Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Self-Published Man

The following story is reprinted from an article I wrote for the Boulder Weekly. Robert Dresner is signing at the Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, Feb. 25th at 7:30 p.m.

Everyone Agrees Robert Dresner's Sci-fi Novel is Great.
Why Can't He Get It Published?

Robert Dresner, with his short, tough-guy haircut, Bronx accent and agitated mannerisms seems an unlikely person to write an emotionally resonant and thought-provoking novel. Words flow easily from him in conversation as he anticipates questions and speaks extemporaneously on just about any subject. Words aren’t the problem. It’s just hard to imagine him sitting still long enough to compose much more than a paragraph.

Perhaps even more surprising is that Dresner’s self-published Astral Imperative begins as a simple science fiction narrative about the first manned mission to Mars before revealing itself as an insightful meditation on relationships, heroism and human foibles. Writing in a direct, unadorned prose style, Dresner creates a space ship that is large enough to carry not only his diverse group of astronauts but also the reader’s imagination.

I first met Dresner a few years ago on his day job as one of Boulder’s best house painters. He showed up at my condominium in dungarees and a crisp button-down shirt to advise my wife and me about paint colors and provide an estimate. He was blunt in his vision of eliminating our clashing colors and shook his graying head a few times, asking us if we were sure we wanted to keep the canary yellow in our living room.

He exuded confidence and competence as he paced the four rooms of our home like a caged panther, turning off and on lights, holding up paint swatches to the wall, eyeing the high ceiling of our staircase and explaining just what a pain in the ass it was going to be to get our house painted. He so fully inhabited his role of professional painter that it never occurred to me that he might harbor secret writing ambitions. He was simply “the painter.”

I should have known better. Ever since becoming the head book buyer for the Boulder Book Store in 1997, I have been besieged by writers. Manuscripts have miraculously appeared from locked draws, stapled poetry collections have been pulled out of coat pockets at parties, and bizarre plot summaries have ruined football games at local bars. It’s so bad that I’ve told people that I am a ballet dancer (that always silences them when they view my doughy 5-foot-4 frame) or claimed to be a sports reporter in town to cover the big game. I’ll say anything to avoid the awkwardness of hearing about all of those unpublished books from needy authors.

I let my guard down with Dresner, however, and in a conversation at the end of the painting job I mentioned my position at the bookstore. His eyes lit up, and he told me that he’d written several novels. I tried to change the subject and had almost forgotten the conversation when he showed up at my office a few days later to pick up his check.

“You were the first stranger that I’d asked to read a book of mine in my entire life,” Dresner said to me in a recent interview. “It was very hard for me. I had left the bookstore and was in the alley when I decided to come back in and give the book to you. I knew that I had to do something. People were telling me I had to make it happen.”

The novel that Dresner delivered to me was on 287 manuscript pages bound in a hardback clamshell black binder. It weighed nearly four pounds. He nervously extolled the virtues of the binder that he’d picked up in New York City, rather than of his book, and told me to please return it if I wasn’t going to read the book because each binder cost $40. When he left I noticed that the price tag from Lincoln Stationary was still on the inside cover -- $33.95.

After a month and a few guilt-inducing follow-up visits to the bookstore from Robert, I began reading the novel with great trepidation. Gradually my hesitancy disappeared as I became absorbed in his tale and enthralled by his characters.

These characters include the heroic but isolated astronaut, Captain Adam Sietzer, the second-in-charge Russian, Vladimir Sussenko, and crew members from Japan, Germany, China, India and Africa. There are men and women as well as people of differing religions. It is a miniature United Nations hurdling towards Mars.

Dresner’s astronauts are deeply flawed, all of them hiding some psychological weakness. One is probably criminally psychotic. It is fascinating to see how these people react to each other in the confines of a space ship. The Astral Imperative is really an old-fashioned chamber play. The setting, the mission and even the plot fade into the background as the complexity of human relations move to the fore.

Dresner uses a remarkably creative device to help expose the relationships between the astronauts. Also on board the ship is a computer game called “the Dream Machine,” created by the Japanese astronaut, Makoto. The game creates a holographic image of Mars that every member of the crew views and can change. The image of Mars morphs based on the game entries from various crew members. It’s a way for the bored crew to pass the long flight, but also a way to work out the emotions and expectations of their historic mission.

“The Dream Machine came out of thin air,” Dresner said. “I didn’t even have a point of reference for it. As I wrote the book, I created it. I wanted to know if it was possible to get 8 or 12 players and play a SimCity-style game to the max. Instead of just ideas I wanted ideas and emotions. The Dream Machine gives them a physical component. What happens in the game when seven people are angry and three are happy?”

As the novels progresses, the game evolves into something quite unexpected. At first the color of the planet changes based on the moods of the astronauts, and then structures begin appearing on the surface, someone even hacking into the program and turning the whole thing into a sexist joke that creates a lot of tension between the astronauts. Eventually, the Dream Machine begins exhibiting the traits of a sentient being.

By the time I finished reading I was stunned by how compelling a vision Dresner had created. How could this not be published? Each week more than 25 advance reader’s copies of published books come across my desk. I told Dresner that I’d be surprised if even three of them were the equal to his novel. Surely, he should be able to get it published. Little did I know of Dresner’s lack of expertise in marketing himself.

“I think I write the worst cover letters anybody ever wrote in human history,” Dresner said. “People read them and just start laughing. I think there is an underlying resentment that I have when it comes to publishing. It should be simpler to sell a book.”

I put Dresner in touch with Larry Yoder, my sales rep from St. Martins. Yoder, who has an exuberant personality that more than matches Dresner’s, knows St. Martins’ top-selling science fiction line, Tor Books, better than just about anyone in the country. He’s the only sales rep that I’ve had in 12 years of buying that actually reads most of his books. Not only did Yoder read 100 or more science fiction books a year, he was unusually honest in his assessment of them. Often, his booming voice could be heard in the upstairs ballroom of the bookstore as he ordered me to skip a book while aggressively motioning to me with his hands to turn the page in the catalog.

“I don’t know why they publish this crap,” he’d frequently bellow. “No one’s going to read this because it doesn’t make any sense,” he’d tell me as I pondered a jacket illustration of a fire-breathing dragon riding a space ship.

I thought Yoder could tell if Dresner was truly onto something better than I could. One of Yoder’s most highly touted authors was the Nebula-award-winning Robert Sawyer, whose novels are often set in the near future and are based on current scientific research. Sawyer’s novels, like Dresner’s, also delve deeply into human relations.

Dresner’s ambitions seemed to follow along the lines that Sawyer was taking. The Astral Imperative is meticulously researched and the science all seems feasible. Given the scientific bent of Dresner’s novel, it’s not surprising that it is dedicated to a Boulder scientist, the cofounder of The Case for Mars, Tom Meyer.

“Tom grounded the science in the novel and gave it shape,” Dresner said. “This is his vision of a manned trip to Mars. It’s all very realistic science. These are things that will happen, might happen or someone’s researching the possibility. By being na├»ve, I’d come up with an idea that is unusual and then Tom would put me in touch with people.”

It took awhile for Yoder to read the book, but when he finally did he believed he’d found a jewel. “My first reaction was that his novel was better than some of the stuff that I sell,” Yoder said. “He was bringing a component of general fiction into a science fiction story. That’s what made Dune great. His characters were developed and you cared about the people.”

Yoder’s opinion of his novel came when Dresner was at a low point in his writing.

“It was a hot day in the summer and I was bogged down in writing book two, feeling discouraged when I got a phone call from Larry,” Dresner recalled. “I’d left him a little message saying I understood he was busy, and if he couldn’t read the book could he send back the manuscript. ‘You want your manuscript back?’ he said. ‘Are you kidding me? It’s the best manuscript I’ve read. I’ve never read anything like this.’”

Finally, it looked like Dresner just might get the break he needed. It was hard for him to get his hopes up too much because of his close calls in the past.

“I was with the William Morris agency, I had a screenplay with Universal, it goes on and on,” Dresner said. “I’d get a phone call about how much they loved it and how they thought it was unusual and then the next call never came.”

Despite Yoder’s love for the book and my pushing and prodding of St. Martin’s editors, Dresner was right not to get his hopes up. The call never came from Tor Books, despite Yoder’s strong endorsement.

“Sometimes they don’t hear what you are saying in publishing,” Yoder said. “I took it to them and said, ‘I can sell this.’ But they don’t want to listen. Editor after editor kept telling me that this wasn’t what they were publishing. It’s like we weren’t speaking the same language. I never would have sent it in if I didn’t think it would sell.”

Now, Dresner has decided to publish the book on his own. He doesn’t have the patience for the publisher dance any more, and if anything, his disdain for having to sell himself has only grown with time.

“I feel frustration – rage -- when I think about the effort it takes to get published.” Dresner said. “I have six books. The process to get published is at least a year or two. I just felt, as I was getting older, that time was compressing. If publishers in New York don’t recognize that it’s good why should you be punished for that?”

Dresner’s impatience with publishing extended to his self-publishing venture.

“We were a little too fast in getting this published,” Dresner said. “In five weeks we had a book. I gave it to a talented editor and only gave her a week to get it ready. We had a thousand little things to correct. The cover also looks too heavily masculine (a phallic space ship in front of a nebula background.) It’s a book about self-discovery and relationships -- women love it.”

Dresner is learning how to handle being an author instead of a painter writing in his spare time. The transition hasn’t come as easily as expected. His voluble nature has been stymied when he has encountered his readers.

“The experience of being an author is not what I expected. I’ve become the center of attention at parties. I feel embarrassed. They really think I have something. Being embarrassed is the exact opposite of what I expected to feel,” Dresner said.


Joe Foster said...

Arsen, maybe this'll get this guy a contract, if he even wants one still.

It's incredibly frustrating, the enormous piles of dreck we sift through when going through catalogs, knowing that there are really great writers out there who don't happen to fit a particular niche who sit unpublished and frustrated.
It's akin to having a friend who constantly dates jerks, passing up nice guy after nice guy because they don't fit the mold of what MTV tells them they're supposed to be attracted to.

Well, it's kinda like that, anyway.

Once he's published, Maria's will sell his book, too, after this endorsement.

Jim MacKrell said...

I have to quote Larry David, Co-Creator of Seinfeld. "Whose going know funny better, me or an Ex at NBC. How true. One agent told me she couldn't get into my dog characters in my latest novel. No she never owned a dog or knew anyone with a dog. I only wish that Literary Agents needed to be franchised like Talent Agents by SAG. We could really eliminated a lot of the 'want to be experts"

Anonymous said...

Usually the only "drek" (that JF refers to) that I see in my catalogues comes from established authors not having their best outings. The new stuff we're signing is usually in my humble estimation is pretty darn good, it's just really tough to bring it all to market.

It probably is an oversimplification of the dilemma a publisher faces that a work like this is rejected "out of hand". I think we could trust a little that there are a lot of really valid works which get rejected because at the time the editor, who is reading like a son of a bitch, doesn't think he's THE guy to bring a book to market at the moment. The IRONWEED example comes to mind, the National Book Award Winner that got rejected multiple times. I bet nobody who read IRONWEED could have thought it was bad; it's just with what they were doing, what marketing was doing, yadda dadda, politics whatever, it was going to tough to move a book about drunks sleeping in cars, and there's a very good arguement for not aquiring books that you are going to have trouble bringing to market, because as Joe suggests there's a lot of stuff you guys look at that doesn't necessarily pop.

With that I forwarded your link to one of our top Sci Fi Editors, and a few more in house types who might be intrigued and want to develop a relationship with Dresner.

It's a great column, I just hope that at the end of the day no one thinks that reps are out there routinely trashing their books! Older I get the more I trust the process including the hope that your blog does your buddy some good. JZ

Anonymous said...

I'm a publishing industry professional with a long background in science-fiction and fantasy publishing and I can think of several reasons why a book like this might be difficult to publish.

The number one reason is the plain and simple fact that hard SF really doesn't sell anymore. Fantasy has taken over the marketplace, and debut authors trying their hand at hard SF - particularly hard SF that isn't high concept - just fall flat sales-wise. A new SF novel may sell as few as 2000 copies. For a large trade publisher, this is considered a complete failure.

Another reason is something you mention in the post: It took you a while to get into the book. For an editor or an agent to love a book, they need to be sucked into the story within the first ten pages. We really don't have the time to wade through someone's magnum opus on the off chance that by Chapter Eight the story will take off.

Reason Number Three: Books touted as the first in a series of X number of books can be the kiss of death for a debut author. A debut novel absolutely must be able to stand alone, because if the sales aren't there for the first book, your publisher will drop you as fast they can.

And lastly, I'm guessing that this book could have used a real developmental editor. Not a copy-editor, not a proofreader, but a developmental editor to shape and help structure the story.

Just some thoughts.

Arsen Kashkashian said...

Thanks for the great comments.

I think there are valid reasons that Dresner has had a hard time finding a publisher. He's a real character and simply doesn't want to do what must writers must do to sell himself. His terrible cover letters are just the start.

He has a hard time staying on message. When I told him I wanted to write about the Astral Imperative he wanted to talk about the two books in the series that weren't published yet. I had to keep telling him that the only thing that mattered at this point was the book that I could hold in my hands.

The comments about publishers being reluctant to take on a multi-volume series as a debut are interesting. The Astral Imperative is just over 300 pages. It is possible that all three volumes combined will be under 1,000 pages. It might be better to try and sell the series all at once. With some editing and development, perhaps he could have a debut novel of 500 to 700 pages.

Also, Robert is aware he doesn't fit the genre stereotype and he's concerned about it. He said at his signing he'd prefer to be in the general fiction category instead of Sci-Fi. Good luck. The book is about a trip to Mars.

I think it's sad that manuscripts have to grab people in the first 10 pages. I understand that there is so much out there that it's hard to have patience with a story, but a lot of great literature throughout history took a while to really get going.

We've already lost the people who won't read more than 10 pages to other mediums. Books have a hard time competing with the opening segment of Indiana Jones, but they can compete and win the customer's attention on other fronts.

Anonymous said...

Hey Arsen,

Where can we buy a copy of Astral Imperative?

Dave T.

Wodke Hawkinson said...

Maybe Dresner has what it takes to push his own book. I know it's rare for a self-published author to make it big, but it's not impossible. He should do a lot more networking and really believe in his project.
A traditional publisher is no doubt the best way to go, but it's not the ONLY way. I wish him luck and success with his book.