Kristine Kathryn Rusch, one of our most prolific and important bloggers on the business of writing and publishing, recently wrote a lengthy 3-part series of posts titled, “Why Writers Disappear.” There is something in it for just about every writer, and it certainly caught my eye, because, after all, I am a writer who, about 40 years ago, disappeared.
Kris starts by listing a dozen reasons why writers disappear and then goes into considerable detail on each of those reasons. Of course, I quickly scanned through the list, searching for one or more that might match up with my own experience. Kris says that writers disappear because:
“1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.” Here Kris refers to the sad and increasingly common fate of traditionally published authors whose readership has not been growing fast enough and thus find themselves out of luck and out of the business. No, not exactly my problem.
“2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.” Obviously this one’s about changing tastes. Also not my problem.
“3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.” In this one Kris cites authors who acted badly in some fashion that was off-putting or threatening to publishers. Well, now maybe I better come back to this one later…
“4. They achieved all their goals.” Hardly my problem.
“5. They were no longer interested in writing.” Nope, not a fit here.
“6. They moved to a different part of the industry.” No, when I left, it was for a very different way of making a living.
“7. They got discouraged.” No, whether early in the morning or late at night, I kept on writing.
“8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.” Sorry, I love solitude.
“9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.” By this, Kris means the perils of freelancing…again not a problem for me.
“10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing.” Kris talks about things like a family catastrophe, coma, and either swift self-destruction or the slower version with drugs and alcohol. No, fortunately, not part of my history.
“11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.” With my own company I just published several books and shorter pieces, so…does not apply.
“12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.” No, 40 years ago I demanded and almost immediately secured the rights to Murder in the Synagogue.
So let’s go back to reason #3: “They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.”
Time for a little back story, though if you’ve searched this site at all you probably already know that my career as an author began in 1970 with the publication of Murder in the Synagogue, a true crime account of the assassination of Rabbi Morris Adler in suburban Detroit on Lincoln’s birthday, 1966. In the book I explored the life of the high-achieving grad student and troubled intellectual seeker who, at age 23, spoke these words before turning a gun on the rabbi and himself:
“This congregation is a travesty and an abomination. It has made a mockery by its phoniness and hypocrisy of the beauty and spirit of Judaism. It is composed of people who on the whole make me ashamed to say that I’m a Jew. For the most part it is composed of men, women and children who care for nothing except their vain, egotistical selves. With this act I protest a humanly horrifying and hence unacceptable situation.”
The publisher Prentice-Hall saw the book as a kind of Jewish In Cold Blood and a window on the turbulent ‘60s and so gave me an advance of $8500 ($60,000 in today’s dollars). That same year Mario Puzo got $5000 for what would become The Godfather.
Upon publication, Murder drew a number of very positive reviews in mostly odd, out-of-the-way places, and praise from psychiatric experts, religious figures and academics to whom I sent copies. But the eastern literary establishment seemed to have never heard of it, and sales were slow.
Then a remarkable young woman from Detroit’s Jewish community came to me to say she had heard a wealthy and powerful man she had grown up calling “uncle” tell a group of friends that he had reached out to my publisher and “squelched” my book. Of course I set out to verify her story and soon learned that Prentice-Hall had indeed suppressed Murder in the Synagogue, sabotaging its marketing and distribution, and printing 4000 copies from standing type which was then pied or dismantled—the method used for a “limited edition.” It had secretly bowed to pressure from an influential presidential adviser and top Republican fund-raiser named Max Fisher.
So of course I did what any foolishly high-minded young writer would do. I went to Prentice-Hall, accused them of suppressing my book and demanded and secured its rights. And then what? Nothing. No one, neither first-line publisher nor paperback house, would touch what had obviously become a “toxic” book.
Next I wrote another book, this one about what had happened to Murder. It was, I felt, a compelling story of corporate deceit and criminality confronted by the courage of the plucky young woman who had blown the whistle. But facing a sure-fire, deep-pockets lawsuit from a guy who hung out with the likes of Henry Ford II and Richard Nixon, not one of the agents and publishers I approached would even look at my new book. So now I had not one, but two toxic books.
What I needed was a new book project, something completely unrelated to my first two books, and I soon thought I had found it in a sensational trial in Detroit involving several cops and dope dealers all working together in the heroin and cocaine trade that was ravaging the city. For six months I covered the trial, wrote profiles of the colorful cast of characters and described scene after amazing scene in the courtroom—all of it basically on spec, hoping that someone in New York would agree with me on the importance of the story.
And then a famous agent agreed to take me on and seemed certain he could sell my new book. But after several months of encouraging words, he finally announced that the last editor he took the project to had said this was essentially a “black book, and blacks don’t buy books.” And that was that.
Had the toxicity of my first two books “trickled down through the entire industry,” as Kris Rusch puts it? She says publishing back then was “a very small industry” in which publishers, editors, and agents all knew each other and gossiped together. I had no idea back then what I was really facing, and today I still don’t know for sure.
By this time (it was 1975), I was broke and had to find a quick way to support my family. I took a job as a grant writer for a humanities council, thinking the next book project was not far off. But instead I soon found myself in a busy life as a TV producer/writer/director. Over the ensuing years, my output included more than 50 long-form documentaries, 75 shorter features, 30 live event programs and hundreds of editorials.
Actually, over the next three and a half decades I never stopped writing, either early in the morning or late at night. But as an author of books I had disappeared.
Then a few months ago I used my own media company to publish, along with several other items, Squelched: The Suppression of Murder in the Synagogue. Among other things it’s a coming-of-age tale about a naïve young writer blindsided when his book suffers a fate he has no idea was even possible. Then he gropes, blunders and finally learns a few things.
The book’s new epilogue explains how the original manuscript, the last copy of which I had given away back in the ‘70s in order to get on with my life, finally came back to me after more than three decades. And it adds the story of how four years after it sabotaged Murder in the Synagogue, Prentice-Hall did the same thing to another of its books, Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. The story of what the publisher did to the Du Pont book was first told on January 21, 1975, in the New York Times. The story of what happened to Murder in the Synagogue has never been told. Until now.
How this or any of my newly published books will do, I haven’t the faintest idea. But I do know, after all this time, it can no longer be said that I have disappeared.