FOR LOVE AND MAGIC.
There was a time when I determined, with absolute certainty, that I would never seek publication for my novel, The Listeners.
It wasn’t always that way. I was still in eighth grade when it clicked with me that writing is something one can do for a living, and from that moment on it was more than anything else what I wanted to do.
It’s why I attended a magnet high school where I could focus on literary arts. It’s why I went to Oberlin College, eyes planted firmly on a creative writing major (which ultimately became an English major with creative writing concentration). My combined loves of writing and editing brought me into the world of publishing, and between all of it, I ended up with a series of short stories that became an optioned screenplay, and a screenplay that became my first novel.
There’s a romance to the idea of being a writer. Reality is different. In most ways I loved the world of small press publishing, but much like apprenticing with a magician, there are few better ways to dispel the magic than to learn the secrets. I would spend months, and sometimes years, working with authors on their wonderful novels, and then months more writing reviewers and bloggers and authors, and contacting radio and TV shows, and alerting newspapers, and screaming from the metaphorical rooftops. I grew to hate marketing. There were successes, like the review of Ron Cooper’s brilliant Purple Jesus in The Washington Post, but more often I felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. I would devote all the time and energy I had to projects that, for all their literary strengths, would go virtually unread.
By the time I finished The Listeners, I’d learned the truth: that publishing is not a meritocracy. A great book and a successful book are two entirely different things. I was happy with The Listeners, but my name in the acknowledgements of twenty other published books had sapped away the magic of holding my work in my hands, and I feared desperately the marketing battle ahead. I didn’t want the fight. It would be better, I decided, simply to be proud of the work I had done. I’d make it as a writer, probably a screenwriter, but my novel would never be published.
“That’s stupid,” my best friend said bluntly. I don’t recall where or when, but she knew as well as anyone the work that had gone into The Listeners. She knew it was good. And she knew, I suspect, that I would always regret never finishing what I had started back in the summer of 2005, when I first began work on the short stories that would eventually develop into my novel. Others said the same, wiser words prevailed, and The Listeners ventured out into the world in December 2012.
It would be fantastic if this were one of those stories in which my entire life changed on the strength of one worldwide bestseller. But it’s not. The truth is that The Listeners did not set the world ablaze. The reviews were very good, but marketing was indeed a struggle. I attended panels, I wrote guest blogs, I participated in newspaper and radio interviews, and I did anything else anyone could think of to get the word out. I remember one disappointing evening in which I drove two hours to a book signing attended by three people, one of whom was the bookstore cat. (She did not buy a copy.)
And yet I don’t regret a thing.
Why would I? I’ve had bad book signings, but I also signed one hundred copies at BookExpo America. I got an amazing review from a kid in New Zealand—a young man from the other side of the world who read and loved something I wrote. And twice now, I’ve returned to my high school and spoken with the literary arts seniors. Maybe my years in publishing have made me a little cynical, but when you’re talking with students who see in you where they want to be ten years on, and when your words are reaching people around the world—however rarely and sporadically—it doesn’t take long for that magic to return.
It’s not all sunshine on the other side of publication. There’s no rabbit inside that hat. But you don’t write a novel to shove it into the proverbial drawer. You write a novel to share it with the world. I love the things I’ve been able to experience because of The Listeners, and I love that this is a part of my life. I love that I have friends who tell me when I’m being an idiot. And I love that, after all this time, and all the books I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, this business still has enough magic to make it all worthwhile.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in manuscripts as diverse as young adult, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, memoir, and everything in-between, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe.
Harrison is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012). He’s currently accepting new clients in fiction and memoir at Ambitious Enterprises (http://ambitiousenterprises.com).
Harrison is also the editor of novels as diverse as Purple Jesus and Hume’s Fork by Ron Cooper, The Trials of the Core by Michael E. Thies, Renhala by Amy Joy Lutchen, The Understory and The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns by Elizabeth Leiknes, the Young Inventors Guild novels by Eden Unger Bowditch, The Goddess Letters by Vicki Matthews, and a couple dozen more.