Starting with Aspen Books
Six years passed from my leaving Randall to when I was invited to join Aspen. During that time I wrote The Invisible Saint, which has a most peculiar history.
I left Randall for personal reasons. To protect the repentant guilty, chief among whom I was, I will not go into details. But I will add that I was most surprised when my former employer called and asked me to write a novel. I had left his employ with the understanding that my limited abilities were actually more limited than I had thought, so his call offering me an advance for a novel about a Latter-day Saint who goes invisible, both metaphorically and literally, baffled me. But, not being of independent means, I accepted the offer and went to work. It would be my first novel by myself; ergo, without Todd Hester and his towering creativity.
The idea wasn’t mine, but I knew that I had to make it mine if I wanted any chance of success. A local newspaper, The Modesto Bee, had been publishing some of my humorous sketches, and they seemed to be well received, so I chose to write the prologue in a similar vein of humor. I sensed that the tongue-in-cheek humor wasn’t the tone the publisher wanted (wise and somber), but it worked for me, so I went with it. The prologue basically wrote itself in an afternoon, then I turned to remainder of the story. As the story darkened and deepened, so did the tone, and soon I was lost in a miasma of conflicting voices and helter-skelter plot twists. So, I took some time off. About a year. Which was good for me because the story seemed to write itself when I came back to it. Unfortunately, the year off was not so good for the publisher, who had gone bankrupt meanwhile.
One of the former owners started his own publishing company, and I felt an obligation to give him the finished novel. He read it, I suppose, and promptly rejected it. I suggested he reconsider; after all, I would apply the cash advance to his new company, so he wouldn’t owe me any royalties for a while. But further discussions gave me the impression he wouldn’t publish it unless I paid all costs of doing so myself (which is how his new company was doing things). Well, I thought that sounded a might generous on my account, so I bid him good day. My still faithful and patient wife and I had somehow just qualified for a credit card, so, extending her patience even further, she allowed me to max it out in publishing the book, which I did, with my future partner, Stan Zenk, who managed a book distribution company at the time. We paid for artwork, a quick edit, and ran to a printer and binder, who quickly emptied the card. When the book came out, It looked wonderful, magnificent, but nobody knew it existed. So Stan went to the stores, pleading and dickering and cajoling, and soon we had some orders. Then we had a few reorders.
There is a little known quirk in the publishing industry. Because stores can return books to the publisher within ninety (90) days for full credit, they don’t want to pay the publisher for ninety (90) days. So they don’t. In the meantime, we were selling more and more copies of our little book and were starting to hear anecdotes of people actually reading it, and in rare instances, enjoying it. So Stan kept selling, and I kept making payments on my credit card (Janet was teaching aerobics and I was slinging pizzas at Dominoes). When the glorious day came to be paid what our little company was due, the company for whom Stan worked full-time, and who was officially distributing the book, decided we could wait a little longer. Now, Stan and I were good friends, so things became a mite awkward, but we continued on, figuring the payday would come soon enough. And, as I recall, it did—in part. And eventually Stan and I both began to penetrate the fact that the big company he worked for was doing no better than the little company we were now giving life support to. Just as we weren’t getting paid by them, they weren’t getting paid by the stores. Or so they claimed. So, in one of the more difficult decisions of my life, I pulled the book from that company and gave it to you know who—the former owner of Randall Book who had rejected the novel, after having first paid an advance for it. Things were getting confusing.
Now, one of the great lessons this man had learned from his earlier bankruptcy was to keep costs down. At all costs. In all conditions. No matter what. And as a result he was able to pay his bills. It was a refreshing concept. About two weeks after he got the book, he called me:
“You know that book you asked me to distribute for you?”
“Oh, yes, the one you paid me for in advance.”
“Mmm, maybe I made a mistake. The fact is, we just got an order for twelve hundred more copies, from a single account.”
“Wow. That seems like a lot.”
“It is. Like I said, maybe I made a mistake.”
“You mean you should have published it?”
He was silent for a long moment. “Well, anyway, don’t expect your payment for ninety (90) days—you know how these things work.”
I was beginning to learn.
We hung up on good terms, for at least the next ninety days, whereupon he paid his bill—yes, a very refreshing concept—and he continued to pay his bill every thirty (30) days thereafter (an even more refreshing concept). In a few months Janet and I had paid off our credit card, and over the next year or so had made enough money to enable us to move back to Utah, where we bought a house. (The Invisible Saint eventually sold its first printing.) Of course, we had to go back to Utah so I could go back to school again. Which was the last time I did so, which was when I was put on academic probation, which motivated me to actually finish the darn thing. (Things had now been reversed: Instead of quitting school when I got a book published, I now went back to school, and stayed there until the eternal thing was done.)
I wasn’t the only one who changed companies. A successful investor wanted to start a new LDS publishing company, for some reason, and he hired Stan to manage it. That was the wisest decision he could have made, because Stan had also learned to keep costs down at all costs. In all conditions. No matter what. Plus, he was extremely talented. Plus, he still liked me. The new company was called Aspen Books.