November 26, 2017

The Big Harumpf


My last novel, Residue, came out in July of 2015, and that took some doing. By that point, the major publishing houses were no longer in the least interested in satire, let alone darkly wacky satire, because the new crop of twenty-year-old editors didn’t understand it. On a much larger scale, they weren’t even considering fiction anymore, unless it was the latest installment in a proven bestselling franchise of legal thrillers. I was pretty well screwed from the start. Ironic thing is, Residue was supposed to be my big sellout mainstream novel, though I was soon informed otherwise.

            The book eventually found a home at a supposedly respected indie publisher based in California. What a debacle that turned out to be. The advance was pitiful, but I took it because, quite literally, it was better than nothing, and at least the damn thing would be released. Once the book did come out, however, I was informed I was expected to buy all my own copies through the wholesaler. So right there it already became a losing proposition. And while publishers traditionally send out review copies two to four months before a book is officially published to give critics enough lead time to write a review that corresponds with the release date, my new publisher decided, by some logic only they understood, to send out review copies two months after the book came out, ensuring it would never be reviewed anywhere. And as far as any other marketing or advertising went, well, if I was interested they’d be happy to send me to the ad salespeople at assorted trade magazines and quote me a price for a quarter-page ad. Oh, and I still get annual invites to their five hundred dollar-a-plate fundraising dinners, where I could eat some five hundred-dollar chicken while listening to readings from their other authors.

            It was that experience that pretty much left me thinking books were no longer worth it. It was too much work and took too much time for virtually no payback. And when things like groceries and rent were daily considerations, sadly it made more sense to spend my time scrambling for freelance jobs that paid fifty bucks here, a hundred bucks there, and thirty bucks over there under that rock.

            That said, I still had another book sitting here, so when it came time for my agent to try and sell it, we decided to skip that last publisher altogether. But considering the first paragraph above, and further considering this new book made no effort whatsoever to be a mainstream sellout job, the question became, where the hell do we even start looking?

            Now, I adore my agent. She’s a brassy, fast-talking Old School two-fisted New York literary agent who takes no shit and knows everyone in the business. Although her client list includes a couple of Nobel Prize winners (as well as a few who will likely win Nobels in the years to come), she’s done very well by me over these last two decades. By some miracle she’s been able to keep my books coming out, long after any normal agent would’ve shot him or herself in the head (right after shooting me). More amazing still, she actually liked this new novel a bunch.

            But over the course of two years, after pitching it to every major publishing house in the country, every imprint, every mid-level outfit, a couple of university presses and even a few places in Europe (I’m big in Germany!), she was having no luck whatsoever. Still, exasperated as she was, she soldiered on.

            Then a couple of months back a friend of mine who’s not a professional writer wrote to tell me he’d sold his novel to an indie publisher on the West Coast which, thank god, wasn’t the same bunch of losers who’d released Residue. I liked the book a bunch, and in fact helped him edit it a few months earlier, so I was happy and surprised to hear he’d been able to sell it in the current anti-literate climate. Then he asked if by chance I’d ever heard of Frank (not his real name), the guy who ran the house.

            Well, Frank and I had known each other going on thirty years now, and I admired the hell out of him.

            Back in the early Eighties Frank had run a notorious but popular underground publishing outfit in L.A. with a few other friends of mine. When that venture dissolved, he moved up the coast and launched a new publishing house of his own. Over the subsequent years he put out a slew of radical and dangerous books, many of which still grace my shelves here, and he became a bit of a celebrity in his own right within the more shadowy edges of the American underground. We got to talking, knew a bunch of people in common, and became friends.

            Back in 1991, when I had an idea for what I thought would be my first book, Frank was the first person I thought of. His publishing house had the perfect outlook and audience for what I had in mind. So I sketched an outline and detailed chapter breakdown for a bit of lighthearted amateur sociology I was calling “Nobody Laughs When They Leave: The Carnivalization of Everyday Life,” and sent it off to him.

            Well, he rejected it, but he explained his reasons, which made perfect sense to me. Not only was he right to turn it down, in retrospect I’m mighty glad he did, because looking back at my original notes for the book, I would have been suicidally embarrassed at having unleashed that dreck on the world.

            Time passed, we stayed in touch, both of us shambling along in the fast-dying world of books, with Frank publishing dark and wild nonfiction as I strayed into satire.

            Then came word he’d picked up my friend’s novel. It seemed Frank, unbeknownst to me and for the first time ever, had decided to branch out into original fiction.

            Well that was unexpected, but what the hell, right? Nobody else seemed to want this fucking novel, and at least Frank would get the jokes and references, that’s for sure. So I sent my agent a note and passed along Frank’s address, suggesting it might be worth a shot.

            A few days later I got a pleasant note from Frank, and sure enough, he was interested in picking up my silly novel. It was very exciting news, and in a way would bring things full circle, from his rejection of what might have been my first book to publishing what would likely be my last. As I pranced giddily about the apartment, Frank and my agent started hashing out the details of the contract.

            Okay, it’s a long-standing rule with my agent that I don’t bug her when she’s hammering out a deal. If she has news, she’ll tell me, otherwise I should just go about my normal business and keep my mouth shut, especially if the publisher in question contacts me. I let Frank know as much, then put my head down and stayed mum, just letting them do what they needed to do.

            A few days later my agent called to tell me things looked great—Frank had offered an advance far beyond anything I’d gotten for my previous three books, and had furthermore agreed to most of my agent’s demands. What’s more, she said Frank clearly knew what he was talking about, and had an impressive distribution network set up. She was rarely impressed by any of the publishers she dealt with, so I was happy to hear it. It was all sounding like a snap.

            I put my head down again and distracted myself with other things, figuring I’d be hearing by week’s end the deal had been finalized. These things rarely took longer than a week or two.

            More days passed and I heard nothing, then a few weeks, then a couple of months. It began to creep up the back of my neck that things were suddenly seeming less promising. I fought back the urge to drop my agent a line to ask what was up, knowing she’d just punch me. I tried to convince myself she’d simply been wrapped up in other things and forgot to call. That happens too. We were getting Into Nobel Prize season after all, so maybe she wanted to leave her line clear. Maybe one day the four copies of the contract would just show up in the mail for my signature, and that’s how I’d find out. I’m an idiot that way.

            I continued to focus almost frantically on other projects, but with increasing distraction.

            Finally one Tuesday afternoon nearly three months after all this started, my agent called. Her repeated use of the term “asshole” left me thinking the contract negotiations weren’t going particularly well. Without getting into all the tedious nuts and bolts of a publishing contract, let’s just say there are two things my agent will never, ever give up under any circumstances. As luck would have it, those turned out to be the exact same two things Frank would never hand over under any circumstances, either.

            Ugh. Normally I would accept this without another thought and that would be that, but having worked with my agent for twenty years and having been friends with Frank for thirty seriously complicated matters.

            The Ugh factor only intensified Wednesday morning when I woke up to find a note from Frank waiting on my computer. Although he never used the term “asshole,” it was there in the subtext. It was clearly a clash of worlds, with my New York agent unaccustomed to dealing with the underground press, and Frank unaccustomed to dealing with fast-talking New York agents. Still, as grim as things seemed, at the end of the note he said that whatever happened, even if things fell apart, we were still friends and there would be no hard feelings. I wrote him back with the same sentiment, but also a hope they could find a way to hammer things out, preferably without real hammers.

            I don’t know if he was quietly asking me to intervene on his behalf or not, but it was beyond my control. I was just a damn pawn in all this.

            A few hours later my agent called again to let me know she was finished, she was fed up, she didn’t want to deal with him anymore, and she was not about to sign the contract as it stood. I was in no position to say anything to either side, so that was pretty much that, and I sent Frank a note with the bad news.

            After that the angry emails started flying at me from every which way, most including phrases like “fucking insane” and “fucking waste of my time.” There I sat in the middle, buffeted from both sides, reminding myself repeatedly that for all the screaming accusations, I was the one who’d lost out on that whopping advance check, which I’d really, really been counting on.

            Thing is, in the end I could understand both sides clearly enough. My agent was just trying to get the best possible deal for her client, and Frank was trying to get the best possible deal for his small, cash-strapped business. So I wasn’t blaming anyone, but now that book is still sitting here and I’m one whopping check short of the rent.

            A week and a half later, figuring that was enough time to let tempers cool and scars heal, I dropped a friendly note to Frank, just to confirm there were no hard feelings, that it was just business. Let’s just say he wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear from me.

            In a nutshell, well shit. I guess the tired old wisdom to take away here is, never try to do business with friends. Or something.


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