Lisa33 and Me – The Harrowing True Story of a Six-Figure Advance
by Dan Blum
This is the story of getting my novel published by a major New York publisher.
It is a story of triumph over adversity. Followed by defeat at the hands of adversity. Followed by…let’s just say adversity and I are battling it out in overtime.
I will skip quickly through the early rejection letters. Suffice it to say that, in no time at all, I had accumulated a stack that covered the entire spectrum of conceivable reasons for turning down a manuscript – up to and including that my writing was, somehow, “too sophisticated.”
What does one say to that? “How dare you! My writing is not even slightly sophisticated!” Interestingly, another agent referred to the very same work as “too slapstick”. It would have been interesting to get these agents together for a panel discussion on what was wrong with my manuscript.
For years I worked and reworked a serious novel under the guidance of an agent who expressed an interest in representing it. The novel metamorphosed into a variety of forms: One narrator. Two narrators. Six narrators and a chronicler. Yet with each draft, so my agent told me, there was something undefinable that was not quite right. Perhaps the issue was not the narration after all. Perhaps it was the story itself. Or the protagonist. Or the font.
I eventually dropped this particular magnum opus and dashed off Lisa33, a little post-modern sex comedy set entirely on the internet. In a matter of a few months, I had completed it and sent it off. I soon got a call back from Bill Clegg, who was then already a big name in literary representation.
Bill was unlike anyone I had dealt with before: suave, brimming with confidence, assured in his opinions. When he declared that a book was, “brilliant”, it seemed he was making a statement not just about the work, but about his own expertise, his authority in conferring the label of brilliance.
“I want to represent this,” he told me. “I will definitely get you a good deal for it. I’ll call you in a few weeks.” At first I was unsure whether to really believe him. Was this just hubris? A sleazy sales story? Three weeks later he called again. “I’m handing your book out today. I’m telling everyone they have to read it over the weekend. I’ll be back to you by next Monday to review the offers.”
The anticipation in the following days was almost unbearable. And the next Monday he called again as promised. His voice was full of excitement. What was more incredible was what he had to say, which was something out of dream or a movie: He’d generated a bidding war for my novel. In the end, Viking had come up with the best offer, which was in six figures, and easily one of the largest advances paid to an unpublished novelist that year. I literally jumped for joy. “Get ready for it!” Bill said. “ You’re going to be famous.”
The next morning I awoke in a sort of euphoric haze. I made coffee, asked my wife what we should do to celebrate.
“Well,” she said, “the trash definitely needs to get to the dump.”
What the heck?! Didn’t celebrated writers such as myself have stunt-husbands to do that sort of thing? It would be the first but definitely not the last come-down I would experience in the coming months.
My editor at Viking, Molly Stern, was a hugely enthusiastic advocate for the book, and wanted only a few, small editorial changes. I remember two in particular. One was, “Make it even funnier!” – as though one can just do this. I stared despairingly at my pages, wondering how I could squeeze one more droplet of humor out of this or that section. The other comment I remember was a note across some sex scene that read, “Could a toe really be that dexterous?” This precipitated a painfully awkward conversation where I explained to Molly that I believed that a toe could be that dexterous, and she expressed the view that it could not, and we bravely discussed angles, positions, physiology. I remember thinking how I had theoretically reached the pinnacle of the literary world, and this is our erudite discussion!
Alas, it all started to unravel rather quickly. My book was immediately caught up in politics at Viking. While Molly loved it, her boss evidently disliked it to an almost equal degree, and wondered why Molly had spent so much to acquire it. The publication date got pushed out. The printing, the publicity, weren’t going to be that large after all.
Meanwhile my super-agent, Bill Clegg, gradually grew more and more remote. Just when he should have been working to promote the book, or shaking things up at Viking, or withdrawing it from the Viking deal altogether and taking it to another publisher, he flat out disappeared. Nobody seemed to know what had happened to him. And then Viking pushed the publication date back again. And then a third time.
The book came out in 2003, almost two years after it was first accepted. As near as I can tell, it was deep-sixed – dumped onto the market by this most prestigious of publishers, that has a bevy of Nobel laureates among its authors – with zero publicity, zero marketing and zero sales effort. It was scarcely mentioned to bookstores in Viking’s list of releases. My publisher might as well have put a gold star on the cover inscribed with the words, “Don’t Buy This Book.”
Why would they do this? I cannot really be sure. Perhaps once Molly’s boss had expressed her opposition to the book, she basically wanted it to fail. Failure validated her opinion. Success would have proven her mistaken. But who knows?
In any case, the book quickly vanished into obscurity. As did I. The beacon of fame swept right over me, illuminated me for a few delirious seconds, and then moved on – to settle, eventually, on who knows who. EL James. Justin Bieber. Bristol Palin. Having spent through my advance, I went back into software, making less money than I had before I’d left.
But my story does end there, nor does my former agent’s. A couple of years later, I was sharing my tale of woe with yet another agent, Simon. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about the publishing industry,” he told me, “but I think yours is the very worst.”
There was something oddly comforting in hearing this. At least I was noteworthy in some way.
Then he asked me, “Did you not hear what happened to Bill Clegg?”
“No,” I said. “What happened?”
“You know he disappeared from the publishing world completely, right?”
“I didn’t know that,” I said.
“Everyone was talking about it. Nobody knew what had happened to him. Even if he was still alive. It turned out, he was off on some huge cocaine bender.”
“That’s horrible!” I said.
“Not as bad as you’d think,” Simon said. “He just resurfaced. With a memoir about his experience. Which he just sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars!”
Sure enough, the New York Times was soon writing front page stories about Bill Clegg and his memoir! I did not read Bill’s book, but I was fascinated – if that is the word – to read in the Times that it included passages where he described how he had screwed over his writers, had left them dangling, unrepresented, in limbo.
So this was the exclamation point to my experience. I was writing software in some anonymous cubicle, while my former agent, who’d once told me I was going to be famous, was on the front page of the New York Times. And why was he on the front page of The Times? For screwing over people like me and writing about it!
The theme of Bill’s memoir, so I gathered, was that he’d found redemption. Oddly, the proof of his redemption was his big advance for his memoir of redemption.
It is an irony that any self-respecting postmodernist has to love. If he gets a big advance, and lots of media attention, he has returned triumphantly, and there is a story. If he doesn’t get a big advance, or media coverage, there is no real triumph. No heartwarming redemption. The story lies entirely in the fact that the media is covering the story.
For several years after this experience, I ceased writing fiction and even reading it. I wanted to get as far away from the memory as possible. Oddly, authoring an unsuccessful novel is possibly worse than never having been published at all. Nobody cares about why your book failed. You are an embarrassment to the industry, an awkward reminder, a source of guilt that they would rather not think about.
And yet here I am, many years later, rewriting the ending to this story.
One day, without ever consciously intending to begin a new project, I founding myself writing a scene about a group of castaways on a deserted island. It was narrated by an eighty-five year-old man. Then. I wrote a scene of his childhood in Germany in the 1930s. Before I knew it, I was in too deep, immersed. There was no way out but forward. This became my new novel, The Feet Say Run.
I found a small press for, The Feet Say Run. Somewhat remarkably, I found myself in Publisher’s Weekly and Psychology Today. I have someone pitching the film rights.
Have I “made it”? I’m not sure what that means anymore. Or what exactly I’d once expected. I do know this: I have a novel out there that I am incredibly proud of. I have a small, but enthusiastic audience. I have some reason to be satisfied and hopeful. I suppose that is making it.
About the Author
Daniel A. Blum grew up in New York, attended Brandeis University and currently lives outside of Boston with his family. His first novel Lisa33 was published by Viking in 2003. He has been featured in Poets and Writers magazine, Publisher’s Weekly and most recently, interviewed in Psychology Today.
Daniel writes a humor blog, The Rotting Post, that has developed a loyal following.
His latest release is the literary novel, The Feet Say Run.