age of twelve with a brother and two sisters (all of them seasick in steerage for three weeks) after their parents had died within six months of each other, leaving them almost destitute when an unscrupulous relative swooped in and stole their fairly substantial inheritance. There was no one to care for them but a generous family friend who had moved to the Land of Opportunity a few years before and who sponsored and took them in. Sad to say, as I was growing up, I was never very interested in these stories. They were too depressing. I didn’t want to hear them. I wanted to laugh. So I started writing humorous essays, first to amuse myself, and eventually for publication — or so I hoped.
Forty years ago, when I sold my first piece to a magazine that has since died (not my fault!), I was thrilled. I had a clip to include with queries to other publishers! My struggle was over. It would be a snap from then on, I was certain.
I was wrong. Each succeeding sale was as difficult as the first. Gradually, however, along with the afore-mentioned rejection letters, I also amassed a fairly respectable portfolio of clips as I continued to write humorous essays, some business newsletters and technical articles (to prove I could get a decent fee for at least some of my writing), and many television sitcom scripts, plays, and a movie (none of which were ever produced, even though I had friends “in the business”).
Since I eventually realized I was not going to be a threat to Neil Simon or Steven Spielberg, I decided to stick to the humorous essays and to assemble them into a book. I aspired to become Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry, or a combination of both (though this would have presented wardrobe problems). The good news was that many of the publishers I queried over the years loved my humor. The bad news was that they believed humor doesn’t sell — unless your name is Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. Apparently merely desperately wanting to emulate them doesn’t count.
But every time I was tempted to concede defeat, I’d read another one of those articles advocating persistence. So I persisted. Meanwhile, of course, I was not getting any younger (as my mirror cruelly reminded me). Eventually I decided to take advantage of the new print-on-demand technology which provides an opportunity to self-publish a book for a few hundred dollars and have single or multiple copies produced as needed, instead of paying thousands of dollars to a vanity press and winding up with hundreds of copies of your book and no space to store them if, like me, you live in a small condo with no cellar or garage.
I signed up with iUniverse.com to publish a collection of my essays, The Stranger in My Mirror & Other Reflections. By this time, the title piece, which had first been published in my hometown paper, The Andover Townsman, in 1997, had found its way to dozens of Internet sites (most of which neglected to mention the author, despite my copyright), as well as to Ann Landers’ syndicated column in September, 1999, also without my name, though Ms. Landers was happy to print an attribution after I phoned her and identified myself as the writer.
I added forty-three additional essays to my “Stranger,” an artist friend designed a cover, and I e-mailed the package to iUniverse. I was delighted with the resulting book, but not thrilled about the fact that I was strictly on my own as far as promotion was concerned. I knew this in advance, of course, but I still wasn’t prepared for the cold indifference of the marketplace. Like Rodney Dangerfield, self-published books get no respect. Newspapers aren’t eager to review them; bookstores won’t allow them to clutter up their shelves, and when you run out of loyal friends, you basically run out of sales. I did manage to recoup my costs and make a small profit by speaking to various senior organizations, church groups and Rotary clubs; but it was soon apparent that I was not going to be one of the rare exceptions — a self-published author whose book eventually becomes a runaway best seller. I did not have the cash, the contacts, or the clout to criss-cross the continent and stir up coast-to-coast excitement.
So I kept looking for a traditional publisher, and one day (cue drum roll!) I found one — Pelican Publishing Company in Gretna, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans — that was willing to take a chance on my revised essay collection, If These Are Laugh Lines, I’m Having Way Too Much Fun. Oh, happy day! A couple of weeks later, an attorney friend asked when I was getting a book contract. “I received it last week,” I said. “When can I review it for you?” He asked. “You can’t.” I said. “I signed and returned it yesterday.” He was furious. “You what!? You should never sign a contract without a lawyer’s approval!” “Charlie,” I told him, “I’ve been trying to get a publisher for forty years; I didn’t care what the contract said!” I wasn’t really that naive. I had done my homework and confirmed that Pelican is a highly-respected, long-established company. Furthermore, two friends in the publishing industry had studied the contract and found no problems with it. That was good enough for me.
I carefully retyped my manuscript, per Pelican’s instructions, and sent it on August 29, 2005 — just hours before hurricane Katrina hurtled into New Orleans. Yes, Pelican’s home. For several days, I was unable to reach the company by phone or e-mail. I feared that it had gone under, literally. I worried about the wonderful editor and publicist with whom I had been working. Were they all right? Had their homes been spared? Selfishly (and guiltily), I also worried about my book. I had other copies, of course, and it was in my computer; but if Pelican had been wiped out, then what? I never would have believed that a hurricane 1,500 miles away from my home in Andover, Massachusetts, could have such a devastating personal effect on me. Had the result of forty years of persistence been blown away by a big wind?
Fortunately, no. Pelican endured, despite losing one-third of its staff who fled Katrina and did not return. But through all its throes of regrouping, rehiring and reorganizing, the entire Pelican family — my editor, publicists, sales reps, and even the company president — have continued to give me unflagging support. I was encouraged that the spirit and dedication that helped them survive a category five hurricane might also make my book a best seller.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.
Too bad. I don’t have another forty years.
Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.