They say that everyone in California is writing a screenplay. And every journalist I've ever known has tried to write a novel. I'm no exception. In fact, to date I've made two attempts. The first one actually got published … online. Called "Why My Dad Hates Ice Cream," the story is loosely based on a case I almost took to trial about 20 years ago. The night manager of a restaurant in Bucks County was fired on Christmas Eve, no less when he revealed to the owner that he had tested HIV-positive. A publisher out of Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the first to offer on-demand publishing over the World Wide Web, made the slim novella available. My maiden effort got a few reviews and sold a handful of copies. I got to make an appearance on a local PBS talk show in Edison, New Jersey, where I was billed as the "Internet Author."
A decade later, I had another go at it. The main characters were the same: a lawyer named Archie McAdoo and his son Ned, who by now had also become an attorney. This time my boys tackled the case of a homegrown terrorist, who was charged with trying to set off a bomb in the Philly Zoo to free the elephants. This time around, I self-published "Ned MacAdoo and the Molly Maguires" on Amazon. So far, to paraphrase a Monty Python skit that some of you in my generation may remember, I've sold "almost one."
Meanwhile, I've watched in amazement down the decades as a string of unlikely authors have soared from obscurity to best-seller status. To name a few:
In 1984, a 36-year-old insurance agent named Tom Clancy sold "The Hunt for Red October" to the Naval Institute Press for a modest advance. The yarn was so technically correct that it attracted high-level attention, which in turn won Clancy entrée into the hallowed halls of a major publisher. The insurance man moved into the rarefied ranks of writers whose names are household words, pumping out a long series of subsequent "blockbusters," many of which morphed into major movies.
In 1997, a 66-year-old retired high school teacher won a Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes," a comic-tragic memoir of his impoverished childhood. Although Frank McCourt taught creative writing, he hadn't published a thing before his international best-seller.
One of the most curious cases of all is a current best-selling writer named E.L. James. "Fifty Shades of Grey," a novel about bondage, domination and sadism, began as "Twilight" fan fiction. Later the author moved the material to a website of her own. There she divided the extensive manuscript into a trilogy. The first volume was offered as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback back by a virtual publisher called The Writer's Coffee Shop in May 2011. Book two went on sale last September, and book three in January. Then in April, James followed in Clancy's footsteps. Vintage Books picked up the set and re-released it. So far, about 10 million copies have been sold, according to Wikipedia.
Since 1988, I've had 15 law books published by legit publishing houses. One of these books, a labor-law college text, is going into its 8th edition next year. The 7th edition of another, The Employment Law Answer Book, sells for almost $250 a pop. Some say I should be satisfied with that. Most of the time, I am. But then AMC airs the film version of Frank McCourt's memoir and my mouth waters. If he could do it at 66, well then …
It's funny, but despite everything we know about the lives of writers solitary, often thankless, and rarely flush so many of us still aspire to be one ourselves. In a world where the printed word seems to receive less and less respect, the perception of the revered Great American Novelist somehow still exists. Being a published author, regardless of the often-meager financial benefits, still holds quite a bit of clout.
I don't know if it's the fact that anyone with a pen and a piece of paper can potentially become an author (in theory, I mean), or if it's stories like that of E.L. James fueling the fire, but there is no shortage of hopeful writers nor, do I think, has there ever been. I recently finished up a stint as an intern at a New York literary agency, and one of my duties was slogging through the "slush pile" all the unsolicited manuscripts sent to the agency and sending responses to the writers. There were literally hundreds of new manuscripts in the inbox every day, proof positive that the dream is still going strong.
Of course, 90 percent of what came through every day was rubbish. Harsh, but true. Because, you see, while so many dream of being published authors, so few take the time to even research how to formulate a proper query, or write an attention-grabbing first chapter. I sent form rejection letters to most authors after reading only the first paragraph of a manuscript. It's unnervingly easy to separate the talented, serious authors the ones who have taken the time to hone their craft and write a real story from those who simply want to be the next Stephenie Meyer.
Not that I'm knocking Stephenie Meyer. I'm sure she could care less what I have to say about "Twilight;" she is, after all, probably diving headfirst into a pile of money as I write this. Even so, I wouldn't want to be her.
Today's publishing world is split down the middle: there are the brilliant authors who write original, compelling, well-crafted stories. These writers often make very little, most likely because their books don't tend to appeal to the masses. Their books are challenging, they are unique, they take time and effort to read. Then there are the E.L. James's and the Stephenie Meyers of the world, along with a lot of middling writers whose books are easy to market. I think most would agree with me that these writers have far less talent, but their stories appeal to the crowd. "Beach reads" have been around for ages, but never before have they been so sloppily written.
The Internet has some part in all this. As my dad mentioned, "50 Shades of Gray" began online and was only picked up by a publisher after it had already gained an extensive following. Not only can anyone post their manuscript on a blog and see what happens, but querying is the easiest it's ever been as well. Gone are the days of hard copies tied up lovingly with a piece of twine and sent out in heavy envelopes to the top literary agents and publishers. Today, a wannabe author can send his manuscript to hundreds of agents at once with a single click of the mouse (not a tactic I'd recommend, by the way). This results in a whole lot more chaff, and a lot less wheat.
But publishers need to make a buck, too. Thus, "Twilight." And sexy books about sex.
(A side note: don't all of the soccer moms and housewives who are apparently flocking to buy "50 Shades of Grey" know that they can read erotica for free online? Most of it more skillfully written, too. Seriously, do a Google search.)
I think most writers dream of being the next Jonathan Franzen: a literary genius who also happens to be on all the best-seller lists. Smart and rich. Most will never achieve that dream; many will never even get published. But it all comes down to priorities.
Personally, I think the real writer is the writer who would choose the book with modest sales figures and good reviews, or the writer still toiling away to make her manuscript perfect. I don't believe that "any book that gets people reading is a good book" a phrase that seems to surround mediocre books only. Good books are good books, and I'm not sure that the Internet is conducive to producing good books. I'm not sure at all.