Lorenzo Milam’s The Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues was turned down by 15 publishers before he published it himself.
We printed excerpts from the book in Issues 89, 91, 92, and 93. It is an extraordinary document about polio, pain, and the power of the human spirit — uncompromisingly honest, angry, irreverent.
Lorenzo, a pioneer of alternative radio and the author of Sex and Broadcasting, had published his own and other books before. With the help of Doug Cruickshank, an editor and graphic artist from Palo Alto, California, TCLFMBB was readied for publication last year. This is what happened next.
The book is available for $9.95 plus $1 postage from Mho & Mho Works, Box 33135, San Diego, California.
The key to library purchases for a newly-published book is the Library of Congress subject-heading — those doo-dads you see on the page opposite the title page, under the words, “The Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data.” Many a book has been lost (and not a few saved) by these crucial entries, called “subject tracings.” So when TCLFMBB was ready for the printers, I spent some time on the telephone with the Library of Congress folks, trying to persuade them to give me more generic, less specific categories, such as, “Love, Young” or “Basketcases, Care and Feeding Of,” rather than “Milam, Lorenzo Wilson.”
During the course of our conversations, the lady on the other end of the line, one Jacqueline Reamy, was quite definite about what the LC would give me. No: I couldn’t have “Handicapped, Psychology of” although she would let me have “Homosexual, Male — Biography” (she said that many publishers absolutely refuse such categorization because of what it does to sales). We dickered for a few days back and forth. I really wanted to try to tap the Psychology Market — but she was firm. I am afraid that I got a bit exasperated, partly abetted by the fact that I was Doug Cruickshank during these conversations, as I didn’t want her to think that Mho & Mho Works was some back-pocket operation such as it is, engrossed in assuaging the rather expansive ego of one individual.
Finally after a go ’round, she blurted out: “Doug, I’ve been working at the Library of Congress for twelve years, and I’ve never had an experience like this before.” I just wasn’t sure what she was talking about.
It came more clear as time went on. I sent a copy of the book (before printing, in Xerox) to Richard Brickner, asking him to read it, and comment on it. Brickner is sort of the Balzac of Basketcases. About eight years ago he wrote about being a paraplegic: an interesting book, entitled, “My Second Twenty Years: An Unexpected Life” — strictly intellectual, no passion. I really wanted his comments because he seemed to have some knowledge of the publishing industry and I figured a word from him could really help my case.
After a week or so, Brickner scrawled back a postcard, saying that perhaps I could ask my publisher for assistance rather than him. “He’ll be more help on the publicity,” he said. I refrained from advising him that I talk to myself all the time on these very subjects — but I did send my sister by his place to pick up the Xerox, so we could pass it on to another reviewer. No good — he had tossed the manuscript. I was a bit miffed, but more puzzled. “He’s a brother, isn’t he?” I thought to myself, borrowing some rhetoric from fifteen years ago. “Does it have something to do with the first few chapters?” I thought.
As I started to send out review copies, I would talk to this or that person. The lady from the American Library Association wanted to know if there was a hardback. (“Yes,” I lied. “But we gave them all to friends of the author.” The publishing business is nothing but anachronistic, living firmly somewhere in 1948, when paperbacks were suspect — one is always, if one is a serious publisher, to publish a hardback edition.) Anyway, I noticed that she was mumbling the name of the book. Same thing with others: they would avoid any direct reference to the name of the book. And this morning, in the bathtub, it came clear to me. I was offending people with the title. The word “cripple” is one of those words left over from World War I, like “darky” or “slant,” which you just don’t say, read or use, at least not if you are a literary person. I mean, I knew it had force (it has force enough on me); but on others, it is a force of embarrassment; people are truly ashamed to speak it (or, I gather, even think it).
This set me to thinking. “What you are, Milam,” I told myself, “is The Punk of American Literature.” It’s like those rock groups with such dangerous names: “The Dead Kennedys,” “45 Grave,” “Circle-Jerk,” “DOA,” “Agent Orange,” “Snotty Scotty and the Hankies”(Doug’s favorite) — and my newest from England, “Pigbag.” “God,” I think, “I’m the Pigbag of PEN.” And it’s true: whatever will stir up trouble, I’ll do it, anything, to get heard. Even put the unnameable in print. The Yahoo of belles lettres.
Succes d’estime for a new book is supposed to be achieved by getting reviews in ALA Booklist, Baker and Taylor’s Forecast, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. You’ve probably never heard of most of these — I hadn’t until last summer — but evidently librarians are all lemmings, and a good or respectful review in one or more of these can be the key to success. (That’s why the recalcitrant lady calling from the American Library Association was so important: a review there would be vital for the fame of the book.)
According to my Bible, The Self-Publishing Manual (physically one of the ugliest books in the world — but the buzzard always carries the emerald in its claw) one is to send a pre-publication copy to each of the above. Dutifully, at the usual Great Expense, I xeroxed several copies of last summer’s manuscript, and mailed them off with an elaborate covering letter. I spent most of the next twelve weekends at the library, reading through these magazines, looking in vain for Milam, L — or the more commonly, “Milan, Loranzo.” Nothing. I must have done something wrong. Did it have something to do with the publication date? Or was it something else?
But I kept looking. I even thought that by some magic I might appear in The Writer’s Directory: 1984-86 (MacMillan), but between
Miklowitz, Gloria D, author of Save That Racoon!
Milburn, Robert Leslie Polington: Saints and Their Emblems in English Churches
what did I find? Nothing, save a tiny fly-speck, a squashed book-bug. Not even my goddess of old, one Alva Beulah Milam who wrote a comprehensive treatise, in 1925 or so, on student housing in China — or B.H. Milam (Buddy Heartly?) whose compilation of exaggerated folk tales out of the Old South, succinctly entitled Flying over Alabama on the Back of a Crow, had bemused me so in my childhood. It was, after all, in that far-off yellowed time, the only book in our family library engendered by another Milam.
The book publishing industry is marvelously old fashioned, some would even say archaic. Despite the actual time when one prints and receives shipment on the new books, one is expected to set a somewhat arbitrary Publication Date. TSPM suggests 16 weeks after printing. Ostensibly, this means you can ship out the books, give the magazines time to read and review them, and be placing them in bookstores all over the country in the interim. In my first, the Xerox, mailing, evidently my Publication Date “October/November 1983” was all wrong, too vague: so I vowed to do it all over again. (Another advantage of the publishing world over, say, broadcasting, is that you can take things back; the bird can be whistled again, back to its cage.)
So, on the last of eight proofings, Doug and I changed the date on the frontispiece of the book to 1984 — and I set up the extremely convenient date of March 31, 1984 as Publication Date. Once the book was printed, I stamped this on the inside front page, and, on the front and back covers, the impressive (but meaningless) red letters PROOF — and sent these off to Kirkus, ALA, et al. I was damned sure we weren’t going to receive back, at our distributors, three or four dozen copies of books sent out for review, and immediately sold back to participating craven bookstores, who knew a good line of credit when they found one. (When returned to Bookpeople, our distributors, these books would offset our sales by over $5.00 each. Thus reviewers reward themselves for our largesse.)
In October, I had prepared for the publication of TCLFMBB by sending out almost 1,200 mailings consisting of the first chapter of the book. It went to all the important magazines in the country, as listed by Oxbridge’s Standard Periodical Directory [they list some 65,000 magazines currently being published in this country. Sixty-five thousand! The best are Siamese News Quarterly, Shuttle, Spindle, and Dyepot, Sinister Wisdom, Casket & Sunnyside, Letters in Heat & Mass Transfer, Extrusion & Blow Molding News Brief, Bad Henry Review, Artaud’s Elbow, Beatniks from Space, Duckburg Times, Slit Wrist Magazine, and the most favorite, from San Diego, Bare Wires, A Harmless Flirtation with Wealth. . . .].
With the original mailing, I sent out a postcard stamped with Mho & Mho’s address on one side, and “[ ] Yes, please send copy of The Cripple Liberation Front” on the other — no nos permitted. Cese and David helped me on this, and a more amiable dopey pair of workers has yet to be discovered, a veritable Castor & Pollux of Bulk Mailing. Give them a few beers and a few tokes, and you have a set of quiet fairy-like drones who work into the night and ask for nothing more than a night’s bedding for their concupiscence. David’s only complaint was having to address by hand the likes of
Mississippi State, Mississippian
rather than his much preferred
Whatever it was, it worked: we got back some 150 postcards, asking for free copies — all the way from The New York Times, The New York Post’s Max Lerner, The Hudson Review, The Advocate, The Washington Monthly, The Village Voice, down to The Houston Post Books, The San Jose Mercury News, Paraplegic News, The Crippled Civilians Quarterly [of Canada], AMP (for The Amputee) and the gay magazine out of Sacramento, Mom . . . Guess What!
I got no response at all from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, CoEvolution Quarterly, and Flushbox — The Journal of Modern Plumbing. No matter: they get a free copy anyway. The fantasy is always that William Shawn just happens to be in the mailroom the day TCLFMBB arrives, he gets one gander at the title and my gams, and he says to the mailroom clerk, “Here, never mind protocol. Give . . . me . . . that . . . book.” He sits down there amidst all the book wrappings, and recognizes pure genius in the first ten pages. Isn’t that why we are going to all this trouble, printing, proofing, xeroxing, proofing, changing, editing, reproofing, loving each phrase a thousand times, binding — and finally, the babe is in hand, the loving babe of your words, your life, and you send it out, hoping that just once, the walls will break down, and someone will read it, and think, wow, this guy really does know how to write, and one day you’ll wake up, and your friend in New York will be on the phone saying, “You did it. Listen to this,” and will read to you some rave review from the pages of The New Yorker or Harper’s or The New York Times. That must be why we are doing all this, this insane labor, not a labor of love, but a labor of frustration and madness. . . .
Five hundred copies of the book have been sent out between December 12 and January 24. The official publication date is in two months. Reviews should be appearing in six weeks or so. “Don’t expect anything,” said Gallagher, my old friend and hope-master. “Most of the reviewers will look at the cover and write four paragraphs that have nothing to do with the book. (He’s published four books himself; he should know.) It’s the one or two honorable ones that actually read it that you look to. The rest have already dumped it, or sold the book to your local used bookstore for fifty cents — or scribbled something unintelligible. It’s quite discouraging. . . .”
Each book we sent out contained one of four different covering letters — one for general publications; one for medically oriented ones; a third going to gay magazines and newspapers; and finally, the literary one (“Lorenzo Milam has been compared to Lawrence Durrell and Vladimir Nabokov. . . .” “What bonehead thought that one up,” said Cruickshank, when I showed him the letters. “Why you did,” I said, showing him the signature at the bottom of the page.)
Going to the mailbox is an adventure each day. The second postcard, the one sent out with the book, was stamped as follows:
[ ] We received review copy of The Cripple Liberation Front.
[ ] We will try to review it in our ______ issue. Send $ _______ postage for a copy of the review.
[ ] We will not be able to review it. Send $ ______ postage and we’ll return your book.
The advantage of this is that not only do they have to say, “Yes I’ll review it” or “No, I won’t. . . .” but we have a chance to reclaim the book. Since it was fairly expensive to print and bind, we figure that even with the $1 postage to return the book, it is well worth it — because it can be used again, sent off to reviewers we forgot in the early rush.
The problem, really, is not who to send review copies to, but who not to send them to. As I look through The Literary Market Place, at Upstate New York, I am thinking, “Should I send one to The Syracuse Herald Journal? Hmm. Circulation 234,597 (Sundays). Well, if they get one, how about The Knickerbocker News (155,149)? Or The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (241,388)? You’re getting silly, Lorenzo: next you’ll want one for The Nyack Gazette (12,000) and The Skaneateles Press/Marcellus Observer (81,000!).” Outside of the cost of printing the book, each one costs approximately $2.00 to send out — what with return card, Xerox sheets describing the wonders of the author, and two b&w photographs: one of the cover, one of Milam lounging naughtily against a Saturn-be-ringed wall.
The temptation is to send one to everyone in sight, so I called my local newspaper, the San Diego Union. The book editor there, a laconic sort by the name of Hutshing, spoke to me briefly out of the side of his mouth. “What’s your book about?” he said. “O,” I said, doing a brief juggling act. “It’s sort of about me.” “You publish it yourself?. . . .” “Well. . . .” “Don’t waste the postage,” he said. “Besides — we don’t review paperbacks. Our paperback reviewer retired three years ago, and we haven’t found anyone to take his place. We don’t review books that aren’t in all the bookstores. That’s like holding candy in front of a baby, and then pulling it away. . . .”
He told me they get 350 books a week. Since San Diego prides itself on its literacy, the book review section comes out once every two weeks, approximately two pages. A maximum of ten books get reviewed each time. Thus if my book were a hardback, and if it were published by Harcourt-Brace, and if it (and I) were lucky, the odds of getting reviewed would be some 250/18,200. Since the book is soft (and cuddly), and is published by some rinky-dink outfit called Mho & Mho, and since my luck has been well proved by my occasional outings in Las Vegas, the chances of getting reviewed by the San Diego Union are somewhat less.
One of the techniques of getting the book heard is to solicit reviews not only from magazines and newspapers but other writers. Thus thirty or forty books went out to the likes of Joan Didion, Carolyn Kizer, William Stringfellow, and Herbert Mason, with a heartfelt covering letter asking for a sentence, a phrase, a word, even. Only one has responded so far, a kind and angelic sort by the name of Peter Matthiessen, who sent me a postcard with the following on it:
A brave, fierce, passionate, and spasmodically brilliant book that would surely have interested Celine. . . .
When I read it on the telephone to Cruickshank he said, “Wow!” and then he paused and then he said, “Who’s Celine?”
Visits to the post office are a great deal of fun, an adventure in suspense. Each day brings a card or two, saying, “Yes, please send. . . .” or “We’ve received review copy. . . .” or “We’re taking you to the ABC Collection Agency” or “Send eighty-six cents postage and we’ll return your book. . . .” The latter we’ve gotten from The Kenyon Review, which I never did like anyway, and from Staige Blackford from The Virginia Quarterly Review (her name always seemed a bit stagey to me), and The Literary Journal out of Ogden, Utah — but I’d be disappointed if they even bothered to review me in Ogden Frigging Utah. Reviews definitely forthcoming from Ten Percent and Handy-Cap Horizons and The Spastic Waterbucket. The New York Times and Harper’s are taking their bloody time about responding. We did get two scrawled cards the other day, asking for review copies. One was from a Joe Graedon in Raleigh, N.C.; the other from Neil Solomon in Baltimore. “Cripes,” I said. “Two more freeloaders — trying for a free copy so they can sell them for a quarter at their local used paperback bookstore.” But I looked them up in the LMP — and their books went out Express Mail the next day. Solomon is a syndicated columnist for the LA Times. And Graedon writes something called “The Peoples’ Pharmacy” for King Features Syndicate. Ten dollars spent on Express Mail can connote, I think, the seriousness of the commitment of that delightful and truly inspiring publishing company, founded by Sammy Mho and his brother Irving. They would send anything, posthaste, to a pair of columnists who, between them, command a potential audience of about 50,000,000. Drs. Solomon and Graedon even got personal letters from Mr. Cruickshank, offering anything, outside of a $1,000 bribe, for them to read the book. “This is Mho & Mho’s sixth book. . . .” intoned Cruickshank, “and we think our finest. Some would say the sexual passages in the second half of the book are just too much — but we think that Milam’s rich picaresque writing will earn him forbearance. . . .” I think he’s right — that Cruickshank. Such a perceptive critic of Milam’s writing, which is, they say, not unlike Durrell’s — with a bit of Nabokov thrown in for good luck.