TALK to Warren Adler, and watch some favorite clichés crumble.
Remember “The War of the Roses,” the novel – and later, the movie – about a brutal divorce? Mr. Adler wrote the book and the screenplay, even though he has been married (happily, he says) to the same woman for 54 years. So much for “don’t write what you don’t know.”
How about “don’t fix what ain’t broke”? Mr. Adler has published 27 novels. But did he follow the tried-and-true conventional print route for “Death of a Washington Madame,” his 28th? No. He’s self-publishing that one electronically, and e-mailing it free, a chapter at a time, to anyone who asks. Fogies (like this reporter) who still want the feel of pages “can always print the chapter out,” he said. “The main thing is, give readers a new book for free, and they might go back and buy some of the former books.”
The way Mr. Adler, 77 (there goes “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”), sees it, portable electronic readers will soon do to paper books what the Walkman and iPod did to boomboxes.
“Print publishing has had a great 500-year run, but the print book is morphing into the screen book,” he said during a recent lunch at Pigalle, a French restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district.
But what does that mean for those many, many people who believe there is a novel inside them, clamoring to be let out? Making a living as a writer has never been easy – even Mr. Adler was a self-described “failed writer” until, at 45, he finally caught a publisher’s attention. So will all this technological upheaval make it easier or harder to get read?
Both, Mr. Adler insists. The Internet, with its limitless capacity for blogs and whole books that can be electronically whisked from place to place, means people can pretty well publish what they want. On the downside, the competition for readers, already intense, will become maddeningly so. But writers need not make it past the gatekeepers at publishing houses to be published. Vanity publishing – a term Mr. Adler hates – has come into the electronic age.
Nothing can guarantee a sale, but, Mr. Adler said, for as little as $295 – plus a fee for each book sold – self-publishing services will register a copyright and put a book into an electronic format that can be sold as an e-book or printed out. Up the price to $1,000 or so, and the services will send out news releases, contact reviewers and offer the book to stores and online vendors like Amazon.com.
“The big publishing houses just don’t get it,” Mr. Adler said. Apparently, Mr. Adler does: next month, he will begin selling all his past novels on flash memory cards, readable on e-book players.
It took Mr. Adler a long, long time before his “obsession with the need to tell stories” gave him the luxury of choosing formats. He started writing when he was 16, waking at 4 a.m. and writing until 7. He made his living first as a journalist, then as an ad man – but those three hours were always sacrosanct. He married at 22 and still, at 4 a.m., to the typewriter he went.
There was no money in it at first – but Mr. Adler was no stranger to making do with little. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, he lived with his parents, his two brothers and assorted relatives in his grandparents’ house. At one point, 11 people shared a bathroom, “but it seemed a glorious childhood,” he said.
He was a so-so student – “I read voraciously but I hated studying” – but still made it through New York University, majoring in English. He took a job as a copy boy at The Daily News, “because it was the closest I could get to the printed word.” One day, on a Long Island beach, he struck up a conversation with Sonia Kline. They married in May 1951 and have three sons.
After a stint in the Army and a briefer stint in public relations, Mr. Adler started his own ad agency. By then, he had written three novels. Publishers were monumentally uninterested – until 1973, when he struck a deal with Whitman Publishing: he publicized John David Garcia’s “The Moral Society” free, and Whitman published “Options,” Mr. Adler’s third book.
“Options” bombed – but he was finally a published author. That made it easier to get G. P. Putnam’s Sons to publish “Banquet Before Dawn” in 1974. The advance was just $4,000, “but it felt like I’d won the lottery,” Mr. Adler said. “It was the defining moment of my life.”
Putnam published six more of his novels. Then it was bought by Universal Pictures, and “they dumped me,” Mr. Adler said. Warner Books picked him up and published “War of the Roses.”