pearls and perils of publishing

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Lost Indiana Jones Novel

cover illustration by Christian Guldager

This is a story about a novel that the publisher forgot to publish...and then never did. It says quite a bit about the state of the publishing industry.

Every so often I get an e-mail from someone asking if I wrote a novel called Indiana Jones and Staff of Kings. As any avid Indy fan knows, that's the name of the sixth version of the Indiana Jones computer game. There is no novel by that name. But there was supposed to be one. I know. I wrote it.

It rests on a shelf behind me in manuscript form. Had it been published, it would've been my seventh Indiana Jones novel.

The novel was written under contract, it was accepted for publication, and I was paid quite well for it. I was even flown out to LucasFilm in San Francisco to talk about the novel.

Everything seemed to be going quite well until the publisher literally forgot about it. The jargon phrases used for such a mistake go like this: 'Someone dropped the ball.' Or, 'It fell through the crack in the floor.' No, it wasn't a ball, it wasn't a crack. It was rigid thinking by the company execs, and an overworked editor.

You see, the publisher was fixated on the novel coming out the same time as the related computer game. The problem was that LucasFilm changed their game platform and that changed their schedule. No one told the publisher about it. Well, actually I did. A couple of avid Indy bloggers informed me of the changes, which I passed on to the editor. Unfortunately, the message never got through. The editor thought I had it wrong. Certainly, she would be informed on such matters, she implied.

Then the game came out just as the bloggers had said it would, but there was no book accompanying the release. The logical thing, it seemed to me, would be to rush the book into print. Nope. Somehow, the powers-that-be felt the book would not sell well unless it was released precisely at the time the game came out.

That's what I call rigid thinking. Do people who buy and play computer games buy a related book? Maybe some do. But I think it's a different audience. If you're spending money on games, you're probably not buying books.

So Del Rey lost money on the project, namely because no one ever had an opportunity to buy the book. An Indy fan wrote Howard Roffman, president of the Lucas Licensing, and asked what happened to the book. The response was forwarded to me. 'Rob MacGregor missed the deadline.'

Oh, yeah. I wrote to Roffman and told him that Del Rey had the completed novel for more than a year before the game came out. He checked on it, wrote me back, and apologized.

From a writer's point of view, it's all part of the business. If you get a contract and get paid, what happens to the book is basically none of the writer's business. It wasn't the first time, I'd encountered a publisher who accepted my work, paid me, then failed to follow through. Years ago, Trish and I wrote for OMNI Magazine and they did the same thing. Repeatedly.

Of course, OMNI doesn't exist any longer, and I'm thinking that many of the major publishers will fall through that 'crack in the floor' themselves...because someone 'dropped the ball.'

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Versatility, part 2

One of the most interesting qualities about versatility is that once we decided to write nonfiction as well as fiction, opportunities to do both began to surface. Rob and a psychic friend wrote and sold The Rainbow Oracle, a divination system based on color.

We took several projects that were work for hire – you get your name on the book, are paid a flat fee, but no royalties. We did three of these books. It’s a good way to establish credits and hey, it helps pay the bills.

The first one we did was The Everything Dreams Book,  followed by Trish’s The Everything Astrology Book, which was her first astrology book. The third one was The Everything Spells and Charm Book.  There are some major drawbacks to work for hire: the lack of royalties, of course, particularly if the book sells well, and the fact that you don’t own the material.  If the publisher decides to bring out a new edition of the book, you probably will get first dibs on the revisions. However, when this happened with the Everything Astrology Book, Trish turned the project down. The amount of work they wanted for the revision just wasn’t worth what they were offering.

We’ve also done our share of ghostwriting. This type of work can be lucrative, especially if it’s a celebrity project. But it can also be frustrating. For awhile, we worked with a book packager – a person who approaches a celebrity about writing a book, finds the writer for the project, then sells the idea based on a proposal. The frustrating part of this is that the writer writes the proposal – for free – and then you go back and forth with the packager and the celebrity, tweaking the story. You can spend weeks spinning your wheels on something like this and there’s no guarantee it will sell.  We wrote about one such experience here, with actor Jamie Cromwell.

Fiction is probably the most challenging type of ghostwriting. The celebrity usually has a firm idea about what he or she wants in the book and if your vision of the novel doesn’t match the celebrity’s, then nothing works. However, if there’s a middle person involved – like the editor who has bought the book, then you’ve got someone in your court to stand up for your version of the novel. That's what  happened when we ghostwrote a novel for an infamous celebrity with her own TV show.

Sometimes, though, the celebrity is just willing to let the writer create the story without much interference. That was the case for Rob when he wrote two novels, PSiNET and JUST/IN TIME with Billy Dee Williams. They were stories Rob wanted to write, he got a byline,  and with Billy Dee's involvement, a contract was in place with a publisher before the book was written.

In today’s market, writers have to be even more versatile than when we started out. The publishing industry, like so many other long-established industries, is in turmoil. E-books and the popularity of Nooks, Kindles, iPads and other electronic reading devices are changing the dynamics of publishing.  Maybe we’ll reach a point someday where the only print books are kept in libraries. Until that time, E-books make it possible for writers to self-publish and yes, there are some success stories – like this one.   And because the prices of e-books are so much lower than the cost of a hardback or, in many instances, even a paperback, writers published through traditional means gain new readers.

With programs like smashwords , authors with out of print books can bring them back into print and sell them in digital format.  Or, writers who want to self-publish can do so through such programs.

In other words, everything is shifting and writers have to adapt – or find some other way to make a living.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Versatility, Part I

from soul cards

In July 1983, we got married, quit our jobs and took a trip to Chile and Ecuador after finding cheap tickets on a new airline. When we returned, we had about $5,000 and hoped it was enough for us to write full time until our stuff started selling. We ran out of money four months later and took part-time jobs. Rob worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper and Trish taught Spanish in adult ed. In our free time, we sent out queries to magazines.

This was in the days before the Internet and email, so our goal was to submit one query a day. Out of 30 queries a month, we usually got a couple of assignments. We discovered that writing for magazines as freelancers was financially precarious. Many magazines paid on publication. Some ended up not paying at all. But we found a home at OMNI with an editor who gave us regular assignments and paid promptly and even paid 100% kill fees when they didn't use the article. We also wrote travel articles and later wrote for the South American editions of Birnbaum's Travel Guides.

In between, we were both working on novels, our real passions. In September 1984, Trish's first novel, In Shadow, sold to Ballantine Books, for $7,500. About a month later, Rob got a ghostwriting project for the CEO of a Washington, D.C. company, which paid around $12,500. We were thrilled with these sales...and quit our part-time jobs. But it was apparent we were going to have to be as versatile as possible in order to make a living as writers. Even though the cost of living was less in the 80s,  we couldn't live on $20,000 for long. We started looking around for other things to write about, other ways to supplement our income.

Once we had some travel writing credits, we were invited on several travel fam trips - where your airfare and lodging are paid by the sponsors of the trip and in exchange, you try to sell a travel article for that location.

On a flight to Nashville, we ended up sitting with a next to a Colombian travel agent, German Morales. The three of us hit it off. At that time, Columbia was suffering from a bad image as a drug country and German wanted to improve that image somehow. His family owned a chain of hotels in Columbia, he knew the head of Avianca Airlines, so we met with him, Camilo Rodriguez, and presented our idea. We would lead trips to Columbia, Peru and the Amazon for travel writers, Avianca would provide the tickets, and German would accommodate the writers at his family's various hotels. In addition, we would be paid $100 a day for each day of the trip.

We led a number of these trips - to the Amazon, the Andes, Cartagena, Santa Marta and the Lost City. It  was a fantastic adventure for us - and fodder for future novels.  None of it would have happened if we had been wedded to the idea that we were going to make a living only as novelists. Circumstances forced us to be versatile, which is one of the most necessary skills any writer can develop.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Rob and Trish MacGregor been professional writers for thirty years and have seen the ups and downs in the publishing industry. In this blog, we hope to cover some of the nuts and bolts of publishing, from the perspective of writers, as well as the creative process itself.

Years ago when we started out as magazine writers,  we had a list of reminders posted on the walls in front of our desks. These reminders still hold true:

1. Believe in yourself and what you're writing. If you don't believe, no one else will either.

2. Be generous toward other writers. If you can help out a fellow writer in some way, do so.

3. Read, read, read. If you don't read novels,  it will be difficult to write one.

4. Write daily, even if it's just a paragraph.

5. If you don't have something positive to say about a  book, then don't say anything at all. It's easy to be a critic; anyone can be nasty in 500 words or less.

6. Don't give up just because you get rejections. All it takes is one editor who loves your story. Besides, if you give up, you'll never know what you might have achieved as a writer.