Hangin’ with Sideways author Rex Pickett
Today’s post is about Rex Pickett. Most of you know he wrote Sideways, the novel on which the famous movie was based. He is now following up with Vertical, which I wrote about a few days ago on Wine Enthusiast’s website. The new book will be published in November. You can order it here.
Rex’s back story, pre-Sideways and post, wasn’t necessarily pretty. As he himself writes on his new blog, which he launched last week:
A lot of people harbor the delusion that the life of a Hollywood writer or a successful novelist is of a guy in a convertible BMW, baseball cap turned backward, with a beautiful woman, her hair blowing in the wind…
That has not been Rex’s experience. The 1990s were brutal for him. His experience with his Sideways publisher was less than gratifying. And, when all was said and done — even after the book had been turned into a hugely successful movie that grossed hundreds of millions of dollars — he made peanuts. “People think I got rich off the book,” he says. “I didn’t. I made sixty grand,” a pittance when you think about it, and considering the penury he had experienced for many years prior. The publisher, St. Martin’s Press, did nothing to market it, not even after the movie hit and a special tie-in edition came out. “Zero promotion, not one dollar. It should have been in every tasting room,” Rex says, amazed even now at his former publisher’s lassitude.
It is not unknown for a writer to feel screwed by his publisher. (My publisher, the University of California Press, did very little to promote my two books.) For Vertical, Rex changed publishers, going first to Knopf. “I was working on a novel, and decided to morph it into a Sideways sequel. But they were not happy with that idea.” Why not? “I don’t know; I can only tell by the way they treated me. They took 5 months to get back to me after the first draft. Then I rewrote it, and [waited] 5 months again. And, by the way, you don’t know it’s going to be 5 months.” The uncertainty of never knowing what was happening, or when or if it would happen, added to the stress.
Rex received, following Sideways, numerous offers to work on Hollywood screenplays, but had to turn them all down. “I couldn’t do another deal, because I was waiting on the book.” So Rex made a crucial decision: “I said, these people aren’t behind me, and that’s when I began to investigate self-imprint.” He realized that, when all’s said and done, you have to take care of #1, because if you don’t, who will?
I asked Rex how you go about self-imprinting, or self-publishing, which is a big topic among writers, especially as it gets harder to get an agent, and even if you do, it’s harder for an agent to get a publisher, and even if he does, you’re likely to run into the same problem Rex did: the publisher doesn’t support the book. “You need two things,” Rex replied. “Branding. I had huge branding.” Everybody has heard of Sideways; to be the author of Sideways opens doors. “But you also need capitalization.” Rex had no capitalization — money to pay for stuff. “So I went to investors, and their eyes were bulging out when I told them who I was. It was a no-brainer.” Rex went with a guy named Tim Moore, an Atlanta entrepreneur. Rex told me how much money Moore put up — a bundle — but I’m not comfortable repeating it. “A lot goes toward advertising,” Rex explains. Besides the costs of manufacturing all those books, there’s a P.R. firm, a graphic design team that did the book cover and new website, and the road expenses of promoting a book. “Those are things Knopf would never spend a dime for.”
I’ve grown to like and admire Rex a great deal. His life is still not exactly a bed of roses. He’s not driving his BMW M6 convertible down the PCH with a starlet on his arm. He still has a shyness that makes him charming (and that I hope he doesn’t lose even when Vertical makes him wealthy, which I expect it will, especially after the movie comes out, as I also expect will happen.) But Rex is changing in subtle ways. Perhaps self-imprinting Vertical gives him a sense of release from the torments of the past, and of renewed hope for the future. When we first met, he noticed my tattoos, and asked what had prompted me to get inked. I answered with remarks about stages of life, symbolic changes, personal growth. Now — saying he needs something “ineffable” to validate his “inner artistic soul” — Rex has decided to make an appointment with Philip Milic, my tattoo artist, at Old Crow, here in Oakland. Rex wants a small uroborous — the snake that bites its own tail, said to be symbolize renewal of the universe. I’m already imagining the followup to Vertical. Miles gets tagged!