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Michael’s Musings

Adventures of a Midlist Author

Adventures of a Midlist Author

As a writer of more than 50 years experience, I have never written anything approximating a best-seller. Only three of my nine published books have earned back their advance. And only one of those advances has reached five figures. The advertising support I’ve received from publishers has been minimal. In author-speak, this is called mid-list.
But even without a best-seller, my journey hasn’t been without adventure, and some of them may be of use or interest to an audience of readers and writers.
When my biography of Garrison Keillor was published back in 1987, I heard that the sales division of St. Martin’s Press regarded Keillor as merely a regional phenomenon, and upon learning that the book wasn’t universally distributed, I complained to my agent. She promised to talk to St. Martin’s, but cautioned me, and related the sad tale of another client who had recently seen her first novel released as a remainder because none of the chains purchased it. At least my book was noticed.
But only a fraction of the 330,000 books annually published in the U. S. receive even one printed review. Further, only 10 percent of newspaper readers read reviews. And more vexing, reviews rarely impact book sales. According to Kay Sexton, former president of the old B Dalton chain, book sellers are far more persuaded by the publisher’s advertising budget, which influences the book’s display. The majority of authors are now responsible for nearly all promotion themselves.
I became an accidental author, who probably would not have gone on to write had I not published the first piece I ever attempted.
Back in the early 1960s I was a folksinger, performing in clubs, coffee houses, and on college campuses. I really wasn’t very impressive, and survived mostly on chutzpah, and the good fortune of working with a talented partner. But when the demise of coffee houses, and the concomitant ascension of rock and roll led to declining gigs, the show biz career ended. But I shared anecdotes with people who urged me to write them down. Reader’s Digest, someone said, would pay a thousand dollars for amusing stories. So I took that advice, spent a couple hours typing a 4-page article and sent it off. It came back. A note said my manuscript didn’t meet Reader’s Digest present needs. I asked a friend if I should send it back in a few weeks, when it might meet their needs. I learned that day about form rejections, but a professor urged me to submit to another magazine. On my fourth try, it was rejected again, but this time there was a note from the editor. “You don’t write badly,” he began, before telling me I was off the mark sending him this piece. But he offered a few suggestions and said with a re-write some other magazine might very well take it.
I did as he suggested and immediately sold the article. For $60. Now, having only spent a couple hours composing and typing that story, I figured I could easily find three hours a week to craft essays that might fetch more $60 checks. So I did this, but 15 months passed before I made another sale—this time for $50. However, in those 15 months I acquired the disciplined habit of writing.
By now I was in grad school at Kent State in Ohio, with an assistantship that involved overseeing the night shift at the campus radio station. One day a nerdy kid named Harold brought me a tape recording of his godfather, and thought I should put it on the air. He said he was named after the old man, adding his godfather knew a lot about books.
Harold’s godfather turned out to be Harold Latham, the long-time legendary editor at MacMillan, reading from his yet-to-be-published memoir, “My Life in Publishing.” The chapter he was reading detailed his excursion through the South seeking manuscripts. He stopped in Atlanta and met a woman who reluctantly surrendered a satchel containing a typescript that become “Gone With the Wind.” Two nights later our tiny station scooped the country on Mr. Latham’s discovery of Mrs. Mitchell and her novel.
Radio also figured in my writing shortly after when I started teaching at Marietta College in Ohio, where I hosted an interview/discussion program that was broadcast on a network of college stations. Several programs featured author interviews. Harry Golden, who published an influential weekly tabloid, The Carolina Israelite, was promoting his new book, and his tour took him to town for a lecture. During our interview he mentioned that publishing a book was a tactile pleasure. “My good friend Carl Sandburg once told me, ‘Harry, there’s nothing as satisfying as holding your new book in your hands for the very first time.” I have found for myself that Carl and Harry were right.
Another program featured the much honored poet, Richard Wilbur, who talked about his early career, trying to make it in New York after he’d finished college. He said he anticipated pseudonymously churning out pot-boiler paperbacks to support his poetry. “I failed miserably,” he said. “You really can’t write beneath yourself. And since all writing is hard, just knuckle down and do the work you’re meant to do.” Good recommendation, but I temporarily ignored it and tried to write pulpy western stories for a year or so myself—with similar results.
That was only the first time I ignored advice from a seasoned author. Some years ago my wife and I spent a week at the Williamsville, Virginia farm of Donald McCaig, who used to be an essayist on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and would later be selected by the Margaret Mitchell estate to write a sequel to “Gone With the Wind.” During one conversation, McCaig said, “Don’t teach writing if you don’t have to. If you do your students will assume you will always mentor them. They think they can lay claim on your involvement with their work forever.”
I dismissed his counsel as well, and a decade after I’d left teaching at the Loft in Minneapolis, I continued to get those requests.
However, there have been delights along the way. Back in 1968 a story came to me, and I wrote it in a single afternoon. It was titled “The Carnival,” a sci-fi fantasy, such as I’d never before written or since. The story was about a future society in which people attended government-sponsored carnivals where the rides could be lethal; a population control program. The story has been revered by teachers and pupils, and nearly 50 years later is still widely taught in both middle and high school English classes. The story originally appeared in several Scholastic Magazines, and later in an anthology titled “How To Read a Short Story,” where it is sandwiched between works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. I’m the only non-household name appearing in the anthology.
A couple years after that I made my first sale to the New York Times with a piece to the Sunday Travel section. In 1970 I was at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh. Judy, my wife, had gone on a faculty wives outing to a small museum in the little village of Chazy, NY. She was very taken with the William H. Miner Museum there, that featured an eclectic collection of mostly Revolutionary War period memorabilia. Miner was a native son who made a fortune from inventing the railroad car coupling, and an eccentric who underwrote the surgical wing at the Plattsburgh hospital. Upon its completion, he insisted on being the first patient. Though in excellent health, doctors who couldn’t dissuade him, performed a simple tonsillectomy. An infection ensued, and Miner died.
In any case, Judy insisted I needed to visit the museum and write a travel story for the Times. Certain the times would reject me, I sent it to papers in Syracuse and Albany, which rejected it. I finally relented, and ten days later there was my return envelope in my P. O. Box. I almost tossed it out unopened. However, instead of the rejected manuscript, there was an advance tear-sheet of my article, along with a check for $150.
This was the beginning of a 15-year association with the Times, that resumed when we moved back to Minnesota, and became a stringer. It was a great gig representing our national newspaper of record, and yet, the Times, like any paper, employed some people who were over their heads. One was an assistant editor.
I’d been publishing profiles of businesses and entrepreneurs in the Sunday business section, and in one piece I mentioned a program instituted by the old Control Data corporation, that had reduced the company’s workmen compensation costs.
The day after filing the story, an editor called. “On page three, you mention workmen’s compensation.”
“Yes,” I said.
“I’ll need more than that,” he said.
I asked what he meant.
“Give me a paragraph explaining it,” he said. He’d never before heard of it.
I said, “I don’t think readers of your financial pages need a primer on workmen’s comp.”
“Just do it,” he snapped.
I did, but it was excised prior to publication.
Another time I wrote a humorous short story for AMERICA WEST AIRLINES MAGAZINE about quilting being added as a winter Olympic sport. Written in the style of a newspaper feature, the piece quoted septuagenarian quilters regarding the athletic prowess necessary for Olympic quilting, and they mentioned medications needed to keep them competitive. I received a call from the director of publications at a large pharmaceutical firm. He wanted me to do a follow-up article for one of his trade journals, incorporating his firm’s heart medication into the text. He offered $1000 for the piece.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and after a pause, told him the story was fiction.
“Oooh, do I have egg on my face,” he said.
Another story, purchased by AMERICAN WAY, the tony inflight magazine for American Airlines, befuddled its fact checker. I’d never heard of a fact checker for fiction, but he called. After consulting several atlases, he was unable to locate several of the towns I’d referenced in the story. “But this is fiction,” I said. “I made them up.”
“Oh, then I suppose the newspapers you mention in those towns are fictitious also,” he said.
Prior to those experiences, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Stout in Menomonie, and hung out with other wannabe writers. One was Scott Chisholm, who many years later, shortly before he died, published an excellent book about walking the old Mormon Trail. Scott had been publishing fiction in literary quarterlies, but wanted to break into the slicks where he’d see checks instead of a couple contributors copies of the issues in which his writing appeared. He said he was going to try for REDBOOK because they published two short stories in each issue. Scott spent an hour every day in the campus library analyzing all the fiction that appeared in REDBOOK for the past two years.
“I think I’ve got it,” he told me one afternoon. Several weeks later he’d finished a and sent it off. Six weeks later the editors returned it with a note: “We regret rejecting your manuscript, but it sounds too much like a REDBOOK story.”
In 1973 I thought I’d try crafting a novel. The story I wanted to write included the 1920 lynchings here in Duluth. My original intent was to write a story set in post-world war one northern Minnesota, and use the lynching as a chapter in the book, with the main character witnessing the event.
Upon researching the story, I realized there was no documenting of this long-forgotten tragedy and began to record what really happened.
I assumed this story would resonate with publishers. I finished the manuscript in 1975 and began submitting. Nearly 40 publishers passed on it. One turned it down because, “We don’t feel it would be profitable, as black people don’t read books.”
A fledgling firm in Orange County, CA accepted the manuscript, giving it the title “They Was Just Niggers,” taken from a quote from a man, who in the lynching aftermath wondered “Why all this fuss? After all, they was just Niggers. But the title was a marketing disaster, because it was never on end-caps, and buyers wouldn’t ask for that title. Then too, there was a negative review in the Minneapolis Tribune, in which the reviewer chided me for resurrecting the incident and, “rubbing our noses in it all over again.”
In any case, six months following publication, the publisher filed for bankruptcy, and sent me a check for $260—the only payment received for the first edition of that book.
14 years later, the book was reissued by Harlin Quist, whom some of you might remember from his residency here. While living in Paris he’d become a respected publisher of lavishly illustrated children’s books. His author/artist roster included Robert Graves, Eugene Ionesco, and Edward Gorey.
He released a nicely designed book retitled “Trial By Mob,” and said he thought there might be film offers. There were a few tentative nibbles, but no offers. I got a letter from a reader who was sure she could get Hollywood interested, because, she wrote, “Danny Bonaduce’s sister is my best friend.” Anybody here remember him, the red-headed kid from The Partridge Family? Nada.
I never got a dime from Quist’s edition. He left town, bills unpaid, and whereabouts unknown. He was given a major obit in the New York Times following his death.
Since 2000 the Minnesota Historical Society Press has kept “The Lynchings in Duluth” alive, with a new, slightly revised edition released last March.

I long ago abandoned the fanciful notion that as an author I might become rich and famous. So in summing up, what does literary life look like for this mid-list author?
In an essay from his book “Crooning,” the late John Gregory Dunne defined writing as “Manual labor of the mind. a job like laying pipe.”
Not a very romantic notion. And as a young aspiring writer I devoured all of the PARIS REVIEW WRITERS AT WORK interviews. Reflecting on them they seemed to consist of midmorning hours at the typewriter with breaks for tea or coffee, lunch, then afternoons reserved for correspondence, reading, light research, perhaps a tennis match and twilight cocktails prior to the evening’s soiree, which would be a gathering of stimulating glitterati.
What I didn’t understand then was that few authors earn enough in royalties to support that literary lifestyle.
After five decades of meandering around the edges of literary life, while holding jobs with regular paychecks, I’ve yet to enjoy the unhurried and intellectually engaging existence of those Paris Review authors.
In any case, I’ve lived in working class communities where literature was not intrinsically valued and fellow writers were scarce or nonexistent.
Otherwise, there’s been little change in this writer’s life. I deal with editorial rejection, occasional acceptances, and a paucity of literary discussion. No soirees, few lunches with editors and agents. Perhaps the literary life isn’t about hobnobbing with editors and pitching screen treatments to Hollywood producers. Most likely it is simply my job and yours—the task of all writers—an ongoing effort to lay more pipe.

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