J. Michael Gonzalez

"We're Changing Direction!" and The Death Clock

After six months of silence, it was hard not to feel a little discouraged. I had picked out maybe a dozen agents and sent query letters in pairs every two weeks. Three months of near total silence passed with only one or two substantive responses, though all responses -- substantive or otherwise -- were rejections. I was bummed, but not particularly discouraged; I'm realistic enough to have primed myself to weather a lot of rejection. But having that much idle time gave me plenty of time to think and to do followup research. While I waited for agents to take notice of me, I was painfully aware of my dwindling savings and the growing intuition that something needed to change.

As time went on, my doubts about my chosen course grew -- copious amounts of free time will do that to a person. I don't think there was any one thing that happened which changed my mind about traditional publishing, but a feeling had been growing for some time that my chosen course wasn't going to work for me. I don't remember where I read it, but I think shortly after my post about flashbacks I read an article about traditional publishing and a discussion about the "Death Clock".

Essentially, what it comes down to is that traditional publishing is a consignment business. Once paper copies of a book are shipped to a brick and mortar store, there's a limit on the amount of time a book can sit on a bookstore's shelves. But because floorspace is limited, a bookstore can only afford to keep books that are selling; in any book's lifespan, there comes a point where the long tail is reached and the bookstore gives up and sends whatever paper copies it hasn't sold back to the publisher where the books are probably recycled. At that point, you as a writer are in a tough spot; the publisher is no longer interested in pushing copy, but still basically owns the rights. Your whole business contracts back to online book sellers, often with little or no support from the publishers -- unless your book is selling really well (which is kind of a catch-22 when you stop to think about it).

After I read that article, I was reminded of a scene from Stanley Kubrick's film, Full Metal Jacket. There's one scene that stood out in my mind: the soldiers are running a patrol through a demolished city, and the quasi platoon leader realizes they've gotten lost (which was a terrifying prospect under the circumstances). He announces to the platoon, "We're changing directions!". As someone that's worked extensively for startups in Silly Valley, I've come to associate those words with doom; when a CEO suggests it's time to change directions, that's usually the first stroke on a company's death knell unless you get very lucky.

So while on the one hand, the thought of changing directions was a little disheartening, the decision to abadon traditional publishing also brought an intense wave of relief -- I was freed from the artificial constraints that had been imposed upon me to make myself appealing to traditional publishers...