It’s time for another entry in my monthly series of author essays called Tell Me Your Story, where I invite successful authors to share their life experiences and how those experiences have influenced their writing. December’s guest is Robert Crawford. There are two types of writers- Those who like to write and those who need to. Robert is in the latter category. He started out as a published poet, then got bitten with the novel-writing bug in 1994. His first novel got him a literary agent in 1996. Since then, he has independently published four novels, a short story, a short story collection and a work of satire. He lives in central Massachusetts. His latest offering, Bridge of Tarnished Angels: Two Tales, Two Heroes, Two Different Centuries, One City, is a perfect Christmas read, ebook on offer now on Amazon for $1.99!
I Began Writing with Wooden Blocks. I Haven’t Stopped Since.
In 1994, after 17 years of writing almost exclusively poetry, I decided to add fiction to my repertoire. By 1996, fiction had completely supplanted poetry. For years, my longtime friend, the poet X.J. Kennedy, had encouraged me to try my hand at fiction so I took him up on his advice.
My first novel, a scifi time travel romp about Jack the Ripper, had, incredibly, gotten me my first (and thus far only) literary agent. This was probably the biggest factor explaining my abrupt abandonment of poetry. She couldn’t place it so it didn’t go anywhere.
Another possible reason for my walking away from poetry was that, at the same time that I got my agent, I discovered Caleb Carr. Random House had just issued The Alienist two years earlier and, to put it mildly, it changed my life. Carr’s epic novel about a group of amateur investigators chasing after a fictional 19th century serial killer in 1896 was too seductive to resist. Right after reading that, I’d bought the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, which is just as brilliant.
While I was still writing scifi novels I wouldn’t finish, I subconsciously decided to one day write a historical psychological thriller on a par with Carr’s. Wisely, I realized that I didn’t yet have the writing chops for such a task so I waited 16 years after reading The Alienist before beginning Tatterdemalion, the first book in the Scott Carson series.
Little did I know that my project would open up not only an exciting series featuring a late 19th century-early 20th century character but that it would alter the trajectory of my writing life. Going to historical fiction was the best move I ever made, I think, since trying my hand at fiction 18 years earlier.
Thinking I was onto something, I began the usual round of submissions to literary agencies. Then I made a second round. Then a third. These hundreds of submissions, not including the countless hundreds more for other novels, taught me several lessons.
One, unless you’re a “name”, as they say (implying those of us who aren’t famous are just tiresome nameless doorknockers), you will get completely ignored 65-70% of the time. The other 30-35% will get you a form letter that all wind up saying the same thing.
Two, many of them come from the flunkies of the queried agents who couldn’t be bothered to spend the 10 seconds it would’ve taken to send that form letter. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’d gotten the same form rejection letter in duplicate or even triplicate within minutes or even seconds of each other, as if they couldn’t reject my novel enough times. I’ve also gotten more than my fair share of rejection letters with the salutation, “Dear Crawford.”
This blatant disrespect of authors who’d followed all the rules is directly proportionate to the bloated hubris and expectation of that respect denied to us by these same agents. To play Devil’s Advocate, the reason for the hubris is understandable. In the early 80’s, publishers decided they no longer wanted to wade through the “slush pile”, as they reverently refer to our work, so they cast about for those who would take on the burden.
That eventually fell to whatever few literary agencies were out there at the time. This was how they roped them in: Publishers promised agents they’d get a slice of the pie after vowing to bar from the gates us unwashed peasants who didn’t have a literary agent. Then it was just a matter of agreeing on a universal percentage (which still stands at 15%).
Somehow, authors weren’t issued the memo and, one by one, the major publishing houses were slamming their doors in our faces. Before long, the new talking point to authors was that the publishing waters were treacherous and one couldn’t survive without the capable management of literary agents, that we simply couldn’t be trusted to make the best decisions on our own behalf. Basically, the agents are telling us not to trust publishers we’re forbidden from even approaching, the same people who’d artificially empowered them.
Of course, this was being said to people upon whose productions a $25,000,000,000 a year business devolves, who’d placed their work in the hands of interested acquisitions editors, negotiated our own contracts and managed our own careers. And then, in less than a generation, our intelligence and pragmatism had atrophied to the point where we needed to be led by the hand like little old ladies being led across 5th Avenue by Boy Scouts. Except these Boy Scouts would only do it for a fee.
This amounted to the most massive and corrupt protection racket since the Sicilian mob and God knows why this collusive arrangement, which is really the same as that between lobbyists and lawmakers, isn’t enforceable under the federal RICO statutes. Ironically, this inability to find a publisher without going through a jaded, cynical gatekeeper gave rise to self-publication.
Self-publishing, once known as desktop publishing, took off roughly 15 years ago when authors like me just decided to jump off the literary agent hamster wheel. The breaking point, I suspect, came when the agencies began slamming their doors in our faces and saying they weren’t taking on new clients and/or worked “by invitation or referral only”. Making these people mandatory instead of elective gave them power and leverage so that some agencies, such as CCA, ICM, Curtis brown and William Morris Endeavor grew into entities of cartoonish proportions. As rotten and corrupt as the original agreement from the early 80s was, and it was, at least it gave us an outlet for our work- The literary agencies.
But younger agents who weren’t in on the original protection racket forgot that and became as unapproachable as the publishers. Ergo, the same door-slammers who denied us entry into the fabled kingdom of ritual publication actually midwifed self-publishing.
So it’s not very surprising that the people being cut out of the action, the editors, publishing executives, agents and booksellers sneer at the productions of people like me. That’s because they have a stake in the matter and we’re stealing their thunder and money, as they see it.
The paradigm is shifting, though. Perhaps realizing that agents aren’t all that, after all, that they fail to place 90-95% of what little fiction they do take on and that 90% of what publishers do buy from agents wind up losing money, the Big Five are beginning to open up imprints on both sides of the Atlantic that allow authors to approach them without agents (albeit under stringent conditions, such as windows that close in 1-3 months).
So it doesn’t strike me as surprising at all that the very people who’d brought self-publication into being by treating authors like garbage are now the ones trying to kill this subsect of the publishing market. These self-interested sociopathic scum crunch the same numbers as we and no doubt they were alarmed by a report that stated 23% of all book sales in the US were by self-published authors like me.
Because 15% of nothing is still nothing.
So, with collecting dust on a hard drive the only other option, I was basically shoved into self-publication in 2011. I’ve been spending most of the year reissuing all 10 of my books and have written next to nothing original since discovering my last “publisher” had delisted my entire backlist. So, while I’d like to say I’m working on a new novel, that, sadly, isn’t the case.
But next year will literally and figuratively be a different story.
Check out all of Robert’s novels at:
December 21st, 2021
Thanks for having me on, Donis. It was a real pleasure.