By Rob Neyer
Three years ago this March, I was living a dream.
I had an apartment three blocks from Fenway Park, I had plans to attend all eighty-one games the Red Sox played at Fenway Park, and — this seemed like the best part — a huge New York publishing house had agreed to pay me a handsome sum for my New England sojourn. They’d even give me half this handsome sum before I did anything to earn it — to earn it, I was supposed to write a book that resembled, at least to some degree, a proposal I’d written — with the other half to come after I’d submitted an acceptable manuscript.
If you want to know what happened during that 2000 season, you gotta buy, borrow, or steal Feeding the Green Monster; this piece (or at least most of it) is about what happened after the season.
My book was due at the publishing house on December 1. That was a Friday, and my editor — we’ll call him “Jeff” — said I could have until December 4. I spent the weekend feverishly making last-minute changes, and the morning of the 4th I e-mailed the entire book to Jeff.
Every author – or at least every author I know – experiences some degree of trepidation after submitting a manuscript and until he gets some encouraging words from his editor.
So I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more.
Finally, on December 21, I got some words from my editor.
They were something less than encouraging.
The first paragraph of Jeff’s e-mail message included the words, “I’ve put off writing this painful letter long enough.”
The second paragraph included the words, “This can only be brutal” and “It’s a long way from what I think it needs to be in order to be publishable.”
The fourth paragraph included — no, it featured — the word, “artless.”
The third, fifth, and sixth paragraphs weren’t a lot of fun, either.
Jeff did suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved, but 1) he was essentially talking about a complete rewrite, and 2) my agent didn’t think Jeff really wanted to publish the book, rewrite or no rewrite. And the truth was that after nine months of obsessing over this book, I had absolutely no interest in starting from scratch with little assurance that Jeff would like my second effort any more than he liked my first.
Which isn’t to say I thought he was wrong. The things he didn’t like about my book were, for the most part, things that I didn’t like about my book. The real problem wasn’t that I’d written a bad book, though; it was that I hadn’t written the book he wanted me to write. The book that he was expecting. The book he thought I had promised, in my proposal, to write.
How did this happen? Shortly after I’d moved to Boston, Jeff and I got together for an awkward lunch in one of those New York restaurants where there’s no sign on the door and you spend thirty-five bucks on three leafs of spinach and a glass of water. I was the only patron wearing denim, and Jeff bolted to the restroom without a word (then seemed offended when, upon his return, I asked him if everything was okay). That was the first time I really felt like perhaps I’d made a bad decision somewhere along the way.
After that, Jeff and I didn’t talk much. Actually, we didn’t talk at all. I’d promised that I’d send him some material at the end of April, but that deadline came and went, with me sending nothing and he not asking why. We were supposed to see a game at Yankee Stadium in June, but Jeff stood me up.
Then, nothing until the e-mail in December. I responded the next day with a conciliatory note — I’d been pretty bummed for a few hours, then moved on, thanks in part to the support of Jay Mandel, my agent — and it took another two weeks for Jeff to respond to my response. He said, again, that I should start over.
At which point I gave up, and Jay started shopping the book to other publishing houses. Actually, before he did that, I had to go through the manuscript one more time, mostly with the goal of cutting 25,000 words (which I did, most of those words having no reason for existence in the first place). Then Jay started shopping the book around.
We had some interest, but by then it was February, at which point it’s impossible to promote and publish a book in time for the spring baseball-book season. As a result, the editors who were interested wanted me to revise — if not rewrite — the book to make it less 2000-centric, and thus publishable in the spring of 2002. Eventually, we had an offer from an editor who did want to publish Feeding the Green Monster in 2001 … as an e-book.
The publisher was iPublish, the e-publishing arm of Time Warner Books. And in addition to the e-version, there would also be a paperback edition of the book, which made publishing my book electronically at least a bit less embarrassing.
So that’s what we did. The e-book was released in the spring of 2001, the paperback a few months later.
I was never under any illusions about the popularity of e-books. Still, it was a little disheartening to read, that fall in The Wall Street Journal, just how poorly e-books had fared in the marketplace. And it was even more disheartening to read, a month or two later, that AOL Time Warner was shutting down iPublish. As you might guess, Feeding the Green Monster was not a runaway bestseller. I received a pittance from iPublish, and I still owe a fair chunk of change to Jeff’s employers.
Today, I have a lot of different feelings about the book. Knowing that one of the bright young stars of the publishing world hated it … well, that hurts a little. Having it published as an e-book was, and is, somewhat humiliating. And when all’s said and done, I’m going to take a pretty serious financial hit on the project.
On the other hand, I got to spend a year in a great city, and see eighty-one baseball games at my favorite ballpark. I was lucky enough to make two new friends, delightful people with whom I’m still in regular contact. And you know what? Some people really liked the book. At least that’s what they tell me, and they’re not all close friends and blood relatives.
I haven’t read all of Feeding the Green Monster since I cut those 25,000 words. I have read snippets, a page here and a page there, and there are some things in the book that I like. That said, I know it’s not a perfect book, and that it’s not exactly the book that I initially conceived. But you know, if somebody likes it, if anybody likes it, who am I to say he or she is wrong?
So I don’t care to pass judgement on that book. I wrote it three years ago when I was a slightly different person, and however good it is or isn’t, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do about it now.
Which isn’t to say I don’t think about the experience just about every day. I learned an important lesson, and it’s a lesson that keeps on giving. I had a choice between two editors and two publishers, and I selected the editor and the publisher that offered more money. I don’t think I was being particularly greedy; I knew that spending a year in Boston and attending something like one hundred baseball games wasn’t going to be cheap. Still, if I’d taken the time to talk to each of the editors who showed interest in my proposal, I’d have probably made a different decision, a better decision that would, in the long run, have been more financially and artistically rewarding than the one I made.