It’s a fact of the human condition that nobody is ever satisfied with what they are, what they have, or what they look like. This is why magazine writers often aspire to write books.
It can’t be for the money.
Some years ago I was approached by a book publisher in Minnesota to write a book about high-performance Harleys. The editor there had gotten my name from the editor of one of the Harley magazines I write for. The magazine editor, having himself been a freelancer for many years, guessed or knew I was hurting for money, and nominated me for the book job. (He was also too smart to take on the job himself.)
I hadn’t written a book of this type before. My two mystery novels were fiction, and fiction is marketed thus: first you write the book, then you see if anyone wants to publish it. The proposed Harley book was non-fiction, which is typically sold first, usually on the basis of an outline, or assigned to someone who will produce a book to the publisher’s specifications and liking, then written.
The publisher that approached me specialized in car books—high-performance modifications, racing, history, how-to, that sort of thing. Someone there had decided to dip a toe into the Harley market, which at the time was robust and growing. None of the authors in their stable had any bike experience, so they went looking for someone who did, and found me.
After some back and forth about the style and the focus and the content, I signed a contract. I had six months to deliver a finished product, and was given an advance against royalties. That’s a sum of money that’s meant to tide an author over during the process of writing the book. When the book comes out, and royalties from sales start adding up, that money has to be “earned back” before the author gets any more. In other words, if the advance is $5,000, the first $5,000 in royalties the book earns go toward paying off the advance. After that, royalties come to the author in the form of a check for actual money.
I started in on the book with the intention of doing my usual freelance work at the same time. That turned out to be harder than I thought. The book sucked up more and more of my time and, more important, my energy. Soon it began to suck up my bank account, too, as the advance ran out and no money came into replace it.
Along the way I grew frustrated with the Harley aftermarket. I’d have thought that calling up some company that makes wheels or engines or some other high-dollar part for Harleys and saying I’d like to put pictures of their products in my book would have elicited gratitude if not outright joy, and the prompt delivery of said pictures. Wrong.
You simply have no idea how hard it was to give away what amounted to free advertising. Some companies said they’d send art, then didn’t. Others were suspicious. What’ll it cost us? Nothing. Really? Really. Well, I don't know... One company rep got angry when I asked him to mail me slides of his ignition modules. He was upset about having to pay the postage.
The book dragged on into its fifth, then its sixth month. The deadline passed. My editor gave me more time. He did it so casually I got the impression none of his authors ever met their deadlines. If they’d all had to go through what I was going through, it’s a good bet they didn’t.
I turned in the book two months late. By then I was more than willing to return to what I had previously thought of as the drudgery of my freelance magazine work. Several more months went by. Page proofs—photocopies of the book in its pre-press form—arrived. I read them, repaired the errors the in-house copyeditor had inserted, and sent them back.
About a year after I submitted the book, an advance copy appeared on my doorstep. It looked good. It could have been better—show me a writer who’s written anything he thinks can’t be improved, and I’ll show you someone who’s not really a writer—but it would do.
Prior to signing the contract to write the book, I had talked to my editor at length about projected sales, distribution, and a lot of other things that were relevant to how much money the book would earn me over the following years. I don’t write for fun—not often, anyway—and if the project wasn’t going to make a profit, I wasn't interested. I received a number of assurances that, in my innocence, I believed.
As it turned out, the book was a flop. It came out in October, right before the holiday season, a big time for booksellers. Except one of the big chain book stores went through a change of personnel at about the same time, and the new guy either forgot to order any copies of my book, or decided not to. At least that’s the story I got from my editor.
Well, okay, I thought, we’ll wait until next year. But by then, my book had been “mid-listed,” bumped from the so-called front list of new books—despite no one having heard of it yet—and soon after it was effectively consigned to obscurity, otherwise known as the back list, which is one step above the table at the rear of the store marked “Any Book $2”.
Eventually I also learned that the company that published my book didn’t much believe in advertising. They had a printed catalog, and a website, and after sending out a single round of press releases to enthusiast magazines, they figured their job was done. If they ever placed a paid ad for the book anywhere, I never heard about it.
A year of my life, and about $8,000 of my own money, went into a book that is now genuinely rare. That’s because last year I got a letter from the publisher saying my book was going out of print. No further copies would be printed—this was a given, since they still had thousands of copies left over from the original print run—and the ones on hand would be recycled. I could buy up the remainders at a reduced price and sell them myself, the letter went on, or they’d be happy to ship me two cases of books free of charge.
I asked for, and received, two cases of Harley-Davidson Bolt-On Performance, which sit in my garage unopened. Every time I go out to work on the V-Strom or go for a ride, I have to walk right past them. I could move them so I don’t suffer that pang of regret the sight of them invariably triggers, but some publisher might call me someday and ask me to write a book, and I might say yes.
But believe me, that chapter of my life is over.