Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Every day, in every way, I hate them more and more

So.  Yesterday I told you about some of the ways Simon & Schuster has screwed me over with Touchstone, the second of the two historical romances I wrote and published with them in the mid 1990s.

But they are also screwing me over with the first book I did for them, Moonsilver, which was published in 1995.   I offered some of Moonsilver's history here and now I'm going to add more details and bring that saga up to date.  (And yes, I write long blog posts.  I wrote long books, too.  Deal with it.)

When I was introduced to agent Cherry Weiner at the 1991 RWA conference in New Orleans, she told me categorically that she was not accepting any new clients.  Even so, she agreed to look at some of my proposals -- brief outlines and a few sample pages at most -- over lunch.  Before we left the restaurant, she had asked to represent me, primarily on the strength of one of the proposals, Moonsilver.

At that time, the first of my three books for Zebra, titled Secret Fires, had just come out and I was working on the second, which would be published the following year as Desire's Slave.  I have since revised and published that as a digital edition titled Secrets to Surrender.  Both books were purchased on single-book contracts, so I had very little track record and nothing in the way of significant sales.  Cherry would have to sell any of my proposals on their own merits, not on mine.  I will give her full credit for having that much faith in me, and in the books.

She was most taken with Moonsilver, which had what I thought an interesting and maybe even a unique premise:  The hero and heroine each adopt not one but two disguises through the course of the story and yet fall in love each time without recognizing each other.  Far-fetched?  Of course!  But isn't romance fiction kind of far-fetched anyway?  The challenge to me was to make the far-fetched premise believable. 

As Cherry's marketing plan for the various proposals developed, she made it clear that she did not want Moonsilver to go to Zebra because she felt they could not and would not do it justice.  I would have to fulfill an option clause on Desire's Slave, but Cherry was not going to send in Moonsilver.

Over the next several months, I completed the book for Zebra and Cherry sent them another of the original three proposals, which I had originally titled Shadows by Starlight, as the option.  In August 1992, Zebra offered me a two-book contract, of which Shadows would be the first.  I would have a new editor at Zebra for this book, John Scognamiglio, who is now Editor-in-Chief at Kensington/Zebra.  I'm quite sure John doesn't remember our lunch at the sidewalk cafe at the Palmer House during the 1992 RWA conference in Chicago, but I do.

I know, you're wondering how I got sidetracked from writing about Moonsilver to going into all this detail about books I sold to Zebra.  Patience, Grasshopper.

Shortly after I got the two-book contract offer from Zebra, I received a rejection letter from editor Caroline Tolley at Pocket Books.  As I mentioned in the previous blog post, the letter came to me with a note from agent Cherry Weiner:  "Frame this."

I didn't frame it, but I did pin it to my bulletin board right next to my desk.

Scognamiglio is the one who bought Shadows and offered the two-book contract, but he did not remain my editor for very long.  After Shadows entered the editorial process, Walter Zacharius hired Denise Little, former romance buyer for the B. Dalton chain (iirc), as an editor, and I was shifted from Scognamiglio to Denise Little.  Denise had a fairly light touch as far as making changes to my work, but what she did change sometimes made little sense.  For instance, there is a scene in the book in which a character aims a rifle at another character.  No details are provided about the firearm, but it is identified as a rifle several times.  When the weapon is discharged, Denise for some reason or other changed one line from
But her words were lost in the explosion.

But her words were lost in the explosion of the shotgun.

I don't know a whole lot about guns, but I know enough to know a rifle and a shotgun are two different things.  Denise, who would later claim to be a native Texan who knew guns, changed the line back to the original at my insistence.

I point this out as an example of the kind of editorial fiddling that, in my personal opinion, made no sense except as an exercise of editorial power.  The change created an inaccuracy for one thing, but even if Denise had simply added "of the rifle" to the sentence, it would have added nothing of substance.  I felt that she was doing it because she could.  And I resented not only that she was exercising this power for no good reason, but even more so because her change was inaccurate and actually made the book worse instead of better.

Most of her other changes were innocuous, and I lived with those that did not detract from the novel or reversed those that did.  I was satisfied that Denise Little had not made the book worse.  I waited to see what kind of cover art she was going to give it.

She told me on the phone that it would be a step-back cover, which for those who don't know is the kind that consists of a slightly narrower outer cover -- the right edge being "stepped back" from the edge of the book -- and an inner cover.  The back, she told me, had the characters embracing under a gaslight.  This made no sense, since there were no gaslights in the story and the title was Shadows by Starlight not Shadows by Gaslight.  But whatever.  I had no control over it and I would take what they gave me.

And this is what I got:

No step-back.  No lovers under the gaslight.  No lovers, no people at all.  Just a lot of pink flowers -- there are none in the book -- and the gaslight that wasn't there either.

Needless to say, I was ticked.  But I couldn't complain, not even point out that either Denise had told me something she knew wasn't accurate, or she herself didn't know what was going on.  Either way, my distrust of editors had grown.

By this time, however, I was engaged in writing the second of the two books on that contract, which I had titled Escape to Ecstasy.  Denise didn't like that title; she claimed it was the title of a very well known and notorious gay porn video.  Cherry was continuing to market the various proposals I'd been sending her way and getting the usual rejections.

But she was also keeping tabs on Caroline Tolley and the schedule at Pocket, and eventually negotiations were opened with an anticipated offer for Moonsilver.  One of the conditions, however, was that I cut ties with Zebra.  Escape to Ecstasy was incomplete, and by the time the issue with Pocket came up, I didn't have much enthusiasm for it anyway.  Nor did I have much enthusiasm for working with Denise Little.  Denise by that time was well into her new "Denise Little Presents" line, and I felt she didn't have much interest in me.  So when Cherry suggested that I buy back that second book and cancel the contract, I agreed.  It was a huge financial sacrifice for me at the time, returning the $1,750 advance Zebra had already paid me, but for the chance to be with Pocket Books, I did it.

I received the phone call from Cherry Weiner on the afternoon of 6 December 1993 with the details of the offer of a two-book contract, for Moonsilver and an as yet to be determined historical romance.  On the morning of 7 December 1993, Cherry called Caroline Tolley with my acceptance of the deal.

That afternoon, as I've detailed, was the Long Island Railroad shooting, which left Caroline understandably distraught, so it was several weeks before I received the actual contract.  It contained some . . . surprises.  

Moonsilver had always been intended as a longer historical romance, roughly in the neighborhood of 130,000 to 140,000 words.  The contract called for a manuscript length of only 100,000 words.  I questioned this, but Cherry said to go ahead and sign it, send in a manuscript of whatever length I needed to tell the story, and either let Caroline help me edit it down or dazzle her with the brilliance of my writing so that she accepted the longer length. 

Having just come off the experience with Denise Little, I was not confident that this would work out.

Almost as soon as the editing process began, the relationship between myself and Tolley began to disintegrate.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out how to do what she wanted me to do, and when I asked her for suggestions, she was not forthcoming. 

As an example, she wanted additional description in the opening scene of the heroine's appearance, because she is in the first of her disguises.  Caroline pointed out that I began the scene as if the heroine actually were the character she was masquerading as, and that might confuse the reader, so even though I had reasons for writing the scene that way, I was amenable to changing it and avoiding reader confusion.  I did not believe my precious words were carved in stone, and I knew I was capable of the usual author's blindness. 

But what I didn't understand was how to put in more description the way Caroline wanted it done.  She would not let me use the trite device of having the heroine see her reflection in a mirror or window, but it had to be done within the heroine's point of view.  Therefore I could not use another character to provide the description.  Nor did she want me to have the character thinking about her appearance.  As we were talking about this on the phone, I came right out and asked Caroline what suggestion she had for how I could get additional physical description in, since she had asked for it, without resorting to any of those devices.  At that point she exclaimed, without sarcasm, "Then we just won't have any description at all," as if it weren't really necessary, even though she had just demanded it.

There was another scene, much later in the book, in which the hero has been falsely imprisoned in the infamous Newgate in London.  He was injured during his "arrest" and has fallen seriously ill as a result of conditions in the prison.  He is near death when his lawyer visits him and offers him a chance to be released if he will marry a woman, unknown to him, who is in need of a husband.  Caroline wrote to me, "Make clear that marrying a stranger is preferable to remaining in jail."

(The scene between the lawyer and the hero as suggested by my AOL writing buddy Kathie Seidick is hilarious, and someday maybe I'll post it, but she told me it had to be anonymous. . . . .)
Somehow or other, I got through what I called "the edit from hell" and finished the book, but I was not satisfied with it.   Caroline refused to budge on the word length, but the manuscript ended up right around 115,000 words only because I didn't write one whole section. 

I was stressed out dealing with a demanding but not helpful editor, and I had fallen behind schedule on the delivery of the book.  I got a short extension and completed it, but only at the expense of the story segment that would have explained a major subplot that underlay the second set of disguises the lovers adopt.  As far as I was concerned, that subplot remained unresolved and much of the ending made no sense.  Though I had tried to tie up that bundle of loose ends as best I could, the result was unsatisfactory to me.

But the book was done, and in the summer of 1994 I went to the RWA national conference in New York all excited about meeting Caroline and seeing what she called "the cover to die for" that Moonsilver would be getting.

When she told me that over the phone, I had an immediate flashback to all the pink flowers and gaslights of the book Denise Little had titled Starlight Seduction.

Caroline had asked me, early in the production, if I had any suggestions regarding the cover art for Moonsilver.  Since the hero is, part of the time, a notorious highwayman, I offered the comparison to The Scarlet Temptress by Sue Rich, because I knew Sue was also one of Caroline's authors, and I had liked the cover art on that book, with the horse, the moon behind the stylized tree, and so on. 

Later, Caroline had asked me if there were some significant inanimate objects in the story that could be depicted on the cover, in part to avoid the typical "clinch" cover, which was sort of passing out of favor a little bit in the mid 1990s.  All I could come up with were the sapphire necklace, the highwayman's mask, and a pistol.  There really weren't any other objects that had any significance.

The necklace is described in the text as an extravagance of eight oval sapphires surrounded by diamonds with a single larger sapphire pendant, all "set in a gold so pale as to be almost silver."  The highwayman's mask is a single strip of black silk cloth with holes cut for the eyes.  The pistol, well, could be anything because it only appears briefly.

Much of the action in the story actually takes place at night, in the dark, so I had visions of a dark, glittering cover as befit the title.

I won't even go into the events that preceded my visit that summer morning to the Simon & Schuster offices for the reception at which Caroline would show me "the cover to die for."  But there I was, surrounded by authors and staff members and Caroline handed me the proof.

I was quite literally speechless.  The necklace was all wrong.  There were no pink flowers.  Everything looked like it was under water.  And my highwayman would not have been caught dead in a Mardi Gras mask! 

I knew the book would never sell.  I knew the story had been gutted by the length limitations and the absurd editing that had stifled my creative energy.  More than anything, however, I knew this cover was a killer.

I'm quite sure Caroline was aware of my disappointment, and I think she even said something to me much much later.  But somehow or other I survived the S&S reception and then headed back to the Marriott Marquis hotel where the conference was held.  As it turned out, I ended up walking back with Judy Spagnola, who at that time I believe was one of the head buyers for the Waldenbooks chain.  We had never met before and I'm not sure I've ever spoken to Judy since that stroll through midtown Manhattan on a splendid summer morning.

But as I explained the situation to her, she asked to see the cover and then said, "Do you want my honest opinion?"

"Yes, of course I do!" I said, hoping she would tell me it was a great cover and would sell a bazillion books even though I knew otherwise.

What she said was, "It sucks.  This is a terrible cover.  It will kill your book."

And of course it did.

Over the course of its natural shelf life, Moonsilver sold about 15,000 copies.  That's nothing to brag about.  As far as I can tell there have been no reprints, no reissues, no "special sales" to discount stores.

I've just gone back and looked through some of the correspondence between Caroline Tolley and myself, and even 17 years later it is painful.  I couldn't read all of it, and even the little bit I did skim brought tears to my eyes.

Here's the thing -- I loved this book.  I think Cherry Weiner knew that when she read the synopsis and opening pages.  And I think it could have been a truly memorable book.  Not necessarily a best-seller, but one of those stories that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.  Caroline Tolley's inflexible demands -- later, when it's less painful, I'll pull out some quotes from her letters -- destroyed not only the book but me as a writer.

And now Pocket Books continues to destroy this book.  All I asked them for was the return of the rights they haven't exercised for 16 years, so that I had the right to publish my own digital version of Moonsilver.  I didn't think that was too much to ask, but apparently they did.  Even though they will probably sell none and make nothing off the sale of obscenely over-priced print-on-demand copies of Moonsilver and readers won't buy them, Pocket Books will selfishly and vindictively prevent me from publishing that affordable digital version.

As far as I've been able to determine, they have not done this to any other author.
I hate them.  If anything, I hate them more than when I started this post.


  1. Hello. I found my way here via the link posted on Dear Author and spent a couple of hours reading through your entries and your experience with traditional publishing.

    I am in shock you could be treated in such a fashion, although I suppose it comes as no surprise considering the traditional publishing "monster" has come under fire recently for its antiquated work ethics and the measly royalties.

    After entertaining thoughts about seeing my books on bookstore shelves, I decided it was far better to do this myself, so I self-pub and go to epublishers for publication.

    I wish you the best of luck, and will be dropping in often.

  2. Welcome, Fionn!

    As I wrote in my posts over on, what Simon & Schuster is doing is well within their legal rights. The fact that they are a corporate media monster allows them to do this, and of course the whole dream of being a published author allows many of us to ignore our better judgment and sign on the dotted line without reading even the bold print, much less the fine stuff.

    If I can alert a few of the dreamers to the pitfalls and steer them away from the abyss, I will have done what I set out to do. The drama queen in my would kind of like to say something like, "There's no hope for me any longer, but I can at least try to help those who come after me," but I'm not that noble! in part because I do still think there's some hope for me. If not with Moonsilver and Touchstone in digital format, then with new books.

    Thank you for visiting, and I do hope you take away something valuable.