Saturday, September 5, 2015

Runnin' Off the Leash

I wrote this for Paul Bishop's blog last week. I thought I'd go ahead and post it again here. It's an autobiographical essay about my switch from legacy to self-publishing…or busting out of jail….

By Peter Brandvold

My whole career is based on a lie.
I mean, beyond the lies of the fiction I write though I would argue that fiction in general is a whole lot more honest than the fibs I tell daily—outside of the novels I pen—just to amuse myself.
When I’m writing my western novels I feel “truer” than I ever feel in the “real” world, meaning the world outside of the world in my head that I bleed onto the computer screen eight to nine hours every day and that has kept me from getting a really good night’s sleep since I went through the somnambulism of adolescence.
My characters are more “me” than “I” am. Does that makes sense?
No, I’m not drunk. Yet.
Getting back to the lie...
Back in 1996, I sent my first western manuscript to a New York editor who not so promptly returned it, rejecting it and telling me that westerns “need to be really gritty these days. Good luck!” So, being the good liar I am, I sent the book back to him saying, “Okay, I grittied it up for ya!” or something like that.
In truth, I didn’t change a word. I didn’t even run the thing through the printer again. I just sent the same manuscript back to the same editor. I might have even reused the same envelope he sent it back to me in.
And it sold!
Once A Marshal came out a year later.
Obviously, the manuscript hadn’t been read the first time around.
Which brings me to the thesis of this wandering discourse, which is about how much I hated having to answer to those corporate orangutans for a good fifteen years and nearly one hundred novels, and how much I love publishing my own westerns under my own pernicious imprint--Mean Pete Press.
It’s true that I owe New York something for giving me my start. But just a little. Unless you’re Stephen King, you really get treated like the mutt in the kennel of the New York book publishing industry—when you get treated like anything at all.
Mostly, you get ignored. And condescended to. Generally, you’re treated like one of the fellas wearing the red shirts on Star Trek.
For instance, they’ll ask you for input on the kind of book cover you want—and they’ll of course want it right away because the editor forgot to ask you two weeks ago when she should have. And she’ll remind you in the tone of your first-grade teacher that if you don’t write the description you can’t complain about the cover you end up with.
So, since you’re the small fish who needs to please the big fish, you take a couple of hours off from the book you were hammering away on so busily, and busily write up a good description of the ideal cover that’s gonna make this book the biggest book of your whole career!
You really work at it, and you nip it and tuck it, and you hit “Send.”
You sit back with a big grin of a job-well-done on your mug.
And when you get the proof back, the cover looks nothing like your description. It couldn’t look more different than a Van Gogh from a Kinkade!
Turns out the editor forgot to bring to the meeting the description you so dutifully dropped everything to write, so the art department just went with what they had on the shelf. When you call your editor on it, she says something like, “Gosh, I just got busy and it slipped my mind. Thanks so much for being so understanding, Peter. You’re a great team player. Cheers!”
In the New York publishing world, unless you’re James Patterson, you have no mouth and you must scream...
So, yeah, I’m glad to be out of the fringe of the New York publishing mainstream and hustling my own books myself on Amazon—and getting 70% of the cut from each sale rather than 8-10%. When I was writing for a long-running adult western series, I was getting a measly 6% of the sale of each mass-market paperback. When I found out that I was getting only 6% of each ebook sale, as well, I went Johnny Paycheck.
I, like many other writers (at least the ones as stupid as I), thought that all publishers were obliged to pay their writers a minimum of 25% for each ebook sale.
Hadn’t that become the industry standard?
Somehow, this publisher was able to scheme us out of those earnings. They claimed that since we were writing under a “house name” we were merely “working for hire” though I did nothing different in writing that adult series than I did in writing any of my other novels.
Soon after, the publisher canceled the series—not because I quit but because they felt they weren’t making enough money on the adult westerns anymore despite dropping their advances to pennies and pisswater. However, every quarter I still receive royalties for nearly every series novel I wrote across ten years—even at 6% earnings! Even at 6% earnings on ebooks!
So, imagine what the publisher is still making on those books, since they’re getting 94%! Yet they didn’t think they were making enough to keep the books coming despite the writers and readers who had come to love and depend on those yarns each month.
In fact, they canceled all of their westerns.
That’s New York for you. They have to make truckloads of money on something or they won’t publish it—and they don’t care how many writers and readers are depending on the product. They don’t care who they screw.
Just one more (possibly two) knock(s) against New York:
In all the years I wrote for them, I might have had one editor—and he was a real anomaly—who’d ever even read a western before he’d started editing them. Can you imagine putting an editor on a genre they’d never read before? And I dare say that most of my editors had nothing but disdain for the western—the very genre they were editing!
(And I use the term “editing” loosely. Mostly, my editors changed what didn’t need to be changed and totally dropped the ball on obvious mistakes.)
So, yeah, I’m very happy here in the very un-corporate offices of Mean Pete Press, in this little adobe house in this quiet little town in western Minnesota. It’s just me and my dog and no suits telling us what to do.
Now, since I’m running off the leash, so to speak, I can come up with new series ideas at the drop of the Stetson. Instead of writing up a long, laborious proposal that an editor may or may not skim, I just pour a cup of hot mud, pick up the laptop, and let my fingers dance the western rumba!
That’s what I did recently with my new western series—The Shotgun Rider. I just finished the second book, Two Smoking Barrels. (It’s up on Amazon, by the way.) I’m very proud of that series. I think it’s turning out well because it’s new and fresh and I could spontaneously start writing it without having to jump through a bunch of corporate hoops.
I write a book a month now and publish them myself on Amazon. Not because I need to write that much but because I LOVE to. I do my own editing and I make my own book covers. For the covers, I don’t use any elaborate software—mostly just Pages which came with my Macs. I might have spent $150, tops, on all the stock photos I’ve purchased from online sights.
I like the challenge of doing things independently and on the cheap. The covers might look a little cheap but I figure the stuff between those virtual pasteboards makes up for it. My name is well enough known in the western genre that readers know what they’ll be getting from me, despite the cover.
In the mean time, I’m working on it. One of these days I might just spring for Photoshop.
That’s another thing I love about self-publishing—all the opportunities to learn new stuff, to grow at my own time and my own pace, answering to only myself.
Don’t fence me in!
That said, I still like ink and paper. And since I know many readers still do, as well, I publish one or two traditional paper books a year with Five Star, which is still a small enough company that they’re able to do terrific work, and they seem to love doing it. They don’t suffer from the bureaucratic-like dysfunction of larger publishing companies. They’re good at publishing books, and, while their advances are low, their royalties are competitive. Like me, they know how to carve out their own niche and grow a market.
In that way, they compliment my own self-publishing beautifully.
I’m not making money hand over fist, but then I never was. But we here at Mean Pete Press—i.e., Mean Pete and his dog Syd—are devoted to writing the best damn westerns we can and are having one hell of a good time running off our leashes while we do it. Hell, we don’t even wear collars!
We may not be drinking champagne every night, but we are drinking the champagne of beers...
Peter Brandvold also writes under the name Frank Leslie. Check out his westerns at:


  1. Mean Pete you could write your grocery list down and i would buy it.Well maybe not but you get the idea.

  2. I'm glad this is working out for you. I noticed you had gone the self-pub route and I think that's a great idea, as the major publishers have been slowly killing their Western "darlings" for the last 20 years or more (just about the time one of my favorites, Gordon Shirreffs, went to the great "back 40" in the sky). And was that a Harlan Ellison short story shout-out I spied? Keep up the good work.