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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 01:00 am

Author! Author?

The road to publishing full of detours and dead-ends

Fifteen years ago: I quit golf and try a less expensive hobby to humiliate myself. I’ll write a book. A long habit will lead me: Whenever an odd thought passes by, I grab it and force it into a gorilla-head jar. I’ll pull out a jar-thought, stretch it out until I tire of it, call it a “chapter,” save the chapter-wad in a machine, and continue the process until I have a book’s worth.

Fourteen years ago: Done! I am an author! Now I’ll publish it to make it official. I send the disjointed bundle to publishers — 22 publishers, by my count. Not only is the bundle not published 22 times, it’s never opened 22 times, never read; never is a page turned. Sometimes a rejection letter is stuffed in the SASE each publisher demands; sometimes the manuscript returns alone.

Occasionally nothing returns. Twice the return package arrives marked “Postage Due” — they’d ripped off the postage I’d attached and, I assume, put it to better use. Publishers, I discover, want proposals rather than manuscripts. I’ll propose!

I’ll not propose! For when I strip the prolix wonder of proposal guidelines down to its core, all these publishers really want to know is “How many can we expect to sell?”—a considerable challenge when your book is about a dog that can inflate to be anyone but Wayne Newton. My guess is a market of six, all sharing my last name.

I’ll use a literary agent. I’ll not use a literary agent! They all want cash up front, and none of ’em will give me the names of other first-time authors they’ve successfully represented.

Not yet defeated, I will pay a couple of bucks to some vanity press. I’ll not pay a couple of bucks! The going rate is about $5,000. I am not an author!

Thirteen years ago: The Internet works, for real. The call comes from an old friend who’s involved in the development of an Internet self-publishing and editing service, a joint venture of university professors and hard-core computer technicians. I’d suffered both groups before and know that anything they design will only by normal-person intervention brush up against business reality. This project is doomed, unless a regular person directs it. I assume that they want me to direct.

I’ll not direct! They want only my “machine words” as test fodder, the resulting book to be published at no charge to me. I am an author! I send ’em the disks — but they can’t read ’em.

“It’s in Microsoft product,” they explain. “We use more technically responsive software.”

“Not a matter of ‘technically responsive.’ ” I point out, “rather, a matter that 90 percent of your customers will be submitting in Microsoft.”

“Interesting!” they reply. “Never thought of that.” Project doomed! I am not an author!

Might as well try. Until they solve the interactive online-editing puzzle, we’ll communicate back and forth using proofs — skinny papers but well spaced so that I can pencil in changes. Each proof is accompanied by a plethora of “Interesting thats,” as in . . .

Interesting that . . . only half of the corrections I pencil in on proof 1 find their way to proof 2? And it’s “sitting,” not “setting,” in the introduction.

Interesting that . . . someone spilled a large box of commas into Chapter 2. And though I’ll not argue with English professors with any hope of winning, I’m reasonably sure that sentences should end with some sort of punctuation mark.

Interesting that . . . on proof 4, there are now two books instead of one book.

“Too many pages for one book,” they explain. “We decided to limit each book to about 250 pages.” Project doomed!

Interesting that . . . at proof 5, other than the two-for-one-exchange, no corrections whatsoever now show — all is back as it was in the beginning.

“Editing proved too difficult,” they say. “We decided not to offer editing service. We’ll wait for the word-processing vendors to improve their own editing. We’ll send you the final proof in a month or so.”

I tell ’em the proof I have is final enough, and I’ll put it back in my jar ’cause it’s now empty and I take great pride in keeping a full gorilla. I am not an author!

Years later: Ten copies each of two books arrive in the mail. They’ve been edited into incoherence, sentences stopping midparagraph, and “sitting” is still “setting” — but the books are everywhere on the Internet. They’re not exactly “shelf-worthy,” but you can order ’em through bookstores if you want. I am an author!

No one buys the books. I am not an author!

A year ago: The royalty check reads $212.89. I am an author!

The e-mail from the college student appears a week later. He wants to know whether I’ve got another book in the queue. It seems I’ve been discovered by Internet-savvy students as a writer so obscure, so unread, that my chapters can be submitted (after edit) as original stories with no chance of the thief’s being accused of plagiarism.

I am an author?

Contact Doug Bybee at dougbybee@sbcglobal.net

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