A few years ago, I decided to engage in some corporate espionage. I work in the field of book publishing, and I had been hearing rather a lot about vanity presses like Ex Libris. Normally, I don’t like naming the names of companies that I’m complaining about because normally they have some redeeming qualities.
I’m just going to leave that there.
I requested a package of information, which Ex Libris sent me post haste. It outlined all of the services they would provide (all for a price, of course, and the prices weren’t actually listed because it all depends on your manuscript and what you want done). You could pay for editing (or not), design (or not), cover art (or not), distribution (or not), marketing (or not), and promotion (or not). And of course, you paid for printing or digital conversion. I don’t have a problem with companies who provide publishing services, as long as they don’t prey on the sensitive hearts of artists. And that’s what vanity presses like Ex Libris do. Their brochures went on and on about all the awards my book could win and how much money I could make and did you know that JK Rowling submitted her manuscript 115 times before someone accepted it and just think how much sooner we all could have read Harry Potter (except we couldn’t have because if Ex Libris had printed Harry Potter, nobody would have heard of it because: vanity press).
Look. Don’t fall prey to people who are playing on your vanity and your hopes and dreams.
So anyway, a few months later, I got a phone call. Then an email. They wanted to know when they could anticipate my book. I said, “not interested”. Next quarter, I get an email, then a phone call. They want to know when they should anticipate my book. I said, “not interested.” They called again and again and again and again, even after I said, “I’m pursuing traditional publishing”. I’ve told them no fewer than 4 times to take my number and email out of their registries. They keep calling. I know I could charge them with harassment or make a FORMAL COMPLAINT. But I’m a writer.
So I wrote for them. I decided I’d ask a few questions. 2,700 words later, I’m kind of wondering how they’re going to respond. What follows is the email I sent back to them (this is after having threatened them with reporting them as harassing me should they call again):
I’m very glad you wrote me today. In fact, it’s quite ironic that you did so, as I have been thinking lately of how I would very much like to have my manifesto published and sold to every public library, elementary, secondary, and post-secondary school library, and prison library in North America. I have found that libraries don’t stock enough manifestos on their shelves; wouldn’t you agree? Once I found a copy of “Mein Kampf” being used to level out some bookshelves in the library of the small town my mother used to live in. I don’t think they knew it was there. I tried to wriggle it out from under the bookshelf, but the librarian told me I was causing a ruckus and either had to pick out some books or leave.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that that librarian was anything other than professional. She was, as many small-town librarians are, a local woman with grandkids, and she used to bake pie every morning. Here’s a secret though, just between you and me, Nathan: her pies sucked. I mean, it’s pretty difficult to ruin a pie, but she managed to. It was like the apples weren’t cooked and the pastry was hard as a turtle shell. My grandmother used to say that if you handled your pastry too much, it would turn out hard – I think the librarian must have dressed her pastry up in spats and a bow tie and taken it out dancing, and then back home for a night of whatever it is librarians do in the privacy of their own bedrooms with pastry dressed in spats and bow ties before she rolled that shit out and cut it to shape for her pies. Seriously, she kept offering slices of pie to the library patrons (and note that in this case, “library patrons” means me. I was, no word of a lie, the only person to use that library between the years of 1980-1987 inclusive. Okay, actually I may have exaggerated that a wee bit. I think my great uncle used to borrow books about trains).
He was a really interesting man, you know. My great uncle. Blew himself up twice. I’m not even shitting you. He was living in a caravan for the week while he was out at a train show and he didn’t hear the propane leak until he lit his cigarette. To be completely fair, he didn’t hear anything. He was deaf as a post. Anyway, he survived that explosion and the next one (which happened 10 years nearly to the day after the first one, at the same festival. Talk about rotten Irish luck). His hat melted into the back of his head and he needed some pretty extensive skin grafts, but our family’s pretty resilient.
We’re curious too. I mean, on the whole. Most of the people in my family are pretty curious. For instance, I was just now wondering where the phrase “deaf as a post” came from. And is there a distinction between “cannot hear because there is no evolutionary biological system designed to convey sound present in the organism” and “biological systems designed to convey sound is present in the organism but is not functional”? I’d argue that “deafness”, or the state of being deaf, only really pertains in the second example, because we define “deaf” as “the inability to hear”, and that definition presupposes that the *regular* condition is one in which we *can* hear. Since posts don’t have any mechanism (yet discovered) designed for them to hear, I posit that they cannot actually be deaf. Therefore, perhaps the expression was coined by an existential philosopher or theoretical physicist. I find they are often fond of (and are good at) turns of phrase, although with existential philosophers you kind of have to wait a really long time for them to get to the point.
Anyway, back to my manifesto. I haven’t actually started writing it yet. I was hoping you and the folks at Ex Libris might be able to give me some pointers on how to start a manifesto. I’ve never written one before. In fact, I’ve never read one before. Is there, like, a table of contents or whatever? Is that the best place to start? Or should I start with the title page? Or the COVER? I guess it makes sense that you can never write a good book unless you have a really good title. Do you think J.K. Rowling would have ever been able to finish “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” if the title was “George Frumpus Finds a Rock”?
Oh! Speaking of naming characters, how do you do that, exactly? Are you supposed to name the characters in your book after people you know? All those books have that line in them that says the characters in this book are fictional and are not based on actual people, living or dead. Why do they put that in the books, Nathan? Do dead people really care if someone uses them or their name in a book? I’m pretty sure Nana would be impressed if I called a character “Lavina Margeurite”, because that was her name and even though she always hated it, I could make the character some kind of evil pig robot that the main protagonist has to kill, just to symoblise the battle Nana always had, trying to reconcile who she really was, deep down inside, against who her name seemed to suggest she was. She always said people at the bank used to look at her funny because the name on her account didn’t match the name they knew her as.
I’ve also heard you should always write what you know, but I’m not sure there’s much of a market out there for manifestos about channel surfing. I’m just kidding! I do more than channel surf, although watching television is one of my favourite pastimes. I also like sledding and baking pie and reading. I have a job, too, but I’m thinking of quitting so I can be a full-time writer like Stephen King. How much money does he make, anyway? I probably couldn’t make as much money as he does in the first year or whatever, but how much money will I make when you sell my manifesto to all the libraries in North America? I’d like to make at least $500,000 please, because I have to get an operation to fix my foot. It’s nothing serious, but I was skating one time and kind of went over funny on it and the docs say that something with one of my metatarsals is all gibbled up. I can still WALK, but every time I go to dances at weddings, my foot clicks really loud and then the next day it’s all bruised up like somebody hit me with a golf club stuck in a teddy bear.
Another thing I’m wondering about is whether or not you’re allowed to swear in books. I don’t swear a lot, but if there’s a romance scene in my book, I want to know whether I can say “tits” and “cock” or whether I have to use euphemisms like “breasts” or “penis”. It’s not like I’m going to be writing some kind of smut, although I don’t have a problem with smut – I think Larry King is a goddamned saint. Or is that Larry Flynt? Maybe both of them. Anyway, I think it’s going to be pretty difficult to write a good romance scene without being able to use the actual words that people use, but I don’t know what the rules are for this because I’ve never had a book published before. Well, not yet. I did submit some of my poetry to my local newspaper, but they said they couldn’t use it because they don’t print poetry. It’s a shame because I worked really hard to find a good rhyme for “cartilaginous mess”, but I guess newspapers have advertisers they have to please, just like everybody else.
Is there any restriction on how many characters you’re allowed to have in your manifesto? I’d like to do a multiple points-of-view story from the points of view of multiple characters, but not like the way everyone else does it because I think it’s really important to be original, you know? So rather than having one chapter for every character’s point of view, I’m thinking that I’ll just change perspective every time the speaker changes in a dialogue. I know it’s probably a pretty edgy thing to do – I haven’t seen it done before but I think it could really be effective. Post-modern and dismissive of the patriarchal system that dictates how stories have to be written. I think that’s probably the best thing about publishers who have the balls to publish really avant-garde stuff. I’m really excited you’ve decided to accept my manifesto.
I’m going to need to know how much money I’m going to get paid before I start. I read somewhere that Dan Brown got something like a million dollar advance on his next book. I don’t need a million dollars, but if you could send me a cheque for $250,000, I could probably get most of my manifesto written in, like, a weekend. Do you provide for living expenses too? Because there’s a brand of coffee I just found that I really like. It works with those one-cup coffee makers and uses way less plastic, which I think is important because there’s so much shit gumming up the oceans and ocean birds are dying because their bellies are full of plastic. I don’t want to have a hand in that. I know, I know, you’re going to tell me that progress is progress and you can’t keep growing the economy without breaking a few eggs and that if I’m going to go off all half-cocked like the rest of the pinko leftie granola tree-huggers, maybe I should think about who’s going to be spending money to buy my book. But seriously, POLAR VORTEX, Nathan. Polar Vortex. Need I say more? Climate change is real, my friend. It’s here, and it’s real. I’ll probably have a whole chapter about climate change in my manifesto.
But back to my advance. What do you usually pay writers for their advance? Also, can we talk about subsidiary rights? I’d like my manifesto to be published in Germany and England. I’m not going to fret too much about China, because man, the government is backwards over there. Maybe Australia, too. I have a couple of friends in Australia, and I’d really like to be able to go and visit them during my Australian book launch. When should I schedule that, by the way? I don’t really want to go to Australia in the summer, because our summer is their winter and if there’s any time of year that everything venomous comes out in Australia, it’s probably the winter. So maybe March? Can we do March? I could probably wait until next December, but I’d really like to see my friends this year, now that I think about it. I have to do a thing at work in April, so if you can book my Australian book tour for March, that would be great!
Oh, and I have an allergy to peppers. It’s not, like, life-threatening or anything, but you’ll have to tell the airline and the hotel that I can’t have any kind of peppers in my food. I’ll tell you, that sure makes it boring to eat at Taco Bell, but I guess we can’t have everything, right? Also, I have a thing about small, enclosed spaces, so I’m hoping you book your authors first-class passage. A friend of mine had a book of poetry published in Canada and she had to drive herself to all of her book sellings. It was SO LAME. I’m going to call her up and tell her she should publish with you guys because you’re sending me first-class to Australia in March. Do I need to send you any of my documentation, like copies of my passport? Who should I send that to? You, or??
Hey, listen Nathan, I am SUPER EXCITED that you’re going to publish my book. I want Dave McKean to do the cover art. I really like what he’s done with the Sandman series, and I think his work would be a perfect compliment to my manifesto. I could call it “Chainsaw Love”. Is that a catchy title? Maybe I should put someone’s name in the title too, like “Amber Miller and her Chainsaw Love”. Do you think you can sell copies of my book to the White House library? I’ll put Barack and Michelle Obama in it!
About digital rights and film adaptations: I’d like you to only focus on the big production companies. I don’t think my book would be a good match for independent film festivals. They’re so pretentious. I’d much rather have someone like Lions’ Gate or even Dreamworks or Paramount do my movie. I guess I’d settle for Sony. We need to come up with a list of people to cast in the major roles – should I do that now, or should I wait until I get my advance? You’re going to need to contact these people soon, I think. They’re busy people and can’t just be expected to drop everything every time a new supermovie comes along. I think Daniel Craig should play Barack Obama, and we can have Judi Densch play Michelle Obama, because that’d be a nice tie-in with 007, and I can write action really well. The trick to writing action scenes is to not get bogged down in the details but to really focus on what’s happening. Use a lot of verbs, in other words.
As far as eBooks go, I don’t want to do that free giveaway thing because I think it makes people think your books are cheap, but I’ll go for a couple of chapters free. Make sure you cut off the free part at a really exciting place, though, so that they’re going to want to buy the book right away. And for the audiobook, can you get Patrick Warburton? I loved him so much in The Tick. And maybe the chick that played the crazy bitch in Firefly? Summer Glau? She’s not working anywhere now, so she’d probably jump at the chance. Do you do the audiobooks in your office, or do you rent out a recording studio? Maybe we should look in to getting the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets to do the soundtrack. They’re really good, but I don’t know if they’re still together or not. I saw them live a couple of times during University, which I suppose is better than seeing them dead.
Anyway, like I said, I’m totally stoked that you’ve accepted my book for publication. I’ll write it this weekend or maybe next weekend – I have to help out at a pancake breakfast on Saturday, so I’ll only have most of Sunday to write it. Oh, I have a better idea. I’ll wait until you send me my advance, and then I can use that money to do research or whatever (actually, I’ll probably use my advance to pay off the mortgage on my house, because that’s way more responsible). How long after you send me the advance are you going to want my manifesto? Do you guys use DropBox? Because I can just write it and send you the DropBox link and then we don’t have to fuck around with single-spaced whatever whatever – you can just download it and publish it! It occurs to me that I’ve been using “manifesto” instead of “manuscript” for this whole letter. Isn’t that hilarious? I could go back and change it, but I have to get going if I’m going to get this book finished by next week.
I’ll send you my friends’ address in Australia so you can book that tour. I should call them, actually, to make sure they know I’m coming. I’ll have to tell them when the plane arrives so that…wait, will there be a limo? Or just a car and driver? I guess it doesn’t make a difference, but if your people are going to take me from the airport to the hotel, I’m going to need to know that. Also, please book a hotel with a pool and WiFi.
Do you need my bank account for direct deposit, or will you just send the money?