The Truth About Being an Indie
by Ted Fink
In 1950, only two years after TV made its big debut, there were 60 bookstores in and around Philadelphia. Now there are six, and two of them are stores that sell used books and other hazarai (Yiddish for junk). Once, major publishing companies had a hundred or more authors under their wing, paid them advances, pushed news-media to rate them, were established in a thousand stores across the country influencing readers. Ah, those were the days. Now those same companies are printing not a hundred different titles, but ten, twelve. Companies that printed ten or twelve are putting out maybe one a year.
And, unlike the days of yore, you can’t approach a publisher without someone to open the door for you—if you are lucky, a friend or a colleague might get you to the person you are trying to reach. But these days, instead of talking to a publisher directly, there are agents. First, you gotta get an agent, Bunky. And forget about calling him or her on the phone. You gotta write a letter. You gotta write a synopsis. Some agents demand a fee just to read your fucking letter! I have a friend who had a friend who’s an agent and he said he’d contact the guy for me. Once he did, the agent told him to have me write him a letter telling him what the book was about. Six months after I sent the letter, I still hadn’t heard from him. Finally, I got his phone number from my friend and when I called him, he told me he gets about two hundred letters a week and, oh yeah, he stopped handling fiction about ten years before. “It’s too tough,” he said before he hung up.
Yeah, it’s tough.
Between the years of 1958 and 1972, I wrote close to fifty stories, two novels, and a work of non-fiction called The Vicious Circle, but I was still unpublished. The Vicious Circle dealt with the Philadelphia school system. An editor from a real live publishing house was excited about The Vicious Circle. The company, however, kept holding me off and said they were still considering it. They considered it for over a year. Finally, I got a call from the original interested editor, a woman, who was actually crying over the phone. Why was she crying? because she loved my book, and fought for it. But she found out the company had selected another book about the Philly school district and was holding mine. They didn’t want another publisher to see my book because it had the same theme. The book they chose was called The Empty Spoon. I tried to shrug it away. But by that time I was married, and my wife was pissed off enough to send three stories from that book to the Inquirer, Philadelphia’s daily newspaper. They loved the work, and sent a check for three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars! Wow! But then, I started thinking. That payment worked out to about fifteen dollars a year. I knew I had to get a real job!
In 1981, I packed all the stuff I had been working on for the last twenty-three years into a suitcase and flew to San Juan for a three-week vacation. My brother, Paul, had a condo there. I was going to go meticulously through the suitcase and sort out all that jumble of writing so that I could see what I had. It was all typewritten—nothing was on computer—who the hell had a computer back then? The box weighed 54 pounds. I checked it on the plane … BUT, it never came the fuck off. It was gone. Gone like a landlord’s check—gone, gone away. I looked up at the sky for an answer, “What the hell is going on?” and I swore I heard, No Teddy You Must Earn Your Living Some Other Way. “Who’s talking about a living?” I yelled, “I just want my bag back!” I had a personal attachment.
But I kept at it. I wrote poems and songs and stories in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler plowing the back roads of Virginia and North Carolina. Wrote a couple of novels while pounding nails in some dank basement. Wrote a letter now and then to an agent, got some feedback, met some fellow tellers of tales along the way, and suddenly looked around and discovered the years had flown. This was it. It was now or never. I had to make a run. In the past, I had always been disparaging of self-publishing. I considered it an ego trip. But I couldn’t wait any longer. So, I chose the easy way out.
It was tough.
Yes, it was a tough decision. A very tough decision. It meant I had to promote myself. I wasn’t sure I could do it; I wasn’t sure I knew how. But I wanted people to read my stories. I considered myself an artist.
Hey, you can say a lot about me … but don’t fuck with my art! I’ve been working this stuff for 62 years!
So, here comes … let me call him, Shlomo. Shlomo is part of a professional storytelling group to which I belong. There are eight guys in this group. We get together two or three time a year and perform. This night, we were at the home of one of the guys in our group. He was having a house concert in his living room. It was a nice size crowd because it was a storytelling extravaganza. As I was getting ready to go up front to tell my story, Sticks and Stones, Shlomo comes over. “You know I was at your book opening last month and”—he says this with great sincerity—“you’re almost as good as a published author!” He had a big smile on his face. In his mind he actually thought he was paying me a compliment. But the word “almost” hit me hard.
“I am published.”
He puckered his lips together and, for a split second, in his rabbinical way, considered what I had just said and came back with a sober, “No, you’re not.”
Once again he gave me the rabbi shtick, hands folded in front of him piously. “Can I get it free at the library?” He wagged his head from side to side. “No, I can’t.”
I took great offense to that little exchange. Sometimes you have to think how words might affect people. Shlomo obviously hadn’t.
I let it bother me.
I was also disappointed with another member of that storytelling group. One day, we were on a Zoom call and, taking out a pencil and paper, this other friend wanted to know the name of my new book. Huh? I stared at him on screen and realized this guy hadn’t opened any of my emails. He pretends to be interested in what I’m doing, but spams me. I thought we were pals. I always opened his emails. I wondered what happened between us for him to make my emails SPAM? LOL. I’d been talkin’ about my new freakin’ book since December. That’s five months! During that time, he had received at least ten emails! But, I appreciated that he mentioned it. And now, I’m glad I had given him its name. Maybe someone will buy it. Once again, I tell him, It’s called The Incident at Parkside.
So here’s what I’ve learned. Shlomo was right. I am not published. If you don’t have a publisher, people don’t read what you’ve written. If you don’t have a publisher, people don’t consider you a writer. If you don’t have a publisher and people, like Shlomo, can’t get it free at the library, you are not quite as good as a published writer. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many clever emails you send out, people won’t bother to buy the book that has your name on It, or take you seriously. They blip your emails like the SPAM it is. Even your friends trash you. AND … don’t expect to make any money. Maybe if you’re lucky, write a great book and work real hard, send out emails and notices cleverly touting the work and have a lot of friends who read, you may sell twenty-five to fifty books. I’m talkin’ makin’ about fifty whole bucks! You … can’t … make … any … money as an Indie. Don’t think you’re going to sell thousands of books. That is the absolute emmis! So, in advance, you should know, you either write because you want to have a book on your shelf with your name on it or … you write because you love it, and have stories that burn within and need to be told.
And try to get someone to read your book and write a review. Impossible! Reviews for an Indie writer are so important. Even if people tell you they loved your book. People just don’t have the time. It’s hard. But, consider this: If writing a two paragraph review is hard, just think how hard it is to write a freakin’ book. The Incident at Parkside, from inception to finish, took two years. That ain’t a couple of hours. Sure, it sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself, but it’s more than that. I’m fucking pissed! And here’s what I’ve come to understand: In a field piled so high with crap books and bad writing, the chances are a million to one that my book will stand out or have any impact.
So, why do I write? After all this carping, complaining, after all the failure and lack of recognition—why do I bother? Why? Because ... for me, it’s like being at the helm of a ship—a space ship, on a long distance voyage, going to who knows where. It’s feeling the flight, it’s seeing the journey’s end and coming in for a landing. It’s all consuming. It’s beautiful!