TALK to Warren Adler, and watch some favorite clichÈs crumble.
Remember "The War of the Roses," the novel - and later, the movie - about a brutal divorce? Mr. Adler wrote the book and the screenplay, even though he has been married (happily, he says) to the same woman for 54 years. So much for "don't write what you don't know."
How about "don't fix what ain't broke"? Mr. Adler has published 27 novels. But did he follow the tried-and-true conventional print route for "Death of a Washington Madame," his 28th? No. He's self-publishing that one electronically, and e-mailing it free, a chapter at a time, to anyone who asks. Fogies (like this reporter) who still want the feel of pages "can always print the chapter out," he said. "The main thing is, give readers a new book for free, and they might go back and buy some of the former books."
The way Mr. Adler, 77 (there goes "you can't teach an old dog new tricks"), sees it, portable electronic readers will soon do to paper books what the Walkman and iPod did to boomboxes.
"Print publishing has had a great 500-year run, but the print book is morphing into the screen book," he said during a recent lunch at Pigalle, a French restaurant in Manhattan's theater district.
But what does that mean for those many, many people who believe there is a novel inside them, clamoring to be let out? Making a living as a writer has never been easy - even Mr. Adler was a self-described "failed writer" until, at 45, he finally caught a publisher's attention. So will all this technological upheaval make it easier or harder to get read?
Both, Mr. Adler insists. The Internet, with its limitless capacity for blogs and whole books that can be electronically whisked from place to place, means people can pretty well publish what they want. On the downside, the competition for readers, already intense, will become maddeningly so. But writers need not make it past the gatekeepers at publishing houses to be published. Vanity publishing - a term Mr. Adler hates - has come into the electronic age.
Nothing can guarantee a sale, but, Mr. Adler said, for as little as $295 - plus a fee for each book sold - self-publishing services will register a copyright and put a book into an electronic format that can be sold as an e-book or printed out. Up the price to $1,000 or so, and the services will send out news releases, contact reviewers and offer the book to stores and online vendors like Amazon.com.
"The big publishing houses just don't get it," Mr. Adler said. Apparently, Mr. Adler does: next month, he will begin selling all his past novels on flash memory cards, readable on e-book players.
It took Mr. Adler a long, long time before his "obsession with the need to tell stories" gave him the luxury of choosing formats. He started writing when he was 16, waking at 4 a.m. and writing until 7. He made his living first as a journalist, then as an ad man - but those three hours were always sacrosanct. He married at 22 and still, at 4 a.m., to the typewriter he went.
There was no money in it at first - but Mr. Adler was no stranger to making do with little. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, he lived with his parents, his two brothers and assorted relatives in his grandparents' house. At one point, 11 people shared a bathroom, "but it seemed a glorious childhood," he said.
He was a so-so student - "I read voraciously but I hated studying" - but still made it through New York University, majoring in English. He took a job as a copy boy at The Daily News, "because it was the closest I could get to the printed word." One day, on a Long Island beach, he struck up a conversation with Sonia Kline. They married in May 1951 and have three sons.
After a stint in the Army and a briefer stint in public relations, Mr. Adler started his own ad agency. By then, he had written three novels. Publishers were monumentally uninterested - until 1973, when he struck a deal with Whitman Publishing: he publicized John David Garcia's "The Moral Society" free, and Whitman published "Options," Mr. Adler's third book.
"Options" bombed - but he was finally a published author. That made it easier to get G. P. Putnam's Sons to publish "Banquet Before Dawn" in 1974. The advance was just $4,000, "but it felt like I'd won the lottery," Mr. Adler said. "It was the defining moment of my life."
Putnam published six more of his novels. Then it was bought by Universal Pictures, and "they dumped me," Mr. Adler said. Warner Books picked him up and published "War of the Roses."
He has learned from the many business mistakes he made along the way. In the 70's he sold the movie rights to "Trans-Siberian Express" for $250,000; the movie was never made, but he could not get the rights back. When he sold movie rights to "Private Lies" several years later, he made sure the rights reverted to him after 10 years.
Still, the writing life has been good to him. He lived in Hollywood, working on movie scripts. And he lived in Washington for years, hobnobbing with politicos. For the last 15 years, the Adlers have lived in Jackson Hole, Wyo., most of the time, and on Manhattan's Sutton Place some of the time.
All the while, of course, he has kept writing. So, not surprisingly, he has lots of tips for would-be writers in the electronic age. Some - "force yourself to write each day," "approach your work seriously" - are pretty hoary. But many have modern-day spins, and many, while basic, are counterintuitive. Here are a few tidbits, including some for people who want to publish an old-fashioned, printed book:
Take a writing course, and draft your professor as a quasi publisher. It is pretty easy for writing professors to set up links on university Web sites to electronic versions of novels they find promising. "They might even get reviewers to periodically weigh in," he said. No money would change hands, "but before you make money you have to get read," he said.
Think of yourself as a writing machine, with an on/off switch. If you decide to write from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., be at that keyboard on the dot - and get up from it on the dot. "You sit there through writer's block, and you stop even if the ideas are flowing," Mr. Adler said. Start and end each session by rereading the last few pages. You'll make sure the facts are consistent - a character's blue eyes on page 12 are not green on page 48 - and it will get your subconscious working on the next plot point.
Send a one-page synopsis to an agent who specializes in your genre. Check out Literary Marketplace, which tells you who deals with mysteries and who likes gothic romances. If you are unsure of the genre - is it sci-fi or fantasy? - IUniverse and a few other companies will help determine it, and even lightly edit the book.
If you find a print publisher, negotiate like an entrepreneur. Standard contracts give publishers electronic, foreign and movie rights. But if you have a halfway decent voice, try to negotiate the right to record your own books. And don't automatically give the publisher options on a second book. "It may feel like an easier way to stay in the publishing pipeline, but if that first book does well, you can negotiate a better contract on the second," he said.
Be creative about generating buzz. "Your friends can hold book parties as easily as Tupperware parties," Mr. Adler said. He suggests pasting your name and book title on the side of a rented Winnebago and driving through town. If the book is about, say, older people, then visit a senior citizen center to talk it up. If you can't afford a full-time publicist, hire one for a few hours to book you on a few radio shows. And start a blog in which you talk about yourself, your experiences, anything at all. "Like chicken soup, it can't hurt," Mr. Adler said.
Don't think you are a lousy writer because publishers reject you. As Mr. Adler put it, "In the end, as in all things, luck trumps talent."