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Jon Horton

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Publishing Gauntlet

jackson hole blog

by j. r. horton

february 2005

where was I? oh yeah, the publishing gauntlet that began when my sister and i split off from the old paradigm and skipped gaily off to do our own thing tra la tra la.

first an aside. i was listening to Prairie Home Companion one Sunday and
Ricky Skaggs the famous singer and mandolin player mentioned that his new CD was available on Skaggs Family Records and, more recently, Sinead O’Connor has started her own label. that means that even some multimillionaire artists are taking their destinies into their hands in order to keep their work undiluted by the bean counters and marketers who make almost all the artistic decisions for the mega-merchants.

Sunlight Publishing's first effort, the second edition of my first published novel, was an unqualified success. it went almost completely unnoticed on the national level but regionally it sold like beer at a University of Wyoming football game. Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble picked it up and i did signings at B&N bookstores in Salt Lake City, Idaho Falls, Billings, Cheyenne, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and even Claremont, California. i also did signings at independent bookstores all over Wyoming and the fringe areas of adjoining states. the regional buzz was most excellent. oh boy.

what now? Murder in Mixteca which i had finished in the two years since taking the rights to MJH back from the regional publisher. they had peddled 5000 copies of MJH with little or no promotion before we re-published the title but now we were making bigger waves and making much better sales. what could possibly go wrong?

note: before you blow this off as snivel and drivel by a writer with no talent please visit Amazon and read the reviews of the four novels there under Jon R Horton and J Royal Horton. now back to the snivel.

I won't go into details but my sister and i got caught up in a family dustup and she, probably subconsciously, sent a preliminary proof of the cover of Mixteca to the printer and it came back with a cover so incompetent that the book was almost completely unmarketable. too much blood under the bridge, as Edward Albee says about close relationships in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

if the fallout from that sort of screw-up isn't apparent to you, it means that when there are six titles planned the progressive linkage from book to book has to be strong so the marketing and publicity can build upon the success of the last. when Mixteca fell flat the series came to a screeching halt and that took years out of my life. in geology that sort of thing is called a discontinuity. shit.

denial is founded on the desperate need to believe that accidents are the main confounders of success. i submit that passive aggressive behavior by people you trust is probably responsible for just as many failures. what to do? why not publish a Western novel instead of clearing the wreckage of Mixteca by taking 3500 books to the dump and starting over with a new cover? OK.

Gib: A Contemporary Western was originally conceived to satisfy my creative thesis for a master's degree at Idaho State University. but theNational Organization of Women hijacked the Affirmative Action bus in the mid-1970s and the minority males were shoved to the rear while the working class white guys with degrees from land-grant universities found themselves tumbled in the dust and horse turds as the bus pulled away. WHAT Bill of Rights? we heard the driver shout as she slammed the pedal to the metal.

I got up, dusted myself off, looked around, and went directly into the oil patch, leaving the novel behind. But now, many years later, finishing the book seemed like the next indicated step and we, my sister Stormy and myself, did that. Sunlight published the book and it has sold as well as MJH, if not better. everyone loves Gib and it should have resurrected the fortunes of the publishing company. what could go wrong now?

for two things, my sister could almost lose her foot in a traffic accident and be incapacitated for over a year then get breast cancer. suffice to say that Sunlight Publishing disappeared below the horizon for the next three years or so.

I had just retired and had some real time on my hands so i decided to resurrect Sunlight and do everything but the design myself. my first effort would be an occasional book titled Snuffy Johnson's Cowboy Christmas and i would use Lightning Source, a founder of Print On Demand (POD) in the states. i budgeted $11,000, did a 34-page business plan and projected sales of $108,000 gross. boy oh boy what could possibly go wrong now?

the incompetent book designer i hired arbitrarily decided to change the pub date from 15 november 2004 to 1 January 2005 and by the time i caught the mistake the book had suffered a partial-birth whatisname. it sold four copies and grossed about $107,979 dollars less than i had projected. my god why go on?

note: in that vein let me add a footnote (midnote) here. Gib as a finished work first saw light in the form of a spec screenplay written for West Films in Jackson Hole. that script tossed on the waves of the septic tank called Hollywood for years. then i showed the script to a neighbor who was a screen writer and he loved it. loved it well enough to re-write my novel and screenplay then sell the book to Knopf and the script to Robert Redford. Both the book and the movie are presently making high profile runs across America. gawd what next?

as i tell people who will listen, writing fiction is like chewing Copenhagen and playing with yourself — it's a filthy habit that once begun is almost impossible to quit. that and the fact that no major publisher was ever going to take on a mystery series with the bastard history of Sunlight’s gives one no choice but to keep on trucking — or kill yourself. so if you want people to read your books you are going to have to dig in, suck it up and keep on keeping on.

next time i'll give you my list of whys and why-nots of going with Print on Demand.


EXCERPT

from Murder in Mixteca re-titled Murder in the Tetons an authentically western novel

PROLOG

It is evening and as the summer sun's red disc drops behind the Big Hole Mountains and the coming night slips the pink light up and off the face of the Grand Teton. The bright summit gutters out like a candle. And the day is gone.
Anyone watching the light fail on the mountains would know from the left-tilt of the Grand that they were observing it not from the Jackson Hole side on the east but from the Alta, Wyoming side. on the west.
Summer nights are cool in Wyoming and the night sky stutters with stars except when, as now, the full moon pours its light down heavy as cream from a pitcher. The smells of fresh mown hay and the acidic smell of cottonwood trees that crowd nearby Teton Creek sing of summer to anyone who just might be standing in front of this huge log home, whose lights blaze against the cool night.

And if that person has, by chance, chosen to stand on the east side of the house they would surely admire the expensive furnishings, including large antique Navajo chiefs' blankets, antique guns and swords, in one corner an ornately silver-dressed antique Mexican vaquero saddle on a stand, all Molesworth furniture around a big stone fireplace that was some mason's masterpiece. Above the mantelpiece is a black fossil garfish at least six feet long and a foot wide, half liberated from the sandstone matrix where it had been captive for 100 million years and more.

And people. Our voyeur would see three people. Two small men and a small woman with olive skin, the men speaking earnestly to the woman who is sitting on the edge of the couch.

The woman excuses herself and leaves, only to return with a tray set with cups and a coffee server. After serving them she walks to an adjoining room and can be seen descending some stairs with the tray in her hands.

Our observer, if he or she had drawn close enough, might have been able to hear, through a window opened for ventilation, that the two men were speaking a strange language unlike the European languages often heard in Jackson Hole. They appear to be, perhaps, Mexicans but the language is certainly not Spanish.
The woman reappears from below and excitedly engages the men in conversation. Startled, they leap from the couch and hurry down the stairs. The woman follows, but cautiously, and her face is frightened as she reaches the balustrade and pears down the stairwell.

Our silent witness presses his face very near the window because now he hears an unintelligible argument growing in volume as three voices clash passionately. Soon there are shouts and cursing, then the cry of a man in great pain.

Suddenly, the same two men reappear, each of them holding something in their arms. They pause for a moment, as if trying to reorient themselves, and a tall white man leaps up from the stairwell and grabs at large leather bound book held in the grasp of one of the men.

The man lies down with the book in his arms, wrapping himself around it in order to fend off the white man. But the large man falls to his knees and begins to pry the book from the little dark man's grasp.

The woman, who has fled to the kitchen, returns just as the second man swings a piece of cordwood from the fireplace with all his might and knocks the white man to the floor. She screams and rushes to the downed man's side, then apparently tells one of the small men to go to the kitchen for a wet towel for he is back in moments and the woman nurses the big man back to consciousness. But it only takes a moment for him thrust her aside and, shouting, attack the man who hit him.

Now it is a melee for the other small man jumps on the tall man's back and wraps his arms around his throat.

The tall man swings his shoulders and pulls at his attacker's arms, causing the much smaller man to swing in large arcs, back and forth, until the grip is broken and the small man flung across the room.

The white man walks to the book and falls weakly to his knees to retrieve it. But the other little man has retrieved the piece of firewood and, raising his hands high, brings it down on the wounded man's head a second time.

The victim is bleeding and his legs are twitching so that any observer would surely know that he as been very badly hurt. The woman is crying softly, her hands over her mouth, then she begins to staunch the blood from his head with the towel. She can be heard praying, this time in Spanish, the prayer language of the Catholic church in much of the world.

The two men check their own injuries, then begin to converse in their native language, occasionally gesturing out the window past our observer, and they seem to be talking about the great mountain that rears up against the starlight like a black cutout against the sky.


The woman appears to be arguing and stands to confront them. She walks to them and contends with them vociferously for minutes. Then, suddenly, the injured man scrambles to his feet and staggers to the next room where, instead of descending the stairs, turns left and flees outside through a side door. The two Indians run across the great room, one of them stopping to retrieve the bloody club.


Our man now moves to the side of the house to follow the action but he is too late. The big man is down again, and this time it appears he will never rise again.

One of the Indians checks the pulse in the victim's neck as the other man reaches inside the house to douse the light over the rear door.

The watcher stops to calm his racing pulse, taking deep breaths. And as he pauses there in the dark he notices another observer like himself. She is small, holding a scarf over her head and she appears to also have witnessed what has taken place.


He watches her suddenly turn and hurry from the property to cross the Targhee road to the neighboring house set next to rushing Teton Creek.


The three Indians are now kneeling and praying to the enormous mountains that rear above the valley, bathed in moonlight. Our observer might be puzzled by the fact that the small people cross themselves in the fashion of Catholics after their prayers. But few know how native beliefs have wedded themselves to Catholicism and the three have dedicated the man and his death to the mountain at whose foot they will bury him, and spare themselves any possible retribution from the mountain gods.


The night is vibrant with the natural sound of rapid water, the canyon breeze in the towering cottonwoods, and the sudden swish of of night wings—perhaps an owl or nighthawk. Or, perhaps, the sound of a soul's escape from the mortuary of its days to heaven. Or to hell.


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