Not long ago, (but before the lockdown) I was invited to speak at a library down in Mason, just west of San Antonio. That little south Texas town was where Fred Gipson lived, one of my favorite authors who wrote Old Yeller and Savage Sam.
They put me up in a quaint old hotel down there in the hill country, overlooking the town square that wasn’t much more than an intersection of two lane roads. It was one of those little perks I enjoy as an author. I spoke that night and signed my latest novel, then retired to the balcony and sipped a gin and tonic under the stars, thinking about an elderly woman who came to me after the talk, asking if I could help her with a problem.
I’d signed my last book and was getting ready to leave when she took a chair beside me. “You’re a famous author.” She spoke with a German accent, which isn’t unusual in that part of the Lone Star State. The German-Texan culture began here in 1831, five years before the Alamo fell, and significantly increased after the close of the Civil War. It’s estimated that over 40,000 emigrants moved to Texas by the close of the nineteenth century.
“No ma’am. I’m far from famous, just a pretty good writer who entertains people.”
“Well, you surely have an agent.”
“I do. She’s my second agent. I fired the first.”
“Oh, you’ve already fired one.” She pressed her pearls and looked around at her husband who stood slightly behind her as silent as a bodyguard. “Why, I can’t get anyone to even look at my work, and I already have a book out.”
“Well, congratulations. That’s an accomplishment. What’s it about?”
“My time in Germany during the war. I was sent to the camps and am the only survivor in our family.”
My throat caught and I studied the tall, slender woman with unruly white hair. Her wrinkled husband with equally white hair nodded, as if to confirm her statement.
“I’m sure it’s a powerful novel. Is it written as fiction, or non-fiction?”
“Oh, it’s nonfiction. It’s the story of my survival. It’s done well here in town. I think I’ve sold almost a hundred and fifty copies.” She nodded to punctuate the statement, pleased with her success.
“So you got it published without an agent.”
“Yes. It’s self-published, and that’s my problem. I need an agent to tell me what to do with all these books.”
I didn’t know where was she was going, but I had an idea. “Well, you’re kinda doing this backwards. You might have a hard time finding someone to represent works that are already out there.”
“Can you help me then?”
“I might offer some advice, but I’m far from an expert in this field.”
“I just need someone to tell me what to do with all these books that keep arriving.”
Alarm bells went off. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
“Books arrive each month and I have to pay for them. My garage is almost full.”
“Did you sign a contract saying you’re required to buy a certain amount each month?” I couldn’t believe anyone would agree to such a deal, and hoped I misunderstood what she was telling me.
“Yes. They keep coming in, and I’m running out of money.”
She explained it was a company that charged her to print the books, then required her to buy a specific number each month. Living on a limited income, she spent a fortune on the first run and after exhausting her list of friends and family, she tried to sell them from her trunk.
Bookstores in that part of Texas are about as rare as hen’s teeth, but she managed to get a few on the shelves of an antique store, and a couple of small independent bookstores within a fifty mile radius. However, she had more than she would, or could, ever sell.
There was no way to break the news to her in a gentle way. “Ma’am, I’m afraid you’ve been taken. I don’t know what you can do.”
Her face fell. She knew it, but had to hear those words from someone else. “You have no such contract?”
“No ma’am. I’m traditionally published.”
“You don’t use your own money to print the books?”
“No, it doesn’t work that way with a traditional publishing house. People pay me, not the other way around.”
“They won’t let me out of this contract. I’ve asked several times.”
“You might find a literary attorney to break the contract.”
“That will cost money.”
“Yes it will, but it’s the only solution I know.”
I suggested a Texas Writers Association that might be of some help, and gave her the names of two agents down here who were also authors. She thanked me, rose with an effort, and took her husband’s arm. He supported her as they made their slow way to the door and I had to swallow a lump before I could gather my things and leave.
That’s why I was drinking gin alone on the hotel balcony.
I have no experience with self-publishing, but can only offer this suggestion to those who are considering this non-traditional way of getting into print. Writers need someone to review legal documents with an eye toward minimizing their financial risks. Get yourself a good literary attorney to review any contract before signing your name. It might be expensive at the outset, but a bad publishing deal can hound you for years and ultimately impact your career as an author.
And because I’ve never self-published (though I have friends who are successful at it), I’d like to hear from those of you who took this route. You comments might help someone else. Please, and thank you.
I’m still haunted by that poor survivor who was taken by an unscrupulous publisher.