The Publishing Fairy

Every writer has his or her story, and mine is that of a “gentleman writer”* who has written several independently-published novels, short stories, and screenplays for no apparent reason but for the joy of doing it. I stopped believing in the Publishing Fairy four decades ago after I was enlightened about the myriad fantasies associated with publishing lore via writers’ workshops and actual experiences, but I was primarily apprised of publishing mythology by the man pictured below: Peter Bart. Peter is a former movie exec, journalist/novelist, and a long-time Editor in Chief of Variety, who was once married to my then-wife’s BFF: Leslie “Blackie” Cox Bart.

Peter Bart

Obviously, a lot has changed in 40 years when it comes to the details of publishing, especially the explosion of self-published authors of which I am one. I recently came across a contemporary exposé of publishing myths in “Author! Author!” a blog written by Anne Mini who shares in a post the following retort that Mini alleges was prompted by a Thanksgiving guest named Colleen:

Colleen … 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.

During the 13 yeas prior to the dissolution of my marriage in 1998, Peter and Leslie Bart were occasional–and to date, my only–writing mentors. Looking back, I acknowledge and 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 cross-continent, long-distance, 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 during each of several summers.

One evening during our first week visiting the Barts, 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 an independent, 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.

During Peter’s tenure in his new position, my ex and I had visited the Barts in a converted and charming livery stable they were renting near 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 move, 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.

I know mentoring me would have been 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 anecdotes that proved the rule. Cary Grant was an exception, according to Peter, and he claimed that Grant was “the greatest gentleman” he had encountered in Hollywood. I also recall Peter sharing that Francis Ford Coppola did not want to direct The Godfather, but if my memory is correct, after Peter arranged for Paramount to forgive an obligation that 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 and a caterer prepared and served 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, authors/screenwriters and documentary producers had joined us 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 likes the screenplay that the producer has 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 was reinforced by my attending a variety 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 William Faulkner, Stephen King, or William Goldman … 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 thirty 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 lied 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. Peter used my evolving proficiency as a screenwriter to justify using his personal power to have my first screenplay read by a development “boy;”however, by the time I “lost” Peter in the divorce, I had prepared myself to encounter closed doors–no matter the quality of my writing–that might have otherwise been open to me thanks to Peter’s influence.

I did persevere for a time after the divorce, despite the advice I and four hundred other participants took away from a screenwriting workshop in Hollywood in 2000. As wannabee screenwriters, we spent four days listening to the wisdom coming from panels of prominent directors and screenwriters, and the takeaway was this: we needed to move to LA, get a job as a barista, and never leave home without a hardcopy of our screenplays in hand. In four decades, technology has changed a lot about how screenwriters get their work read “in Hollywood,” but personal sacrifice, persistence, who you know, and most importantly, luck, are collectively more important than the quality of your writing.

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 the 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 day job in school district administration 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 future 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 for 800 “failing” 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 sentence of this post, I’m playing the part of a gentleman writer, and as such, I’m taking advantage of Kindle Direct Publishing’s services, and sometimes working the local writer role, albeit minimally.

Click on the image to order a trade paperback, eBook, or hardback of Myers, which is Volume 1 of the Myers/Benton Chronicles

Myers has been on a shelf at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and when I can, I offer copies of my novels to friends and acquaintances who actually read and provide good feedback about the results of thousands of hours of stimulating work devoted to crafting pages I am happy to put up against any pages from today’s crop of two-clause-sentence-per-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. And do not forget those two essential ingredients: perseverance and luck! One thing about which you can be certain is that the Publishing Fairy will not come to your rescue.

BLOGGER’S NOTES:

Peter and Leslie Bart did more than anyone else to encourage me to write, and for that I will be eternally grateful, because creating and crafting stories has been the most stimulating and energizing endeavor of my life.

*A gentleman writer is analogous to a gentleman farmer.

** 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 have 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. The beautiful image of the fairy is by Mystic Art Design, and it, as well as the image of “Karl Myers,” are copyright-free images from Pixabay. No copyright infringement is intended in the use of any of the images, nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the images in this post.

Click on the image to learn more about Jeff Lee’s Literary Creations

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