How to Become an Author

In 1997 I became a published author with St. Martin’s Press. As a public service, I thought I’d share my secrets to making it in this highly competitive field.

The sequence of events which brought my Little Book of Bad Business Advice to print was positively rubegoldbergian in its complexity, but here it is—distilled into four easy steps:

  • Fail miserably at your job causing your boss to lose all confidence in you
  • Brood and write a dark, bitter commentary about the incident
  • Abandon writing to pursue a career as an actor
  • Befriend a Belgian Baroness

Step 1: Flop. I was in charge of sales for a high-tech company which made a laser positioning gizmo. The problem was our product sold for five times what our competitors charged for something similar. After six months I hadn’t made a single sale. My boss ignored the price differential and decided I was to blame: that somehow, I didn’t have the right briefcase or haircut or handshake. So he threw a stack of business books at me and ordered me to read them.

I was stupefied to discover that every book said the same things: “Networking is a good way to find a job. You have to take risks to get ahead. Be punctual.” Blah blah blah.

I felt like writing the various authors: “Thanks for the news flash, Scoop! Hey did you hear? Ben Hur won the chariot race.”

Step 2: Sulk. As an outlet for my growing hostility at my boss’s obstinacy and the business gurus’ platitudes, I started writing my own business advice book. And why not? Everyone else seemed to be doing it: Football coaches, management consultants, Navy SEALs, even Attila the Hun and Winnie the Pooh have business advice books out.

Except my manuscript veered toward the absurd:

  • Judge people at work not by their accomplishments, but by their knowledge of sports.
  • In job interviews, speak ill of your former bosses.
  • Give your file folders descriptive labels like “Boring Thing for Marty,” “Budget Lies,” “Tom’s Nasty Project,” and “Schedule Crap.”

This newfound distraction (writing on the job) did wonders for my already dismal productivity. I quit a nanosecond before I was fired.

Step 3: Give Up. Eureka! I had a manuscript that made my friends laugh. Now what? Try to get published? Nope. Shelve it and try something completely different. I have the attention span of a ferret on amphetamines. I change careers more often than most people change their oil. Before you can say “dilettante,” I was off to New York City to become an actor.

Step 4: Party. I didn’t make it into the big leagues, but I did land a recurring role in the short-lived “Central Park West.” An actress on the series invited me to her Fifth Avenue apartment for a soiree.

At the party was Sheri de Borchgrave: Belgian Baroness, sex columnist, and author. We talked for a while and I mentioned my manuscript. She said, “Send it to me and I’ll pass it on to my editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I did; she did; and three days later I had a book contract and a $5,000 advance. No fuss, no muss, no ugly rejection slips.

But being published isn’t all garden parties and massive doses of self-esteem. I have not gracefully executed a swan dive into the loving mosh pit of critical acclaim, where my every written word elicits a frenzied bidding war. The William Morris Agency is not on my speed dial.

There are chores to do. Like going to bookstores and rearranging the stock so your book faces cover out instead of spine out. Like forging ahead with your book talk when the only people who show up are the Barnes & Noble Event Coordinator and your girlfriend.

Sure there are fun moments. Once I was staking out my book in Border’s, waiting for someone to look it over. A woman started chuckling as she flipped through it so I said, “I’m glad you like that. I wrote it.” She looked at me like I had just announced that I was the Archduke of Ipswich and did she perchance have a zebra I might borrow to make a frontal assault on the Kremlin.

There is one drawback in going from unknown to known. I wrote a sequel called If You Jam the Copier, Bolt and had a hell of a time getting it published. The first time around I was pure potential waiting to be discovered. Now I had a track record that the suits could analyze, extrapolate, and forecast. They could examine reviews of the first book, which ranged from “inventive” (Michigan News-Herald) to “lacking inventiveness” (a reader at Amazon). And its paltry sales (under 20,000) didn’t exactly mean Scott Adams’ days as the reigning workplace satirist were over. Hail Dogbert.

#

I queried dozens of literary agents about the sequel, but no one was interested. Years passed and I completely forgot about it. Then, in June 2000, I received a letter from the Jeff Herman Agency, “Your letter from more than two years ago was found behind my couch. Sorry. Maybe we can still talk?”

Despite his unorthodox in-box, Jeff turned out to be a real mensch and was willing to sign me. He sent my manuscript to twenty-five publishers and received twenty-five rejections. He said he’d give it one final shot. The twenty-sixth publisher said “yes” and offered another $5,000 advance just as my savings bottomed out. Stamps are my lottery tickets; the more I mail, the luckier I get.

My second book hit the shelves in a huge blaze of no publicity on Monday, September 10, 2001. If the world cared at all about it on Monday, it sure as hell didn’t by Tuesday. And I and many others had entirely new definitions of lucky and unlucky.

#

Jeff was less enthusiastic about my next book. I could understand if he felt my second book didn’t live up to expectations. It was remaindered before the year was out. But poor prior sales wasn’t his objection. Instead he simply said, “a memoir like this can only work if the author is already famous, if the author is already someone who appears on the Tonight Show.” Famous in Some Field, now there’s a book. Obscure in Many Fields, who wants to read that?

I hung up with Jeff and cursed the Famous! Not only do the celebrated have an easy time interesting publishers in their memoirs, they win with the book-buying public no matter what they say. If they write something exciting, people are impressed. “So that’s what Bono did when he heard he was being considered to head the World Bank.” If they write about something mundane, people feel a kinship with the star. “I guess Bono has to trim his nose hairs, just like the rest of us.”

Didn’t Jeff realize that, since the Diary of Samuel Pepys, all the really interesting memoirs have been written by the obscure? They had to be worthwhile or no one would have published them. Star power wasn’t a factor.

Jeff’s fanciful suggestion that I get on the Tonight Show was still echoing in my ears the next day when I got a message from my theatrical agent asking if I could do the Tonight Show that evening. Take it easy, universe! Don’t pull a hamstring jumping to fulfill my wishes. In my haste to call back my agent I blissfully ignored the fact that I had no movie to promote, had no impish ring-tailed lemurs to unleash on Jay’s desk, and had not recently pogo-sticked across America backwards. Even though I had no apparent reason to be a Tonight Show guest, for a second I considered the possibility that perhaps my various disjointed stunts had reached critical mass. Maybe Jay was devoting an episode to people who were neither famous, nor anonymous, but rather languishing in the purgatory of obscurity.

Turned out they didn’t want me as a guest, of course. They needed me as a hand model to play the part of Donald Trump’s hands in a skit. Still, as I jauntily walked the three blocks from my apartment in Burbank to the NBC Studios that afternoon it was hard to take it as anything other than a clear sign that my book would be published.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Writer magazine.

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About Steve Altes

Steve Altes is the author of several humor books, dozens of humorous adventure essays, and the comedic graphic novel Geeks & Greeks, set at MIT and inspired by MIT's culture of hacking and Steve's own experiences with hazing.
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