Bleeding Between the Lines
My 38 years in the world of book writing
by Richard Lindberg
Copyright © 2015
Thirty-eight years, sixteen books with two more on the horizon. I’m still at it. I’m still around and in the business of writing books. And as I enter another decade, I’m taking stock of it all. What have I learned? What have I done? Did I do any of it reasonably well? What advice do I have for young writers?
Does the writer choose the profession or could it really be true that it is the craft that chooses the writer? I write books because I must. It is a calling. It is in my heart. It’s as simple as that. I first heard that calling at age eleven when I began a secret diary recording the daily travail of growing up on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago in an alcoholic, broken home at a time in our culture laboring under the illusion that everyone except me enjoyed the ideal 1950s suburban “Leave it to Beaver” lifestyle.
My old man (maybe I shouldn’t call him that, but he truly was old; age 56 when I was born) was an occasionally violent world-class drinker who built scores of homes up and down the North Shore after World War II. My mother, suffering an incurable sadness that today we would call clinical depression, had been beaten down by the setbacks of the daily grind following a contentious divorce action. She raised me with reliance upon my grandmother – an embittered woman from the Swedish country provinces diagnosed with senile dementia when I was a high school freshman. Together they viewed life in its barest, bleakest terms – relishing their lives of self-imposed poverty after my mother failed to secure an adequate divorce settlement that might have afforded us all a few simple pleasures.
The diary was my formal entrée into the world of writing and a temporary shelter from the daily degradations and persecution inflicted by my classmates at William J. Onahan School and the family discord at home. I suppose I should attribute my passion for the written word to them for helping to instill in me the determination to overcome a poor self-image and proving the little bastards wrong by chasing a dream to become a published author.
Mrs. Layah Golden, my seventh grade teacher at Onahan convinced me that I might even be good at writing. Her accusation that I had plagiarized content for a 1965 book report I had prepared on “The Diary of Anne Frank” steered me toward the writing world. In a sharp peremptory tone of voice she said to an easily cowed and intimidated little boy that I had copied my review from a dust jacket testimonial because, in her words, “You do not have the ability to write like that!” I meekly protested the injustice, but the big red “U” for unsatisfactory scrawled on the report would stand in my memory like Hester Prynne’s “Scarlet “A.” I described that life-changing episode in my memoir of growing up, a book titled “Whiskey Breakfast My Swedish Family, My American Life,” published in 2011 by the University of Minnesota Press.
Adulthood has been consumed with writing about the City of Chicago – the place where I live, love and occasionally revile. The city is my stage. Though embittered by childhood terrors and the many disappointments with publishers and employers, I write because I cannot imagine my life without writing. It has been my calling all along and is as natural to me as breathing. Without my books, well, where would I be today? (Back at Sears Roebuck selling sporting goods?)
“When are you ever going to break out Rich?” The question was posed to me some time back by Rick Kogan, eminent Chicago journalist and radio talk show host. I was a guest on Rick’s very fine Sunday morning program, on WGN Radio, “The Sunday Papers” – at the time, one of the few oases of genuine media appreciation (and publicity) available to the authors in residence who write of Chi-town and related subject matter. What Rick was saying, break-out and leave behind the bungalows, small advances and scarce reviews in order to find a place in the sun amongst the “real” writers of New York that absorb the New York Review of Books on Sunday mornings at home in the Village and lunching with agents on Monday afternoon.
Who Do You Know?
In Chicago, politics and hi-tech startups trump literary creativity - the Art Institute, the Lyric Opera and Symphony Center notwithstanding. In April 2013, Rachel Shteir of the New York Times Book Review huffed and puffed and ruffled the tail-feathers of three of our local authors while castigating Chicago for its multitude of sins, thus stirring the outrage of Chicago’s literary community. I must concede some truth of Shteir’s assessment when she commented, “Today, Chicago has fallen short of such dreams. The city’s population, for example, is currently at 2.7 million, having dropped since a high of 3.6 million in 1950. But the bloviating roars on, as if hot air could prevent Chicago from turning into Detroit.”
From parking meter complaints to escalating property taxes, to the pension mess, to the killing zones of gangland, its broken school system and millions of potholes in its crumbling streets, it is said that Chi has seen its better days. Or has it? Maybe the so-called better days were no better than what they are today. Exploring Chicago history as I do, that much appears to be true. This is a tough town, make no mistake. It was a writer’s town – once upon a time when Woodrow Wilson promised to keep us out of war, but it will never become one again. Trust me. To the New York literary establishment with a vague recollection that Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner, Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren made their bones here it is the “fly-over” zone. Pitch a highly-placed literary maven in New York about an idea for a Chicago-themed book and you will be advised to find “a regional publisher.”
As I pondered Rick’s question about breaking out, I shrugged. Privately I mused over the weird irony of so many unpublished writers sending me their unsolicited manuscripts, asking me to recommend publishers and agents to them, when I’m still searching for my own agent who might give me a few minutes of their time for me to deliver my elevator speech. Another frequent request I often receive is for my career advice, or a job referral for their kids in the writing and P.R. world. They wonder if I would mind tapping into my “network” of “important contacts” on their behalf. What network might that be? I’ve decided that it might be fun to have a real “network.”
Whiskey Breakfast: the Sobering Outcome of 22 Years of Writing, Editing, Re-writing….and Waiting for Godot
The memoir of my Swedish family, my father’s wastrel life stitched together with my memories of a Norwood Park childhood and Onahan is an emotionally charged tale that consumed twenty-two years of my life, from idea and inspiration through thirty rejections from publishers, to the arrival of the first copy from Minnesota. It is my proudest accomplishment as an author; my magnum opus – my life laid bare. It has won the Chicago Writer’s Association non-fiction book of the year award for 2012 and was a finalist for the Society of Midland Author’s biography/memoir prize. In 2015, I reached out to a renowned Chicago literary agency to see if they might assist me in attempting to republish “W.B.” with a New York house and a wider audience of readers but was given the fast brush-off. “We do not do much Chicago non-fiction or memoirs, especially from university presses,” I was informed. “We only do fiction. Do you have any fiction?”
I looked inside by bag of books, searched hard, and finally said, “Nope, sorry. I don’t see any fiction in there. Maybe in two years I’ll have something for you, once I stop writing Chicago non-fiction.” “Well, get back to me then and be sure to send me the entire manuscript, not just an outline or a sample chapter. Goodbye.” And that was that. Godot of the literary world: who are you and where are you? I’m waiting for you to rescue me from regional branding.
Don’t Get Depressed
Strangers, acquaintances, the lost Swedes of Clark Street and other readers who recalled their Scandinavian ancestry or those victimized by schoolyard bullies at one time or another have reached out to me with their letters, e-mails and phone calls to share with me their own experiences. Among the correspondence were several heart-tugging letters from parents of picked on children soliciting my advice about what can be done to protect their kids from the relentless hounding of the bullies? I had the satisfaction of knowing that my story had resonated among readers and more importantly it reaffirmed my purpose for writing this book.
It is these personal reader reflections that mean the most to an author. To quote Blanche Dubois in “Streetcar Named Desire,” I have always relied on the “kindness of strangers.” The greatest validation often comes from the most unexpected sources. Two of my Swedish cousins – Gunvor and Ingrid Lindberg from the Salvation Army-religious side of the family flew to Chicago to attend my book party at the Swedish Museum – and that was a wonderfully moving tribute. From other family members and some of my closest of friends there came only deafening silence. My brother Chuck, for whom much of the story turns, has never read it. And that remains a deep wound. This business we have chosen requires immunity from depression, a tolerance for rejection and an especially thick skin to ward off the menacing comments of Amazon.com reviewers.
Book Publication Parties: to Celebrate the Birth of a New Volume or Not?
Hardened by experience, I have come to believe that an author’s book publication reception can be narrowly viewed as the despised Tupperware party. Your invited guests manage to show up out of respect and a sense of duty and obligation to the friendship, but are they really interested in the “product?” I learned that painful lesson early on when I applied the “spine cracking test” to a copy of my book purchased by a lawyer friend, years earlier.
I had found “Chicago Ragtime” positioned on a book shelf in his office. I pulled the hardcover volume out, opened it up, and heard the unmistakable cracking of the glue in the spine. The book had never once been opened. The corners of the pages were as crisp and virginal as the day I had inscribed it, and only the passage of time had dried out the glue. I was crestfallen and mortified by the thought that by my actions I had inadvertently compelled this person to buy a book he had no interest in reading. Cautionary note: think twice about throwing a book party. If selling books is the driver and you are impervious to reader apathy or forcing your friends to shuck out their money to buy your book, then by all means reserve the hall, pop the champagne corks and summon the cheese tray servers.
Amazon.com and Amazon.com Book Reviewers
On the one hand, we as authors express our gratitude to Amazon.com for establishing a forum of book discussion as an important means of promoting our work. On the other hand, Amazon is choking the life out of our independent book sellers and driving the brick and mortar chain stores out of existence, evidence: Borders. So I’m very torn on this subject. What I do not like about Amazon is the one thing most authors seem to value and appreciate the most, the chance to read book reviews submitted by readers. Amazon has turned everyone in the entire world into overnight critics.
One Amazon reviewer criticized me for creating a “distorted view” of the Northwest Side neighborhood I grew up in, and took me to task for excoriating dear old Onahan School. Distorted? Everything I reported on happened. I could not have made it up if I tried. Another said it was “grim and depressing, and not worth reading.” Escapism, it is certainly not I will concede. But it was never intended to be that either. It is memoir and it is real. And yes, sometimes life can be grim and depressing.
Amazon reviewers can often mean-spirited. Some are posted as personal attacks for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your book and come from individuals with underlying motives unrelated to your volume. Or if you have the misfortune as I did, of bringing out a book about a particular subject at the exact same time as another author writing of the same topic, it is not uncommon for anonymous, one-star reviewers from the rival author’s inner circle to blast your book on Amazon. The question is why must they do this? Insecurity I presume. My advice is not to take it to heart. At least they paid money to acquire your book or had to walk to a library to retrieve it. Better yet, don’t give the purveyors of negativity the satisfaction of reading their comments. Bypass the Amazon reviews for the sake of preserving your peace of mind.
Some reviews are generous in praise and genuinely supportive and as authors we are genuinely appreciative. Good, constructive criticism is always welcome. It is this other kind of criticism that makes their whole process dubious.
The “big books” brought out by New York houses will garner hundreds, sometimes thousands of anonymous reader reviews before interest peters out. Regional volumes potentially garners up to 10 or 15 (hopefully objective) comments – many more if the author “invites” family, friends, colleagues and everyone else in their Outlook contacts to post flattering “best book I ever read!” comments to their Amazon page. I believe it is a deceptive practice unworthy of the author.
I have been solicited many times to praise the work of other authors on Amazon, “like them” on Facebook, follow them on Twitter whether I had read the book or not. While I am always pleased to provide a dust jacket endorsement, I would not ask anyone to post a flattering Amazon review for me unless they really meant it, and in turn I have made it my policy to turn down these requests. Authors that take personal pride in their work and are secure in the belief that they have produced a fine manuscript, will garner honest and legitimate, unsolicited praise without having to ask for it.
The Devil is in the Detail, Not in the White City
In 1985, I pitched several big publishing houses in New York about an idea I had for a true crime book about H.H. Holmes, Chicago’s first serial killer. Six rejections carried with it a familiar but dismal message: “Who really cares about a forgotten 19th Century murderer? Try a Chicago publisher. That is where you should send this.” Very sound advice. Millions of sold copies later, Erik Larson reaped the whirl-wind of “Devil in the White City” – a story of Chicago during the time of the 1893 World’s Fair wrapped around Holmes, the same killer I was assured that nobody would be interested in outside of the City of Chicago.
Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed
In 2009, Aleksandar Hemon brought out an acclaimed award-winning book titled “The Lazarus Project” about an obscure and completely forgotten episode in Chicago police history that I had originally written up in my 1990 volume “To Serve and Collect: Chicago Politics ad Police Corruption from the Lager Beer Riot to the Summerdale Scandal.” The incident, lost to history, was the 1908 attempted murder of Chicago Police Superintendent George Shippy in a home invasion orchestrated by Lazarus Averbuch, a would-be assassin who lost his gun in the struggle and was taken down by Shippy and his son.
I uncovered this forgotten episode (never before reported in any history book about Chicago up to the modern time) through a careful examination of old newspaper files at the Chicago Public Library during my graduate thesis and subsequent book research. A young academic and historian of Jewish history happened upon my book, became engrossed in the Averbuch case and brought out a small press volume of their own in 1997. As he accepted his book prize at the Society of Midland Authors awards banquet in 2010, Mr. Hemon profusely praised their volume not knowing of the existence of my book, because it was invisible to the trade. Praeger, a division of Greenwood Publishing who serves the library market exclusively, was my publisher.
I went with Praeger when I should have exercised greater patience and shopped the book for a longer period of time in order to secure a trade publisher with broad retail distribution. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Bill Young, a good friend and literary man whose full time business involves chauffeuring famous national authors to their talk show appearances and signings in Chicago cautioned me that this would be a dead-end proposition. I believed what I wanted to believe – the trap that writers so often fall into.
What it all meant was that after six years of writing my thesis at Northeastern Illinois University and turning it into a book (1984-1990), “To Serve and Collect” was never seen in stores and even after the paperback edition (re-issued by Southern Illinois University Press in 1998), sales were embarrassingly low. First piece of important advice to prospective authors: think carefully about the type of publisher you engage. Unless you are on a university tenure track, it is not wise to bring out a book with a library publisher if you have higher expectations for your volume beyond seeing it resting comfortably on a dusty bin in the downtown library.
Few people outside a handful of academics perusing scholarly journals for book reviews, and library shelf browsers will ever see your work.
My Early Adventures in Publishing: Becoming that “White Sox Guy”
Before “To Serve,” there was “Who’s on Third? The Chicago White Sox Story,” and my third title, “Chicago Ragtime: Another Look at Chicago 1880-1920,” an even more dispiriting foray into the regional publishing world. In 1983, I enjoyed some modest success with the first published team history of the White Sox to appear in print in nearly 24 years. “Who’s on Third?” was the second of four volumes I published over the years covering the South Side team I had followed with religious devotion since the age of ten. The hardcover edition, published by Icarus Press of South Bend, Indiana, sold out its run during the Sox frantic charge toward the 1983 American League Championship Series – at the time, a stunning break-through for my tragically cursed baseball team. A paperback edition appeared in stores coinciding with the American League Playoffs – and for the first and only time in my book writing career I spotted my volume in a grocery store checkout line! It was a heady, exhilarating feeling for a 30-year-old author, to see his book positioned along side of The National Enquirer and News of the World. I was grateful to Icarus Press for what they had done for me, and the chance they took on a mostly unknown writer.
The dream ended about a minute and-a-half after Jerry Dybzinski, an obscure Sox infielder of that magical summer committed a fatal base running gaffe contributing to a heart-breaking loss. Playoff Game #4 with the Orioles eviscerated my fading hopes of sustainable success for “Who’s on Third?” The paperbacks so prominently displayed in the grocery checkout line only a few days earlier vanished after less than a week.
Third piece of advice: forget about writing books about losing baseball teams unless the subject is the Chicago Cubs and targeted to an audience of Cub fans with disposable income used for the purchase of any bauble, bangle or book related to Cubby-blue. Otherwise, for most professional sports teams, an author can expect one or two reviews, i.e. in “Sports Collectors Digest,” a trade newspaper (or no reviews at all) and only middling sales if the team just stinks to high heaven or a strike cancels the season. That’s what happened to me in 1994 when I brought out “Stealing First in a Two-Team Town: the White Sox from Comiskey to Reinsdorf” with Sagamore Press. The season ended abruptly with the White Sox in first place. But with no pennant there was no playoff….or payoff.
Exception: if you really are the next Roger Kahn and have a great human interest story to tell that elevates the game on the field from a collection of dry statistics, a rehash of some memorable season, and crude humor to high art and actually speaks to the human condition (you must read Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer” to fully understand this). That kind of sports book may be the rare gem in a field of weeds. None of us can aspire to be Roger Kahn of course, and as the years passed I realized that three quarters of all published sports books in America each year are mostly unnecessary junk deservedly consigned to the remainder table within a year of publication.
Wither Icarus Press?
I worked on blind faith. I signed a contract with Icarus Press to do my third book, “Chicago Ragtime: Another Look at Chicago, 1880-1920,” a rich tapestry of social and political history of an age that has always fascinated me - the Gilded Age through the dawn of Prohibition.
At the time I was unhappily employed at the Chicago-Irving Park Road Sears Roebuck store, making a scant sum of money with a profit sharing program that had already begun to wilt in the 1970s, but I digress.
Icarus published my third book in hardcover. They did a good job managing the artwork and the cover, but then disaster struck. Just about two weeks (or was it three?), after the warehouse received its first shipment from the printer Icarus went down for the count. Wishing to make amends to me, Icarus delivered nine cases of “Ragtime” and “Who’s on Third?” and “Ragtime” to my front door. The rest of the inventory I was later told by a third party, were rumored to have been sold at auction and floated south, aboard a barge shipping the inventories of other broken companies into some large distribution warehouse.
At the time I did not fully comprehend that the generous gift of free books was not really a gift at all, but the sum total compensation I could expect to receive for both the Sox book and the history volume. Copies of “Ragtime” managed to make it into some Chicago libraries – dog-eared copies can still be found in the closed stacks in the Chicago section of the Harold Washington Public Library or in a vendor stall at the annual Lit Fest on Dearborn Street every June, but very few book stores carried it once Icarus went down. Perhaps the library is where Gary Krist, author of “City of Scoundrels” found it and might have inspired him to write his own book from of my chapters “A Summer of Lost Innocence: 1919,” I would like to know.
A year passed, then ten. I had nothing to show for either of the two Icarus titles, but I still had high hopes. Never lose hope. You have to keep reminding yourself of that in this business. Hope is what sustains us as writers, always the hope.
I asked Icarus Press to grant me the re-sale rights back to “Chicago Ragtime.” I knew there was no hope of recovering unpaid royalties from them so I didn’t bother to ask – all I wanted was the right to re-publish it with Academy Chicago Publishers. I sent letters to Icarus, or what was left of it, but my request fell on deaf ears, forcing me to seek redress in Federal Court. It was a costly, unnecessary legal tempest that need not have happened if Icarus had simply signed over the rights to a book that had no chance of making it into stores or into the hands of reviewers once the company went down. I had in my mind the image of crates of my book that I was especially proud of, floating down that river in a barge bound for some large distribution warehouse in Georgia. Maybe there wasn’t a river or even a barge, but the apocryphal tale was related to me by another unhappy Icarus author.
I won my case. The rights to re-publish reverted back to my control and with renewed hope and vigor I looked forward to a better outcome with Academy. The new publisher accepted the manuscript. I was granted an audience with them just that once. They did not seem interested in communicating with me after the book was out and so I stopped calling. There was no advance money of course, and I was never given the opportunity to approve the final copyedits made to the volume before it went to the printer in 1996 with a new title, “Chicago by Gaslight.” Over the next decade I would receive an infrequent royalty check, but they were never more than thirty or forty dollars. This is the sobering reality of publishing with….
I have always wondered why so many small independent publishers remain in the business. It is a mystery. They will never pay their authors a decent advance to cover time and expenses. If they cannot afford the overhead and properly compensate authors why do they keep at it year after year? Securing adequate publicity for the book is a losing battle, and always, the cry of poverty goes up if you solicit assistance to help defray costs of a book party or some special event you have in mind involving liquid refreshments and food. The small press director will likely inform you that you are responsible for promoting your title with the explanation that if they did any extra marketing over and above the usual and customary “it just wouldn’t be fair to their other authors,” etc. etc. This is the common retort when the author timidly inquires: “what is being done to help the sales of my book?”
At the big publishing houses in New York there are “A-list books” written by best-selling, celebrity authors that go on national tours and reap the whirlwind. Then there are the “mid-list” and “back-list” titles featuring the work of writers who are not celebrities and never will become celebrities. Their books receive scant attention because there are not enough publicists or publicity dollars to promote them. The publisher’s hopeful intention is, that these mid-list titles will sell well enough on their own for the author to pay back his/her advance with a small profit to show.
Again, it is my belief that small regional presses mean well, but they count upon the ambition and occasional desperation of the writer to break into print as a way for them to generate product while keeping costs minimal. Only in the profession of book writing will you find people willing to work for nothing. I suppose that that is the main reason so many frustrated authors turn to self-publishing these days as the last resort after so many marketing and monetary failures. Self-publishing is not for me. I’ve always believed that at the very least, the truest reward of “traditional” publishing comes from the knowledge that your volume has been recognized as worthy and accepted by a creditable source within the industry. Anyone with money and time can self-publish, no matter how bad the grammar, sentence construction or story flow may be.
After my experience with Icarus, I set out to find an agent to safe-guard my interests. I approached a famous literary woman, then Chicago’s top agent (the few of them that call the city home), with my proposal to publish “To Serve and Collect,” the first history of the Chicago P.D. written since 1886. Jane advised me to forget about it – and offered up the suggestion of doing a biography of White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. That she could sell, I was coolly informed. After all I was known as “that Sox guy.” I objected to the book idea and the label. I wanted to break away from baseball writing and publish my graduate thesis on Chicago police corruption. The reigning queen of Chicago agents finally agreed to take a look and test the waters for me. She asked me to write up a proposal package and a cover letter that she would agree to sign. Once done, she applied the postage and sent out the query to a collection of New York editors. But I will never know how much phone follow-up was done on my behalf if any, with New York, or if this was just a low priority stamp-and mail-project. Several months passed. Then one day a box arrived at my doorstep with my proposals returned to me along with a note attached from her, tersely stating that she could not find anyone interested in my manuscript, and good luck with it.
Then I decided to break all the rules and do something that no author is ever supposed to attempt according to the rules of the game. I traveled to New York with a half dozen manuscripts under my arm to hand-deliver the book to acquisition editors at Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Praeger and others. I was making cold calls – turning up at the reception desk unannounced. Oxford liked my book as it turned out, but had dropped their urban studies line. Macmillan said no but Praeger accepted it, although I did not take my own advice about being careful what you wish for. When my agent found out about the Praeger contract she indignantly scolded me for not cutting her in on it. This coming after she had wished me luck and said she had given up on the project!
I soon found another agent, a part-time correspondent for Publisher’s Weekly from Chicago’s North Shore that I got to know pretty well during the time I worked for the crime encyclopedia. I encouraged my colleague who had so much passion for the world of books and authors to become an agent because the Chicago market was bereft of bonafide literary representation. With good intentions she soon found that she had plunged headfirst into an empty swimming pool, lacking the necessary connections to engage important New York editors with the manuscripts that came over the transom of her Wabash Avenue cubbyhole office.
Farewell Cumberland House…You Were a Great Publisher
One good thing came of it. My second agent managed to find me Cumberland House, a terrific publisher in Nashville, Tennessee who brought out my next three books. Cumberland, under the direction of its founder Ron Pitkin, served me very well. This is the kind of publisher one rarely encounters. His offer of an advance was well above my norm for my kind of books. My Cumberland-published books could be found in all the major retail outlets, and Ron was always open to suggestion, and most importantly, you could talk to him. The sense that you are working with a publisher who is a true partner is one of the intangibles that is important to most authors.
Cumberland published “Return to the Scene of the Crime: a Guide to Infamous Places in Chicago” in 1998 and to date, has sold nearly 23,000 copies – not bad for a book considered too “regional.” Its success inspired a sequel which sold 7,000 more. Ironically, my new agent advised me not to publish my locally best-selling “Return to the Scene,” in the belief that people are not interested in reading about true crime in a violent world. She could not have been more wrong. People love reading true crime, the bloodier the better. In fact library patrons that come to hear my Chicago true crime lectures are mostly men and women over the age of 65 – with many more women! My friend was not faring well with her agency, and was renting space in my mother’s home. My mother had passed away and I was more than happy to help her through tough times. She lived there a few years before moving out, abandoning the dream of launching a successful agency.
Cumberland House published many fine titles in its day, but abruptly closed shop not long after the 2008 recession hit. Like so many publishers dependent upon the purchasing power of Barnes & Noble and Borders, when hard times befell them after 2008, Cumberland ceased operations. Half the titles went to Source Books, and the others were acquired by Turner. Sadly, I never fully appreciated Cumberland until it was no more.
University Press Publishing
I’ve published extensively with university presses – Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Temple and Minnesota. All of them put out books of fine quality, literary merit and impressive appearance. But the scholarly presses are not a real good fit for non-academic authors who do not happen to be on a tenure track, or required to publish in order to hold on to teaching position in the Ivy halls. In recent years however, university presses have broadened their horizons and now publish many non-academic trade books in order to generate revenue to support the more serious but obscure titles that are reviewed in academic journals.
In 2007, I brought out “Shattered Sense of Innocence: the Chicago Child Murders of 1955,” and two years after that, “The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago’s Democratic Machine” with Southern Illinois University Press. “Gambler King” won two major awards and “Shattered” represented five years of intense research. We left no stone unturned in the search for new answers and solutions to the baffling 1955 Schuessler-Peterson murders. It was a difficult and depressing story to write, with many unpleasant editorial disagreements arising with my co-author that followed, but SIU produced a beautiful looking volume nevertheless, although reviews and publicity were again sparse. I believe the book could become a movie, with the right connections. Again, like everything else, it hinges on the “people you know.” And I did not know anyone of consequence in the film world.
These days, the two major Chicago newspapers receive advertising revenue from the big New York publishing houses that the small presses cannot match, and therefore are obliged to review the A-list books sent to them by trade house publicity directors.
I am proud of the recognition of my university press manuscripts that passed muster with juried peer reviews comprised of three subject matter experts. There is the great satisfaction in knowing that your manuscript has cleared rigorous hurdles and is respected for the months of research you have put into it and the quality of writing compared to so much of the self-published or publish-on-demand material that no impartial source has critiqued or peer-reviewed. For regional writers these days, the university press may be the only logical alternative to the mid-sized trade houses like Cumberland that are rapidly vanishing from the scene due in part to the scourge of the Internet and self-publishing.
Earning a Living through the Printed Word…or trying to
All I ever wanted to do was write, but my B.A. degree in history from Northeastern was nearly worthless to employers in 1974, the middle of a recessionary period. I am a historian. I love the research and writing, but I did not plan to teach, and perhaps that was my greatest error of judgment. Nobody hires historians.
So many jobs, so many meaningless jobs (and a few with meaning) were to follow; so many abrupt, sudden left and right angle turns from one field of endeavor to the next. Retail. Marketing. Real Estate. Editor of a police union newspaper. Private Investigations, and for an abbreviated period of time even Publishing.
A-list authors are very fortunate. They can devote all of their cloudless days and sunny afternoons to writing and composing and never have to wonder where the next paycheck comes from. Author tours! The lecture circuit! New York!
At the other end of that spectrum are writers living in reduced circumstances calling themselves “artistes.” Many would eschew working an ordinary job unrelated to the printed word. That I could never do. I desired a meaningful and productive career to complement my work as an author. How meaningful it has all been, well that is the question I ask myself. Sometimes I compare my career changes to a rudderless beach ball bouncing along from wave to wave on a wild California surf, ending up wherever the wind pushed it to. For every book I have ever written and published, I have always maintained a full-time job.
At the age of 23, I received my first payment for editorial work. It was a feature story piece I had written about Rudy Horn, a faded ex-Vaudevillian whose father once owned the Green Mill nightclub and lounge at Lawrence and Broadway. Failing in an attempt to sell it to a defunct city magazine called “Chicagoan,” I presented it to the Lerner Newspaper chain serving residents on the far Northwest Side of Chicago. That was in 1977. They liked my work and asked if I would go to work as a part-time “stringer” covering school board meetings, village planning meetings, prep sports and interview subjects for general feature stories. I did much of the reporting and writing required of me in the evenings and on Thursdays, my day off from my “real job,” selling men’s shoes at the Sears Roebuck, Irving Park Road store.
My earnings from each of these free-lance assignments totaled no more than $15 or $20 per assignment but the chance to call myself a “reporter” meant so much more to me than all of the money in the world. I did not understand it at the time, but it is clear to me now that the weekly newspaper would have taken anyone that could manage to cobble together a few coherent sentences, to cover the myriad of local events the full-time staff reporters could not or would not do. It was never easy for the managing editor to find free-lance writers on the Far Northwest Side of Chicago.
My experiences at Lerner and my history degree from Northeastern were of little interest to the editors at the Sun-Times, Tribune and Daily News where I had dutifully sent my resumes; enough resumes to wall-paper the entire wall of the city room. They did not know me. I never attended the Medill School of Journalism (could not afford to) or had a famous uncle, a mentor, or a “connected” father to sponsor me into a rewarding editorial job at a foundation, a museum, a publisher, a magazine or a newspaper. While writing for Lerner in 1978, my first published book, a curious little paperback titled “Stuck on the Sox” came out, only to be panned by Clarence Peterson, a reviewer for the Tribune. It was one of the lowest points of my life.
I understood at an early age that the reality of earning a living trumps literary ambition. There seemed to be little chance of securing a rewarding career in publishing and journalism. I was only 24. But it was the mid-1970s, and America was mired in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. I was ready to give it all up. I knew I could never quit the day job to become what one sharp-eyed wag who had known enough unemployed poets, painters, musicians, actors and writers refusing to accept honest work in any other field of endeavor unrelated to their talent, to term a “bum of the art world.”
I would not put myself in the position of living off of others. I would try to move up in the world as best as I good and advance myself professionally. I completed 13 years of service with Sears in 1984 and began anew writing scripts for telemarketers at the Signature Group, a now defunct marketing firm peddling memberships over the phone for the Montgomery Ward Auto Club. It was my first full-time writing gig – a step up to corporate America. I thought of it as my escape from the boredom of retail, and a leap into the white collar world; maybe even a chance to become someone of importance. From my little office I observed a passing parade of BMW-driving Yuppies in three piece suits, women with big hair and shoulder pads battling one another for promotions and advancement. In the business argot of the 1980s everyone “pushed the envelope” on one thing or another.
It turned out to be a really crummy post-1970s-recession-Reagan-era malaise job, peddling auto club membership, credit card protection and other worthless, unwanted services to Ward’s customers who were about to see their cherished old department store boarded up. Signature was swallowed up and dissolved a few years later.
Next I answered a blind ad in the newspaper and was hired for a writing job that sounded so very promising. I landed with a small North Suburban publisher producing a crime encyclopedia. It was a real writing job and at last a genuine opportunity to pursue my life’s calling. I gave it everything I had. I churned out voluminous amounts of copy in a short time. I enjoyed the frenetic, fast-paced writing, the irreverence of my desk-mates and the genteel Wilmette setting. I didn’t make much money in those days but found my calling penning true crime stories. The old trees and the stately homes lining leafy streets – a far cry from the cold sterility of the impersonal world of telemarketing in Schaumburg, Downers Grove and the I-88 and I-90 Corridors – it provided a picturesque backdrop to write, reflect and research.
I hoped that the tide had finally risen for me and this would be just the start of my budding editorial career. The publisher accorded me a degree of professional respect as a fellow well-traveled author and I had hoped it would become a long-lasting and profitable association. It did not.
The staff and the publisher managed to beat the editorial deadline and deliver the six volume desk-top set to critical acclaim. However the seed money for the operation ran out and nearly all of the full-time writers had to be let go immediately. I stayed on, and I agreed to work without salary for a period of months in the mistaken hope that the company could be resuscitated with new projects. I lived off of my wife’s paycheck (with great shame) and my dwindling savings until I could no longer survive without steady take-home pay. I feared that I was fast becoming the dreaded “bum of the art world.” My anxiety was unending. I barely had enough money to properly bury my mother following her death in March 1993, nor did I ever recover the months of unpaid salary that was due me.
For the next six years after leaving Wilmette, I toiled in the long and ominous shadow of a police union boss as the editor of his newspaper and as a personal assistant. The paper served as a bully pulpit to rail against his political enemies. I was one of three employees (his attorney and a union steward being the others) required to drop off bundles of papers at Chicago police stations located in dangerous crime-infested neighborhoods late at night when he was certain that the representatives of the rival F.O.P. union would not be lurking about the precinct to discard them in the trash compactor.
In six years, there was no raise in salary for me, no 401K offered, no health insurance coverage provided or the slightest hope of being treated in a courteous, respectful manner free of ridicule, insults and torment from the man that employed me. There was no severance given when I was let go and I have since learned from those traumatic six years that one never fully escapes the bullies of childhood. Sometimes they come back.
No More Envelopes to Push…”We’re Going in a Different Direction”
Beginning in 1998, I went to work in a more commodious setting: the office of a suburban private detective agency. Though no “Hercule Poirot” I could ever hope to be, it was a pleasant enough work environment that carried me through the next six years. The agency was a small business, and the owner a really nice guy who said to me that he knew that if I could work six long years for the tough union boss, he knew I could work for ANYONE. We got along splendidly, but after five years the company foundered, forcing another abrupt 360-degree career turn – this time into the world of commercial real estate.
My real estate career spanned eleven years with two companies. With DTZ, the second firm, I earned a promotion to Vice President of Marketing. By now I was an older employee in an office surrounded by 25-35-year-old go-getters and I lost that job of seven productive years in 2014 for reasons that still remain unclear. “We have decided to move in a different direction.” That is the millennial jargon over-fifty, aging baby boomers often hear in their exit interview these days from H.R. people who cannot look you straight in the eye as they mumble these contrite, life-changing, stab-you-in-the-heart words. No longer are you “pushing the envelope.” Suddenly you have become very old and passé. It was a setback. But as the late Mayor Richard J. Daley observed, “When a door slams, a window opens up.” I’ve discovered that life sometimes work out that way.
Nowadays I am still writing my books, giving presentations about Chicago history to membership groups and libraries, leading occasional bus tours for the Chicago History Museum and I have begun a new career in the pubic sector. I remain hopeful. Book number eighteen, “Gangland Chicago: Criminality and Lawlessness in the Windy City 1837-1990,” came out in 2015. I plan to write a novel in two years. That too will happen, I have no doubt. And I will deliver it to that downtown agent I mentioned earlier.
The common thread to all my convoluted employment situations with the exception of Sears has been my writing. Each of my positions involved the writing of prose; covering high school basketball games, composing telemarketing scripts for the Montgomery Ward Auto Club, penning encyclopedia entries for the crime volumes, drafting labor union propaganda for the police paper, writing complex real estate responses to multi-national corporate “requests for proposal” (RFP), and other tasks involving the written word. I keep busy.
I still cherish and enjoy the creative process; the book research, completing the chapters and seeing the final product begin to take shape and form. Book writing is much like the architect’s blueprint. You start out with idea and inspiration, and from hard work and discipline the bricks and mortar begin to come together. You design. You build. You create….and you hope for a better outcome than the last time. But either way you must take it as it comes and you must never lose faith.
The published volume is a mirror portrait of your inner self – in so many ways, a personal mission as birthing a baby and parenting the child. It is wonderful of course; it’s what comes after that is not so good. Do not let it become the death of hope.