This is the story about what happened after that Writers Conference in 1996 at which I became friends with the brilliant novelists Lucia Orth and Sasha Troyan.
Actually, a lot of things happened, one of them being that I went home and completely rewrote my current novel yet once again. Because we novelists do that. We rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
You know why?
Because we are practicing a craft that goes on unto infinity, and the joy of the craft lies in practicing it.
Some other things happened too, though, and they’re pertinent to what you’re doing (I’m pretty sure), so I’m going to tell you about them this week.
Step #1 THE WINDMILL
I got my first literary agent
I know—everyone says agents don’t get clients at writers conferences. But she did.
So I did.
It was great.
I had a novel in early draft that she wanted very much to see, but what I had that was really worth something was a book already at the publisher’s, Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, for which unfortunately my co-author and I had prematurely signed the contract.
For the record, I hadn’t wanted to just sign it blind. I wanted to have it vetted by an agent or at least someone who knew anything at all about publishing contracts. For heaven’s sake. But my co-author refused to involve an agent on the grounds that it might annoy our publisher’s editor. The book was riding on his name, so I went along with him.
Later I showed the contract to my new agent.
She said it was a travesty.
I got to know my new literary agent
That agent happens to have a last name that’s extremely well-known in publishing: Caen. As in: Herb Caen. She’s his ex-wife, and her son is Herb’s only child.
She knows everybody in publishing.
She was chock full o’ excellent stories about famous people with whom she had hobnobbed—Jim Morrison of the Doors and the poet Michael McClure, the Black-&-White Ball Truman Capote threw in NYC to which she flew with her mask on her knee—simply great fun to visit with.
I was doing a couple of book-readings for my just-published book around the San Francisco Bay Area, getting excited about being a published author.
Altogether, a pretty thrilling time.
I started writing nonfiction book proposals
My agent was happy to work with me on my fiction—having already read an early draft of the novel I’d brought to the Writers Conference—but she explained that she couldn’t get me any kind of reasonable advance on my next book unless it was in nonfiction, like my first. (My co-author had gotten us $750 apiece as an advance on Children and the Internet to attend some event he said we were going to attend, although he never actually told me the name of it.)
So my agent and I were going to get the nonfiction ball rolling while I developed one of my novels into a polished manuscript.
I was still writing fiction
Because that’s what we fiction writers do: we write it.
Because in those days—1996—the whole zeitgeist of quality and editing and publication had not yet morphed into what it is today. All novelists took years to write their first novels.
Then I stopped doing anything
I got pregnant and, in short order, sick up the wazoo with morning sickness, and I stopped doing book-readings and book proposals and writing of any kind and just lay on the couch a lot thinking about chucking my lunch. I was in love and newly-married and a published author, so that was all still wonderful.
But morning sickness sucked.
Step #2 THE WIND
My agent and I were now spending only as much time talking as it took to deal with the fact that it turned out our publisher’s editor had:
not edited our book before publishing it
not read—or even had proofread by someone else—our final manuscript before publishing it
not sent me galleys to proof before publishing it, with the result that
it came out chock full to the eyeballs with typos
No kidding—if you look on the page facing page 1 (page 0), you find a charming quote attributed to “Irish Murdoch.”
Plus my co-author inserted various cartoons on his own authority, one of them making light of pedophilia, which he inserted into one of my chapters.
This was a book about children, to be marketed to the parents and teachers and educational administrators of children.
Apparently nobody on that project but me knew that pedophilia is not a joke to the people who care for children.
Step #3 THE MILL
So my agent was sending faxes and making phone calls, demanding some accountability from the publisher.
All to no avail.
Our editor ignored my agent. She was the head of her department at that publisher and apparently felt she could afford to. I’d met the editor and not particularly liked her, so I wasn’t surprised, but my agent and I were still both pretty bent.
I wrote a letter to the editor threatening legal action after I found out she’d gone to press without sending me my galleys. That scared her, so she kind of made an effort to act a little more professional after that. . .for about a minute.
Step #4 THE TANGLING
Children and the Internet was published in September, 1996, and sank immediately without a trace.
This was unfortunate and inexplicable in a number of ways:
It was an extremely important book
It was about how to handle the sudden accessibility of the Internet to those who teach children.
Using the Internet for children’s education had never been possible before on anything but the most limited, exclusive scale. . .although now of course there are computers in every classroom.
Also, my co-author had an international cult following as the author of the first easily-understood book for the average amateur on how to access the Internet.
And I had been a Computer Science student for three years at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California, a highly-technical university where we couldn’t even get an email address unless we could prove we were computer students, much less access the Internet. So I knew a little about the technology we were explaining. Also, I had become a professional tech writer in the computer industry.
I had, in addition, years of experience working with and educating children across the board—from being Art Director at a cutting-edge alternative preschool for pacifist, non-sexist families in the early 1980s, to child advocacy for the abused children at a Battered Women’s Shelter, to Director of the Children’s Room at the Earthling Bookshop when it opened in San Luis Obispo.
It was the first book of its kind
Nobody had yet written a book about this phenomenon of using the Internet to educate children.
This technological advance was so new and so exciting and so obviously going to change the entire future of education around the world forever.
We checked constantly to make sure we weren’t being scooped.
It was timed perfectly for its target market
it came out the week Silicon Valley held their Computer Use in Education Conference—the first-ever conference on using the Internet to teach children.
We were in Silicon Valley. We lived and worked there. The schools I visited and profiled for the book are in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and Berkeley. This Computer Use in Education Conference was literally on our doorstep.
But we didn’t know about it until it was too late. We were head-down in writing the book all those months, and our publisher’s marketing department apparently didn’t do a single lick of marketing research.
I heard about the conference from one of the teachers I profiled in our book when he apologized for not being able to attend my book-reading the next night.
“I’ll be at CUE,” he said. “You know about that, right? The big Computer Use in Education Conference the computer companies of Silicon Valley are holding for teachers all about NetDay 96? I’m so sorry.”
I called the publisher’s marketing department in a panic.
“I don’t know,” she said laconically. “If you want to get me the information, I’ll look into it.”
“You can’t get us in now,” I cried. “It’s tomorrow night!”
She was remarkably unconcerned.
It was timed to coincide with a Presidential edict
If that’s not too rich for you.
President Clinton had pronounced 1996 the year to connect all schools in the US to the Internet. He’d declared a single Saturday in July NetDay 96. On this day, President Clinton encouraged parents, educators, and engineers across the country to volunteer to help their local schools connect to the Internet.
So teachers could use the Internet to teach children.
My co-author and I had actually gone out on NetDay 96 to our local schools and spent the day personally helping pull wires and set up computers and, generally, create access to the Internet for the teachers of children. I wrote a chapter about it for the book.
There was a real possibility we could have gotten a statement from the White House supporting us.
The White House.
But our publisher’s editor—yawn—couldn’t be bothered to ask.
So Children and the Internet sank out of sight.
(There are now zillions of books on this subject. The field is flooded. Naturally.)
Step #5 THE AFTERMATH
About a year and a half later, when my son was old enough to walk and I got a chance to go back to work, I finally gave up waiting for my agent to get results about the legal implications of what our publisher had done to our book (and was still doing, refusing to even re-issue an edition without all the typos and the pedophile cartoon.)
I went to the National Writer’s Union, which my agent had advised me to join the minute she met me.
They told me to collect all the information about her communications with the publisher and they’d help me write a letter to the top brass. I asked my agent to send me all her communications with the publisher on my behalf.
“Thank you for everything. Sorry you couldn’t get results. That damn editor. I know you did your best. I’m ending this whole fracas now, so we can go on with our lives.’”
Step #6 THE WHOLE POINT OF MY STORY
So why am I telling you all this? Two reasons:
The publishing industry is brutal
It was brutal then, and it’s brutal now. There is nothing we writers can do about this.
But you know what was worth it all?
The day I gave my new agent my partial manuscript to read, she called me at about six-thirty in the evening.
“I never call anyone after six,” she said. “Ever. But I had to call you. I love this. I love your novel.”
And while I was standing there reeling—thinking of everything you practice saying for just this moment when a literary agent calls you up and says just exactly that—she started quoting me to myself.
She read my own words out loud to me over the phone.
So now I can die happy. I didn’t sell that novel. I didn’t even get the publisher’s editor who screwed us over so badly on Children and the Internet to say, “I’m sorry.” I certainly didn’t get my one traditionally-published book published properly, without too many obvious typos or pedophilic jokes or with some teeny, tiny modicum of marketing by—oh, I don’t know—maybe the publisher’s marketing department.
However, a literary agent with a famous name called me up and quoted me to myself.
And the good things in life have got to be enough.