A Journal for Those Stuck at Home

On Writing My First Novel, Josef’s Lair

“Who needs to read about imaginary vampires and werewolves when we’ve got real monsters running around killing innocent people.”
Colonel Erich Hauptmann, Germany, 1943.


In May 1994, I had an idea for a political thriller about an Israeli archaeologist — the son of Holocaust survivors — who goes on the hunt for war criminals. I decided to write Josef’s Lair as a short story, but it grew so long I transformed it into a full length work of fiction. When it was done, I began to flog it to publishers and agents (2001). I had some interest in the premise, but when it came to the full manuscript, there were some major issues, so I began the long process of rewriting it. When I couldn’t resolve certain story issues, I transformed it into a screenplay, hoping the process would reveal new ways of telling the story and coaxing out character.

It was a somewhat  complex story, tying in my experiences in Cuba researching the Afro-Cuban religions Santeria and Palo, as well as my time in Guatemala during the long and bloody civil war there. As much as it tackled serious political and historical elements, it also had fantastical aspects, which made for a complicated balancing act. At the heart of Josef’s Lair lay the universal questions: what was the nature of evil and redemption and would we ever learn from the past?

I put it down for a time but eventually returned to the project as a novel and sent it around to agents in 2009. A few nibbles, but no bites.  Once again, I began working on other, more promising projects. But Josef’s Lair stayed with me. It begged to be completed. So last year, I decided I was going to wrap it up, sketched out a schedule of necessary steps to get there, and began the final leg of this 20 year journey.

The one big difference between previous attempts to get the work published and now is that I can skip the agent/publisher gate-keeper completely and go straight to an ebook, because not only have the digital tools for distribution come of age, but the ebook is now considered a legitimate stand-alone entity outside the formal publishing world. Of course, the key to any good book/ebook is quality. No one wants to waste money or time reading shit.  That being said, I am hiring an editor.

Of course, without an agent or a publisher, I’m on my own, promoting my book and looking for people to review it and hopefully buy it. This includes creating a movie-style trailer to promote the book. According to a few of my published friends, who have publishers behind them, they still have to do a lot of the promotional leg work, anyway.  Publicity budgets aren’t getting any bigger these days…

To date, there are several web-based companies that will take your Word Doc manuscript and grind it into a highly viewable ebook for various formats, including the Kindle and Kobo. Depending how you price your book, the writer can expect to receive 60-70% of the purchase price (according to some experts, the sweet spot for getting maximum paid downloads is between 99¢ and $5.99).  CNET does a good job reviewing ebook publishing options:  http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-18438_7-20010547-82/how-to-self-publish-an-ebook/

A major challenge is that something like 85% of people in Canada still read paperbacks, which means by only offering an ebook, you potentially lose out on a lot of readers. Of course, that’s the benefit of landing a publisher — you get distribution in bookstores, which is a really big deal. But, as I discovered, finding an agent or a publisher is a very long and demoralizing process (three years ago, I was once again trying to find an agent for a non-fiction project on travel). The bottom line is that many people in the biz appear somewhat risk averse, so if no one else will take a chance on you, maybe you need to take a chance on you…

Of course, you can pay a printer to print a thousand copies of your book at a good unit price, but then you may be sitting on a large inventory, which not everybody has the money or space for. One workaround for the self-publishing writer is the Espresso Print Machine, which prints and glue-binds books in minutes (including a full-colour cover). The University of Toronto is the only place in Toronto that has one. You can print one or many books, though the cost is pretty high (approximately $20.00 for a 340 page book, plus a one-time setup fee of $60). Review UofT site: http://bookpod.uoftbookstore.com/


It has been a labour of love, and, if all goes well, I will launch Josef’s Lair in the Spring of 2015. And there will be a party. A big party.

The Trailer:

Follow the project on twitter: @JosefsLair
Online: www.JosefsLair.com.

Join the conversation: Comments and suggestions on self-publishing/ebooks are welcome below.


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