Saturday, July 15, 2006

Waitin' For My Odometer to Roll Straight Sevens

One of Sancho Panza's beloved aphorisms went something like, "The man whom God helps does better than the man who gets up early," and one thing that strikes you as you watch your novel take the frequently quixotic journey from your imagination through a publisher and into bookstores is how much luck plays a role in your success or lack of it. This is probably true no matter what your business is, but it seems especially acute after you've spent perhaps two years writing a novel, another year shopping it, and a year and a half waiting for it to be published only to watch its fate hinge on a long list of unknowns and variables. You might work extremely hard as a writer, but everyone can use a little mysterious help.

I did a panel with Audrey Niffenegger last year and she was telling the story of how The Time Traveler's Wife became a bestseller. The short version is that Scott Turow's wife was taking Audrey's bookbinding class at Columbia College. Mrs. Turow brought The Time Traveler's Wife home and convinced her husband to read it. A few weeks later the Today Show asked Turow to recommend a novel for its book club.

That's some good luck.

Of course, you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written, which Audrey certainly did. But the point is that in order to sell that many books you need to have an engaging novel that's compellingly written AND ALSO have Scott Turow's wife in your bookbinding class. Or the karmic equivalent.

A few months before Cast of Shadows was published I got a call at home from Rick Kogan. I had never met Rick before, but anyone who's remotely media savvy in Chicago knows who he is. He's been a newspaperman and columnist in this city since he was 16 years old. He's written or edited for practically every department of both big papers in town. He's host of a Sunday morning radio show on WGN which, besides baseball, is about the only thing that gets me to turn the channel from NPR. He's authored books on everything from Ann Landers (whom he edited for five years) to the Billy Goat Tavern (an infamous newspaper bar with historical ties to both the Cubs curse and John Belushi). Actually those are just his last two.

So the way Rick tells it is he was sitting around the Trib offices and came across a pile of Advance Reader Editions, which had been sent by various publishers to the Books editor, and he idly picked Cast of Shadows out of the stack. When he turned it over and saw that I was from Chicago he decided to take the book home and read it. The next morning he gives me a call, says many generous things about the book and then tells me he wants to write a feature about it for the Tribune Sunday Magazine. With an excerpt.

Um, wow. Sure.

It's the kind of prominent, outside-the-book-section coverage you kill for, especially as a first-time novelist. And like every nervous author I immediately wanted to know how it might be replicated. Every time Rick and I would meet for an interview I'd ask him exactly what it was that made him pick up my book in the first place. And every time he'd say he wasn't sure. He didn't know. He couldn't remember.

One day we were at Tribune Tower and Rick said he wanted to give me a copy of a book he had co-written with his colleague Maurice Possley, a true crime classic that came out a few years back called Everybody Pays. He dug through some piles on his desk, pulled out a paperback and handed it to me. Right away I had my answer.

The image on the cover was practically identical to the image on the advance copy of Cast of Shadows.

Those many weeks ago, sifting through the pile, Rick had recognized the cover of my book the way a tigress recognizes her cub.

I couldn't guess how many copies of Cast of Shadows were sold by that article. Area bookstores featured the book more prominently. Many ordered extra copies in advance. It also led to speaking engagements and untold book club selections (I know I've personally appeared at more than 40 reading groups) and who knows how much word-of-mouth. I like to think Cast of Shadows is an engaging novel that's compellingly written but I can't deny the other half of it.

Blind, stinking luck.

Now, I tell that story for the purpose of full disclosure because when Libby first approached me about a blog that would discuss good writing, Chicago, and crime stories, Everybody Pays was the first thing that popped into my head. It's the true tale of a twenty-something west side auto mechanic who, in 1972, witnessed a murder by one of the most prolific and notorious hit men ever employed by the Chicago mob (known locally as The Outfit, of course). What happened to that mechanic over the next twenty years makes one of the most riveting and shocking true crime stories I've ever read. If you're familiar with the authors then I don't need to tell you that Everybody Pays is well-written and meticulously reported. And it's heartbreaking, too. Plus if you're a mystery novelist there's loads of good cribbing material about both the Chicago courts and witness protection.

I'm not just saying this because I owe Rick Kogan. In fact, I think Everybody Pays might be out of print, an injustice that means you'll probably have to go online and find a used copy somewhere. If you do it will be well worth the effort. It's an absolute true crime must read and an important piece of Chicago lore.

I do owe Rick Kogan, of course, but let karma know that I'm paying him back in installments of Scotch.

38 comments:

Libby Hellmann said...

Oh, Kevin... what a great example. I LOVED Cast of Shadows. Maury Possley spoke to us at MWA last year, and his take on the Nicarico case, (even after what.. 15 years?) as well as the "CSI effect" and DNA, was quite interesting. And, of course, Rick has been a long time friend to the crime writing community. For those of you who don't know Rick Kogan, he's also kind of appropriated the role of Studs Terkel's interpreter at public events, since Studs' hearing isn't what it used to be... I just want to knows how he knows exactly what Studs is thinking... they do a pretty amazing two-step...

Anonymous said...

Libraries are also a great source for out of print books. Chicago Public Library has lots of copies of Everybody Pays.

Jamie

Libby Hellmann said...

Oops.. Sorry... I meant Everybody Pays. Although I loved Cast of Shadows too.

ab said...

Thanks for the story! This is something one needs to understand when trying to enter the business, what a big part luck plays. Then: what makes one publisher reject a book flatly, another brood over it for seven months and a third take it after six weeks? All you can do as a starting out author is not being chained to one specific dream - that is HAS to be that special publisher, those special circumnstances - and send your book all over the place. Someone might pick it up. Someone might like it.

D.A. Davenport said...

Kevin-
I enjoyed both parts of your post. The idea of sheer luck, or knowing someone who knows someone, while not a new one to me, is one I hadn't entertained that much in regards to publishing or book sales. What a great thing to have your book cross Mr. Kogan's desk at just that time! But what can an author count on facing if luck doesn't factor into the equation? I'd like to know what the person with average luck can expect once a novel of merit hits the submission point. Now I feel like I need to carry a rabbit's foot around with me!!!
Mr. Kogan's book sound terrific and I'm going to try and find it and add it to my TBR pile. Thanks for bringing it to everyone's notice.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

DA,

Every book takes a different path to its destination so it would be impossible to say that you can count on anything, I think. But here's the biggest dilemma facing most writers.

They publish a lot of different books. A LOT. This means they publish a lot of crappy books, but it also means they publish a lot of good books. They print more good books than any of us could ever read.

I hear writers complain about this sometimes. They say it's very difficult or even impossible to get attention in the vast ocean of books published every year, and they're right about that. But if publishers weren't putting out so many books, many of us wouldn't be published at all, so complaining is a little bit like the ugliest model at the fashion show throwing a fit because the after party champagne is flat by the time it's passed around to her.

There are things you can do to put yourself in position to take advantage of luck when it happens.

You can get to know people in the business. I dropped that ball early on. Honestly, except for a handful of guys I knew from writing humor on the internet, I didn't know any other writers when my book was published. When I was told I had been slated on a panel for Bouchercon, I had to ask what Bouchercon was. Sean and Marcus are doing exactly the right thing. They're working hard in advance of their pub date and there's going to be an audience waiting for their books when they're published. Well over a year before his first book would come out, Sean moderated a panel I was on at the Love Is Murder conference in Chicago and he impressed the hell out of everyone there. Network and don't be afraid to self-promote (in good taste, of course) and hopefully when lightning strikes you'll be standing on a rooftop flying a kite with a key attached to it.

None of that guarantees anything, though. The only thing you can guarantee is the quality of your work. So in my opinion, whether you're a published author or an aspiring one, the most important thing you can do is to write a book that you're proud of. Write a book you would admire if someone else had written it. And then if lightning doesn't strike, you will still have that, which, honestly, is a hell of a lot.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

And Libby, you're so right. There's probably no one who champions more artists in this city--writers, painters, singers, actors, dancers--than Rick has through the various media beats he patrols.

I wanted so badly to see the discussion between Rick and Studs at Printers Row this year but I didn't get down there until after it was over. Studs of course is a national treasure and Rick--who's known Studs all his life--wrote a moving piece about him in the Trib last summer which is no longer online, sadly.

D.A. Davenport said...

Thanks, Kevin. Advice like yours is worth it's weight in Dagger Awards! The thing I've noticed about the Crime/Mystery and the SciFi webs, Ezines and blogs is how incredibly friendly and helpful everyone is. They all encourage and support one another, no matter what level of success they've had. I didn't know what I was getting into and certainly never expected this kind of comraderie. But I'm glad I did.

Silvia Foti said...

That is an amazing story Kevin and generously told. I remember you appearing in the Tribune magazine and talking with someone else from Love Is Murder, wondering if you were really from Chicago because we've never heard of you. But what a way to debut the mystery scene. Will go down as a classic, Chicago style.

DAVID THAYER said...

Kevin, Great thumbnail on the role of luck in the writer's journey. Rick Kogan, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko...the city with broad shoulders has always had its journalistic conscience.

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