Monday, November 25, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 46: Encouragement/Discouragement

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)I am rapidly closing in on a full year in my agent hunting quest. Today, I mailed off 10 proposal packages, some of which included sample chapters, some not, in accordance with the various target agents' submission guidelines. I started out with a carefully considered list of 80 potential agents when I began this thing. These 10 are the final names on my list. Amongst the previous 70 agents I have submitted to are some of the giants in the field. Agents who pretty much deal exclusively in New York Times bestsellers and nominees for various literary awards. Newer agents, start-up and every type in between were in the mix as well. Essentially, if the agent/agency had a legitimate track record and represented non-fiction, specifically history (but women's issues were a plus) then they made my list.

A small percentage of the agents never responded to my queries and/or proposal, which is poor form, but not terribly uncommon. Another subset quickly but professionally informed me that my Chicken Ranch book is not the type of work they're comfortable repping. Fair enough. I get that. The remainder... sigh. The remainder have responded positively. They like my query, and request my formal proposal. They like my proposal, and request sample chapters. They think the sample chapters are good, and request the entire manuscript. A week or three later, they respond with some variation of, "I think this is a very good book with commercial potential, but..." That single "but" is soul-crushing, folks.

A top agent recently said good things about the manuscript, but... he thought it'd be more interesting as a first-person Hunter S. Thompson gonzo journalistic piece. If I rewrote it into a completely different book, he'd take another look at it and might consider repping me. Another agent thought my book was perfect as-is, but... had to pass because my "platform" wasn't high-profile enough. Their editorial contacts wouldn't consider work from authors with fewer than 100,000 Twitter followers, see. Still another saw potential in the topic, but... thought my writing style too fluid, not treating the history with enough deference for potential academic audiences. Another thought the prostitution angle great, but... wanted me to take out all the endnotes and citations, add graphic sex and turn it into a salacious tell-all. But... there's been so much published about the Chicken Ranch the market is saturated. But... there's very little published about the Chicken Ranch, that means there is no market. But... nobody has ever heard of the Chicken Ranch, so there is no audience for this book. But... everyone already knows the story from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," so there is no audience for this book.

Not a single agent rejected the book because the writing sucked. They found other reasons for rejecting the book, sometimes describing to me in excruciating detail how they talked themselves out of it. If they just said, "This is terrible. I couldn't get beyond the third page," I could understand that. I could accept that. I wouldn't like it, but it would make sense. This brave new publishing world in which a book's worthiness is evaluated by everything but the quality of the work in question is confounding.

So, where do we go from here? If this final round of agent queries falls into the quagmire of buts..., then I will move on to querying regional and specialty publishers that do not require an agent for submissions. These have less leverage in the marketplace, yes, and pay much smaller advances (if at all) but they do know their target markets and have well-established distribution networks, which is no small consideration. I am hesitant to approach university/academic publishers, because frankly, they've got some very strange phobias about primary sources, ie interviews, used in books. Being the cynical journalist that I am, I'd rather not go down that route.

So what happens, god forbid, if the regional presses turn me down? Since I started this project however many years ago, certain parties have been lobbying me hard to self-publish. I am reluctant to do so for a wide array of reasons, chief among them the near-impossibility of getting any sort of distribution for a self-published book. Yes, I believe this book could be successful as a self-published work, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life selling it out of the trunk of my car and begging bookstores to place a few copies on their consignment shelves. Having my byline in print is no big motivator for me--I've had my name in print around the world, and more clippings and credits on top of that. I don't just want to have this book published, I want it in front of people. I want it noticed. I want it read far and wide. I don't want 3,000 copies sitting in boxes in my garage. Some have suggested I could circumvent all of these hurdles by going the Kickstarter route to fund a print run. Which sounds good on the face of it, but I've looked into a little, and books just don't do well on Kickstarter. Printed matter just isn't terribly sexy for the online set. Yes, I could possibly make it work with careful planning and laying a lot of groundwork, but once you get down to it, publishing, book design, sourcing press run bids and the accounting needed to make it all work lies way outside my skill set. And I've seen plenty of gosh-wow worthy Kickstarters wither on the vine simply because they failed to capture the imagination of the interwebz. Not everyone can be John Picacio.

That's where we stand today. I share this not to wallow in self-pity or invite sympathy, but to educate and inform. This is the cruel reality of publishing, even for someone who plays (mostly) by the rules while keeping an eye on the alternatives. Lest you think I'm only about doom and gloom, I do have two pieces of moderately good news to share: I've received my first two cover blurbs for the book!

"Jayme Blaschke has done a superb job in telling the story of the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas. He delves into the perhaps mythical history of its ancestor, Mrs. Swine's establishment. He deals affectionately with civic benefactor Miss Edna and her boarders, as well as their protector and civic leader, Fayette County Sheriff Jim Flournoy.

This is the best account of the Best Little Whorehouse In Texas ever written."

                 – Former five-term Texas Lt. Governor William P. "Bill" Hobby, Jr.
Not a bad endorsement for a book that doesn't even have an agent, much less a publisher, eh? I'm just as proud of this next one:

"Broadway and motion pictures popularized--and trivialized--the story of the famed Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, Texas. The real story is far more interesting, presenting a mirror to mores and conventions not just in that one locale, but for much of America. From its heyday to its ignominious demise, the Chicken Ranch was the story of enterprise, politics, power, and even patriotism, writ in the garish hues of cheap makeup. Jayme Blaschke's [book] is a compelling and brilliantly researched exploration of a unique icon of Texas history and society, and what its rise and fall says about America. One comes away with the feeling that when outside pressure finally closed down the Chicken House, it was an act of cultural vandalism."

                                   – William C.Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo
                                                                                               and Lone Star Rising
Davis' stamp of approval means a great deal to me. I'm not a historian. I'm a journalist by background, and I approached the whole Chicken Ranch project as and investigative journalism piece. It was no small fear of mine that professional historians would turn up their noses at it, pointing out everything I did wrong. The fact that Mr. Davis not only liked it, but was enthusiastic in his approval, is extremely gratifying (and a tremendous relief). If you get a chance, check out his publication history. He's one of the heavy-hitters when it comes to Southern U.S. history.

So, that is where things currently stand. I know people are impatient and have waited a long time to read this book. I just ask for a little more patience. I'm working hard to get it into print, but in the right way that ensures this story is seen by the maximum number of people. We're getting closer, even it doesn't seem like it.

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