by Geroge McNeill
February, 1975. Hotel Chelsea, New York City.
There I was, poor as Job’s turkey, hunkered down and hiding out in a small, shabby room in a hotel, wondering how I’d pay the bill (much less eat) and waiting for a phone call that never came.
In short, I was a freelance writer, just living the dream.
I’d been writing for some 18 years, making a living, sometimes living high on the hog, sometimes low on the hog, and sometimes there was no hog at all. This was one of those hogless times.
I had sold some 35 novels and a few dozen magazine pieces. I’d had my little moments in the sun, when I thought things were finally turning in my favor. I was also no spring chicken and felt like a damn fool to have believed it yet one more time.
Back to late summer, 1973...
A bar called Chicago, booze and a generous “free lunch” that drew many a customer during cocktail hours. I was sitting at a small table outside on some New York City midtown street with the former editor-in-chief of Popular Library, one of the publishers of my gothic novels.
He was now editor at a small hardback house. He was showing me the manuscript of a novel that another publisher was coming out with in a few months, titled Beulah Land and set in the antebellum plantation south. It was expected to be a big seller.
“Write us one like this, only different,” the editor said. He handed me the manuscript.
Shortly after, I traveled to Rome, to write another gothic mystery for which I had an advance and a contract. (An advance from another even smaller publisher for half of what I had been getting.)
Running out of money but able to stretch it much further in Italy, I spent September and October finishing the gothic and used a chunk of my remaining money to mail it back to New York, special delivery.
Next morning, I got up and began the old, familiar ritual of somehow surviving until gothic mystery money arrived. Not only was Rome cheap but, well, it wasn’t like I was penniless in, say, Cleveland.
I started work on the antebellum novel and, one more time, I planned to exploit my heritage—a godsend in writing gothic mystery novels.
I set the book in the early 1830s, outside of Natchez. I wrote the three chapters and outline, which a publisher expected back in those days. If he liked it, he’d give you a contract and an advance,
My gothic mystery check finally arrived and the antebellum manuscript and I flew back to New York. I gave the manuscript to the editor and started the familiar wait.
It was early December, 1974.
The editor and publisher liked the chapters but wanted me to tweak the opening. I tweaked and the publisher said, “Sign him up.”
I went uptown, signed what turned out to be a multi-book deal, was given a check and was taken out to a celebratory lunch.
I was ecstatic. I was to be published in hardback and was getting some three times the largest advance I’d ever received, to be paid in four parts. I sublet an inexpensive apartment and started work on the novel.
I worked steadily, week after week. Another payment was finally due, a much larger one, but what I got was a pittance of what I expected and a lot of stonewalling.
But, I continued researching and writing as I made call after call and trip after trip uptown to the publisher’s office. As the months passed, I was given one small payment after another but I never saw anything close to the sizable payments I had been promised. And each time, I had to give them more of the manuscript.
There developed some ludicrous situations in which both the editor and the publisher wanted changes, but not the same changes, and I’d end up being the arbiter in these disputes.
The tenants from whom I was subletting decided to stay in Los Angeles and sent for their furniture. I lived on there with only a card table, a straight back chair and a mattress.
Summer ended. So did my patience. I told the publisher that unless I could go on and finish the novel on my own and without having to grub for pittances, I was walking.
He agreed. I got a decent payment, went home and finished the novel by myself. I got a little more money but less than was due.
The publisher wanted me to start on a sequel and promised regular monthly payments while I wrote it. I stalled until I got the balance of the payment for the finished novel.
I wanted nothing more to do with them. I gave up the sublet and wondered what I’d do with the rest of my life but swore that my career as a freelance writer was over.
A friend heard on the publishing grapevine that my manuscript, now titled The Plantation, was being shopped around to paperback houses and that the bidding was up to some $75,000 (which, in today's money, would be worth far more).
The next day, it was up to $100,000. And I was, yet one more time, being stonewalled by the publisher.
Through another friend, I met an agent and she set me up with a renowned publishing lawyer, Nancy Wechsler. I saw Nancy late on a freezing Friday afternoon. She looked over the contract I had signed and pronounced it,“the worst publishing contract I’ve ever seen.”
She called Bantam, which had won the bidding war, and was put through immediately to Victor Timken, head of their legal department. She asked about his family, then said, “George McNeill is in my office and we hope that Bantam will still be able to publish his novel.”
Long silence. Timken said he’d call right back. A couple of minutes later, there was a call from an obviously stunned hardback publisher, who had assured Bantam he could sell them softcover rights.
Nancy, though, in glancing at my contract, had keyed on the clause in which the publisher stated that the book would be published, first, as a hardback book.
Upshot: I was sent “home,” which was the hotel, and told to wait for Nancy’s call. I left the office understanding that, though an agent only received 10 percent of what was sold, a lawyer—win or lose—was paid by the hour.
The rest of Friday passed. And Saturday. And Sunday. And Monday... And the phone didn’t ring.
Another couple of days passed and I was beyond depression and inertia -- and then the phone rang. It was Nancy. Three-way negotiations were underway. Every day, Nancy would call and we’d talk about what had been discussed in the negations.
There was a sudden glitch in the negotiations—bitter, bitter wormwood.
Another ringing phone: The deal was done.
We all met in Nancy’s office. Contracts were signed, checks changed hands. I walked out of the office a successful writer with a fat check.
The Plantation was published in June and became a million-copy bestseller. The sequel, Rafaella, sold 700,000 copies.
If what Mavis McIntosh, my first agent, told me when I was a young man is true, that you become a real writer after writing your first million words, then I had become a real writer.