April 5, 2006: Features
By Katherine Federici Greenwood
Three years ago, Jeff Markowitz ’74 was driving through New Jersey’s Pine Barrens before dawn on his way to a conference, listening to jazz on his car radio. He sensed eeriness as he wound his way along the foggy country roads.
“I could imagine why you would hear these accounts of the Jersey Devil,” the mythical creature that haunts the Pine Barrens, he recalls. The drive sparked an idea for a story “about somebody on the road in the Pine Barrens in that predawn hour.”
Within a month, Markowitz, who had written short stories since high school but had never published them, was rising at 5:30 a.m. each day to write for an hour before heading to his day job as director of a nonprofit agency. He put his main character, Cassie O’Malley, a Princeton alumna and tabloid reporter at work on a story about deer dying in large numbers, driving on those Pine Barren roads when she stumbles over a body and suddenly finds herself involved in a murder mystery. Unlike his other stories, this one, he felt, might have an audience. Someone besides his wife might want to read this story.
He sent 10 to 20 query letters to publishers, but got no bites. Then Markowitz discovered a relatively new route to seeing his words in print — so-called print-on-demand author-services companies that take any author’s computer-generated manuscript and, for as little as a few hundred dollars, turn it into a book and make it available through online outlets including Amazon.com and barnsandnoble.com. He signed a contract, paid about $500, and four months later, he had bound copies of his manuscript, Who Is Killing Doah’s Deer?
A growing number of writers — including many Princeton alumni who send their books to PAW — are taking this route to authordom. Why do it? Some told PAW that they always had dreamed of seeing their names on book jackets. A few had published in their fields, but wanted to try their hands at fiction. As first-time fiction writers with no notoriety, and lacking what people in the industry call a “platform” (a magazine column, talk show, or speaking engagements from which to attract attention), they could not pique the interest of the traditional publishing industry. Markowitz estimates he has sold some 600 copies — a pittance compared to big-time authors but respectable for print-on-demand — mostly through online booksellers and his Web site (www.xanga.com/doahsdeer).
With print-on-demand technology, a book isn’t printed until a consumer orders a copy. Instead of expensive offset printing, print-on-demand companies use inexpensive digital printers, making book publishing cheaper and more accessible than the older vanity presses. “What we really offer is the opportunity for virtually anyone to achieve the dream of seeing their book in print,” says Susan Driscoll, president and CEO of iUniverse, which published Markowitz’s book after he spent six months trying to interest a traditional publisher.
Traditional publishers take a financial risk with any book. About 40 percent of their published books are eventually returned, unsold, says Albert Zuckerman ’53, a literary agent who founded Writers House in New York City. “I turn down books all the time that look excellent to me,” he says. “Even though the books may be beautifully written and have something important to say, the trade publishers don’t think they can sell enough copies to make them profitable.”
Having commercially published two textbooks and a manual for English teachers, Paul Kalkstein ’65 knew that he first had to interest a literary agent in his novel, Jump the Kennebec, about a teacher who struggles with bipolar disorder (the book honors Kalkstein’s brother, who had the illness). An English teacher at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he sent out about 30 query letters. One agent asked to see the first 50 pages. “She told me she liked it very much, but ... it had no niche and it was probably not salable to a publisher,” says Kalkstein, who then decided to do it himself. Now he plans to retire in June and write a historical novel set in 16th-century France.
After all the time and energy spent writing a book, having it turned down by agents and publishers doesn’t feel good. “It felt crummy to be rejected,” says Thomas Farrell ’70. A former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and now an international hotel and aerospace executive, he sent out about a dozen query letters to interest agents in his first novel, The Jessica Project, about an assassin-for-hire who is coerced into helping federal agents seize billions of dollars of laundered drug profits while disguised as a woman. Most rejected him with a postcard or form letter. “If it were my sole source of income, it would have been devastating,” he says.
Farrell’s idea was based on his experiences as a prosecutor. About half of first-time authors write plot lines based on their real lives or jobs, says Zuckerman.
Most major newspapers don’t review self-published titles. Major bricks-and-mortar bookstores typically don’t stock those books, which are not returnable. It’s up to the authors themselves to drum up interest and press coverage, to sell their books, and to convince local bookstores to carry them.
Ann Herendeen ’77, a librarian at the American Museum of Natural History, published Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, a romantic comedy set in early 19th-century England about a rich gay gentleman, his wife, and his lover, through AuthorHouse in September. Writing the manuscript was satisfying, but the nitty-gritty of marketing has been exhausting, says Herendeen. She tried drumming up attention by buying an advertisement that ran in The New York Times and paying for the preparation and distribution of a press release. “That, I think, was a waste of money,” she says. “You have to have an awfully thick skin to be able to persist in that, and I don’t have that thick skin.”
Most self-published authors sell only about 200 copies, says Driscoll. Occasionally an author sells thousands through aggressive marketing, and goes on to have the book republished by a traditional publisher impressed by the large sales. But those stories are rare, and the alumni interviewed for this story didn’t have grand illusions of their self-published books making such a big splash.
“You’ve got to be in a fantasy land if you think you are writing to produce a best seller,” says Farrell, who still liked the writing experience so much that he self-published a second international spy thriller, Skylord.
Farrell hasn’t had time to market his books, but he has bugged old friends. “I probably annoyed greatly some of my old classmates who hadn’t heard from me in 25 years until they get a pitch to buy a book from a guy they thought had forgotten they existed,” says Farrell. “I think my mother sold the most books. She loved it and told all of her friends. ... She flogged the book mercilessly.” Farrell doesn’t know how many copies he’s sold — but he’s certain that it’s “nothing that’s going to make me quit being a lawyer or a hotel guy.”
Many self-published authors’ ambitions are modest: They simply want bound galleys to share with family and friends. Robert Steiner ’47, a retired physical biochemist, had published in his field but had never written fiction. He started writing in retirement, and has self-published five collections of short stories, some bordering on the supernatural. Says Steiner, “I would like some people to remember me, what I was like, what kind of thoughts I had, what kind of insights I had, after I’m gone. I sold hardly any [books]. But even if just one or two people got something out of it, and really enjoyed it, then I think it was worth it.”
Jeff Markowitz may be one of the lucky ones. After publishing Who Is Killing Doah’s Deer?, Markowitz met the acquisitions editor of Five Star Mysteries, a traditional — that is, paying — publisher. The editor bought his second book, a murder mystery featuring the same main character, Cassie O’Malley, to be released this year. Says Markowitz, “I realized that I have something of a flair for killing people.”
Katherine Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.