Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

10 May 2024

Writers of the World: Bifurcate Now!

I am not a lawyer, accountant, or literary agent, but I do think that seven years working in the trenches of a children’s math magazine at Scholastic taught me a skill that is apparently lost on the accounts payable clerks who toil for two different literary agents that I will not identify: I know how to multiply a gross figure by a decimal and calculate exactly how much to send me, the freaking author.

Maybe you don’t have such problems. You are blessed with an earnest, hardworking, bookish agent who throws her heart and soul into repping you. Her only fault is that she’s a one-woman agency, somewhat scattered, and your royalty checks and statements routinely reach you about 90 days after the publisher sent them to her. Earning interest in Cat Lady’s account, in other words, and not yours.

Or maybe your agent is a crook or employs a felonious bookkeeper.

The remedy for all this is a beautiful word with Latin roots: bifurcation. That means the publisher pays each of you your share of the royalties directly, without mingling your cashola with the agent’s.

Two minutes of research reveals that in the Devonian epoch, publishers directly paid writers, who were then responsible for paying their agents. That arrangement was altered in the Pleistocene, when it was decreed that writers could not be trusted with Other People’s Money and that agents were infinitely more trustworthy.

Moreover, when checks, royalty statements, annual tax statements, and currency itself had to be hand-chiseled on stone tablets, it was so much easier for the publisher to send a giant wad of money to, say, sixteen agents, and let them dole out minuscule amounts to the respective writers. Relieved that of that onerous paperwork (and the associated labor costs), publishers could get on with the rarefied work of curation.

But OMG, guys! Have you heard? Funds can now be electronically electroned to the money store of your choice, so why not bifurcate? It’s the smart thing to do.

I have ghostwritten a number of books for business people, many of whom instructed their literary agent to enact bifurcation on Day 1. It’s what you do in the “real” world of business. To people who think seriously about money, publishing’s financial traditions appear quite dumb.

In one email that I probably should not have received, the literary agent chided her client—the fellow whose book I was writing—saying bifurcation was fine to do with domestic (ie, US) contracts, but would be somewhat more complicated with foreign rights. She was only half right. It can be tricky. If I were doing a foreign deal today, I’d try to bifurcate, but for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on bifurcating payments on domestic royalties.

I took the fork most traveled by...

Why would you want to bifurcate? First, because the money owed to writers goes missing all the time. The most egregious case is the one involving the literary agency that represented Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, not to mention the estates of Edward Gorey, Mario Puzo, Peter Matthiessen, Joseph Heller, Studs Terkel, and many more. The firm’s bookkeeper embezzled $3.4 million over seven years. Apologizing profusely to their clients, the principals of the firm watched as their weeping former employee was sentenced to two years in prison, then filed for bankruptcy. By all accounts, a respectable firm ground into the dust by greed.

Second, I’d bifurcate because one writer’s personal stash of dead-wood agents can quickly pile up like cordwood. I’m a mid-lister at best, yet in my career, my money has flowed to the offices of a total of six literary agents. Back in the day, I befriended a scrappy young agent who landed me a few book deals. He departed for a new firm, still agreeing to rep me but leaving his former employer responsible for paying me royalties on my “old” projects. When another agent of mine left her longtime agency, she and her longtime employer decided to split my rights between them. (No one bothered to ask what I wanted to do.) The dead-wood agency would send me royalties on my US rights, and “my” agent would rep my foreign and all other subsidiary rights.

It was nuts. At one point, I was getting checks from four different agencies, but only firm one repped me for reals. The others were, as I say, dead wood.

Talk about scary: At one firm, the longtime principals had retired, entrusting the distribution of royalty checks to—who else?—their progeny and grandchildren. At another firm, when the two principals began suing each other, they at least had the decency to teach their clients the B-word.

It was a tedious process, bifurcating payments with every print and audiobook publisher with whom my wife and I had ever signed a deal with. We set up bifurcations with Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Audible, and Brilliance Audio. We got good at it, and once we were done bifurcating with our LIVE agents, I moved on to prune the dead wood.

Here’s what you do:

Get out copies of all the contracts you have with a single publisher. To make this easy on yourself, just deal with the publishers in your nation of residence to start. In other words, money that is coming from a US publisher to you, a US writer. If you’re a Canadian writer, you have my permission to bifurcate from your US agent and your US publisher. That transaction should go smoothly. But I’m neither a lawyer or accountant (as noted above).

At the top of your most recent royalty statement you will find the contact info of your publisher’s royalties department. On your royalty statements, you will see that your publisher has reduced you to a number. Write down your official author number, and fire off an email to this effect:

I’d like to bifurcate the following contracts—noted here by date, name of book, etc. My agent of record, noted in Paragraph Whatever, is Eustace Simoleons, of the Rackhamup Simoleons Literary Agency. The split-share on each of the birfucations should be 85 percent to me, the author, and 15 percent to the aged yet highly esteemed Mr. Simoleons. Mr. S and his numbskull assistant are cc’d on this email.

Note: If you have contracts at the same publisher that involve another agent, you’ll have to go down that route too.

Since they are no longer having to chisel money out of stone, I have found that royalty department drones have free time on their hands, and will most likely respond quickly: “Wow, a human wants to talk to us! Thank you for writing, Scribulous J. Scrivener! We’d love to help you set up that bifurcation, but Mr. Simoleons must assent before we proceed.”

Numbskull assistant will prod Mr. Simoleons to respond. If he’s still quite sagacious, Mr. S. will instantly comprehend that you have handed him a reason to reduce the annual hours paid to said nitwit. (“Sh*t—if I can get all my authors to do this, I might be able to fire my idiot assistants and drop payroll,” he will think, albeit privately to himself.)

If, on the other hand, Mr. Simoleons is shady or neurotic, he will phone to convince you that it’s in your favor to let him (man)handle your money. Hold firm. Say it’s a business thing, and you’re happy to get your attorney involved if it would make him feel more comfortable. (Only say this if you are not bluffing.) When you surmount that hurdle, the royalty department will send you a contract addendum like this:

We refer to the agreement (the “Contract”) dated TK, between Scribulous J. Scrivener (the “Author”), and Edified Press, at 123 Highly Overpriced Office Towers, NYC, (“the Publisher”), concerning BOOK TITLE (the “Work”).

It is hereby agreed as follows:

  1. Paragraph TK of the Agreement—(ie, the so-called Literary Agency clause) is hereby deleted in its entirety and replaced with the following:
  2. “Fifteen percent (15%) sums due Author under this Agreement shall be paid to the Author’s agent: Eustace Simoleons, Agency name and address (the “Agent”), whose receipt of funds shall be a full and valid discharge of Publisher’s obligations.
  3. “Eighty-five percent (85%) of all sums due the Author under this Agreement will be paid directly to the Author at: Scrivener’s address. Receipt of those funds shall be a full and valid discharge of Publisher’s obligations.”

Nothing in these two paragraphs will be deemed to have changed the amounts otherwise payable by the Publisher under this Agreement. In all other respects the Agreement remains in full force and effect in accordance with its terms.


Signed by Publisher

Signed by Author

Yes, you can get a lawyer to look at this, but I would recommend having the publisher draw up the doc first, so you don't incur excessive legal expenses on consultations with your attorney and their subsequent drafting of the doc. The agent is not required to sign, because the original contract was always between you, the author, and the publisher, with only one graf inserted to redirect your money to the agent.

You will need to execute this document for every book you have at this publisher, and at every other publisher that brings your work to market. You’ll do it for all the the other businesses that have signed subsidiary deals with you.

Not gonna lie to you. It will take time. While you’re at it, instruct the publisher to set up direct deposit as well, and agree to receive your royalty statements via email or their online royalty portal. The documents you sign today probably will not impact your royalty statements or payments for a year. Because publishing.

Once the new agreements start kicking in, however, you’ll forever get your 85 percent and the agent will get their 15 percent. At the end of the year, the publisher (not the agent) will send you your tax docs. Yay you!

From this moment forward, I predict that you will never hear from your dead-wood agents again, just the ones continuing to rep you. Although, because these idiots really cannot do math with decimals, you may occasionally get a check in the mail remitting you 85 percent of an agent’s 15 percent payment. (Yes, this has happened to me with two agents’ offices, several freaking times in a row.)

Once, I got an anxious call from the scion of a once-great literary agency who said, “Um, we just got a call from someone in Bulgaria who wants to do a deal with your book? Can you handle it?” (Translation: “Please don’t make us have to work after all these years of cashing grandpa’s checks.”)

JFC, publishing is stupid, but you don’t have to be. Bifurcate.

See you in three weeks.

— Joe

19 April 2024

The Pressfield Synchronicities


The Man in the Velcro Mask.

Every morning since January 1 of this year, I have observed the same ritual to start my morning. I get to the office early and slip into an inflatable jacket and helmet. The radiation treatment I underwent in 2022 damaged the lymph nodes in my face. If I don’t pump my face free of the excess liquid, over time I’ll wake up mornings looking like a bullfrog. When the motor kicks on, the suit squeezes my chest and face, filling my ears with the breath of an unseen giant. In the 32 minutes it takes to run my cycle, I read a page from three books in quick succession.

And yes, I’m well aware that I’m about to sound pretentious, but work with me here. The first book is the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The second is The Daily Stoic, by Ryan Holiday, a collection of daily readings culled from the works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Aurelius, with Holiday’s modern commentary. The third book is a 2023 collection of daily meditations on the writing life by the author Steven Pressfield. It’s the book I devour like potato chips, often peeking ahead and blowing my daily allotment. Pressfield’s words go down smoothly, and leave me thinking and nodding for the rest of the day.

If this author’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you fit into one of three demographics. You’re one of those folks who hang out in sports bars, tossing back cocktails while glued to the Golf Channel, thus absorbing a bajillion viewings of the 2000 movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance, based on Pressfield’s first novel of the same name (pubbed 1995; 450,000 copies sold*).

Or maybe you attended a military academy, and in order to graduate your instructors had you read Pressfield’s historical novels Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae (pubbed 1998; 1 million copies sold), or Tides of War, about the Peloponnesian War, (pubbed 2000; 125,000 copies sold).

Or you are simply a person who has dreamed of better things. You want to commit to a daily mediation practice, lift weights, lose weight, do yoga, paint, dance, or sculpt. You want to chuck your stupid day job and open an Etsy shop to sell your handmade jewelry, leatherwork, or pottery.

Or, God help you, you want to write.

In that case, you have probably read—or probably should read—Pressfield’s 2002 book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (pubbed 2002; 500,000 copies sold).

With more than 27,000 reviews on Amazon and 103,000 on Goodreads, the latter is one of those books I had heard about forever but never bothered to pick up. One summer, when I was bouncing around the east coast with my wife on one of her research trips, I tucked War and few other slim sequels to this title in my bag and read them as we traversed nine states.

That one experience with his books sparked a series of Pressfield Synchronicities that I am still experiencing. I’ll read a nonfiction book by Writer A, who announces he is a Pressfield fan. I’ll read a book that that writer recommends, only to find that Writers B, C, and D in turn are all Pressfield fans. Everywhere you look, in other words, everything is coming up Pressfield.

The O.G. paperback is about 165 pages, with chapters that are a page or two long. Each reads like a mini-sermon, wherein Pressfield addresses the central question facing any creative person: Why the hell don’t we do the things we say we want to do? Why don’t we write that novel? Why don’t we start that business? Why don’t we tell our bosses to shove it and go off on our own? Why don’t we pursue in this life what our souls are meant to achieve?

The villain, he says, is something called Resistance:

“Most of us live two lives,” he begins. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two lies Resistance.”

He could have called it Procrastination or Avoidance. But Resistance nails it. It is a pernicious evil that threatens to crush us, that wants to keep us in our lower, unrealized state. To keep us ordinary, perhaps, or boring, so we don’t threaten our comfort level or the comfort level of others.


“Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. The more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and the growth of our soul.

“That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

Amen, brother, I thought, remembering the years I longed to do more with my writing but never did. I worked editorial jobs to support myself, and I convinced myself that I was too tired by the end of the day to do my own writing. By Pressfield’s definition, I was living a shadow life—close to the dream but no cigar.

Pressfield knows what he’s talking about. For years he lied to himself, too. Said he was a writer but instead of sticking his butt in the chair, he wrote ad copy, picked fruit, drove trucks and New York City cabs. He wrote only when “inspired.”

One day, he chose to become a professional and write regardless of how he felt. He packed a bag lunch and showed up for work, so to speak, the way any gainfully employed person does.

That said, his craft books are probably not for everyone. Many will take offense at his language and his gruff, tough-love message. Don’t get me wrong; he is supremely erudite. (His golf novel is based on the Bhagavad Gita, for Pete’s sake.) For all his scholarship, his command of classical philosophy, Eastern thought, and ancient military battles—he’s the plainest of plain speakers. Like the titles of his other books suggest—Do the Work; Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be; and Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t,—when he speaks, you hear the ex-cabbie, the ex-trucker, and the ex-Marine.

When I’m immersed in his texts, I imagine him slowing his cab down to give me a piece of his mind. “How many years are you going to waste not doing what your soul knows it must to do, huh, Joe?” he says, lecturing me from the front seat while the meter runs. “What do you think this is, a joke? Stop the bullshit—sit and write already. That’ll be twenty bucks. Don’t slam the door on the way out.”

(By the way: considering our audience, I should says that one of his books, a hilarious crime novel called The Knowledge, is a semi-autobiographical take on his taxi-driving days.)

On that research trip with my wife, I peeked at the copyright page of one of his books. We were traveling in Massachusetts that week, and I thought, “Huh, that’s funny. We’re in the exact same town in New England where his editor and publisher is based.”

That was the first coincidence. I get home, and I run into a young bartender friend who’s announced that he wants to move back home to Long Island. He’s got a good side hustle selling his artwork—abstract paintings—but he craves the financial security that only his parents’ basement can provide. He knows it’s a slippery slope. If he goes back to the old homestead, there’s a good chance that he will get sucked back into the drama of his hometown family and friends, and maybe, just maybe, he won’t devote himself to his artwork and the burgeoning Instagram clientele he is slowly building.

“People tell me I should read this book,” he says. He struggles to remember the name…

I got you, kid, I thought. We bought and presented him with a copy of The War of Art on his last day in town.

Another young man, the brother of a friend, returns home after a long deployment in Afghanistan. Obviously bright, he served in a crypto-linguistics unit in the U.S. Army. Now he wants to become a journalist. An obvious underachiever, he quickly lands himself a journo fellowship at Harvard. Christmas week, as we all gather around his mom’s table, he confides that he loves historical fiction. While in the military, he devoured the books of—

I stop him right there, and tell him he should go out right now and spend his money on his favorite author’s books about writing. “Pressfield writes books about writing?” he says.

Months before this, Pressfield released an ambitious, 534-page book called The Daily Pressfield. (I sprung for the signed copy via his website.) It offers 366 inspirational readings drawn from his work, meting out one passage a day for a year. This is the book I am supposed to be reading page by page each morning. Except, I keep skipping ahead and devouring giant chunks.

How’d did I hear about it? I was listening to a self-publishing podcast some weeks earlier that had the now 80-year-old Pressfield on as a guest. He explained that he’d gotten the idea from the author Ryan Holiday, a young Pressfield fan who is best known for resurrecting Stoic thought for the Instagram masses. Derek Sivers, another entrepreneur and thinker who founded CD Baby and later sold that company for a $22 million, holds Pressfield’s work in such regard that he has summarized most of the former’s books on his website. Another writer, the marketing guru Jeff Walker, urges his readers and clients to read Pressfield as well. Don’t even get me started on Oprah…

So yeah, I don’t know how this happened to me, but for a while there one conversation or piece of media after another sparked a chain of Pressfieldian references.

Then the synchronicities petered out. After the holidays, I was too busy to get out much, and winter was too cold for socializing. On a warm day in February or March, I went to the fancy resort in town with views of the mountains. Over a couple of tangy beef lettuce wraps, I got to talking with one of the resort’s F&B managers. He’s worked in the food and beverage biz his whole life, starting as a server, mixing drinks as a bartender, slinging tacos and margaritas in a food truck that his brother owned in Costa Rica, before eventually landing here and becoming everybody’s boss.

But wouldn’t you know it? Deep down inside, he longs to write songs and play music the way he did in his teens, before marriage, the kids, the mortgage, and all these exhausting responsibilities. He’s built a studio in his home so he can rock out in his free time. But he worries. He’s in his forties, you see, and it all feels too little too late.

He sighs and shakes his head. I can feel his frustration. Out of the freaking blue, because he knows I’m a writer, he goes, “Hey—you ever hear of that book, The War of Art?”

* * *

* Sales figures courtesy of the author’s website.

See you in three weeks!


29 March 2024

How to Turn Your Book Cover into Matchbox Art

I live in a town that sports a stupid amount of gift shops. Such abundance delights the tourists, and keeps the economic engine of this little mountain town purring. Some years ago, my wife picked up two handmade items in one of those shops that we keep on a side table in the living room. They are matchboxes decorated with the covers of vintage mystery novels. They’re so adorable that we never use them, preferring to light candles with an electric gooseneck lighter made by Zippo. The matchboxes just sit there, looking pretty.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handled them over the years, wondering how hard it would be to turn one of my book covers into an equally cute piece of decor. Turns out, it’s really easy.

  • To decorate your living spaces
  • To give as gifts (they make nice Christmas tree ornaments, as I’ll shortly reveal)
  • To offer as swag to book clubs or fans
  • To appease the insatiable gods of book promotion
Now, yes, it is much simpler to print bookmarks, bookplates, and the like than it is to create handmade matchbox art. But the process is so straightforward (and cheap) that you could assembly-line the whole process, pressing the kids and grandkids into service, and whip up a sizable batch that will delight family members and others who have supported your books over the years. You could also surprise author friends with matchboxes featuring their books. These days people are over-wowed by handmade items.

Matchboxes (a typical 10-pack of 32-count wooden matches costs about $5 at a supermarket.)
A few sheets of white card stock
Chisel-tip markers or paint
Glue (Elmer’s, contact cement, glue gun, glue stick, etc.)
Scissors or X-Acto knife
5-inch piece of ribbon or twine (optional)
A high-res .jpg or .tiff file of book cover
Computer and printer
An accountant to write off these business expenses

1. How lucky we are that the dimensions of the wooden-match matchbox conforms so well to those of the standard book cover! Before you start, measure the width of your matchbox. I’m betting it’s 1.25 inches. (Regardless of the size of yours, round down to the nearest quarter inch to simplify your life.)

Look, ma! I'm a hand model!

2. Dash to your computer. Find the .jpg or .tiff file of your book cover. (You must use a high-resolution version.) Duplicate the file so that the original remains pristine. Double-click on the file copy, and it will most likely open in Acrobat or Preview, depending on your system. Choose “Adjust Size” from the dropdown menu.

3. You’ll be presented with the dimensions of the current image. Ensure that the width and height are “locked” and that you are working in inches.

4. Change the width of the image to the width of the matchbox. (I typed 1.25 inches in the Width box.) When you do this, the Height will change to the appropriate proportional dimension. Ensure that the resolution is somewhere between 200 and 300 pixels/inch. If the software tells you that cannot perform this operation until you convert to a .tiff file, agree to the conversion and name the resulting file. We’ll wait while you open the new file, adjust the size of the image, and change the pixels.

5. Either way, once you’ve adjusted the size, hit OK.

6. Open the new file. It will look smaller, but not necessarily matchbox sized.

7. From your File menu, choose print. You’ll get a dialog box that shows how your cover will print—a tiny matchbox cover embedded in the center of a giant sheet of white paper. If you’re just making one match box, you’re probably going to have to sacrifice this one sheet of paper to the tree gods.

Yes, folks, Murder, Neat is a little masterpiece.

8. If you’re moving beyond a single prototype, let me assure you that you can use software such as Canva (free), Pages (for Mac; paid), or some other design program to “tile” your new file on a single sheet of paper, so you can print, say, 16 mini-covers on a single sheet in one fell swoop. This will work as long as the image you tile conforms to the new matchbox dimensions. Go ahead and print your file on card stock.

9. Away to the workbench! With paintbrush or markers, prettify your matchbox to hide the manufacturer’s logo and other details. I used acrylic paint markers, but Sharpie glitter or metallic markers are fine too. (A fat “chisel-tip” marker covers a lot of terrain at one stroke.) Regardless of what you do, you’re probably not going to be able to disguise all of the print on the box. That’s okay. The ones sold in gift shops look just like yours.

10. Paint carefully around the strike zone so the wooden matches can still be used.

11. Allow each painted side of the box to dry before moving to the next.

12. Feel like painting the internal drawer that holds the matches? Go to town.

13. Cut out your book cover with scissors or an Xacto knife.

14. Apply glue to the blank side of the book cover. Gently affix the cover to the box. Let dry. 

That’s it! You’re done. Unless, of course, you want to upscale the heck out of this project…

15. Fold your optional ribbon in half and glue the ends. 

When dry, glue the ends to the inside bottom of the matchbox drawer.

When dry, you now have a loop from which you can hang the box. A wire hook is all you need to display the “book” on your Christmas tree, for example.


Paint the matchbox a color that will contrast nicely with the predominant color of the book cover. If you need help picking a color, squint and see which colors pop out at you.

Here’s what I mean:

Since the cover of our recent (and most excellent SleuthSayers anthology) Murder, Neat is largely black, I painted the box red, which makes the black pop, and echoes the color of the title font.

I used red again to echo the cherry on the cover of my book.

I’ve always loved the cover of editor Josh Pachter’s Jimmy Buffett anthology, but the cover would disappear against the backdrop of an equally orange box. So I contrasted the cover against the blue of the parrot’s wing. (Call me crazy, but I think a margarita-green color would have also worked.)

The cover of Art Taylor’s On the Road With Del & Louise presents a challenge. The biggest fields of color are teal, orange, and red. If I had chosen one of those colors for the box, sections of the cover would have faded into the background. I went with basic black, which echoes the asphalt of the road depicted on the cover. He said hopefully.

I’m sure that a professional crafter would be able to crank out far more competent work, which is why they’re selling them in gift shops! My scissor skills are not the greatest, and my cover placement could be straighter. But I’m happy with how these turned out. If nothing else, they have enlarged my understanding of what is meant by the craft of writing.

If you need more inspiration, you will find countless videos on YouTube by searching under Matchbox Art.

Join me in three weeks when I will show you how to assemble an FBI-grade forensics kit using only a cereal box, a can of motor oil, and a banana!

* * *

I’m out of here. You know where to find me.

They don't let you smoke in bars anymore.
Yet they still give away matchboxes. Go figure.

16 February 2024

Drink On, Drinkers!


Available wherever fine anthologies are sold. (Booze not included.)

Some years ago, I had this brilliant idea for a novel that never came to fruition for reasons that will become painfully obvious. I was absolutely convinced that before I could write a word of this hot new project, I needed to read a 400-page biography on the life of the political cartoonist Thomas Nast. We’ve all been there, am I right?

In that book was a reference to Nast’s favorite New York watering hole, Pfaff’s, a coffeehouse/cafe/bar that was popular with a burgeoning class of colorful artists, writers, and theater folks in Greenwich Village in the mid-19th century. Its heyday would have been the 1850s and 1860s.

In its lifetime, Pfaff’s had at least three different incarnations. Two locations—on Broadway near Bleecker Street—were situated in the neighborhood where I had worked for Scholastic back in the day. In my mind’s eye I could picture those old buildings with little effort. But I probably wouldn’t have done much with my newfound knowledge if it weren’t for synchronicity.

You know how you read about some obscure thing and it begins popping up everywhere you look? As months turned to years, whenever a piece about Pfaff’s appeared, I’d tuck that fresh article away on my hard drive.

Pfaff’s worked its magic on me. For a time, it was a rathskeller with vaulted-brick ceilings located under a busy hotel. (See images here and here.) Giant hogshead beer barrels. A gas lamp chandelier. Foreign-language newspapers on every table. It was an epicenter for America’s blooming literary and artistic culture. The round table before there was ever an Algonquin.

It was also New York’s first gay-friendly establishment, where male and female same-sex couples could hang out in a darkened vault in the back without fear of judgment. Patrons declaimed poetry, argued politics, drank heavily, and pleaded with Mr. Pfaff to let them ride the tab till their next payday. He often acquiesced, because thanks to these beautiful loons, Pfaff’s had become famous coast to coast.

Early on, I had the barest ghost of a story idea. Nast hung out here. So did Edwin Booth. But by far the most famous Pfaff’s regular was Walt Whitman, who left behind one unfinished poem about the joint. (One line of that poem inspired the title of this post.)

Cool, I thought, there’s a murder at Pfaff’s, and Whitman and Nast team up to solve it. Easy-peasy.

But I couldn’t possibly start writing based on such a flimsy premise, could I?

I am on the record as a serial over-researcher, knowing that my process often teeters close to obsession. I usually research until everything I read starts to sound repetitive. Then I know it is time to stop. This ritual is propelled by a fear that I will get something wrong, and incur the wrath of those who know better. This grew out of my years in journalism, when there might have been serious repercussions for getting a fact or assertion wrong. An old journalism professor of mine offered this advice on research: “You’ll never become an expert on a new topic. But with enough reporting, you can become a semi-expert.”

Fiction often doesn’t demand that level of research, but old habits die hard. This time around, however, there were signs that I had grown weary of my own shtick. I had just investigated the heck out of Manhattan in the days of the Dutch (1625 to 1660) and New York during the protest era (1960s) for two other fiction projects. I’d written an 1890s New York crime short, and a 1970s Serpico-like crime fantasy short, both of which were pubbed in AHMM. Thanks to that Nast book, I knew a ton about the artist, but I didn’t know if I could spare the time to “become a semi-expert” on Whitman. Indeed, I doubted such a thing was even possible.

Then came a call for submissions. Our editors challenged us to write a short crime story involving…a bar. If this was not fate knocking, I didn’t know what was. Thankfully, I had plenty of time to procras—er, I mean embark on a sensible course of research. The pandemic was still raging, and I wasn’t going anywhere.

I cracked open my Pfaff’s file. To whet my appetite, I read two long scholarly papers, and browsed a Pfaff’s-dedicated website maintained by Lehigh University. (Yes, Pfaff’s is that well known and revered.) I perused articles about an NYU professor who guides people on Whitman tours. It appears that one Pfaff’s location still exists. The current renters of the space sometimes allow Whitman geeks to parade through the basement so long as visitors are careful not to disturb the boxes of merchandise destined for their Korean grocery upstairs.

I had not read Whitman since high school. I bought two modern volumes, The Portable Walt Whitman and The Collected Poems. Digging into those introductions and hearing his voice in my head again gave me one of my story’s conceits. I would presume to write bad poetry in Whitman’s style, only to have my fictional character reject them as they came to his mind. Among other things, I learned that he loved walking the city, as anyone who adores that island does. Like any good flatfoot, he would have known his nabe like the back of his hand.

I supplemented the literary research by reviewing some of his letters and photos at The Walt Whitman Archive, and a couple of decent articles about his relationships. It broke my heart to learn that at the end of his life, knowing that his papers would be scrutinized upon his death, he edited his journals, changing the pronouns of some of his lovers from him to her. I read one piece about the playful cross-dressing that most likely went on at Pfaff’s, which planted the seed for my plot. I found a long, shocking article that claimed that many of the encounters Whitman described in his encoded, private notebook involved males of an age that would greatly concern us today. (Before you judge Walt, consider the relative ages of Mr. and Mrs. Poe; he age 26, she age 13 when wed.)

I was not qualified to assess those claims. I needed just enough details to write a detective story. I shifted to assembling my prosaic details. What sort of food did Charles Ignatius Pfaff offer his patrons? (Slabs of roast beef, German pancakes, Frankfurter wurst, raw clams and oysters, salt herring with black bread, and so on.) What sorts of drinks? (Fancy European tipples, of course, along with the delightful new style of beverage immigrant German brewers had gifted their new American neighbors: lager.) I researched old Hoboken-New York-Brooklyn ferry lines, the old NYPD Tombs building, New York’s horse-drawn transit systems, the first Bellevue Hospital, and the protocols for visiting early city morgues, 

I talked to a doctor about how one might successfully stab an obese man in the back. I researched how early physicians diagnosed various forms of cancer. I re-read a book by the historian Harold Holzer on Abraham Lincoln’s famous February 1860 speech at Cooper Union, because that (nonfiction) book was set in the very same neighborhood at about the same time as my proposed story. Holzer’s descriptions of Lower Broadway were incredibly helpful.

At the end of all this, our modern pandemic was still raging, I had 45 pages of copious, pencil-written notes, and had not written a single word of my story.

Instead of freeing me up, my much-vaunted “process” failed me. I was now terrified to write this thing, for all the wrong reasons. I am not a poet. I am not a historian. I am not a literary scholar. I am not gay. I was just a guy who loved beer and old New York bars.

I should have embraced those credentials and run with them. But no. I had just come across a book specifically about Whitman’s place in the bohemian world. Essay after essay written by People In The Know. In other words, academics. Oh cool, I thought. Maybe these experts could teach a wannabe semi-expert what he needed to know.

Skimming even just a few pages of that text convinced me to stop this bullsh*t already and write the damn story. It dawned on me that I had absorbed so much Pfaffian history that I could write the story blind. And I would need to, because that tome made my eyes bleed.

All of which to say, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bled” is now out in Murder, Neat: A SleuthSayers Anthology. Go forth and read it lustily. It pairs well with a cool lager, pork schnitzel, and a robust German mustard. And yes, I probably left too much of my research on its pages, but you know what? Totally cool with it.

Let me assure you that I’ve long since recovered from my dubious labors, and am happily collecting material for two other historical “shorts.” One set during the American Revolutionary War, the other in Renaissance Italy.

Mark my words: I have resolved to never over-research again. In fact, I’m pretty confident that I’ll have both of these pieces wrapped in time for the 2068 SleuthSayers anthology. Go SLEUTHS!

See you next time!


26 January 2024

The Successful Writer’s Guide to a Guilt- and Success-Free New Year!


You're a winner, dude!

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

If you’re me (and I sincerely hope you’re not) the New Year is already weighing you down. Maybe you openly drafted some resolutions back in December that you hoped would sharpen and expand your writing career and author business. Maybe you merely dispatched a fervent wish heavenward to the Muse, asking for guidance as you prepared for a fresh twelve months. But here it is, the third week of January, and the fragile ladder to success you’d hoped to build is wobbling.

Frankly, it’s all just too much work, isn’t it? How are you supposed to write and edit the stories that move you, while holding down a “real” job, spending time with ones you love, wresting joy from this moment on earth, while still appeasing the Gods of Ceaseless Book Promotion?

Fear not, dear scribes! I spent a stupid amount of time between November and December scouring the internet for advice on the writing craft and its necessary evil, “business.” I delved into the state of book marketing, social-media-ing, and all the rest. I attended webinars, watched courses, absorbed podcasts, and connected with movers and shakers in the burgeoning new world of Author-Care Professionals. Here’s what I learned.

Be sure you follow every one of these pieces of advice. Your career depends on it.

It would seem logical that since humans write, and all humans are different, that everyone would have a different writing pace and working style. Don’t believe the hype! If you want to succeed in the writing racket, you must not only murder your darlings but also Unlearn Your Fuzzies. That is, the molly-coddling thoughts of working at a pace that’s “right” for you. Tough love, writers: There is no right for you. There is only one way—the Successful Way.

In the hot new world of churn-and-burn publishing, if you are not writing at least 10,000 words a day, you’re destined for failure. Stop listening to the fancy-pants bestsellers who say that they write 1,500 words in the morning, before ingesting a light lunch, brewing a mug of mint tea, and turning their attention to fan mail, tending to their author brand, and blah blah blah. They can play that game, because they’re tools of the man. The rest of us can’t. Luckily, several excellent books can teach you what you need to know. Maybe you start small, writing only 5,000 words a day before ramping up to 10,000. After consuming those reasonably priced ebooks, sign up for each author’s $797 course that will school you on the hot new world of “Rapid Release.” Some courses cost a little more, some a little less, but ones ending with 9 and 7 are the best.

Need help? Hire a developmental editor, accountability mentor, and a coach. You need all three on your “support team.” The best are aligned with quasi-academic institutions you may never have heard of, but all have placed at least one short story at prestigious publications. (“Prestigious” = markets paying in copies only.) Developmental editors charge $3,000 to assess your novel, mentors $3,000 to $5000 to be on-call annually, and coaches $100 an hour for virtual sessions. Beware professionals who quote round figures. Coaches who charge $197 an hour, for example, are the best.

Fearful of overspending? Get over it. What’s your career worth? Besides, you can use Assfirm or Blarna to pay it off in sixty-seven easy payments. Every dime is tax deductible. Take your credit card out of its holster, because you’re gonna need it.

If you’re launching a book, don’t just announce it on on Facepants, Twerper, and Instapork! Who are you, Grandma? Sign up for Megadon, Shreads, and BlueEarth, and DisChump as well. If you want followers to lay actual eyeballs on your announcements, you must pay to play! For as little as $2,797 or even $3,797, you can book an exciting package that will see you and your book feted by up to 30 blogs, and Instapork and DikTok channels. Your book has not lived until a 16-year-old influencer has sung its praises. I’m not going to say you’re a loser if you resist this new class of social media titans, but I just did!

Oh, and by the way, regarding your writing? Feel free to open with the weather! Research shows that Elmore Leonard’s books have never been celebrated by DikTok influencers. Nor did he ever plumb the lucrative reverse-harem romance, or dinosaur/werewolf erotica markets. Look where those missteps got him! Feel free to write entire books about the weather! The hot new thing in spicy romance is Nimbus-Cumulus-Stratus ménage à trois fiction!

True fact: Facepants and Junglezon have both recently debuted the exciting new world of AI-driven online marketing. No longer will you need to a) dream up clever copy, and b) hire a “human” designer to create book promo ads, and c) rack up stock image agency fees. Simply upload the entire text of your book to Facepants, and a legion of helpful bots will ingest your prose, generate clever ad copy—with images!—and populate their respective sites with instant ads touting your tome. Entrust these helpful corporate entities with your credit card digits and you’re good to go. They will spend your money in the most prudent way possible, or the bot’s name isn’t Bleep-Bleep-Ka-ching!

You know all those people who signed up for your newsletter six years ago, expecting you to write them once in a blue moon when you had a book out? Scrape those suckers off your boots, and get with the program—the hot new newsletter program, Gobstack, that is—and start spitting out newsletters three times a week. Enable the Monetize-The-Crap-Out-of-This function, and soon your adoring followers will have you rolling in sweet, sweet cash! The more you noodge, you more you earn!

Since Junglezon bought the ever-popular book site Goodbleeds, you can now offer book giveaways to your adoring potential readers. Upon payment of a very reasonable $599, your new book will be free to a select number of readers. (At press time, developers are trying hard to lower that price to $597 to align with the market.)

You will need some additional software to make your literary dreams come true. Sign up for your own website store, Flickstarter campaign, and AI art generation-cum-AI-cowriting software. Use the latter to craft sales copy, outline plots, and dream up ideas for future books—only. No one is suggesting that you use such things to write your own stories! That would be unethical.

With all these new author tools, you’re sure to succeed. But we understand that you may occasionally need a daily break between your first crop of 6,000 words and the second. By all means, step outside, stretch, and smell a freaking rose. Just make sure to snap a photo of that bud, and Instapork it as soon as you get back to the cockpit.


Joseph D’Agnese is a writer who occasionally writes fiction. If you squint real hard, the foregoing sorta could be.

05 January 2024

Sherlock lives, and lives forever!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A military man returns home wounded from the war in Afghanistan. Desperate for lodgings but short on funds, he meets with a potential roomie slumming in a chem lab at St. Bart’s. They hit it off, despite that the fact that the guy gleefully pricks his own fingers to get blood for an experiment.

Turns out, this eccentric oddball solves crimes for a living. Blood, you might say, is his business. He invites his wounded roomie to accompany him to the scene of his newest case. An individual has been slaughtered in an abandoned building, the word RACHE scrawled on the wall—

You’re thinking, dude, I so know this story.

But you don’t, because this is not the story by Conan Doyle. It’s the story by Neil Gaiman, which means that the word RACHE isn’t scrawled on the wall in scarlet, but in a hideous green ichor.

I wish I could remember when and where I’d first read that Gaiman had written two short stories in the Sherlock Holmes universe. Whoever mentioned it did so obliquely. I’m not exactly a fan of Gaiman’s work. I read one novel of his that was not to my taste, but I did enjoy the Sandman graphic novel series. But I am a Holmes geek, so I had to investigate further. Doing so turned into an interesting reminder of the seemingly endless adaptability of short stories.

The first Gaiman story, “A Study in Emerald,” is set in an alternate Holmesian universe, melding Conan Doyle with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology. It first appeared in a 2003 anthology of Holmes/Lovecraft mashups, Shadows Over Baker Street (Del Rey/Ballantine). Unfortunately, I can’t say more about the plot without spoiling it for you. What I can say is that the story crystalized for me that the more a reader knows about the Canon, the more pleasure they’ll derive from a great pastiche or parody. Each little reference—to a Persian slipper, say, or the letters VR or the name Jabez—brings a smile to the face of someone who holds that world dear. I shouldn’t have been surprised by Gaiman’s grasp of Holmes, knowing what he pulled off with Sandman, but I was.

The graphic novel in hardcover.

Some years later, Gaiman went out and did it again with another story, “The Case of Death and Honey,” which first appeared in the 2011 anthology A Study in Sherlock, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger (Poisoned Pen Press). This story claims to be the final chapter of Sir Arthur’s “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” the wacky tale of a university professor who starts exhibiting simian characteristics.

In Gaiman’s tale, Mycroft has died, Watson is ailing, and the elderly Holmes journeys to China in search of an elusive subspecies of bee raised by an Asian apiarist who is likewise getting on in years. I won’t say more about this one either, but suffice to say that the story belongs solidly in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. But so did Conan Doyle’s “Creeping Man”!

A quick look at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (here and here) informs us that each of these Gaiman stories has been reprinted a bajillion times, either in Gaiman’s own collections, or in “best of” anthologies and “weird” detective anthologies, so you won’t have trouble finding them. “Emerald” alone has been pubbed in foreign anthologies, been spun out as a game, a graphic novel, and a story-specific audiobook. A small boutique publisher brought out three gorgeous editions of “Death and Honey,” at three different price points, with or without an accompanying edition of the original “Creeping Man.” Depending on the rare book dealer you buy from, you can easily spend between $500 to $800 on the Gaiman-signed volume, if goatskin binding and gold-leaf edging are your thing.

Now, yes, you could look at all this and say, well, sure, we’re talking about Gaiman, a worldwide bestseller, so of course two short stories of his would engender this sort of treatment. And you’d have a point. But I’m constantly reminded that the short stories of lesser-known or downright unknown authors can inspire better-known works of pop culture. Every year at Thanksgiving, my wife and I watch a minor Holly Hunter film called Home for the Holidays, based on a short story by Chris Radant. Mary Orr’s story in a 1946 issue of Cosmopolitan was the basis for the Oscar-winning movie All About Eve. The 2016 Amy Adams science-fiction film Arrival, which I love, was derived from a short story by Ted Chiang, a nonfiction writer and SFF short story specialist.

Hoping to inspire myself, I read one or two short stories a day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day 2024. I was often left thinking how many of them were so rich that they could easily serve as the source material for entire movies or stage productions. (I was especially charmed by the shorts and novellas of Connie Willis, contained in her collection, A Lot Like Christmas. )

Click to download PDF.

Getting back to the Canon, since tomorrow is Sherlock’s birthday, I might mention that the two Gaiman stories I discussed are apparently so beloved by fans that you can easily find and read them online for free. If you’re the sort of Irregular scamp who respects copyright, however, I’d suggest you download the free pdf of “Emerald” that Gaiman makes available on his website. It’s designed to look like an old Victorian newspaper, and the price is just right if you’re jonesing for a January Holmes fix.

Happy New Year!

See you in three weeks...


15 December 2023

All I Want for Christmas Is This Post on Your Author Website

One of my pet peeves is a question that pops up often at this time of year: Where can I get your books? Granted, publishing is an opaque business, but I don’t think people ask the same sort of question when they are contemplating the purchase of automobile tires or mayonnaise.

Often, the question is framed as if the asker is genuinely concerned about my financial welfare: “What’s the best place to buy your books?” they’ll ask, implying that they want me to get the best bang for their buck.

This one, I sort of understand, and appreciate. “Well,” the only correct response is, “if you buy my book at the local bookstore, I’ll get ten bucks more than if you bought it online.”

Only writers laugh at that one.

Once, at a book event in a historic gift shop, a dimwitted paterfamilias suddenly announced: “Oh! You guys are the authors of the book!” Folks, he said this minutes after my wife and I signed and inscribed a book to his entire family, at the request of his two kids. Dad was standing there the whole time, beaming but apparently oblivious to what was happening.

I wanted to say: Sir, do you routinely let strangers scrawl their names on your purchases? If so, break out your automobile tires and mayonnaise jars right now because I’d be happy to Sharpie the heck out of them for you!

All this to say that when it comes to books, you cannot assume civilians know a damn thing. Which is why, when Denise and I first moved to this town, we made friends with booksellers at the local bookstore, and then promptly inserted a paragraph on the contact pages of our websites saying that if anyone wanted autographed copies of our books that they should contact that store. We gave them the link, the 800-number, and explicit instructions for ordering. In other words, we made it stupidly simple. You have to.

At this time of year, it is wise to remind yourself that you are marketing your books not to readers but to buyers. Many of the books bought during the holidays will never be read by those buyers; they are intended for other people entirely. Thanks to a shadow career as a ghostwriter, I have witnessed business people who have not cracked a book since The Catcher in the Rye buying stacks of signed business books to dole out to their compatriots, thinking it makes them look smart. Non-reading grandparents routinely snap up books for their grandchildren, regardless of the season. 

So, thanks to that paragraph on our website, the local booksellers at Malaprop’s will occasionally shoot us an email if they get an order, and we have grown accustomed to stopping by the store to sign/inscribe when running errands. Predictably, Denise is summoned far more often than I do. I get maybe two or three requests a year, but that’s still cool. Those sales live forever in the store’s system, gently reminding the store that my books are worth keeping in stock.

Simple instructions on our websites have also helped short-circuit the creepy thing that was happening, where strangers would mail a book to our home asking my wife to sign and return it. (I need not comment that privacy does not exist; you know that already.)

Another idiot shipped one of my wife’s books—in an Amazon box—to our local bookstore, with a note asking her to sign and send it back. This triggered a hilarious phone call from the Hungarian-born founder of this legendary indie store, which has been in business 41 years. “Come pick up this disgusting box,” she said in her thick accent, “before I vomit on it!” When we arrived at the store, we found that she had draped a paper bag over the box, neatly hiding the Amazon logo.

Now the note on Denise’s contact page says that any books shipped this way—to our home or the store—will be donated to charity. People must follow the rules.

Some years ago, I spotted another clever book-signing post that we have since stolen and made our own. John Scalzi, the bestselling SFF author, posts an annual message on his blog—believed to be the world’s oldest—with instructions for getting his books for the holidays. He urges fans to order his books from his local bookstore, Jan & Mary’s Book Center, in Troy, Ohio. Chuck Wendig, another well-known author, has started doing the same thing in his own wacky way, sending buyers to the indie store near him in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Study the language in their posts, and maybe also have a look at mine. You’ll notice that I avoid the word “signed” in favor of “autographed.” I do that because, given my experience with Doofus Dad (mentioned above) and others on the road, I think some buyers need things spelled out much more explicitly. I’ve also noticed that some buyers don’t quite understand what “inscribing” a book means. I stole the word “personalized” from Scalzi, but I still go to lengths to describe what that means. (See No. 2 in my instructions.)

Every year, I duplicate the same holidays blog post I’ve been using for nearly a decade, tweak the language slightly, and repost it. (During Covid, the language reflected the bookstore’s contactless ordering policies.) Beyond that, the most important information to give readers is the drop-dead order date.

This year, for example, the store told me that for books in stock, they could have orders gift-wrapped and shipped to U.S. addresses with a guaranteed Christmas arrival if the person ordered by December 14th, and we signed no later than 11 a.m. the following day. If the store did not have the book in stock, they preferred people order by December 7th.

Unfortunately, unless the indie bookstore’s website robustly reflects their inventory, the person calling or placing an online order won’t necessarily see if the book they want is in stock. Which is why it’s important to stress in your blog post that people a) pick up the damn phone, and b) order as early as possible. My post goes up on the website as early as possible in November, and lives on the front page of my site until January 2, when it’s replaced with a link to the non-holiday how-to-get-my books instructions.

Having said all that, I know that some of you will regard this effort as futile. This wouldn’t work for me, you’re thinking, for reasons such as:

  • I’m not a well-known writer. 
  • No one cares about my books. 
  • There isn’t a bookstore for 50 miles in every compass direction of my home. 
  • Or there is, and the crank who runs the place hates me because my books are self-pubbed or whatever.
I totally get it. I used to think along these lines, and still do in trying moments. But these days I regard these sort of posts as the easiest marketing I can do. It costs nothing to post this note on your site, and you never know how it’s going to play out.

I continue to be surprised by how such a simple effort helps my cause. One Christmas a buyer ordered a dozen signed copies of my children’s book. I was flabbergasted and asked the booksellers for the person’s name, thinking it must be a friend or colleague. The bookseller who took the order over the phone told me that the buyer was a former librarian. That, and the woman’s out-of-state address, was all we knew. No matter. I have since built a shrine to this obviously perspicacious stranger in my basement.

If you cannot envision a similar relationship with a store in your area, you could try…

  • Offering signed bookplates in exchange for a SASE. (The authors of Freakonomics did this via their website years ago, so now I do it too.) 
  • Selling signed books directly to readers via your website. That typically boils down to a PayPal link, and you driving to the post office to ship orders.
  • Selling signed books and other merchandise via a Shopify store. (This is the hot new thing everyone’s talking about in the indie-pub world.) It boils down to a website that practically runs itself, taking orders, printing books and other merch, and shipping it out without requiring any effort on your part after you’ve set it up. (You would probably not have the ability to offer signed, inscribed books this way unless you have really nailed your game.)

In the two days it took me to write and tinker with the post you are reading, another buyer—a professor who teaches screenwriting—ordered 10 copies of our personal finance book to gift to students of hers graduating in December. I can’t imagine why she would want signed copies, but who am I to argue?

On that note, I’ll share the following: At the arts school in North Carolina that my wife attended in her youth, a professor famously told his students—aspiring musicians, actors, dancers—that the world was filled with benevolent, often wealthy people who have money to spend on the arts. Your job, he told them, was to help them spend that money on your work. The first rule, he counseled, was educating them. He meant learning to write grants, but I have since come to see it differently.

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to You All.


  • To create the images in the holiday post on my website, I used Book Brush, which is a paid service. You could easily use Canva, Adobe, or whatever design software you like. 
  • To create the one-page list of all my books, I used Books2Read, which is completely free and created by some very nice author-loving people in Oklahoma.
  • As long as we are celebrating imagination and creativity, I might mention that the images in this post are photos I took of displays of the winners of the annual Gingerbread competition held at the Omni Grove Park Inn in my town. Everything you see is theoretically edible.
See you in three weeks!