You might have seen I just signed a three-book deal with Down & Out Books to publish my three standalone novels. While writing Jay Porter, I would write an additional novel each year. These books, The One That Got Away, Skunk Train, and Occam’s Razor, are among the best things I’ve done. I love the Porter books but it’s been especially frustrating to not have these three books out in the world. Now, thanks to Eric Campbell and Down & Out, these works have a home. For this, I am forever grateful. I’ve long been a fan of what Eric and D&O are doing, and I’ll be back at the same house as my buddy Tom Pitts. What’s not to love?
Getting here, though, has been a bumpy road. I talked about what a shit show 2017 was personally. Professionally it wasn’t much better. I am carefully not to criticize the gatekeeper system of publishing because, despite its shortcomings, I don’t see a better way. Like knocking capitalism: it’s the worst system besides all the others.
I got the Down & Out deal without an agent. I left my agency over the summer, not for anything they weren’t doing–my agent got me five book deals in five years–who can ask for more? I reached a point where I needed to make a change. It’s like a baseball team that is underperforming. It’s not the manager’s fault, but you can’t fire the entire team. Which is why the manager gets the ax. It’s not fair. But it’s the system we have.
Being without an agent is strange. The two happiest days of my publishing life were not when I got book deals or when books came out; it was when I got both my agents. Getting an agent validates you in a different way; it’s an invitation to the party. Landing an agent says you are good enough to be here; you are worthy.
When I left my agency over the summer, I didn’t exactly inundate the market with submissions. I had hoped my name might carry some weight. It didn’t. I was back to square: send a sample chapter and we’ll get back to you. After a handful of rejections, I stopped trying.
Several other factors factored into my giving up. Like my brother dying. We knew my brother was sick for a while, even if consciously I tried to believe he wasn’t. Alcoholism is an awful disease, and looking back at the pictures of Josh, so yellow and grey, I don’t know how I managed to convince myself he’d be okay. The alternative hurt too much I guess.
Suddenly pushing on with my career didn’t seem so important. I didn’t feel like I could sell myself. And that is a huge part of what this industry is. This isn’t, in any way, to disparage agents out there. Agents have a largely thankless job. Very few authors hit big, and fifteen percent of nothing is a whole lot of time spent reading, revising, editing, and submitting your work. If an agent takes you on, they are making a serious personal investment. They don’t want to sign authors who might hit; they want as much as a sure thing as sure things get in this business. They want to believe in you.
I didn’t find any who felt that way about me last year. And it was my fault because I didn’t put myself out there more, send enough submissions, let the process unfold the way it does. I got a few no thank yous and said fuck it; I’ll do it myself.
And I did. And Down & Out is a great fit for these books. But my inability to land an agent, and furthermore my unwillingness to re-enter the marketplace made me realize something. Beyond my stubborness. Agents are looking to (rightfully) be wowed and dazzled by a manuscript, and there is nothing so otherworldly and unique about my work that an agent is going to drop everything and say, “This! I need to have this!” I’m not knocking my work, and I’m not knocking agents. I mean it more as an understanding of what I am and what I do, how work resonates. I have my own style, and it’s not for everyone. But I can write.
I have a nice fanbase and following, readers who like what I do. I am happy with my career. But like anyone I want more. Or maybe not “like anyone.” Like Josh Brolin in that Wallstreet sequel and/or addicts, active or past. A little is never enough, and neither is a little more. More always means … more.
My next book is almost certainly going to be non-fiction, a follow-up to Junkie Love. It will cover my drug years, but focus more on the relationship of brothers, a central theme to just about everything I’ve done. I want to write about my brother Josh and his life and what we did together, the violence we grew up with and that helped shaped us, how one of us escaped the affliction and the other did not; and I want to have that experience transcend, like Junkie Love did. At least to a few people.
As for agents, I’m not submitting my work. This isn’t ego or angst. I get how the gatekeeper system works. I am not suggesting replacing it. But I’m also not sending in a chapter of my work, with my name, to a stranger I find in a database or on a referral, which is tantamount to a blind date. I’d rather control my own fate. Write the most kick-ass book I can, get it out in the world, take my message to the streets. If any agent wants to see what I do, my books are out there, all dozen or so. I write the way I write. That is not changing.
I’m still aiming for the Great American Novel. Until then, I’ll recommit to doing what I do best, which I started in earnest back in 2010 with Junkie Love. My only skill, in fact. I can bang my head against a wall longer than you. Plus, I don’t have a lot of time. My family rarely lives past their fifties.