I Wrote a Book; You Gotta Be Nuts!

I retired from forty years working in the pharmaceutical industry and I wrote a book, to become a writer in retirement. I could have written scientific manuals for companies on how best to obtain a license for marketing their drug or biopharmaceutical from the FDA. But, I’d been doing that for many years, and I wanted to have some fun, do something completely different.

I decided on fiction, a comedy murder mystery with an FDA reviewer turned lunatic amateur private eye. I staged it in the pharmaceutical/biotech world where I am very familiar. Dear God, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I wrote a book. Help me! Allow me to elaborate.

I quickly learned that, while I have had a successful career as a pharmacologist, I didn’t know jack squat about writing, publishing or marketing a fiction novel. Writing is great fun, but if you actually want anyone to read the book you have to sell it.

Apparently, there are over one million new books published a year in the US, in addition to the already-existing 13 million to compete with for sales. The self-publishing industry has exploded, to the point where your new book is buried under a mountain of others. In order to become a best-selling author, or even sell a few hundred books, you have to know someone, kidnap someone, sell your soul to someone…and write a really good people that will peak the interest of the two people left in the US who still like to read. But, I wrote a book.

Silly me, I wrote a book not knowing the ins and outs of this paradoxical maze. I started with two dark murder mysteries that I entitled the Guardian Angel series. I had yet to discover the nightmare that is publishing, marketing and selling.

With the Guardian Angel series, I encountered my first hurdle, transitioning from a technical writer to a fiction writer. Having worked as a scientist in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry, I was an excellent technical writer, describing in detail the scientific studies and data required by the FDA to obtain a drug license. But, I soon discovered that in a fiction novel it’s best if the characters tell the story, which means dialogue. The book is more interesting and flows better with strong characters, and the characters tell the story better than I do. This might be why there aren’t a lot of technical documents, like the directions to how to use your vacuum cleaner, on the best-seller list.

After struggling with this issue for a few months, I decided to join a local author’s writing club. The purpose of the club was to meet other struggling authors, read sections of your work in progress to the group and receive constructive comments. I met some nice people, received some helpful comments and learned that I needed to develop a much thicker skin if I was going to survive this writing thing. I wrote a book, and wow, what a trip.

Whenever it was my turn to read, I always wished I had braced myself with several fingers of whiskey. Common comments included “you need more showing, and less telling”, or “that character isn’t at all realistic”, or “no woman would ever react that way; what’s wrong with you?”, or “of course tears run down your face, where the hell else would they run?” 

There were lots of recommendations for inclusion of the senses, sight, smell, taste and touch. The occasional grammatical error was pointed out, and there were even some good ideas for plot changes. Every once in a while, someone would ask why the main character’s name was Charles in Chapter 1 and Fred in Chapter 2. Then there were the times when I read what I thought to be a funny line, only to be met with deafening and uncomfortable silence. Overall, I found this experience to be quite helpful, as long as I didn’t take any of the comments personally. So, I wrote a book.

I found the writing of the book to be pure joy, a completely creative experience. All of the ideas that I put to paper came exclusively from my own brain, and my imagination went wild. Putting together the first draft of the book is by far my favorite thing.

Then comes the editing. There’s editing for spelling, grammar, consistency and continuity. For example, the main character’s name can’t be Elizabeth in the first five chapters and them magically become Carmen for the remainder of the book. And, the character can’t start out as a twenty-six-year-old, and ten years later be twenty-seven, and have a forty-year-old son.

Or, a character can’t enter the house, have a conversation and then enter the same house again without first leaving, or drive away without first getting into their car. Consistency and continuity can be tricky. One of my pet peeves is a book that jumps back and forth in time; it’s difficult for me to follow the continuity and I never quite know where I am in the story. My publisher told me that the best books have a clean timeline forward, and I tend to agree.

Getting a book published involves magic. At one point I considered the dark arts, but decided against it (my soul is intact). With my Guardian Angel books, I sent out hundreds of query letters to agents, received more rejections than I sent out letters (how is this possible), and talked to my doctor about a prescription for an antidepressant. Studies have shown that 150% of all authors are on antidepressants for life, and some even longer. Good thing I’m a pharmacologist.

I also sent query letters and manuscripts to seven small publishers that accepted them without an agent, and got back seven rejections. I ended up self-publishing my two Guardian Angel books on Amazon kdp, where I sold a few copies here and there. They are very dark murder mysteries, with the evilest of villains, and it was with great satisfaction that I had the good guys smite them. I was glad I wrote a book.

My comedy murder mystery, PLEASURIA: TAKE AS DIRECTED, provided a different scenario, no antidepressants required. I sent the query letters and manuscript to 20 agents and seven small publishers. Two of the publishers responded within two weeks, both with positive reviews. One of them said I had a wicked good sense of humor, and the other said the book was filled with laugh-out-loud comedy, a fun read, and published the book. I obviously prefer the route with no antidepressants required, and I’m grateful for this blessing.

Then comes the marketing of the book. This is like pulling teeth, and I’m not fond of dentists. I hired a marketing expert, set up an author website, and learned way too much about marketing on social media. Then there’s the launch, both in person and online, and the book sales. Sales can be online, in bookstores, at carnivals, out of the back of a van, anywhere you can find people who read.

I learned than when you go with a small publisher it’s a lot like self-publishing, in that you are responsible for most of the marketing. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, once you put out a book for sale, you can either spend your life writing the next book, or marketing your first one, or give up sleep. All of a sudden there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

The other fairly relevant tidbit of information that I learned is that the system is set up for everyone but the author to make money. You have to have an author website, which doesn’t come for free. The author usually has to buy reviews (you need lots on Amazon to get maximum exposure), buy marketing and/or hire a marketing expert, the publisher gets a cut, and the agent (if you can get one) gets a cut. 

One agent actually took friend of mine to a vanity publisher that wanted to charge him a lot of money to publish his book. Another friend finally got an agent after a year’s worth of query letters, and the agent died before she got him a book deal. The nerve of some people (just kidding). Personally, from my experience an agent is some mythical being, like a genie, that is unobtainable without knowing the secret incantation. I can attest that the incantation doesn’t include a lot of four letter words, or I’d have an agent myself.

You can sell your book on Amazon, who will happily take your money to participate in one of their many advertisement plans. There are literally gazillions of people out there willing to review and advertise your book, for a large fee. As the author, you end up with somewhere between a quarter and a couple of dollars per book sold, so you gotta sell a helluva a lot of books to make a profit.

With over 13 million books already out there to compete with, including Janet Evanovich (my favorite author, but why am I telling you that?), I asked myself how do I make my book stand out and get recognition? I thought about writing a new genre, pharmaceutical pornography, but my wife and daughters recommended against it, if I didn’t want them to change their last names and leave with no forwarding address. Kind of rude, don’t you think? (Come to think of it, I kind of sneakily did include some facits of pharmaceutical pornography…it’s just subtle. What am I talking about? Read the book.)

I’ve also discovered that, as with many things, I’m behind the curve. I should have taken up this writing thing a couple of decades ago. The actual book market has shrunk drastically in the past several years. There’s the fact that I’m not sure teachers in school actually teach kids how to read anymore. They’re apparently too busy telling them how much America sucks.

Men apparently don’t read at all. They just watch sports and drink beer. Since only women read, this explains why romance novels are by far the #1 best sellers. I took a look at a couple of romance novels recently, and they’re…well…much like pharmacological pornography, but without the pharmacology.

Apparently women authors are smarter than men, and they figured out that ‘romantic novels’ (some would call this soft porn) would sell. Good for them. I went with a comedy murder mystery, but to my credit there are some humping rats in the book, and at one point the CEO of a company humps the main character’s leg (you’re gonna have to read the book for more on that). Not exactly pornography, but…well…definitely different.

The book market has shrunk for other reasons as well. There’s that damn Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. People spend their free time binge-watching TV shows, often through their eye-lids (at least that’s my routine) instead of reading. I binge watch things like Murder She Wrote, old sci-fi movies, lots of British Murder mysteries. (Forget I said that. I want you to read). I still read, but mostly in the bath tub. It’s necessary to be really careful that I don’t fall asleep and drop my Kindle in the water. I could get electrocuted. But, the more I read the cleaner I am.

Then there’s those darn addictive video games. People play video games all the time, and you can even play with friends and strangers online. There’s also the Oculus Quest, where you can go live in a Covid-free virtual world. In there you can fall off Mt. Everest, fall off a roller coaster, fall out of an airplane, fall off your couch, get eaten by a dinosaur or gorilla. You can also shoot lots of critters (gangsters, monsters, cowboys, soldiers, robots, drones, aliens, wild animals (hunting games)…you name it and it’s there to shoot.

The odd thing is that with the Covid-19 pandemic, you’d think the Chinese would have provided us with more time to read, being quarantined at home and all. You’d be wrong. Parents working from home while taking care of their elderly parents, helping their children attend school virtually, cooking, cleaning, etc. don’t have enough hours in the day as it is.

And, the grandparents are binge-watching TV while the children are playing video games online in what little spare time they have. There’s barely time to sleep, let alone read. I recommend that everyone take more baths…and read paper books so you don’t drop your Kindle in the tub.

Total sales for a new book apparently average around 200 copies over the life of the book. I’ve reached a little more than that with PLEASURIA. This is a losing proposition; after paying a marketing expert, running social media campaigns, website fees, etc, and what the publisher takes, there’s not much in the way of profits. I’m thinking about self-publishing the sequel to PLEASURIA, so I can at least keep more of the profits.

I need to find a way to entice more people into buying the book. Maybe I should just give away the next book online and then start a go-fund-me page for a starving author. PLEASURIA: TAKE AS DIRECTED actually is a good mystery with laugh-out-loud comedy and a fun read. It’s just practically impossible to get enough people to take a look at the book, what with the kazillion other ones on the market.

In conclusion, you’ve gotta be nuts to write a book in this day and age. I had no idea why I would do it again. Then a friend and neighbor recently told me, “John, I really enjoyed PLEASURIA. It made me laugh, and I like your writing style. When’s the sequel coming out? I’m looking forward to it.” Wow! I have a fan.

So…the sequel, entitled MURDER BY ROAD TRIP, is coming out end of September. PI Longfellow is traveling across the country with his family, and someone is trying to kill him and steal his teeth. I am co-authoring this one with my youngest daughter. It’s another comedy murder mystery, the sequel to PLEASURIA: TAKE AS DIRECTED, and the staging is based on a trip that my daughter and I took around the country (7600 miles in 30 days). 

She also happens to be a marketing professional in her other life, she co-wrote the book with me, she’s providing the cover and we’re going to self-publish. So there’s that. It’s definitely NOT pharmaceutical porn, in fact no porn of any kind. It is another great mystery, with more laugh-out-loud comedy. And, it’s perfect for reading in the bathtub.

If you like this article, you might also enjoy my book PLEASURIA: TAKE AS DIRECTED (Koehler Books), available on Amazon at http://bit.ly/pleasuria.

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