Why I Turned Down The Only Publishing Contract I've Been Offered

This is going to be one of those personal reflection posts, incidentally timed with the new year. This is not a whimsical “2018 has come and gone, and I've learned so much, but 2019 will be even better,” type of post. This is my reality check to myself, a written promise that I'll look back on next time I feel discouraged or defeated. I would write this in July if what I'm about to talk about had happened then. This is not some bullshit resolution.

I'm going to curse. A lot. If that's not for you, don't read it. Most of my other posts are reasonably clean. Those are for you. This one is for me. Then why post it, if it's for me? Because I know posting it will hold me accountable. Because when I publicly declare that I'm going to do something, I fucking do it. I find a way. No excuses. If you look at my powerlifting instagram, you can find posts in January saying “When I compete in June, I'll squat 445 lbs.” And then there's a video of me doing it in June.

So this is my raw, unfiltered account of what's been happening in the last four months and how it all crystallized into this one moment of beautiful, brutal clarity. None of the negatives I discuss below are meant to be complaints. Fuck complaining. That doesn't accomplish anything. This is just what happened, how I felt, and what I did.

I think that today on social media, it's easy to think everyone is crushing it. Manuscript requests, agent signings, book deals, it's all we see. That's great. Celebrate it. I sure will when it happens. Your hard work deserves recognition and it deserves to be celebrated. But too often, we gloss over the negatives, the struggles, the doubt, the times when we let ourselves down. So let's talk about it.

I worked hard to write Sundering. It took me a year to draft it, editing as I went, and then the better half of another year to edit it to the point where I thought it was ready. I started querying in September, and have received nothing past a personal and encouraging rejection. Much better than a form letter, and I appreciate the agent taking the time to write to me, but at the end of the day, the kindest, softest rejection is still a “no.” I've got thick skin, but the little stings started to add up. Death by a thousand cuts.

As my rejection list piled higher and my prospective agent list dwindled lower, I started to think “Maybe agents just aren't into my kind of work. After all, it's a gritty blend of grimdark and epic fantasy that rubs shoulders with military fantasy. Maybe they just don't get it. Let's prepare to self publish in 2019. But while I do that, I'll query some small presses.” If you’re shaking your head at my logic, yeah, so am I.

Pitmad was around the corner, so I prepared my tweets in advance. Tweaked, trimmed, adjusted, tweaked and trimmed again. My first Pitmad yielded nothing. It makes sense, those tweets sucked. I didn't know what I was doing. This time, I got six agent/publisher favorites on a single tweet. Not the most anyone has ever gotten, but a hell of a lot better than zero.

I sent out four queries (the other two weren't good fits) and got four requests for full manuscripts.

Holy shit. I was getting somewhere.

Four days later I got an offer from a small press. I had my phone in my hand, waiting for a drink at a little dive bar across the street from my job. The email preview popped up: I could read just enough to see that they were sending me a contract. The bartender slid my beer over the counter. I walked to the table, threw the phone down in front of my fiance and slammed my beer down so hard it shook the table. This primal sense of victory surged through my veins, I could have fucking screamed.

You know in Breaking Bad, after Walter kills Gus Fring, and Skyler asks him what happened? And Walter calmly replies “I won,” but his voice trembles, and you know he was on the breaking point and barely managed to eek out a victory? That's how I felt. I had pretended that I was doing fine, unaffected by months of rejection, but inside, I was hurting, wondering if my writing was good enough, if I was good enough. I felt so vindicated in that moment. I had won.

Still, I'm not an idiot, and I wasn't about to sign a contract without looking at it. So, the day after drinking myself into a celebratory coma, I looked at it. Then I read about contracts all day and looked at it again. It looked good to me. But I knew I was way out of my league with all the terminology, so I asked an editor buddy of mine to take a glance. He told me it looked fair and that everything was standard for a small press. No red flags.

My optimism grew.

I contacted an author who had published with this press and asked him about his experience. He said he was happy with their work.

This was it. I was going to make it.

My final check before I did some thinking and prepared to sign on the dotted line: A lunch with a writer for whom I have mountains of respect. He is a hardworking, generous, not-a-single-ounce-of-bullshit guy, and had been a steady guide for much of my writing process out of nothing but the goodness of his heart.

The following conversation changed my life. It also fucking hurt me.

He began with the good news. “There's no red flags here. They're not trying to screw you over.”

I brightened up.

Then he dropped the first of several hammers on me.

“So why do you want to publish with these guys?”

I stammered through a response, but he saw right through my bullshit.

“Because they're the only ones who have said ‘yes’ so far.”

I pushed my plate away. I suddenly had no appetite.

“Let's get technical for a minute. Much of the language here is designed to minimize their risk at your expense. It's good business practice, but this tells me they're more concerned about protecting their margins than setting you up for success. Did you see they're not even providing you with a single hard copy of your book?”

I felt like I had been slapped. I guess I had missed that line in the contract.

“These guys want to own and publish your work, and they want to make you pay to buy your own book? They want you to pay money for your own work? I don't think they're trying to fuck you over, but that tells me that 10 or 20 printed copies is so important to their bottom line that they can't afford to give you those. That's the language of a publisher who can't sell a lot of books.”

“A lot as in..?” I took a sip of water, my throat dry and knotted.

“I would bet anything these guys don't sell more than a few hundred copies on average. Certainly not over a thousand except maybe their top seller. What's your royalty?”

“10% print, 25% ebook.”

“That's standard, but let's look at the numbers. You'll be making about $1.50 per book. Let's say you do a great job and sell a thousand copies in a year. Then the book fizzles out and dies on their press because you gave them ownership of everything until you die and thensome. With no advance, you just made $1500. How long did you work on Sundering?”

“Two years.” Two fucking years. I knew what he was going to ask.

“Are you ok with selling two years of your work for $1500?”

Fuck no, I'm not. I worked hard on this shit. He knew my answer.

“Let me ask another question. When you first started this project, is this the level of success you envisioned? $1500 if you're lucky, no books in brick-and-mortar bookstores, giving away all the associated rights with your work to make ten cents on the dollar when you'll still be doing most of the marketing?”

“No. But I’ll have to do most of the marketing even if I get signed with the big-five, right?”

“It'll help if you do, of course, but their reach is so huge, a little effort on their part goes a long way. They're the ones who get you into bookstores and get your book reviewed by top reviewers. You're going to hustle either way, right? Why not hustle next to someone who has the clout to get you somewhere?”

Here came my bullshit excuses. “But I've already gotten a bunch of rejections from agents. My list is running short. I went four months with zero interest before this.”

He sipped his coffee. I prepared for what I knew would be a gut punch. “I'm not saying this to hurt you, but let's be real. You haven't been doing this that long. You're not dying. You're still young. You have plenty of time. If you're getting radio silence from good agents who can get you the deal you want, go look at your product again. Your writing is very good. But very good doesn't cut it. Great might not cut it. Exceptional will cut it. You're pitching them on a product to sell to other people. You're in the entertainment industry. You're competing with books, TV, movies, podcasts, magazines, YouTube channels, for people's attention. No agent doesn't want an exceptional product. So go back and look at your product and make it better.”

Goddamn, that hurt. And I'm grateful he did it. But he wasn't done.

“You know why most writers are crotchety, angry people? ‘Cause they ate shit and had their hopes and dreams rejected and criticised for years and grinded and pushed and shoved until they made it. The common denominator in all successful writers is persistence. You're a persistent, patient guy. You work your ass off in the gym and that's why you win competitions. This is no different. I know it sucks to get rejected for months, but that's not that long of a time. Get some sand in your crotch, get fucking pissed off, look at the names left on your list, and do whatever the fuck it takes to get a deal with one of those agents.”

I nodded along, absorbing the words. Layers of excuses, protective delusions and psychological defense mechanisms fell away, shredded by that cold, piercing truth.

“I'm not saying to decline the deal if that's the deal you really want. I'm saying to do some hard thinking about what you want, be honest with yourself, and then pursue that with the same aggression you use in the gym.”

I still couldn't speak.

“If you were one of my close friends…” He paused for a second. “I'd tell you I think you're settling. I think you want the validation of being published, even if it's with a press that doesn't fit your goals, and that’s robbing you of the vision you initially had for your work.”

He might as well have lit a bomb and shoved it down my throat. Those were the magic words. I got absolutely. Fucking. PISSED. Not at him. At myself. He was 100% right. I'll get to that in a moment.

That was basically the end of our talk, and having wrapped up a few ancillary points, I thanked him for giving me some perspective. I've only ever interacted with him on a semi-professional basis, but I would still consider him a friend. Nobody sets you straight like that unless they give a shit. Get yourself a friend like that.

So why was I so pissed? Hindsight with my brand new perspective showed me that I had gotten lazy.

I fucking hate lazy people. People who would rather bitch and moan and make excuses for mediocrity instead of owning their shit and doing something about it. Always blaming others, never looking inwards. They make me sick. And I had become one of them.

Sure, I worked hard at my day job. Sure, I worked on my sequel. Sure, I managed my social media. Sure, I devoured information about writing, marketing, publishing. Wrote marketing plans, researched agents and publishers. But I got lazy with my vision.

In the back of my head, I had known all along that while my work was good, it could have been better. But still, it had to be good enough. I had done five editing passes, after all. Good enough IS good enough, right?

Dear Cal,

You are a stupid fuck.

Here's how I knew it still wasn't good enough. When I share a little excerpt of my writing on social media, I get great feedback on it. I hear it's awesome. Hell yeah it's awesome, I know it's awesome. I KNOW it's awesome, and that's why I share it. I get excited reading it. So when I'm scrolling through my work, looking for something to paste into a tweet, why am I scrolling for five, six, seven pages sometimes? That's 3000 words that aren't awesome. 3000 words I'm not itching to share.

And I sent that out to agents? What the fuck is wrong with me?

I'm disgusted with myself. But there's more.

Plagued with this vague feeling that something was off, I had been sending out a few too many queries at a time. More than I should have. I knew it. But I convinced myself that “it's a numbers game, so more numbers quicker means better chances of success.”

Now I could see the real reason. So I could get through the process quicker and move on to self publishing and stop hearing the word “no.” I was crossing names out in red like a fucking grocery list instead of treating each name as the valuable opportunity it was.

I had given up. No question about it.  

I am not a fucking quitter. I used to box, wrestle, and fight MMA. You could be getting the shit kicked out of you, but you didn't dare give up.

And yet, I had quit.

Thrown in the towel.

Punked out.

This is all very painful for me to admit, even to myself. Let alone to you all.

So that’s why I got so angry. I still am. But I'm one of those strange people that uses anger as fuel. I feed off it, and instead of letting it derail me, I use it to make myself better.

My passion rekindled, I could suddenly see with startling clarity what I really wanted. There's something called first-principles reasoning, and Tim Urban's blog, Wait But Why, explains it far better than me. But essentially, you find a rock-solid principle that you stand on, and then reason your way forward one step at a time.

What was my core driver in all this? That was the easy part.

I want to be a great writer. My-recommendation-sells-other-people’s-books-great. Remembered-after-dead great. All-time great. I'm not delusional, that's just what I want. Statistically, it's unlikely (read: near impossible). But I still want it. What writer wouldn't? Not for fame or glamour. I believe in true mastery, and if that mastery can reach and impact millions of people, even better.

If I want that, I have to write full time. I don't have to “make it” overnight. Nobody does that. But I need to end up writing full time within a decade or so.

That means I need to make a certain amount of money off the books I can conceivably write in a decade so I can live off my writing income.

So I need my books to make money. Being published isn't good enough. I don't need six figures overnight. But $1500 for two years ain't gonna cut it.

A big-five contract is my best bet. Or if I self publish and hit a grand slam. Still, the probability lies with the former.

But I already had an offer on the table. If this house were willing to give me a reasonable advance, in line with industry standards for first-time authors, I would sign with them. After all, it wasn't even the prestige of a big-five house I was after. It was the money. The money wasn't the end, the money was a means to an end.

I know small presses generally don't give advances. I know debut authors with no agents have no leverage. But their editor said he was so excited about my work he cleared his desk to read it. He said he had no doubt that I would be very successful. I knew they wanted my work. I figured it couldn't hurt to ask. You can say I got greedy. You can think what you want. I don't give a fuck. I value my work. I might have lost sight of that in a moment of weakness, but now I had found the courage and conviction to ask for what I really wanted. I calculated a number and made that my line in the sand: earnings in one year via advance or royalties based on conservative sales projections. And if they weren't willing to give me that, I told myself I would walk away.

So I contacted the house to negotiate. They declined the advance and said they only negotiate royalties with repeat authors. We agreed it wasn't a good fit and moved on. I bear them no ill will. Everyone I interacted with was polite and professional. They can't afford to invest that heavily in a new author and I completely understand. I wish them the absolute best.

There was no way their contract would have fulfilled my needs. And still, knowing that, closing that door was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I want to be published so Goddamn fucking bad. But I need to say no to my ego and my vanity and do it the right way, for the right reasons. I will not be an author who goes “Yeah, I got published a few times. My best book sold 720 copies. It's a tough gig.” So the door is closed.

That was yesterday.

Now I'm back to square one.

And you know what? I feel fucking good.

I'm still pissed at myself. But that's why I feel good. It's done, and I'm still angry. I'm hungry. I have a huge fucking chip on my shoulder and I'm glad it's there. It's going to sit there and remind me what I really want. It's going to remind me that I haven't done shit yet, that I haven't earned anything yet.

I got home last night after a thirteen hour day. I was exhausted, my brain was fried, and I had just shut that door four hours ago. I just wanted to sleep and look at the problem with fresh eyes the next day.

The chip on my shoulder whispered in my ear. “Fuck that.”

I pulled out the laptop and dug into my first chapter. Flaws, structural issues, passive voice. I could see all of it in HD. The veil of “good enough” bullshit delusion was gone.

I’m excited. Everything is still a little raw, but I'm genuinely happy. I failed, but I always come back stronger. My lifting career is proof of that. I spent the back half of 2017 very injured after a mediocre training year. I fixed myself and competed in June 2018, breaking a personal record that had hung over my head and defeated me for TWO YEARS. By twenty pounds. Twenty fucking pounds. If you understand lifting, you get it.

This will be no different. I'm sure I'm going to make more mistakes. Good. It'll just make that chip heavier.

That little flash of victory I had in the bar when I first received the offer, of Walter White saying “I won” almost makes me laugh, except I'm still too pissed off to laugh.

I won?

The game had never even started.

I had half-assed it through tryouts and fooled myself into thinking I was playing.

That's over.

That chip is whispering in my ear again. “Game on, motherfucker.”

Closing Notes

If you read through all of this, I cannot thank you enough. This was a really difficult thing for me to write and share. I really considered not posting this, but my experience as a writer on social media has been nothing but positive. I know this post is heavy, but this is part of who I am. The positive, optimistic Cal doesn't exist without what lingers underneath. Thank you for making me feel comfortable enough to share. Thank you for giving me a voice.

When I said I would be posting more, this is not what I had in mind. This will not turn into an angry rant blog where I vent about my own issues. This post, this one post, was for me, but the next one will be for you. And the next, and the next, and the next.

My next post is written and ready to go, coming in January.