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Hangin’ with Sideways author Rex Pickett

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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!

Rex Pickett

  1. Rex…Don’t do the tattoo thing man!!! Get some ‘stickies’ instead.

    Good luck with the book and movie. If you need some one to ‘act’ in it, let me know.

  2. Greg Brumley says:

    Steve,

    This is really interesting. (Also, the self-revelation regarding the tats.)

    I have a colleague who published a book in 1995. Though the book is still available in most Borders & Barnes&Noble outlets — proving itself a milk cow for the publisher — he experienced the same lack of support Rex did. He’s considering self-publishing, so Rex’s experience will really be an education. The things you learn on Heimhoff’s blog.

    Given the upheaval in all writing fields, it’s great to see Rex succeeding.

    And learning about the challenges writers face is also good for all of us. Starlets and backwards ballcaps, indeed!

    Greg

  3. Interesting post. One of the best things that could possibly happen w/ the advent of e-readers and the ability to easily distribute books over the internet is increased adoption of self-publishing. If writers can get more from each sale and readers can lower their cost by cutting out the middleman then it could spurn a renaissance of literature as more people are brought to the table.

    Unfortunately, I’ve heard from friends that have looked into self-publishing that the middlemen are keen to protect themselves from being squeezed out of the picture. And the darker side to this is that once you’ve self published you’re effectively black-balled from ever using a major publisher again (granted, this is hearsay). Also, the e-reader marketplace is still a mess of proprietary formats and confusion over the right way to manage digital copyrights. But I’m optimistic- I really think that the digital age can and will make book reading better for everyone involved- writers, readers, and honest publishers who take a reasonable slice for promotion/distribution.

  4. Tim, I don’t know about all the details, but self-publishing seems to be a wave of the future.

  5. Greg, please spell my name right! It’s Heimoff : >

  6. Blake Edgar says:

    Steve, it’s very disappointing, as your publisher, to read that you apparently “feel screwed” by your publisher. If you wish, we can provide you with a list of where each of your books was sent for review and/or advertised plus other marketing activities. As you know, our commitment to both of your books continues with their publication this month in new paperback editions. If UC Press put “very little” effort into marketing your books, how do you account for the appearance of reviews in The New York Times, TIME, and other newspapers and magazines, or the talks and signings that we organized? Blake

  7. Blake, in the sense of a lack of marketing and PR support. I felt honored in every other way. And I understand that UC Press, as an academic publisher, doesn’t have the marketing and PR budget of a commercial publisher. But it did come as a shock and surprise to me, as a naive first-time author, to discover how little UC Press was able to push my books. I could completely relate to Rex Pickett’s feelings.

  8. I have had the great pleasure of having books published by UC Press and by Knopf. No publisher has great sums of money to push books that are essentially backlist offerings. I was lucky at Knopf to have an editor who was a genuine wine lover. He made sure that the book was positioned correctly and that the sales force understood what the book was and how it could be sold.

    But support? I appeared on a few Sunday morning radio shows. You know the kind–the ones that run at 600 AM and are intended to meet the station’s public service commitments. Nothing else.

    So, now, thirty years later, and I should add that Knopf kept the book in print until 2000 so it lastED 25 years, I have a book that has just been published by UC Press–with the same editor as Steve’s books. He, Black Edgar whose note to Steve appears above is also a wine lover. I have been in contstant contact with the PR person at UC Press. She has a whole bunch of titles to push, and some of them are going to be more popular than Steve’s or my or Paul Gregutt’s books (think Terry Theise) and UC is not going to a lot more for my book than they did for Steve. Or Knopf did for my first book.

    My takeaway from all this is that authors need to do a lot of self-promotion as well as having the publisher do it. I never knew why my first book did not appear in every tasting room in California, but it did not. I now do not expect my new book to be any more successful in those places. Next time you go, have a look at the books in tasting rooms. There are more cookbooks sold in tasting rooms than wine books. At Ravenswood, not too shabby a place to visit, the ratio was something like five to one, and it might have been higher. The folks at Ravenswood would be happy to stock anybody’s books if they could sell them.

    When I was writing for Knopf, it was coterminous with Julia Child’s end of career books. My book sold 10,000 copies in a year–not bad for a wine book. Julia’s new book, the big paperbook bound book, not the originals that launched her career, sold 175,000. Chances are that Julia had more offers to publicize her book than I did.

    It’s a tough world out there, Steve. Maybe you, Paul and I could do a World Tour for our new titles. Do you think anybody would show up?

  9. And by the way, was Pickett your secret interview? If so, don’t I get half credit for guessing Bart Giamatti?

  10. Charlie, you’re correct that no publisher has great sums of money, especially an academic press. I just felt that my contacts at UC Press could have done a better job of disabusing a naive first time author of any notions of national book tours, etc. I obviously can’t blame UC Press for having the limited budget they do. But I think that the initial conversations should include very honest, forthright information about what can and will be done, and what cannot.

  11. Steve, as author of two books on fishing and hunting stories around the Baja campfire, my first was published by an east coast firm, with zippo support. When the first 2500 books disappeared, I asked about how long to do a reprint. “2 yrs” was the answer. After some discussion, copyrights were reverted to me, and Best Stories of Baja was reproduced and published within 3 mos. No joke. Three yrs later my second book, Arriba Baja! More of tales from around the Baja campfire, was published in 1995, and once written, it took just 3 mos to publish. The “support” that most authors never see is decidedly better in the hands of the author.

    As an aside, I became pen pals with David Petraeus during the battle of Fallujah, and sent him both books for nite time reading just before bedtime. He liked both, we exchanged more letters, and I offered to send two crates to the soldiers and marines in Iraq. Dave said fine, and hence at one time, I had both Baja books from Basra in the south to Kirkuk up north…distributed by chaplains, no less.

    No, for the unknown authors out there, if you wish your books marketed, do it yourself. Sending and then waiting on a publisher, who may or may not bite, just isn’t a great idea if you aren’t a well known author. (sure there are exceptions, but not many % wise.). Hard to believe that the author of Sideways had that much trouble with a slam dunk follow up fantastic book. As you know, however, publishers, and books for that matter, are becoming a way, or thing of the past. Aside from technical journals, it is amazing how many of my friends don’t read all that much. It is also why we enjoy interactive blogging , I believe. It is reading, but interactional. What could be better?

  12. Sorry Steve, the tattoo comment was for Rex. LOL

  13. Almost two years ago, I self-published ONE VINTAGE: A Year in the Vineyard.

    What have I learned from the whole experience?

    “Authors need to do a lot of self-promotion.” If you’re an introvert, ask yourself if you like to sell, especially yourself. And if you’re a wine writer don’t forget Charlie’s other quote, “more cookbooks are sold in tasting rooms than wine books.”

    Blake asks, “How do you account for reviews in the New York Times, TIME, and other newspapers and magazines?” A national review is a major coup. I know. I’ve had success with nice local reviews, but a big fish like the New York Times? Nothing. Heck, I can’t even get some like you, Steve, to look at my book. I have no credibility because I’m self-published.

    Tim is right, “the digital age can and will make book reading better for everyone involved.”

    Would I do it all over again? Yes, because the most fun was the creation and the release of a story that had to be told.

  14. Dennis Schaefer says:

    What Charlie said. Academic presses do not have the time, money or people to do whiz-bang promotions or sponsor cross country book tours. Even if you had a commercial house in New York as your publisher, they would not be throwing much promotion money at a mere wine book. You really have to be a self starter and blow your own horn in setting up book signings, meet and greets, etc. I will say this about the UC Press however: they published my first book back in 1986—and it’s still in print. A lot more than I can say for other publishers.

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  1. Vertical by Rex Pickett « The Wine and Food Fan - [...] Hangin’ with Sideways author Rex Pickett (steveheimoff.com) [...]

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