A New Hope, A Different Tack, pt. 1

 A popular definition of “insanity” is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” As a writer, then, I suppose I’ve been pretty much insane from 2004 forward. Since 2003, the year I wrote Bride of the Fat White Vampire under contract with Del Rey, I’ve written five and a half novels “on spec” (meaning “on speculation of the work being purchased for publication,” or written without a contract in place). Of those five and a half novels, I have managed to find a home for just one, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, with a traditional publishing house – not one of the big six houses, but a small press located in San Francisco, Tachyon Publications. Otherwise. . . zilch. But I have continued pressing forward, continued writing those books on spec, hopping from agent to agent when my first died of cancer and his replacement, my second agent, later left the business. I have kept pressing to have my manuscripts submitted to traditional publishers, relying on positive reviews and strong word of mouth for my first book, Fat White Vampire Blues, to perhaps inspire an editor to take a chance on one of my newer projects. Knocking my head against a brick wall. The definition of “insanity,” right?

I am what is known in the trade as a “former mid-lister,” or, as I have sometimes thought of myself in moments of off-putting self-pity, a “garbage pile novelist.” How does one become a “former mid-lister?” You begin by first becoming a mid-list author, a writer who hits the jackpot (sort of) and gets published by one of the imprints of one of the six large conglomerate publishers publishing books in the U.S. of A., but who is not considered one of their big discoveries, worthy of a sponsored book tour and special product placement in stores (in which case one would be a front-list author). Back in 2002, an editor at Del Rey, part of the Ballantine group of imprints at Random House, was taken enough with Fat White Vampire Blues, my third novel, that he bought the book and a sequel (of course, I had a sequel waiting up my sleeve, all nicely outlined, ready to be written at the word “go”). Whallah – I was a mid-list author.

I received a healthy advance for the two books – not enough to make me contemplate quitting my day job entirely, but enough to believe that if I could find a way to dial my day job back to half-time, I could make up the lost income with book advances and foreign sales rights, especially given that I’d be able to devote twice as much time to writing. At that point, I was married, with one infant son (nowadays I am still married, but with three young sons). I talked it over with my wife. She had her trepidations (as well she should’ve, given how things played out), but, God bless her, she agreed that I should pursue my dream and do what I could to scale back my day job with the State of Louisiana Office of Public Health to half-time. My agent, Dan Hooker, may he rest in peace, also expressed his reservations – “Never, ever expect to make a living writing novels,” he said. “Especially not as the father of a little son.” But I was full of beans and confidence, and I set about scheming to have a new, more efficient commodity foods inventory computer program written that would, in effect, make me half-redundant. I spent many strategy meetings with my bosses at the Office of Public Health, explaining the wisdom of their saving half the costs of my salary and benefits, which could then be invested in worthy items like new forklifts and delivery trucks, etc. My bosses saw the added value in my going half-time once the new computer program had been written and tested. It seemed to be a win-win for everyone. I had set everything in motion. I was about to become a published author. By the time the second book was out, I’d be living my dream, sort of, spending half of each working day happily typing away on my little notebook computer at a table at one of my favorite New Orleans coffeehouses, dreaming up new adventures for my fat white vampire and lots of other stories, as well. Days of wine and roses appeared to be around the corner, huzzah!

Except, as you’ve probably already guessed from reading the first couple of paragraphs of this essay, that’s not how things worked out. Fat White Vampire Blues performed pretty strongly right out of the gate, especially for a first novel from a writer lacking a platform, some pre-existing claim to fame. It got good reviews, including a starred review from Booklist. The month it was released, July, 2003, it sold better than any other trade paperback Del Rey put out that month. I had just finished my initial draft of Bride of the Fat White Vampire, writing at, what was for me, at least, a feverish pace. And I was extremely happy with the second book, maybe more pleased than I’d been with the first. I hadn’t hit any roadblocks at all, and I’d had a blast vamping on the styles of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, forcing my obese vampire, Jules Duchon, into the role of a private dick. I made plans to tour twice as hard as I’d toured for Fat White Vampire Blues, to cover the whole mid-South region and parts of the Southwest.

The second book’s publication date rolled around in early August, 2004. Again, I was blessed with positive reviews. I worked all my regional bookstores, independents and chains alike. I went out on my self-financed tour. I did radio and podcast interviews. I hit the science fiction convention circuit. I got to be bestest buddies with my Del Rey publicist, Fleetwood Robbins, the son of famed novelist Tom Robbins. I even got to be a guest at the San Diego Comic Con International, the big daddy of conventions.

And, despite it all, Bride of the Fat White Vampire sold about half as many copies as Fat White Vampire Blues had.

Continue to Part 2

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