How not to write a book

Some of you may not know that I am officially a Published Author and therefore—let’s face it—kind of a big deal, but it’s true. And I have to confess that I’ve never really gotten over the thrill of seeing my name on a book cover, which is highly, even dangerously, addictive.

I was reminded of my own importance recently when I was asked to moderate a session at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival. The session is called “A Level Playing Field: Texas Baseball in Black and White,” and features two books about race and Our National Pastime: Our White Boy, by Jerry Craft, and Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball, by Rob Fink. Apparently my friend Dick Holland, the former head of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University, suggested me as a moderator because he recalled that, many years ago, I had written a book about baseball.

What Dick, and the organizers of the book festival, probably didn’t know is that I was quite possibly the most naïve first-time author in the history of the publishing industry. If there was a mistake to be made in the course of writing and selling a manuscript, I probably made it; heck, I probably made some mistakes that hadn’t even existed before. Even today, the full extent of my ignorance fills me with awe.

Now, I’ve been a baseball fan since childhood, but this particular misadventure started about twenty years ago. After that tirelessly self-promoting cretin Pete Rose was busted for gambling, I became obsessed with an early twentieth century major league star named Hal Chase, for reasons that remain obscure; perhaps I read something comparing Rose and Chase, though I honestly can’t recall. Chase was phenomenally talented, handsome, charismatic, and also, apparently, an incorrigible cheat; in fact, he was accused (though never convicted) of helping to arrange the infamous Black Sox scandal. I decided to write an article about him for The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History, the annual journal of the Society for American Baseball Research. In the course of researching and writing the article, I began to think that somebody should write a book about Chase, and I couldn’t think of a single reason why that somebody shouldn’t be me.

In reality, of course, there were plenty of reasons why that somebody shouldn’t be me, including the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about the publishing industry. Did I need an agent, or should I try to sell the manuscript myself? Should I write it on spec, or should I hold off until I found a publisher willing to pony up an advance? In retrospect, the story of how I became a genuine published author is filled with missteps, ineptitude, and, ultimately, blind luck. I offer it up here as a cautionary tale to other would-be authors.

I’m ashamed to admit that it took me almost a decade to produce an actual finished book. In my defense, I was working on it mostly on weekends, since I had a full-time job, a wife, and two young children. In truth, though, the research and writing was the fun part; the hard part was trying to figure out what to do if I ever actually finished the thing. Early on, a dear college friend suggested I seek advice from her sister, a big-time literary agent in New York (she represented A. S. Byatt, among others). I had no illusions that she would want to represent me herself—I was a nobody, and besides, she specialized in fiction—but she said she’d be glad to offer some suggestions if I sent her a sample of my writing. I sent her a draft chapter or two, and she wrote me back to say she really liked them and would like to take me on as her client.

Well, heck, I thought, this writin’ business is easy! I had found myself a real agent right out of the box. Piece of cake.

Meanwhile, I was grinding away on my research. On weekends, I’d head to the Library of Congress, where I spent countless hours cranking through film of daily newspapers. I traveled, at my own expense, to Cooperstown and San Jose and Tucson to conduct research and interviews. In 1994 I even wangled an introduction to Ken Burns, hoping to convince him that Chase should feature prominently in his forthcoming documentary Baseball; he listened patiently, and later very graciously put me in touch with Chase’s granddaughter, who was estranged from the rest of the family.

Probably the best thing I did in the course of my research was put one of those “author seeking information” notices in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Soon thereafter I received a letter from the director of the University of Illinois Press, who said that he had seen my notice and thought my book sounded like one in which they’d be interested; I thanked him and smugly referred him to my big-shot New York agent.

Some time later I got another note from him saying that he had never gotten a response from my agent. Then I realized that she wasn’t responding to my letters and phone calls either.

After a year or so it became clear even to me that she wasn’t actually doing anything on my behalf; I suspect now that she had agreed to take me on as sort of a favor, given the connection with her sister, but (perhaps understandably) I had ended up at the bottom of her list. I finally sent her a polite letter saying that I had decided to end our relationship. (She never answered it.)

So I was back at square one. Illinois was no longer interested, and neither, after an initial flirtation, was Oxford University Press, but I finally found my own way to McFarland and Company, an outfit in North Carolina that published a number of baseball history books. I imagined battling with their editorial staff over word choice and the overall structure of the manuscript, like Tom Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins; instead, they ran exactly what I sent them. They told me that they would publish my book in paperback only, which was mildly disappointing, but I was in no position to argue.

Hal Chase: The Defiant Life and Turbulent Times of Baseball’s Biggest Crook finally appeared in 2001, and as of this writing ranks 1,655,584th in sales on (Woo hoo!) The nice people at McFarland send me annual royalty checks (typically for about thirty-seven dollars), which allow me to call myself a professional writer. With any luck, I’ll never actually sit down and calculate the amount of money I’ve earned from my book versus the amount of money I spent producing it.

The really scary thing, though, is that I’m sometimes tempted to try it all again. Just this week, while we were having lunch, my son asked me when I was going to write another book, and it got me thinking again about that idea I had several years ago, for a biography of the old R&B singer Chuck Willis….

See? This writing business is just like crack.

What we’re reading
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow: The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself (again!)
Martin: Ingrid D. Rowland, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic (still!)

This entry was posted in More and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How not to write a book

  1. Sus says:

    Wow, can I be a writer, too. Will you be my agent?

  2. Tinky says:

    I think any way you write a book that ends up being published is a good way. So there! You're so brave looking up your ranking on Amazon. I never do that (but I don't sell most of my books through them anyway; I think of them as an advertisement). Anyway, this is definitely a good yarn.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Martin,
    Your fame, truth, and humility provide Friday-morning inspiration and comfort.
    Cheers, Peg

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>