The Publishing Fairy

No; the featured image of this post is not the Publishing Fairy. It’s moi, of course, the “gentleman writer” who has long known better than to believe in that fairy: I had the good fortune to be enlightened decades ago about the fantasies that comprise publishing mythology. I recently came across a contemporary exposé of the myths in “Author! Author!” a blog post written by Anne Mini who shares the following vignette allegedly prompted by a Thanksgiving guest named Colleen:

(Colleen asks) “Oh, querying* sounds just awful. Do you really want to put yourself through it? I have a friend who’s self-publishing, and…”

Thanks, Colleen — because, of course, that would never have occurred to you. You’ve never encountered a dank midnight in which you dreamt of thumbing your nose at traditional publishing at least long enough to bypass the querying and submission processes, rush the first draft of your Great American Novel onto bookshelves, and then sit back, waiting for the profits to roll in, the reviewers to rave, and publishers the world over to materialize on your doorstep, begging to publish your next book.

Never mind that the average self-published book sells fewer than five hundred copies — yes, even today — or that most publications that still review books employ policies forbidding the review of self-published books. Half of the books released every year in North America are not self-published, after all. Ignore the fact that all of the effort of promoting such a book falls on the author. And don’t even give a passing thought to the reality that in order for a self-published book to impress the traditional publishing world even vaguely, it typically needs to sell at least 10,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. But the Publishing Fairy can merely wave her wand and change all of that, right?

If she can, she certainly doesn’t do it much. But someone predisposed to believe otherwise is also unlikely to understand that when you land an agent, you will not automatically be handed a publication contract by some beneficent deity. If every agented writer had a nickel for each time some well-meaning soul said, “Oh, you have an agent? When’s your book coming out?” we could construct our own publishing house.

It is due to the man pictured below that I began to doubt the existence of the Publishing Fairy almost forty years ago. The man is Peter Bart, a former movie exec, journalist/writer, and long-time Editor in Chief of Variety, who was once married to my then-wife’s BFF: Leslie “Blackie” Cox Bart.

Peter Bart

During the 13 yeas prior to the dissolution of my marriage in 1998, Peter and Leslie were occasional–and to date, my only–writing mentors. Looking back, I have accepted that their guidance and encouragement of my writing were the most significant things that I lost in the divorce.

In those days there was no email, so communications were by relatively frequent phone conversations with Leslie. She would share with me her critiques of my work (manuscripts sent cross-country via snail mail) and those of Peter, as well as suggestions Peter had regarding next steps, but the most meaningful exchanges occurred when my then-wife and I stayed with Leslie and Peter in Beverly Hills for one week over the course of several summers.

One evening over a lovely bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Barts’ Beverly Hills home, Peter explained that his career as a journalist ended when the New York Times, for whom he was working the L.A. desk at the time (1967), had assigned him to Viet Nam as a war correspondent. Not wanting any parts of that assignment, Peter took advantage of his professional and personal connections with Bob Evans–then just named President of Paramount–to accept Evans’ offer to take on the responsibilities of the VP of Production at the studio.

At Paramount, Peter played key roles in bringing Rosemary’s Baby, True Grit, Harold and Maude, The Godfather, and Paper Moon to the screen. After leaving Paramount, Peter was co-producer of two films in 1977: Fun with Dick and Jane, and Islands in the Stream. He then returned to the role of studio exec when he became Senior VP for Production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and then President of Lorimar.

When I first met Peter, he had returned to producing films on his own and had recently wrapped Revenge of the Nerds, for which he was the executive producer. Despite his–at that point–nearly two decade involvement at the highest levels of Hollywood filmmaking, I found him, at his core, to be a writer. During those summer weeks when I visited the Barts, Peter would closet himself in his office for an hour every morning to work on a book project, and perhaps the happiest I ever saw him was after he had accepted a position in NYC as Editor-in-Chief of Variety’s weekly magazine: he was a journalist once more.

We had visited the Barts in a converted livery stable they were renting in Gramercy Park in Manhattan, but it was not long before he took over the daily edition of Variety and set up residence once more in Hollywood. A few months after that, during that summer’s visit with the Barts, Peter proudly took me into an empty Variety newsroom on a Saturday morning for a grand tour.

Mentoring me, I’m certain, was far, far, far down on Peter’s to-do list, but he was kind to me and my ex, and beginning each evening at suppertime when he left the worlds of writing and of editing entertainment news to join “Blackie” and us for dinner, he was charming, open, and had a repertoire of the most remarkable anecdotes—oh how I wish I had taken notes.

A few things I do recall: generally, he found actors to be dull human beings who did not deserve the attention they were given, a point of view he supported by descriptions of experiences that proved the rule; Cary Grant was the greatest gentleman Peter had encountered in Hollywood; and Francis Ford Coppola did not want to do The Godfather, but when Peter arranged for Paramount to forgive a significant amount of debt Coppola owed to the Studio, the director caved.

My ex and I were not celebrities, of course, so when once during each of the weeks we visited a caterer would prepare and serve a dinner at the Bart’s, the other quests were not the Bart’s best friends: Vincent and Coral Browne Price or Joan Rivers and her husband Edgar; rather, “B-list” authors/screenwriters and documentary producers would join us with their spouses for remarkably stimulating dinner conversations.

Dinner out with the Barts was a hoot. The maître d’, usually accompanied by a “minion” of some sort, would literally rush to greet Peter when he entered the restaurant; my ex and I were, of course, so much chopped liver. And then as we were escorted to our table, the collective eyes of every diner would be focused on Peter and his entourage. In those years, many in the restaurant would have recognized Peter, but it was amusing to think about how many folks must have been trying to figure out who the hell my ex and I were.

What I learned about the Publishing Fairy I had learned from Peter, the information having been presented in the manner of a true mentor: he delivered unvarnished truth with the full weight of his experience behind it. I never doubted his veracity or that of Leslie, who was a writer in her own right, having ghost written a few books.

Having published a handful of successful, non-fiction books about the movie business, as well as a couple of “unsuccessful” novels that I considered well written and diverting, Peter shared firsthand accounts of the uphill slog that is book publishing. He had also shared a profound accounting of what it was like for screenwriters to swim against the tsunami of the then forty-thousand or so screenplays that inundated Hollywood in a given year, a bounty from which studios might option eighty or fewer of them in total.

Two pieces of advice from Peter that I recall are:

  • Regarding your first sale of a screenplay: “Take the money and run and don’t worry about what the studio does with what you’ve written.” He told me that selling a screenplay is like selling your house: when you sell it, it doesn’t belong to you anymore, and you have no more right to protest what a studio does to your screenplay than you have the right to protest the color the new owners of your home paint the living room. He shared a well-known joke (at least, in Hollywood): A director asks a producer how he liked the screenplay that’d he just bought, and the producer replies, “Oh my God, I love it! Absolutely love it! Who are we going to get to re-write it?”
  • Regarding the writing of novels, shared with me in 1985: “Jeff, if you want to write novels because you think it’ll make you rich, stop right now. Only ever write a novel because you like doing it.”

Peter’s advice had been reinforced by my attending a myriad of workshops and conferences in the 1990s, events which have exploded in number over the past two decades due to the growth of a relentless and heartless industry driven by slightly successful and subsequently burned-out writers, literary reps, and film studio types. Their business models are based upon exploiting the delusions of the few million wannabee writers who believe they are going to be the next Faulkner or King or … I’m sure you get my drift.

Two years ago I joined a local writers’ group where well-meaning and otherwise intelligent folks consistently and unwittingly provided testimony in support of their belief in the Publishing Fairy. A bit over twenty years ago when I was in a creative writing masters program, I had observed the same wishful thinking on the part of many graduate students, all of whom were at least twenty years younger than I. And as had happened when I was a graduate student and had to critique the work of my fellow students, I struggled to find something, anything, that was positive in the work shared by members of the writing group. Sometimes, I had to lie because the only positive thing I could say about the work of these dear, sweet, earnest souls, each of whom was convinced that they had begun writing the next Great American Novel, was that s/he had used punctuation marks at the end of every sentence.

Back to Peter and Leslie and their critiques of my work: they both believed I had begun to get a good grip on character development and dialogue, and I readily acknowledge that Peter’s steering me away from the novel (at least temporarily) and toward screenwriting had improved my ability to develop engaging plot lines, which had been his intent. I had arrived at a point in my proficiency as a screenwriter that Peter used to justify using his personal power to have my first screenplay read by development types; however, when I “lost” Peter in the divorce, he had prepared me for the closed doors that were to come no matter the quality of my writing.

I did persevere for a time after the divorce, despite the advice I and four hundred other participants took away from a four-day, screenwriting workshop in Hollywood in 2000: as a wannabee screenwriter, I needed to move to LA, get a job as a barista, and never leave home without a copy of my screenplay.

During the time when I was a graduate student, I had written three screenplays relying upon the guidance I had received from Peter and from books about story construction that he had suggested I read. Today, wannabee screenwriters use online services such as TaleFlick to get a screenplay in front of a studio development type. TaleFlick critiques a screenplay, and if it is sufficiently worthy, TaleFlick will designate it as a TaleFlick Pick** for the benefit of studio folks who are looking for something to option.

Prior to the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, editorial services like Writers Showcase*** would provide a service to studios similar to what TaleFlick does today. Upon subscribing to Writers Showcase’s quarterly publication, studios would receive a hard copy of that quarter’s critiques of screenplays, after which the studios would contact the service to request the screenplay. The service would then send me the name and address of the studio contact, and I would send the 90- to 120-page hardcopy screenplay to the studio. Below is an example of the critique of one of my screenplays that Writers Showcase provided in 2001.

Thanks to Writers Showcase (and to my previously mentioned perseverance!), three of my screenplays were requested and read by multiple studios. None were optioned, but they elicited atypical, handwritten replies from studio development types asking me to send them any future screenplays I might create; however, by the turn of the Millennium, I knew I had to face the realities of the writing world:

  • There was no such thing as a Publishing Fairy.
  • Without Peter’s efforts on my behalf (or the efforts of someone with a strong network in publishing), it was unlikely that doors would be opened.
  • Responsibilities associated with my then career did not provide the time or the means to do my own networking from the publishing wasteland of Delaware.
  • I had to deal with the probabilities of survival as I aged, and taking the risk of heading to LA at the age of 53 without deep financial pockets and armed only with a few hardcopies of screenplays in hand seemed to be the kind of decision someone would make who had gotten hold of some bad grass.

Without regret, I chose to continue my career in education, which ultimately resulted in a high school principalship, a state position that oversaw the development of improvement plans of 800 Pennsylvania schools, and a consulting role that reported to the Secretary of Education. Bottom line? A very comfortable lifestyle and a good pension. That said, and as my website attests, I did not walk away from writing.

Today, as noted in the first paragraph of this post, I’m playing the part of a gentleman writer, taking advantage of Kindle Direct Publishing’s services, and working the local writer role. Myers is on the shelf at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, I have a scheduled book-signing at Browseabout on December 18th, and I’m hoping to cajole Lewes “neighbors” and Facebook friends into reading the products of tens of thousands of hours of stimulating work that have been spent crafting pages I am happy to put up against any pages from today’s crop of single-sentence-paragraph minimalists.

Bottom line #2? While the quality of one’s writing is important, it’s not the key to being published by a mainstream publishing house. Getting published remains much about where you went to school, the writing professors with whom you have made a personal connection that will inspire them to push your work, the assistant editors with whom you attended expensive day and boarding schools or college and with whom you are still “friends,” and for the youngsters on trust funds who have the luxury of time and money, getting published can be the result of working the workshops offered by the wannabee writer industry where it is sometimes possible to schmooze a literary rep to a good end. You can rest assured that the Publishing Fairy will not come to your rescue.

BLOGGER’S NOTES

* Query: A query used to be a one-page letter that is now usually an email an author sends to literary agents in an effort to get them excited about the author’s book. As an author, that means I have 300 words (or less) to woo a literary agent into falling in love with my story in the hope that the agent will want to peruse the manuscript.

** One of my screenplays and one of my novels has been designated TaleFlick Picks. Thus far, that and $4.45 has gotten me a grande, Caramel Frappuccino at Starbuck’s.

*** The Writers Showcase you can reach with the previous link is not the same Writers Showcase referred to in my post.

The image of Peter Bart is the featured image of “Is Peter Bart the Most Hated Man in Hollywood?” in the Los Angeles Magazine, 9/1/2001 by Amy Wallace. No copyright infringement is intended in the use of the image of Peter Bart, nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image in this post.

Click on the image above to learn more about Jeff Lee’s Myers as well as Jeff Lee’s other creations.