The British comics Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a sketch where a pompous British twit, Sir Arthur Greeb-Streebling (or Streeb-Greebling -- it varied) was interviewed about his lifelong attempt to teach ravens to fly underwater. After he admits that in 40 years he's had nary a success, the interviewer comments "So your life has been a complete failure." Sir Arthur straightens himself up, looks the interviewer full in the eyes, and declares "My life... has been a complete failure."
I wrote a book; it didn't sell. But I believe it falls short of being a complete failure, and the reasons why may be of interest. First, though, taking Lewis Carroll's excellent advice, I'll begin at the beginning.
In my (relatively) long life, I've done a lot of different things: I've worked in comedy... and...
In my life, I've done only one thing: comedy. After a short stint as a standup, I was a screenwriter who was lucky enough to have worked with Robin Williams, the Muppets and Saturday Night Live, and have TV series produced in four different decades. As my career tapped me on the shoulder to say it was finishing up now, time to move along, I contemplated my options.
Thanks to those aforementioned series and other factors (okay, my wife's a doctor), money is not a hugely pressing issue, so I thought about teaching. Screenwriting, of course. That's what out-of-work screenwriters do. I wasn't thrilled about thrashing through forests of -- not to put it too harshly -- incompetent, unreadable scripts but what the hell, right?
I checked the UCLA website and saw that the lowest-level TV writing class was taught by an Emmy winner and the lowest-level movie writing class by an Oscar winner. I have obtained neither of these kudos, though I've corralled two Emmy nominations, a Banff International Television Award, and the 1996 CableAce, an honor so prestigious that it went out of business soon after I won it.
In any case, thus endeth my screenwriting teacher career.
I liked the idea of teaching, though, and decided to create my own course about comedy -- not writing or acting or directing or movies or TV or theater but comedy itself as, dare I say it (yes, I dare!) an art form.
The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles was interested so thence commenced The Research. My idea was to look at comedy from every angle: principles, practice, history, mythology, anthropology, science, psychology, philosophy, even theology. So the research was a bear, lasting three years and forcing me to swim in unfamiliar waters. (Neuroscience, to name but a few.)
Despite intense nervousness at the beginning, my class went well and I had a ball. (I think the students did too but that's hardly the point of teaching, right? Wait. Strike that.) Then my literary agent friend Julia Lord suggested that the course could be the foundation for a book.
As a writer I'm quite fond of books, but intimidated by tackling a form not defined by dialogue. Julia pointed out, though, that the bulk of the work had been done in creating the class; all that was left was to put together a few chapters and a proposal.
I did, and thence commenced two years of rejections from everyone in publishing, and some people not in publishing who heard about the proposal then started publishing companies so they could reject it. (This last development may have existed more in my mind than reality.)
After receiving an advance which ended up being about 1/5th what I spent on the book (more on that to come), I scored a gig for my course at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, where I did so much additional research that the book became a matter of following the sculptor Rodin's almost-certainly apocryphal method: "I take a block of marble and chop away everything that doesn't look like a naked man."
After the manuscript (or MS as we professionals call it) was accepted, I began to see how, for everyone except the likes of King and Grisham, publishing has become a do-it-yourself industry. In fact, the difference between published and self-published appears, now, to be almost entirely distribution. (And editing. Mine was smart, funny and expert.)
Example: I wanted photos. Turns out that's the author's responsibility and getting them took time and money; for each of the 49 pictures I hired a person to find them, another to buy them (she got good rates), another to "color-correct" (the book was black-and-white so, y'know, wha?), and another to "prepare them for publication".
Applause requested an index to attract libraries so guess who went through every page noting proper names and subject matter? Not me -- I hired a college student. But still.
Then came promotion. (For a hilariously devastating take-down of the author's responsibility in this digital age, see my friend Ellis Weiner's New Yorker piece, "Subject: Our Marketing Plan".) I asked lots of people about digital and they all had the same response: "There's absolutely no proof it will result in even one sale, and you have to do it."
Website, Facebook, Twitter... I couldn't stomach more than that. And the biggest expense of all: publicity. I hired the wonderful Harlan Boll, who works with Lisa England, and they PRed hard. But the challenge of marketing an unknown writer for a small house resulted in mostly smaller interviews, ranging from 4-minute spots on local TV stations to a 90-minute marathon on Boston radio (and let's not forget 10 minutes on Radio Ireland).
As for pre-reviews, for reasons best known to Publishers Weekly I didn't score anything from the likes of Publishers Weekly, a devastating blow to an enterprise that needed unrelenting luck. In the event, I got a decent number of small reviews (probably the biggest were the Chicago Reader and Jewish Book World); out of about 40, including Amazon readers, 38 were positive, many very.
But I can pretty much guarantee that none of that had any effect. How do I know? Because I can trace almost every sale either directly or indirectly to personal appearances. And therein hangs a tale, one called the Jewish Book Council.
I'm Jewish. In fact, I'm Mischkowsky, although not for a century. So while my book isn't specifically Jewish (though an argument could be made that humor itself is Jewish; it was originally humoroskowitz but got shortened at Ellis Island), I was able to attend the JBC's annual convention and speak to hundreds of leaders of book clubs and synagogues. Why care? Because Jews read books and Jews spend money. (We got it for killing Christ. But I digress.)
At the convention, 150 writers have two minutes apiece to talk about their tomes. So, y'know, no pressure. I did great and while I'd like to believe that was due to my delightful book and winning personality, the more likely reason is that the lineup was Holocaust - Holocaust - Holocaust - "Funny: The Book" - Holocaust - cookbook. (There was also Naomi Wolf's vagina. Oops, sorry, I mean Naomi Wolf's "Vagina".)
I got 13 dates -- no pay, but expenses paid -- in cities all around America, many of which I might never have visited otherwise, including...
St. Louis: Where I was wined, dined and treated like a king, along with all the other authors at their annual Book Fest, headlined by Carrie Fisher and Nathan Englander. I got a tour of the city and probably the best crowd anywhere -- 175 incredibly responsive people on a Tuesday morning. Not to mention 45 sales. (Which, since most attending were couples, works out to 1 out of every 2 book-buying entities.) One lovely lady gave me her Kindle, encased in a specially-made writable cover, to sign.
Montgomery, Alabama: A delightful host couple and a terrific crowd. But Jews are a dying breed round those parts; I spoke at a synagogue where the average age was 70. Another city tour showed me the capitol building, the courthouse where George Wallace vowed to block blacks at the schoolhouse door, and the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. first preached... all on the same block.
And in a tribute to Faulkner's comment that in the South "The past is never dead; it's not even past", there was a cop stationed outside the synagogue for my talk.
Houston: Narrow-minded stereotyper that I am, I feared a city of rednecks; then I got on the hotel elevator next to a guy in an Obama t-shirt. Still, stereotypes aren't always wrong (comic David Steinberg pointed out that "Some Chinese all look alike"): the hotel restaurant had a sign requesting patrons to leave their guns outside, and I sat next to a table of aging cowboys who spent lunch discussing the guns they loved and the liberal media they hated. (Maybe they were tweaking the bespectacled Jew next to them.)
As my Year of Living Promotionally wound down, I decided that I so enjoyed talking about comedy that I'd continue on the road for a bit more. In appearances frequently made possible by my august role as Author, I was able to speak -- usually all-expenses-paid -- at academic, professional and cultural venues from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York to Oxford, England to Turin, Italy.
So between the travel and the people and the expense reimbursements, it's hard to call my career as an author a failure. Not impossible, but hard. And there's another thing: I wrote a book. One I'm proud of and can hold in my hand and flip through remembering the stories (and expense) of each photo, the revisions to each line, the phrases that flowed fortuitously and the ones I realized how to improve just after publication.
But the most important question, I think, is: Would I recommend writing a book to other people?
No. Only to writers.