By Ray Stern
By New Times
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Pity the unpublished author. He works in solitude, unrecognized, unknown. He lays bare his soul on the page. Then, what? He sends his manuscript away, typically to publishers picked out of a library reference book. In return, he gets rejection letters and the suggestion that next time he should use an agent. So it's back to the reference shelves. More names of strangers who live in New York. More blind submissions. More rejection letters. It all becomes very discouraging, not to mention very expensive, considering the self-addressed, stamped envelope required with all lit-biz correspondence.
Most publishers long ago ceased accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Agents do the reading, then submit "projects" they deem worthy--read salable--to their let's-have-lunch friends who toil in publishing houses. They do it not for the love of a good read, but rather for a percentage of any eventual revenue raised by the book. The big-name authors and broadcasting personalities who dominate best-seller lists are exempt from this agony, of course. But the ranks of the unpublished wishing to join the Grishams, Crichtons, Limbaughs and Sterns are not. Bruce Woods, editor of the scribe-trade magazine Writer's Digest, estimates that far fewer than one-fourth of all the people who write books ever see them on a commercial bookshelf. "A lot of people have a book sitting in a drawer somewhere that they sent off ten times and have given up on it," he says. Instead of giving up, an unpublished Tucson author is bidding to change the system. Doug Bovinet, a retired teacher, is now accepting submissions for the "inaugural edition" of something called Author's Express. The idea: Writers send one-page synopses of their book ideas (query letters," in bookspeak) to Doug. He assembles the one-pagers into a newspaper-size pamphlet, then sends the pamphlet (updated every month) to a mailing list of almost 2,000 agents around the country. The agents, now doing their business via Doug's one-stop-shopping mailer, are free to call and offer big contracts to whichever soon-to-be-best-selling authors catch their eyes. The appeal of such a publication to agents is obvious--to Bovinet, at least.
"For one, they don't have to spend so much time opening mail," he says. "They can simply open up the paper and browse through it. It also eliminates the need for sending out rejection letters, which they don't like to do any more than we like receiving them."
On rejection, Bovinet speaks with authority. The manuscript pages of his first book, a novel set in Palestine, have been gathering drawer dust for more than a decade. His subsequent literary efforts, one an environmental horror story set in Tucson, the other "light science fiction," have met with equal disinterest from the publishing industry. Not all of the thanks-but-no-thanks replies from editors and agents have been discouraging, Bovinet says. But they have been plentiful. "I would say probably somewhere close to 300," he says. "I sent the books to anyone and everyone who I thought might possibly represent me."
Based on membership rolls of Arizona writers' associations, Bovinet estimates the local population of authors (unpublished and otherwise) to be almost 2,000. Accordingly, the first edition of Author's Express will be Arizona-only. The cost to include your one-page cover letter will be $45. When the pub goes national--and Bovinet is sure it will, soon--the cost for inclusion will inflate to $75. Woods, the Writer's Digest editor, is "real skeptical" about Bovinet's plan.
"There are a couple of computerized services who, if you pay them enough, they'll drop your manuscript into their database, and they make their database available to agents and editors. To my knowledge, none of those have had any significant impact," he says.
"Basically, what these people need is not to have their query letters thrown in with a bunch of other query letters; they need to write better query letters." Speaking for his agent friends, Woods adds: "If you're going to ignore one query letter, it's just as easy to ignore a bookful of them. I hope it works for the guy, but it doesn't sound like the answer."
Bovinet says his mailer (more than likely a nonprofit enterprise) will be open to all genres, including cookbooks, screenplays and poetry.
Writers worrying about idea theft shouldn't, he says. "Initially, that concern exists," he says, "but when they realize that this paper is only going out to the same people they're sending their queries to anyway, they see it really isn't any different." Naturally, Bovinet's own pitches will be a regular feature in Author's Express. "I want to find an agent myself through this if I can," he says, although, he quickly adds, "I feel like writing has been a very worthwhile experience for me, even if I never publish anything."
THE REAL DAVID BROCK. YECCH.... v1-20-94