Yesterday I reviewed Andrew Lawler’s new book The Secret Token, and to be entirely honest, it was a bit of a depressing experience. That’s because the book’s first half is set up much like a book I’ve been working on writing for several years now, though on a different topic. My book is a narrative history of the “white” mound builder myth, starting with the Spanish explorations and proceeding down to the famous Bureau of Ethnology report that closed the subject as a legitimate scientific question. The structure and approach are remarkably close, though, in my obviously biased opinion, I feel that I have done a much better job mining my subject for the kind of rich, novelistic detail that helps to bring the past to life. I wrote it basically as a nonfiction novel. My cast of characters is also richer and more compelling, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Constantine Rafinesque, all of whom left elaborate paper trails that help to tell a fascinating story in an engaging way.
So why was reading Lawler’s book depressing? It’s depressing because Lawler was able to shepherd into print a book that skims across the surface of its story, while I have been unable to find even a single literary agent who will reply to a query. Over the past few years, I have sent queries to dozens, maybe even a hundred literary agents, and no one has had a moment’s interest in my work. And it is not for want of trying, or of talent, or of topic.
Clearly, racism and white nationalism are hot topics now, and a book about historical white racism that ties in with pop culture, cable TV, and political kooks ought to be a slam dunk. Lawler’s own book about how an American myth feeds into political racism proves that the topic is hardly off-putting to major publishers.
My detractors will immediately object that agents recognize in me a lack of literary talent. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I can write, and write well. The reviews of my earlier books ought to relieve any lingering doubt, but if not, the fact that I have ghostwritten, revised, or edited books and manuscripts for others that went on to receive placement with major publishers makes plain that my writing is not the issue. (Similarly, I have drafted the cover letters for wannabe authors that literary agents snapped up, so my letter-writing skills are not the problem either.) Yet somehow people who are objectively untalented writers with questionable command of English receive steady book deals. I confess to being baffled.
I have, over the years, done everything one is “supposed” to do to enter into the mainstream publishing field. After placing a few books with small publishers on my own, since no agent was interested in me at the time, in 2010 I acquired a literary agent who was a former editor at a publishing house and a foreign scout for major publishers and who represents several authors whose works you would recognize, including New York Times bestsellers. I followed his advice about setting the groundwork for a literary career. I established a website and built a large and dedicated audience, and I appeared on TV and podcasts to raise my profile. I worked with him to hone book proposals and write sample chapters for various books, and the result was jack shit. Despite his best efforts, not a single publisher, large or small, had any interest in anything I wrote or would write or could write. Well, that’s not entirely true. Skyhorse Publishing expressed interest and then slow-walked the process for three years before claiming to “forget” that they ever wanted me. I feel comfortable naming them because I have no interest in working with them after that fiasco.
My agent dropped me several years ago, and aside from automated rejections, none has ever placed me under consideration for my nonfiction work since then. Quite a few even refuse even to consider queries unless an author has a formal introduction from a current client. A major British historian who has BBC documentaries and several bestsellers to his name found my writing compelling and offered to introduce me to his literary agent. He tried for a full year to get the agent to respond to my query. He never did, not even to say no. I reached out to several prominent authors with whom I had worked in the past and asked after their agents. More than one simply refused to provide an introduction on the grounds that they didn’t want competition. I’d name names, but it would be unkind and would unduly complicate my life.
For a long time, I followed my ex-agent’s advice and said nothing, lest publishers and agents take offense. Well, a fat lot of good that did. I don’t see much point in pretending anymore for fear of giving the vapors to people who clearly have no intention of ever working with me.
This seems to be a recurring problem for me, and one that I am unable to resolve. When I graduated college, a professor thought I would be a great fit for National Geographic magazine and contacted a friend who worked in editorial there. I never heard a word from them. My hometown newspaper, for Pete’s sake, interviewed me for a reporting position and told me that they did it only as a courtesy to my parents because they had Ivy League interns coming in from Boston, so why would they want a mere local to report local news? The joke was on them, of course. The Ivy Leaguers quit after a year for more lucrative jobs, and the paper is shell of its former self. The paper here in Albany cut the reporting positions an editor had recommended I apply for when the chain that owned it slashed its budget. I worked with the New York State Museum for a year, and the museum director told me that he recommended me for a staff position, which of course never materialized despite months of promises that it was forthcoming. The museum’s director blamed state funding, and an inquiry from my state assemblyman (who in those days was a friend of my father’s) achieved nothing. For years afterward, the director would duck and turn the other way when I would see him around the Capitol.
I remember when I applied for an editorial position at a regional publishing house and made it all the way to final consideration when the hiring manager informed me that the owners of the company had personally decided to dismiss me from contention. I was a bit miffed at that, since I had spent so much time and made it all the way to the end of the hiring process, so I asked why the owners decided against me. The hiring manager told me that they thought I was too qualified, and they were really looking for someone less competent that they could mentor and train and treat as a surrogate child.
My very first job out college was even worse. I trained to be a Kaplan SAT instructor, passed their test, and was all set to start teaching when… nothing happened. I went to the for my assignment, and the staff had turned over and they claimed not to know who I was. The company later said that they had no record of me, and then that the deposed manager of my local branch had forgotten to assign me to teaching courses, and any number of other excuses. It wasn’t a scam; their paychecks cleared just fine until they stopped. Depending on whom you asked, I either never existed or fell through the cracks. But they kept advertising for new employees. They hired me and sent me through training, but they forgot about me so completely that they never officially fired me. As far as I know, I’m still technically employed there.
When I published Knowing Fear and A Hideous Bit of Morbidity, two well-received books about the horror genre that took years of research and dedication to bring to fruition, and which I was proud to have cited in dissertations and popular histories alike, the Bram Stoker Award for accomplishment in nonfiction studies of horror went to a book from the same small publisher, McFarland, in which the author literally copied and pasted 13 public domain newspaper stories about Halloween and called it a book. I didn’t even get nominated.
I could go on, but I won’t. At a certain point, though, I just get tired of trying. The only thing I’ve learned from the process is that there is no benefit in following the rules. The rules are designed to help the powerful avoid responsibility and to reinforce existing hierarchies.
I get frustrated, though, because I’m not in it for the money—though, of course, I can’t afford to work entirely for free. I wanted my books to have a larger audience because I write when I have something to say, not just to make money off them. But it’s increasingly hard to justify the effort to write deep and detailed books if the only publishers who will touch them are so small, and pay so little, that they are essentially unread. I devoted a year to writing Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, and fewer people have read it than will read this blog post.
So, the long and short of it is that I have about two-thirds of a really great book written and absolutely no incentive to finish it.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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