Blood on the Tracks

A racing freight train couldn't stop Sean Rowe, but can he survive the wild world of book publishing?

What I've learned in the Book Biz (So Far)

1. You will go broke. That six-figure advance? Here's what happens to it. Federal income taxes eat 27 percent. Now pay your literary agent 15 percent and spend a few thousand more on state income taxes. Finally, you get to pay back all the debt you've accumulated in recent years, much of it directly related to writing the book. When it's all over, you have about enough left for a new pair of socks and a Whopper with cheese.

2. Total strangers will fuck you -- but not in the way you had hoped. The latest case in point: After glowing reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post, my former hometown newspaper decides to play contrarian. Oline Cogdill of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel calls my characters "mere shadows" and my novel "low grade" (a pun!) -- without, of course, offering any evidence for these assertions.

Sean Rowe, waiting for his second novel to suck
Colby Katz
Sean Rowe, waiting for his second novel to suck

3. Your friends will hope you fail. An old newspaper colleague and fellow author calls me up and says, "You know what? I hope you fail." He isn't joking. And he isn't really being mean. He's simply saying out loud what others are thinking.

4. Your own family may turn on you. After reading an early draft of Fever, my sister refuses to talk to me "ever again," i.e., about two months. Why? I have named one of my characters Kelli, and since my sister's name is Kelly, she concludes that the character is her. This despite the fact that she's a practicing poet and should know the difference between reality and fiction. In the course of the novel, the Kelli character gets knocked off, and in a tearful letter, my sister accuses me of "hostility." I change the character's name to Koko.

5. Your ex-girlfriend will sell your soul on eBay. You inscribe an advance review copy of your novel and hand-deliver it to an old flame. Weeks later, she calls you and mentions that she was cleaning house recently and sold your book on eBay. For three bucks.

6. There will be no groupies. Rock stars have groupies. Aspiring rock stars have groupies. Aspiring rock stars who live in their mothers' basements have groupies. You will have no groupies.

7. No one will tell you shit. What's the first print run? What's the promotional budget? Will there be a book tour? If so, how extensive? Finally, how are sales going? These seem like reasonable questions, but after e-mailing New York for the tenth time and receiving polite brush-offs, you will learn to stop asking.

8. You will become a whore. Think you're going to pull a J.D. Salinger? Think again. You will be contractually obligated to get up on your hind legs and dance like a monkey for the pleasure of suburban housewives. This is called a book tour. Your publisher will put you up at the Biltmore in Coral Gables and give you a generous food stipend -- the literary equivalent of a red miniskirt and matching heels -- and put you on the street.

9. Your second novel will suck. Why do so many second novels prove to be stinkers? It's not just the psychological pressure to live up to a successful first one, though that's part of it. It's because, from the moment you sign that contract, you may have as little as a year to deliver the goods. In reality, you'll have six months, because you will still be working your day job, waiting for the advance to arrive so that you can quit. And guess when the deadline for your second novel occurs? Precisely when you are spending eighteen hours a day promoting your first one.

10. Brad Pitt will not call you. Yes, you will have a Hollywood book agent. But the odds of your book going to film are approximately equivalent to your odds of being hit by a freight train and living to talk about it. Hmm. Wait a minute...

Don't feel too badly for him -- Sean also acknowledged that he's having the time of his life. When we spoke last Thursday, he was ready to take a dip in the Biltmore's famous pool. He says he still has some aches and pains in the morning and some memory problems, but he's pretty much fully recovered and working on that second book, titled I-95. Odds are, considering what he's already done with his second shot at life, it won't really suck.

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