Author Michael Botur writes about his recent international publishing deal, and the story of how he got a book cover tattooed on his ribs, that they didn’t even end up using.
It’s Ockhams time again. I’ve just sent in copies of my latest short story collection to the NZ Book Awards. Results are six months away.
Hell of a Thing is sixteen striking stories. The genre is literary fiction. The content: tales of first world f*ck-ups trying to work through conflict towards their goals. A cowardly father seeks a more exciting son; two lovers on a posh date dine on self-delusion; and an author turns his back on his past—until the past demands violent closure. We meet artistic terrorists, renegade daughters, an Uber driver from Waziristan, and a crew of casino kids stay up way past their bedtime and get into a crapload of trouble.
I wrote the stories bristling with defiant energy after my last collection of stories didn’t even make the Ockhams 2018 longlist. By mid-2019, I’d pushed all my frustration into my keyboard and written a bunch of new stories about a bunch of new subcultures - wrestlers, boxers, literary nerds, child arsonists, libertarians and radical Elam students getting revenge on Auckland Art Gallery.
Now, I knew it was going to be hard getting this collection published, since many publishers specify ‘PLEASE DO NOT SEND US GOD DAMN UNSELLABLE SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS’ on their submissions page. So I looked for a publisher with the same risk-taking genes as me. A wildman of words.
A lightbulb came on one day. That Mike Sager guy who publishes journalism about Rick James and John C. Holmes etc - he’s got a publishing imprint, right? You already sent him some fan mail so he knows your name - why not approach him?
Yep, when I was a journalism student around 2013, I stumbled upon Scary Monsters and Super Freaks in the Pukekohe Library. I read all his journalism collections and sent him some fan mail. He sent me a free book. Our exchanges meant he had an idea of my background, so when it came to negotiating publishing over summer 2019-20, we already knew what each of us wanted out of the deal.
Why is Sager an American idol for me? He balances being wild with words and being professional with publishing. He has reputable things like the Washington Post, Esquire and the National Magazine Award associated with him; he also gets up close and personal with weed and porn stars and N.W.A.
I like the Sager flavour because after we agreed on a publishing deal for Hell of a Thing and I told him I planned to get the book cover literally tattooed on me, Sager barely blinked. We’re both gonzo.
I booked a session at my local tattoo parlour in the first week of January 2020. I endured the awful rattling bumps over my bloody ribs. I had amazing photos taken. I’d done something no author has probably ever done in history.
I sent my publisher amazing photographs.
Sager’s response? “The actual tattoo… I think in this case art needs to imitate life.”
Yup, the publisher’s art director was saying it would be better to create an imitation tattooed body instead.
As in, make up a digital tattoo.
As in, we weren’t even going to use the real tat that I’d bled for.
I was down three hundred bucks and up one permanent scar.
Even as COVID choke-slammed the world, Mike and Mike prepped the manuscript, lined up the covers, e-books, print-on-demand and promo copies.
I sent him some book reading videos.
He told me things are a lot tougher in America and I needed to up my game.
I sulked for a week and then did just that.
Despite getting some crazy-ass fever, I sat to record professional promo readings with my videographer mate Mark in May. Those promo videos are on Insta, YouTube and websites. Not every publisher does that for you.
My beautiful book is now available on many platforms. Not every publisher does that for you.
My publisher footed the bill to enter the 2021 Ockhams. Not every publisher does that for you, either.
So yeah, The Sager Group is a relatively small publisher and doesn’t have the budget to pay for a butler to escort me from bookshop to bookshop for a tour of packed-out readings. But we do have beautiful books full of outstanding stories. And so can you.
Advice: Look at the literary people you admire. If they’ve gotten into the publishing game, why not approach them? You’ll find yourselves with a relationship of mutual respect where one partner doesn’t have all the power. Begin from there.
Mike Botur also shares his ten best writing tips in this NZ Herald piece.