Saturday, October 30, 2010

Where Commercialism Rears Its Head

"Funny you should ask that, Bob. As it says in my book, in chapter 4..."

That's where I roll my eyes and change the radio station or TV channel. I hate... freakin' hate... being "pitched to" in ways that are thinly veiled as something other than pitches. Free webinars that are really just teasers to try to get you to buy big packages of audio books and DVDs, free e-books that promise to tell you all the REAL secrets in the book that you have to pay for... etc.

I think I've struggled with the concept of self-promotion-- and commercialism in general-- since college, when I was an advertising major. Actually, I started as a fine art major, but by sophomore year, realized I wasn't good enough, so I switched into advertising. By the end of junior year, however, I realized I didn't want to spend my life convincing people to buy things they didn't need and couldn't afford.

It's just that it was too late for me to switch majors again without adding another year to my tuition bill, so I graduated, knowing full well I wouldn't use the degree for its intended purpose. (I did take writing classes in school, though, and college was worth it for altogether different purposes, so I'm not complaining.)

As a writer, I struggle with it on an ongoing basis. I'm just not a J.A. Konrath, though he fascinates me. And it's partly about the kinds of books I write, I think. It's not easy to get all "Tweet this!" and "Buy my book and I'll throw in a free report!" when the subject matter is, say, the murder of a 15-year-old boy (My Stolen Son: The Nick Markowitz Story).

It's even harder for Nick's mom to navigate, though. She and I have different sensibilities about promotion. She has no qualms about going up to people and asking them to buy her book, but this has also given the murderer's friends/family fuel for their vitriol. Under pseudonyms, they use it to attack her character, saying that she's making money off her son's murder.

Well, if you want to go that route, actually, I'm the one making money off her son's murder.

Susan paid her entire advance and then some to me to write the book with her. Don't think that makes me happy, either. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Usually, when I ghostwrite books, there's enough advance money for my client and me to split in a way that makes us both happy. Every now and then, there isn't, and then the client has to make a decision about whether to keep me, whether to go with a less experienced (cheaper) writer, or any one of several other options (self-publish, try for another offer, etc.).

Anyway, Susan kept me, mostly because money had nothing to do with why she wants this book to sell. She did this book because she needed to find a purpose to go on living. Her only child was killed over the stupidest damn thing-- a drug debt owed by his half-brother-- and Susan was in and out of mental hospitals for years, trying to kill herself every few months. Mostly pills, which would mean she'd get her stomach pumped and have pointy objects taken away for a few days, then she'd get released again and try to figure out if anything had changed... nope. Her son was still dead and she still wanted to join him.

His murder was made into a movie (Alpha Dog, which was fictionalized somewhat, but true to the main facts), and the person who pulled the trigger was sentenced to the death penalty. The person who ordered the murder, however (Jesse James Hollywood-- yes, his real name), went on the run and evaded capture for years. He impregnanted a woman in Brazil after learning that Brazil wouldn't extradite someone who fathered a child there. Luckily, when police finally did track him down, they didn't have to worry about extradition. He was there illegally, so he was simply deported, then arrested when he landed in California.

It took nearly 10 years from the time of the murder until the time when Hollywood was sentenced. He was just sentenced earlier this year-- life in prison without the possibility of parole.

When the media asked for her comments, Susan said she was writing a book.

The majority of people were very supportive. A few were nasty. One accused her of trying to get her 15 minutes of fame (because, sure, everyone wants their son to be brutally murdered so they can be famous, right?). Another basically said she was tacky and should leave the selling to the publisher.

When Susan started her work on this book, it was more like a journal, and I think it was mostly for her own therapy. Over time, it became something more. There were lessons here, insights she wanted to pass on. Part of her motive was still to share her memories about her son, so it wouldn't feel so much like he was just "gone," and part of it was to show people-- in a brutally honest way-- where things went wrong. How the family got to the point where things were so out of control, and what the aftermath was like.

It's very hard to sell earnestness, though. I wish it didn't feel so in conflict-- wanting to tell everyone, "BUY THIS BOOK! IT MATTERS! IT'LL STICK WITH YOU FOREVER!" yet knowing there's an undercurrent of "And I have a financial stake in it!"

I have to believe that we'll strike the right balance, and that most people will understand that we both worked on this book for the right reasons. Making money is a fine goal; it just wasn't the main goal for this book. I wanted to do it because it felt like an honor; Susan wanted to do it because it might just mean her son's death wasn't for nothing. Together, we wrote a damn fine book, and I'm trying to step out of my happy little shadow to make sure the world knows it.


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P.S. New review at True Crime Book Reviews-- "She is so open, so brutally honest, so personable – I spent three-fourths of this book in tears..." Thank you, Kim Cantrell.

3 comments:

  1. I'm about 3/4 of the way through reading the book. Anyone who actually reads it will know that financial gain is not the main goal behind it being written. What an incredibly sad story, and a waste of so many lives.

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  2. I think this is why, when people have approached me about writing "their story" I've always felt really uncomfortable...and why I'll stick with fiction. :-\

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  3. Zebra Rag, is that you, Angie? Thank you very much.

    AstonWest, despite the baggage that sometimes comes with it, I love what I do. Writing books like Susan's makes my life feel much more meaningful.

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Nice to hear your voice! Er... see your voice? See your text? Bah! You know what I mean.