Travails of the "Aspiring First-Time Author"



BRATISLAVA – It’s not the daily grind. More like a monthly juggle.


Juggling projects, that is. When I “penned” the first two entries of a soul-baring, me-as-guinea-pig, book-writing blog last spring (here and here), I was in fact writing about a different book. Which I’ll hold off on publicizing.


That book got shoved to the back-burner anyway. Along with a few other projects. And ideas for projects. Teaching in Hong Kong leapt to the front-burner. It also meant a golden opportunity to return to mainland China and launch the book project I hatched in Fall 2009, the first time I taught in Hong Kong. Since Slovakia is a long way from China, and I knew I couldn't visit my subjects too often, it made sense to join forces with an HK-based colleague.


So, with the support of my long-suffering wife, I pull cash from our savings and pay for a one-week reporting trip to the mainland, prior to my HK teaching stint. A train trip, two flights, nights in a hotel.


Now that’s what we call in the freelance biz an investment. Will there be a return? Damn straight.


But that was just the cash. Then came the time and effort. From the time I returned home to my family in Bratislava, end of October, it took me almost two full months to complete an introduction and sample chapter. For me, a staggering 12,000 words. At 250 per page, that’s about 48 pages.


Had to do it, though. One cardinal rule of journalism, and of life itself: to convince readers, or any audience for that matter, it’s better to show, not tell. I’m only an Aspiring First-Time Author. (A snazzy title I may have to print on my business cards.) I have little to stand on, beyond those thousand-plus newspaper and magazine articles.


For a book, I can’t just talk about what we want to write. I must show something. A product. To show we’re serious. It’s funny to think, after all these years, and given my limited skill-set, I’ve evolved into “an entrepreneur.” I’m selling, whether it’s my writing, my teaching, or sometimes, even a few photos.


So I write the first chunk of this book, sandwiching in a bunch of chucklesome blog posts from Slovakia. And, why not, a bit of parenting to our three children. Being a good husband? Eh, further down the list.


Then, an intermezzo: the holidays, the New Year: I open by co-piloting two journalism trainings in Prague. Finally back in Bratislava, settling into my old routine after a month uprooted.


Three trusted friends have generously read through the text, offering critiques. Overall, positive feedback. With projects like this, I’m sure I’ll need a thousand little favors. Isn’t that what the “Acknowledgements” are for – to thank everyone, including the Academy, for making all this possible?


It’s now approaching late January, and the truly difficult part of the book process is now hitting me. (At least, it’s the most difficult so far. But what do I know? I’m a rookie, remember?)


Find a literary agent. Or even pique a publisher directly. I mean, that’s the goal, right? To get published? Take my career in a new and more serious direction? Author. It has a nice ring. Hopefully, following in the footsteps of a couple of old Budapest colleagues I hold in high regard: Adam LeBor and Colin Woodard. Now card-carrying members of an exclusive club: Journalist and Author. (Or do they prefer Author and Journalist? I’d prefer the former, I think. But either would be better than Aspiring First-Time Author.)


My father, bless his heart, is naturally pessimistic. “Why don’t you try to self-publish?” He’s the same fellow who for the first decade of my journalism career, routinely nudged me toward a business degree, or a job in PR. Why be a lowly-paid journalist, and a freelance one at that? Even as I was living an adventure, parachuting into all sorts of countries that American compatriots have barely heard of.


Now, I know publishing seems headed in that direction, with hardback books facing extinction. But I’m a traditionalist in many ways. I want the prestige. And the street cred. I’ll stick to Plan A, I tell Dad. No need to wave the white flag of surrender … yet.


For some reason, I have the 2009 Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition on my shelf. A little sumthin’-sumthin’ that Hanukah Harry apparently thought I’d like. For two years, though, it’s been a $49.99 dust-magnet, forced to lay horizontal in my crammed bookcase because of its obesity.


Lucky for me, the Writers Market not only contains almost every darn newspaper and magazine in North America, but also 49 pages of literary agents and 17 listings of publishers with an eye for world affairs.


I read through for potential matches. I take notes. I get palpitations. That’s a hell of a lot of research: surf to each target, familiarize myself with who they are, what they do, whom they’ve done … and determine all this well enough for me to pitch them a personalized cover letter. To show them you know them. Can’t just spray our project around, randomly. How unprofessional would that look?


I type in a few of the publishers I find, then a couple of interesting-sounding literary agents. They all remind me: Hey pal, you need to address us first with a cover letter. Make us care enough to read.


It takes days to craft a cover letter. The real time-killer is answering the question about “market.” Search Amazon for books on China that are similar, analyze those, then describe how ours is unique – and a  necessary addition to the oeuvre on the Middle Kingdom.


I jazz up the letter with several links to my past articles and blog posts. But rather than limit myself to the one page they recommend, mine runs one-and-a-half. Oops. Will they mind, even though they clearly stated their preference? Of course they will. What, Michael, you think the rules don’t apply to you?


Adam and Colin weigh in with sage words. First Adam. He reminds me of what he advised two years ago, when I wrote a sample chapter about Kazakhstan … my first book project. Also on the back-burner. So far away, Central Asia. (“Reach for the low-hanging fruit,” my wife implored me. Not in the erotic way.)


The book today is technically my third. But my first about a topic that truly matters. And can sell. China!


Adam and many other established pros recommend: scan your own bookshelf, or the local bookstore, for books you admire and want to emulate. Rifle through their Acknowledgements. If they thank their agent, contact that agent. Let them know that’s how you found them.


This is one way to contact agents: a cold-call. Albeit a professional, informed cold-call. Can you do for me what you did for them? For the agent, it’s riskier. Can they take a chance on an unknown? I assume that’s why many agents say they prefer book pitches referred from within their circles, like their author-clients.


In this case, I’ll do both: cold-call and hunt for connections. I know I’m pretty much of a dinosaur when it comes to modern means of communication, but all the kids are hopped up on “social media.” So I decide to post an item on Facebook for all 459 of my Friends to read. “Dear friends and ‘Friends’ …”


Unbelievably, it seems that none of them knows someone working for either a literary agent or book publisher. Wow. Here I thought my people are people who know people.


Then I give Linked-In a try. As a graduate of the University of Missouri’s historic School of Journalism, I’ve joined the “Mizzou Mafia” group. I post a request. “Dear fellow alum …”


One Chinese colleague helpfully responds, but misunderstands: she provides me with tips for how to approach the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua. A second Mizzou alum reinforces what Adam preached: search your bookshelves. A third respondent, though, scolds me: “Do your homework …”


Sheesh! What happened to the wonders of social-networking? Sure, I was trying to cut corners, hoping to ingest a magic pill: someone grabs at our marvelous book idea, rolls out the red carpet for us. Not going to happen. Which is fine, really, because the struggle will make for a more satisfying triumph in the end. (At least that’s what I keep telling myself.)


Colin, though consumed with a newborn son and projects of his own, responds to my windy, page-and-a-half pitch: if I want to hit up his agent, I’d better boil my cover letter down to a few paragraphs, then attach the rest as a “Synopsis.” Everyone’s busy; just cut to the chase. “It’s more like that movie The Player than it is convincing your academic advisor,” Colin Skypes me. Good to have a guy like him on my team.


More writing, more revisions. (I’m so full of tension this week, I almost fight another Slovak who nonchalantly swipes our reserved parking space.) Constant tinkering with the text. No second chance to make a first impression, right? But the time also comes to just let fly. Punch that “Send” button!


Tomorrow looks to be that day.