The response was unequivocal, “Great to hear from you… you had me laughing out loud.” Steve, responding to my inquiry and sample chapters by return email from a small press in America, invited me to forward the MS of my glittering and beguiling, first novel, Lives of An Amoeba. Hopeful again, thinking that someone (possibly my new bff) was able—finally—to apprehend what I was about, I did.
Almost immediately after emailing the MS to Steve, I received an offer of publication from Chris at a small press in Canada, who had read and liked the MS. After months of rejection, I was now getting too much acceptance (like did I know). Me being me, I immediately felt obliged to relay the news of Chris’s offer to Steve, who said he would get back to me with a response in 2 or 3 days. I jokingly asked him to put his best people on it. That was in the morning. That afternoon, his email arrived informing me that he’d had “three senior editors read [it] and they all found the opening great but felt the text didnt [sic] sustain itself,” and so he was passing, blah, blah, blah; ending with a final kick at the can, “…the novel didnt [sic] quite sustain its traction”.
This was baffling. Three senior editors? How could a small press afford three senior editors (how many ‘juniors’ did it employ?). And, if Steve thought it would take “2 to 3 days” to evaluate the 255 page MS, how had these three senior editors managed it in half a day? In shifts? Did each editor take 1/3 of the novel, skim it and then compare notes with the others? Even that wouldn’t account for the supersonic speed at which they had completed their ‘evaluation’.
In an earlier piece on ‘Publishing”, I had accused publishers of a lack of imagination in their language of rejection”; but this was before being confronted with “text didnt [sic] sustain itself” and “text didnt [sic] sustain its traction”. These metaphorical phrases resounded mysteriously in my head, sounding ominous, as though the novel were lying on a road somewhere, dying. Were these three senior editors referring to the narrative? Theme? Voice? Character? Syntax? Or did they know? For a day and a half, I obsessed over the phrases. What could they possibly mean? I had no doubts about my MS. Not only did I feel that my two years of concentrated effort had resulted in the comic novel I had set out to create, but an editor, a screenwriter, and a website designer had recently read it and, collectively, had found Lives… “terrifically written, engaging, wacky, laugh-out loud funny”, but most importantly, “riveting”. If the novel was indeed ‘riveting’ what was it that “didnt [sic] sustain its traction?”
My mind is only vaguely on duty during the day; the real action takes places at night when the subconscious comes out to play; and it hums and throbs with purpose. Images, thoughts, problems, questions in the form of hundreds of millions of neurons rush about, trying to find order within the billions of synapses that reside in that tiny grey lump in my skull (see Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind). So it wasn’t until 3:00 a.m. the following morning that the neurons lined up and I had a ‘eureka’ moment.
Lives of An Amoeba attempts to spoof—to satirize—our overwhelming obsession with sex, an obsession fuelled by big business and corporate media. If you doubt the cataclysmic effect of this sex tsunami on 21st Century industrial society, heed the following: my doctor related to me that his 10 year old niece had asked him what an orgy was. When he explained that it was a kind of party, she asked, “Is that where they fuck?” 10 years old? What happened to Childhood? Has it been deliberately obliterated by corporate nimrods selling more prop-up bras and see-through nighties? Why is a ten old girl thinking about sex? Shouldn’t she be developing all the other aspects of being human; the ones she’ll need to take her place in a civil society—not one in which lingerie companies outnumber books stores? Are we going to sacrifice our children’s youth to feed a rapacious, and morally-decrepit economic engine? Are you listening, Corporate America?
So the story of Lives of An Amoeba— a vulnerable young woman (schooled by nuns) who finds herself ethically-challenged in the sexually-obsessed world of movie-making and tries to effect change—is my humble counterattack on the assault on children being waged 24/7 by corporate media. The characters in Lives… talk endlessly about sex, but there is no sex. Obviously, having sex scenes in the novel would defeat its purpose—but in the first two chapters (the ones that caught Steve’s attention), there is a movie sex scene in which two actors simulate every sex scene cliché going, directed by a producer trying to heat up his cheap movie. Obviously, what had Steve “… laughing out loud” was the silliness of that scene and the protagonist’s response to having to watch it. Those three senior editors had probably read that first chapter, mistaken the movie sex for the real thing and set about skimming the MS for more sex scenes. Finding none, they concluded that the sex “didnt [sic] sustain itself.” Given the evidence, this explanation seems more than probable. What isn’t probable, but quite remarkable, is that the ‘evaluation’ of three senior editors took only half a day. It would, I’ve realized, make a wonderful scene in my novel—three senior editors frantically rifling through a novel in search of sex scenes. It’s funny how life imitates fiction. It’s hard to satirize the real world while it’s busy ‘sustaining its own traction.’
In the meantime, my other new bff, Chris, who was actually offering to publish the novel, sent me his standard contract to sign and return. Thinking that it might be a good idea to know what I was signing, I read it through. I’d had some experience previously with authors’ contracts, but I’d never seen a contract like this one before (and hope never to see one like it again). A number of sentences in the six page agreement were breath-taking in their audacity. The two that stand out are: “Lives of An Amoeba…which title may be changed at the discretion of the Publisher at any time.” And, “…the Publisher shall make any changes in, additions to, or elimination from the manuscript the Publisher deems necessary.” Whoa! The Publisher? What happened to author autonomy? Did the writer sweat for two years writing his opus magnum only to have the Publisher “make any changes in, additions to, or elimination from the manuscript”? In any standard publisher’s contract, the clause protecting the writer’s autonomy generally reads as follows:
“The Publisher shall not make any changes to the manuscript of the Work without the consent of the Author, provided, however that the consent of the Author is not unreasonably withheld where the Publisher desires to make changes to ensure that the Work does not violate laws relating to libel, copyright, moral rights, obscenity, etc., or to make the manuscript conform to standard usage of punctuation, spelling and capitalization.”
The other interesting innovation in Chris’ contract—as opposed to the standard publisher’s contract—was to give the writer a total of 10% of all sales in all markets. This differs considerably from standard publishing contracts which break down generally as follows:
10-15% for the book rights in the country of origin, then, in addition:
Book clubs – Author 50% / Publisher 50%,
1st Serial Rights – Author 75% / Publisher 25%,
2nd Serial Rights – Author 50% / Publisher 50%,
Anthologies – Author 50% / Publisher 50%,
English language publication outside Canada – Author 75% / Publisher 25%,
Foreign language publication – Author 75% / Publisher 25%,
Electronic publishing – Author 50% / Publisher 50%.
To say I was dumbfounded at this chicanery would be understating my response; but having learned painfully that you mustn’t react adversely to—or shout obscenities at—people you’re trying to do business with, I sent Chris a polite two page memo outlining the error of his ways. I doubted I would hear from him again; but no, he did email me back a day later to assure me “the contract as presented is standard and will stand as is.” Standard? Standard to whom? Enron? Bernie Madoff? Tony Soprano?
Alex Barris, a writer I worked with years ago, spent most of his long career higgling with wily TV producers and publishers. He once stated quite adamantly to me (and a young novelist), that “publishers drink the blood of their authors from their skulls.”
At the time, I thought Alex might be overstating his views, but subsequent experiences—like these—have forced me to reconsider. A young writer, attempting to get their work into print, would do well to keep the bloody skulls in mind when publishers come calling, offering publication.
Emerging from their writing sanctuary into the business end of publishing and motion pictures, any writer could be forgiven for thinking that they had stepped into a nightmarish Cloudcuckooland, peopled by business ghouls and pretentious ‘authorities’ on prose. Everyone, but everyone, in publishing and motion pictures—publishers, editors, agents, critics, producers, directors—thinks they know more than the writer, an attitude which often manifests itself as covert hostility.