I originally wrote my first novel, In His Shadow, back in 1992. My wife was working with someone whose girlfriend worked at Houghton Mifflin, and the girlfriend was able to get it to one of their fiction editors. Houghton Mifflin ended up debating for nine months whether or not to publish it, and in the end decided the book was too risky for a first novel—telling me that as much as they liked it, they needed something more formula for a first novel, and at this point I started sending query letters to editors at the large NY houses. This was at the end of 1992, and editors were still responding to well-written query letters from unagented writers. I ended up having seven editors request the book—and three of them told me the same as the editor at Houghton Mifflin, that as much as they liked it they needed something more formula for a first novel. About In His Shadow—it is no way a formula PI novel, but part deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre and a large part psychotic noir. The protagonist appears to be a clichéd hardboiled PI, but it’s an act to cover that he’s a pure sociopath. While the reader is led to believe they’re in for standard hardboiled fare, they’re really sucked into the PI’s hellish descent and complete psychic unraveling. No, not at all formula. After striking out with the editors who requested the book, I put it away and focused on my day job, although at this point I had sold several stories to magazines qualifying me for MWA membership.
Skip forward to 1997. I just finished writing my crime/horror thriller, Bad Thoughts, and find that the NY houses have mostly shut their doors to unagented works. I am able to slip through one door, though, with Warner Books. An editor there reads Bad Thoughts, and we end up going through three rounds of editing (and each round does improve the book) before he tries submitting the book to his editorial board, where he gets shot down. At this point I put Bad Thoughts away also, and again focus on the day job.
Skip again to 2002. MWA has a deal with iUniverse allowing its members to self-publish for free under iUniverse’s Mystery and Suspense imprint. I do this. I have no delusions of selling any copies, but my hope is to use it as a resume—get enough reviews and quotes from other writers to interest a legitimate publisher in Bad Thoughts, which I consider a better and more marketable book. Basically, I’m looking at it as throwing away In His Shadow to get Bad Thoughts published. So what happens? Pretty much what I expected. Mostly because of my past published stories, I’m able to get some very good authors to read In His Shadow and they end up providing me some great quotes. Which leads us to the Italian publisher, Meridiano Zero.
L’occhio privato di Denver
Not only am I getting quotes from some well-known writers, but people are discussing my self-published book on online forums, including RARA AVIS, which is a discussion group for hardboiled and noir fiction. One of the members of the group, Luca Conti, is translating books for Meridiano Zero, and is intrigued by the discussions around my book. He buys a copy and later contacts me about wanting to submit the book to his publisher. Meridiano Zero is no slouch—they publish top crime fiction writers, people like James Lee Burke, Derek Raymond and David Peace, so my answer to Luca is: yes, please do so. The publisher ended up feeling the same way as Luca and buys the Italian rights to In His Shadow, so I end up selling the Italian rights before the English rights. The book is published with the title: L’occhio privato di Denver.
Skip ahead to the end of 2003. At this point I have an agent, we’re shopping In His Shadow again now that we have an Italian publisher, and we come close but can’t quite pull it off—we still have that problem that the book is too different, too risky for a first novel, even with the praise the book has garnered. I write a new book titled Small Crimes. This one is again pure noir, but a huge jump up from In His Shadow. With this one I end up with four editors at different houses trying to acquire it, but none of them can get it through their boards. I’m about to give up. A friend of mine, Allan Guthrie, another frustrated noir writer who has since landed a nice book contract with Harcourt, contacts me about a small press he’s starting with JT Lindroos called Point Blank Press. Al has read both Small Crimes and Fast Lane. He wants to acquire Small Crimes. I politely say no, and he then asks for In His Shadow, which I am only more than happy to give him. More than anything I want to escape the stench of self-publishing, and so a new and copy edited version of In His Shadow is born, with the title Fast Lane. So now that Fast Lane is published by a small but earnest publisher, people who wouldn’t look at it before are reading it. Poisoned Pen Bookstore names it one of the best hardboiled books of 2004. Kate Mattes, who runs Kate’s Mystery Bookstore, becomes a fan, reads Small Crimes and Outsourced (a novel I had just finished) and wants to acquire both for a mystery line she has with Justin Charles, but the publisher passes on them. Ed Gorman writes a unbelievably flattering review for Fast Lane, as do others. But I’m still having no luck selling Small Crimes or Outsourced.
A quick note about Outsourced. This book was meant to be a balance between noir and commercial fiction, and a quick plot summary has a group of software engineers made obsolete due to outsourcing coming up with a clever way to rob a bank, and of course, things going very bad. As with Small Crimes, editors were trying to acquire Outsourced, but couldn’t get it through their boards. But I do have a bit of luck with it—the book ends up in the hands of one of the top film agents in Hollywood, and he wants to do something with it. Hollywood can move at a glacial pace, but two years later, and after a misfire in trying to make it into an HBO series, it seems to be on track for a feature film. We have a producer and two very hot screenwriters, and we’ll see what happens over the next few months.
John Williams, who is an acclaimed writer and also an editor at Serpent’s Tail, is also a member of RARA AVIS. I contact him off list, telling him what Ken Bruen and others are saying about Small Crimes. He’s interested enough to look at the book—with the caveat that they probably won’t buy it, that Serpent’s Tail only buy books they absolutely love. I mail him a copy. Months go by. I’m talking with Ed Gorman at this point about my frustrations with selling Small Crimes and Outsourced. He recommends that I send a copy to Five Star, which publishes a mystery imprint that he started. The thing with Five Star is they sell mostly to libraries, which means no more than 1,000-2,000 copies of Small Crimes would sell, and I had higher hopes for the book. I end up sending it to Five Star thinking that at least I’d get the book reviewed, and maybe that would lead to Outsourced being bought. I get an offer. My agent tries contacting Serpent’s Tail at this point, nothing. An editor at St. Martin’s tries buying Small Crimes—and he’s shot down because his boss decides he has too many dark books on his list. I give up. I sign the contract with Five Star. Five days later I hear from John Williams. Both him and the publisher love Small Crimes. They want to buy it. I want to put a bullet in my head.
Now my agent and I are scrambling. Serpent’s Tail publishing Small Crimes puts me in the game. Not only will the book get good distribution, but Serpent’s Tail is one of the more prestigious houses in the UK for crime fiction. Fortunately the folks at Five Star are the most decent people imaginable. I can’t say enough good things about them. They let me swap Bad Thoughts for Small Crimes—which works out best for everyone since Bad Thoughts is a better fit for Five Star. It’s more of a thriller—which are selling better these days—albeit a very different crime thriller that borders on horror. The book is now getting strong reviews, and Five Star seems happy with it. So that’s my story of working my way up the publishing food chain. Three books, five publishers, if you include iUniverse in the deal. And a lot of gray hairs in the process.
Dave Zeltserman is the mastermind behind Hard Luck Stories. Dave lives in the Boston area with his wife, Judy, and when he’s not writing crime fiction, he spends his time working on his black belt in Kung Fu.