This post, by Henry Baum, originally appeared on the Backword Books blog on 6/18/09.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve gotten to this point and why I’ve become such a zealot for self-publishing. I have to say that self-publishing was an absolutely last resort for me. I was trying and trying to make it in the world of traditional publishing. And I’ve had some luck. I mean some people can’t even get an agent, and I’ve had four of them, each representing different novels. I’ve been translated into French, had a book put out in the U.K. Random House, et al, though, have not come knocking.
My first novel, “Camera Shy” (a lead character and title I used for a story put out in an anthology), was me trying to rip-off my favorite writer, Richard Yates. Namely: The Easter Parade, which is about two sisters, so was mine. It was a failure of a novel, but at least I wrote 200 pages in a row, and enjoyed it.
Second novel was called “Dishwasher,” my attempt at writing a first-person Bukowski/Kerouac-inspired novel, with the slacker generation replacing the Beat generation. It was better and I got an agent for it. She wanted to call it “Dishboy” because it was “funkier.” She sent it out and it had a nice reaction, but no takers. “Boy can this guy write,” I remember, which is nice, but no book deal.
Wrote my first novel that was published next: first titled Oscar Caliber Gun (now titled The Golden Calf). My agent hated it, and reluctantly sent it out. An editor said, “I cannot see a market for a novel that is slight and lacking in any meaningful message.” I’ve memorized that. The agent sent it to me sort of gleefully (I thought) as vindication for her distaste for the novel. Ultimately we had a falling out because I made the mistake of asking her assistant if I could see the cover letter she was sending out with the novel. Jay McInerney said he liked the book and I wanted to know if she was mentioning that in the letter. I couldn’t reach her on the phone, so I just asked the assistant to send the letter. The agent went ballistic. Said I was doubting her skills as an agent. Really, she just wouldn’t return my phone calls. But I think she was looking for a way out because she didn’t like the novel.
And so I went to St. Mark’s Books in NYC looking for small presses to submit the novel to myself. Got a bite from Soho Books. Not much else. And then I discovered a VERY small press, Soft Skull, that had these little handmade books printed at Kinko’s. I sent in my novel along with a demo tape of a band I was playing drums in called Montag. The editor, Sander Hicks, accepted the book, and was especially taken with the tape and that I’d begun my query letter with, “Dear Freakshow.”
So, finally, I was published. I remember walking up First Avenue and my girlfriend at the time calling down to me, “Hey, published writer!” Such a nice moment.