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Confessions of a Bottom Feeder
By Scott Nicholson

The publishing world is nearly as varied and abundant with life as the oceans, and the food chain is just as unbreakable. Some species cruise the surface with no natural enemies, fat and secure, while others fight for the scraps that filter down from the largesse above. I’m among the bottom feeders. I’m nibbling my way up from the muck.

Since news of my first novel sale "The Red Church" to Kensington Books has made the rounds, more than a few writers have e-mailed me concerning the rejection-acceptance process. To dilute my oceanographic metaphor for a moment, it’s a little bit like Charley the Tuna begging for that elusive net. Novels and short stories are labors of love which, for 98 percent of all fiction writers, never bring in real money. After five years of holding my breath, my novel "The Red Church" was finally scooped by a mass market publisher, though my labor of love is still giving me much more love than money.

I used to tell people I was an aspiring writer. I’ve since learned that’s not true. The job of "writer" is not something you aspire to, that you graduate to, that you get around to doing someday. It’s a job you already have, or maybe it’s more apt to say writing is something that "has" you. If you’re a fish, you sink or swim. And if a writer is what you are, you’re going to be writing no matter how many little slips of paper you get with the word "No" typed or scrawled on them, shipped back to you at your own expense so that insult is added to financial injury.

How many times does a normal person have to be rejected before he takes the hint? I had 105 rejects before my first story sale. My first novel was rejected by 113 publishers and 47 agents; my second probably by at least 25 publishers (lost count) and 33 agents; my third novel was rejected by 19 agents and 17 publishers; my fourth novel was rejected by 15 agents and two publishers; my fifth novel was rejected by 27 agents.

Now that I’ve sold my fourth novel, everything has changed, yet my life is much the same. I am under no illusions of instant bestsellerdom and the sales pretty much bear out that sad truth. I still have to work on my current novel project every day. Back in the days of constant rejection, I could spew out whatever my heart desired, with a "career" merely a distant dream. Now I have to wonder if what I write will make my agent happy and ultimately find a hardcover home.

What does it mean to have a book published at the lowest levels of the mass market? It means I am imminently replaceable, I’m a bottom-line acquisition and the projected profit margin for "The Red Church" is just high enough to justify my editor’s defense and support. It means I can fail to a certain degree and no one will be too upset, at least among the few who notice at all. With a low advance and relatively low initial print run, the publisher has a good chance of turning a buck off of me. My name on the cover, at this trembling and halting early stage, is the least important part of the entire book package.

It’s damned humbling, even to an acknowledged minnow like me. Kensington puts out 500 titles a year. The book fills a temporary slot in a sweeping tide of disposable thrillers. And it’s heartbreaking to read "Publisher’s Weekly" and see all those new writers with hype-happy agents getting six-figure deals when all they’ve written is two short stories and an outline on a cocktail napkin, but they dated the former secretary of somebody in the publisher’s mail room.

"The Red Church" flooded the racks during the summer of 2002 and sold well enough to maintain a minimal presence on some of the store shelves. Most of the book’s promotion originated from yours truly. I had some good luck with regional newspapers, made a small ripple in the horror world, and nailed a half dozen radio interviews. I got a little publicity when my novel was picked up by the Doubleday Book Club for hardcover release.

Confession: Even if Kensington had a generous promotional budget, I would still have mailed out press kits to book stores and media outlets. I spent some of the advance money upgrading my web site and having publicity photos made. I’m constantly adding to my contact databases. I’ll probably use up a good portion of my advance on postage.

What does all of that matter? While from the very first sentence I wanted "The Red Church" to sell and get on the bookshelves and into the hands of readers, I would have written the book anyway. It’s not like I was paid upfront to write it. Those thousand hours, when it was just me and the keyboard and those pesky characters, was time that I wouldn’t trade for mere money. That was nine months of my life, and as far as I know, I only get one go-round on this planet and probably only enough time left to write a couple dozen more of the things.

Confession: Maybe I’m not good enough to break into the big time. Maybe I’ll never sell another novel, or else will always struggle for scraps at the bottom of the market. Maybe the sharks will tear me to shreds. Maybe this low depth is the nearest I’ll get to the top. I believe otherwise, though, from the tips of my tailfins to my big fishy lips.

Confession is good for the soul and gives absolvers something to do between services, so I may as well spill the rest of it. I’m not one of those people who would give their books away for free, or who would write even if they had no intention of submitting or publishing their work. I want people to pay money for the words I hammered onto paper. Not because I suffer from the sins of avarice and pride, but because being the object of commerce is the ultimate form of flattery.

"The Red Church" is real, it exists. Sure, it’s on paper now. But it’s real in my head, where it was born and fed and grown. Dreams are worth having. Dreams are worth working toward. Dreams are worth bringing to life.

What does it mean to have a novel published at the lowest levels of the mass market? It means I still have a long way to go. It means I still have many more dreams to dream.

What does it mean to be a bottom feeder? It means I’m still hungry. I’m still miles from swimming with the big fish, but I know they’re up there, bloated and sluggish and totally unaware that I’m rising from the hidden deep.

And, if I am allowed a final confession, it’s this: I’m having the time of my life. Come on in, the water’s fine.

--Copyright 2002 by Scott Nicholson (originally published in the e-book "New Voices From Kensington")

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