Squeezing through the pigeonhole
I’ve got to share with you a short Amazon review I got for The First Face of Janus. It was written by a guy named Robert, and this is what he wrote:
“Such an intriguing book. I couldn’t put it down. Mystery, murder, and secret societies. I can’t believe THIS book was written by a radio talk show host.”
A radio talk show host. That’s my pigeonhole. What’s yours? It doesn’t matter if you’re a secretary, a doctor, a construction worker, or a priest. If writing is your passion, the one thing you long to be called—and the one thing everyone refuses to call you—is ‘a writer.’ Hi, this is Joe Blow. He’s a wri…realtor. This is Sally. She’s my wri…receptionist friend.
Don’t think I don’t feel your pain. I’m a talk show host. Not that I don’t want to be one or known as one or referred to as one. I’m proud to be a talk show host. Thrilled to be one. But I’m also a writer. An author.
People are shocked when they find out I’m any good at it, like Robert there with the review. Not that I’m dogging Robert. He gave the book five stars. I love Robert. But obviously Robert came to my book with a preconceived notion. To Robert’s credit, he was able to lay that preconceived notion aside and give the book a chance. How many folks will never pick it up because they have me pigeonholed? Being a talk show host has made me familiar to a lot of people, and that’s a plus. It’s also my biggest impediment. I’m constantly having to break through that wall.
It’s not just that people see me as a talk show host, it’s the political division that comes with the territory. Some people aren’t capable of turning that off. They may despise me as a talk show host. They also despise me as a writer, even though they’ve never read one of my books. Not a lot I can do about that.
Look, if I loaded my phone with only music from conservative rock artists I’d just be listening to Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. I don’t let politics get in the way of enjoying a good song, or a good story. I don’t care if you’re liberal or conservative, gay or straight, man or woman, black or white, if you can suck me into a great story, I’m putty in your hands.
But Bill’s a mail carrier. Oh, yeah? Well, Bill may also be a brilliant writer. Why not let’s give Bill a chance to prove he’s a mail carrier and a writer?
I know of an attorney who went through the pigeonhole thing once upon a time. He was a lawyer, not a writer. Time was when my wife’s aunt was going down to the local book store in West Point, MS to a book signing for this novel nobody’d ever heard of “to help out Scott’s little friend.” The novel “nobody’d ever heard of” was a book published by an unknown publisher called A Time to Kill. Yeah, “Scott’s little friend” was John Grisham.
You see, everybody was somebody else before they were ever a writer. I don’t have a lot of wisdom to dispense to my kids, but one thing I told them over and over when they were growing up was “Don’t let anyone else define you.” If you’re ever going to be seen as a writer, you first have to see yourself as a writer. Not only see it. Believe it.
I’m not suggesting that the first thing you do when you meet someone is say, “My name is Jan. I’m a writer.” That’s just obnoxious. You wouldn’t say, “My name is Jan. I’m a lawyer.” But if you’re a lawyer you act like one. You converse like one. You’re comfortable with the lingo, with the courtroom, even with your own lawyer jokes. If you’re serious about being a writer, get comfortable with being a writer. If someone asks you what you do, don’t be too shy to tell them that you’re a writer. Not a “struggling writer.” Not an “aspiring writer.” A writer.
But actually be a writer. Publish an ebook or two on Amazon. You don’t have to be published through a publishing company. Didn’t you hear? Kindle came along and killed the gatekeepers. There’s nothing stopping you from publishing your own book except you.
But do me a favor, will ya? Do it right. Get your manuscript professionally proofed and edited. Get a professional cover design. Get your interior professionally formatted. Oh, easy for you to say, Mr. Talk Show Host. How do you expect me to afford all that? You’ve got a publisher that handles all that for you.
All true, but let me ask you something. Can you get your hands on a grand? Then you can publish your own book. I’m going to let you in on a little secret that a lot of people don’t know about, or don’t want you to know about. It’s called Upwork.com. You can put a call out to freelancers around the world. Tell them how much you’re willing to pay for, say, a cover design for your novel. You’ll get freelancers hitting you up from all over. Do your due diligence. Look at their body of work. Some will actually do you some samples to get your business. Choose wisely. Put together a professional product. Then publish it through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.
Or you can do what I did and spend five years trying to get a publisher. I got rejected countless times for The God Players before I got a contract offer to write a book. And the book was totally unrelated to The God Players. Remind me to tell you sometime how I got my first book contract. Anyway, that first contract led to a contract with Thomas Nelson. The paperback of my first book was picked up by Penguin. Sourcebooks bought out my first contract and I’m still with them to this day for my non-fiction books. So I’m certainly not knocking the traditional publishing house route. I’m just telling you, you don’t have to wait for them to discover you. Get discovered yourself by spending a grand and doing it right.
But what if you don’t get discovered? Ever? Are you going to be devastated? Or are you writing not because you’re trying to get rich but because you’re a writer? Then you can legitimately call yourself a writer. It doesn’t mean you still can’t be a doctor or a pipe-fitter or an accountant.
I’m a talk show host and a writer. Can’t I be good at both?
Phil Valentine is an award-winning talk show host, screenwriter, and documentary producer. His radio show is syndicated with Westwood One.