I reject the notion authors are born, not made. At the age of 21, I was a business major whose writing resume amounted to little more than a few dozen poems and letters I wrote in high school and college, all of which were conceived with the sole purpose of getting laid. But then, when I was 21 years old, my father decided to go and get himself cut in half by a Ford Bronco. I was left with a family without a patriarch, a boat without a rudder. Some people get eased into adulthood; I had a clear line of demarcation behind which I had to leave childish things. Writing became my therapy, a way to right the ship, a way to spend a few hours every day venting my sorrow and frustration in a fantasy world. And so, thanks to some late-night binge drinking and a Franciscan nun for a writing teacher who had the audacity to tell me, “Do what makes you happy,” I said goodbye to my business classes and embraced the limited career path of an English major.
That’s right, I said limited career path. Make no mistake, this is not going to be one of those articles in which I play the part of the literary sycophant, waxing nostalgic about “the craft” and lionizing those who would take up arms against the forces of e-piracy and bottom-line consumerism. My son is 13 years old, stands 5-feet-tall with shoes on, and wants to play professional basketball. I’m 42 years old, have worked in publishing for almost 20 years, have 2 published novels, and want to make a living wage as an author. My son’s dream is more realistic than mine.
I started in the business in the mid-90s as a copy editor for Macmillan Publishing USA, which was once a division of Simon and Schuster before being divested, sold and resold, then ultimately liquidated. I edited everything from computer manuals to cookbooks. And by “edited” I mean was a criminally underpaid ghost writer. I made less than $23,000 a year—which, if anyone’s curious, is still more than the sum total I’ve made as a writer in my lifetime. After that, I worked as a Y2K consultant, rewriting the manual for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly’s newly compliant patent software. With the apocalypse looming, I said goodbye to the Prozac people and settled in as the Indiana library sales rep for audiobook publisher Recorded Books in the fall of 1999. Less than a year into the job, Doomsday having come and gone, they promoted me to Director of Acquisitions, a position I continue to hold almost 14 years later.
Although reportedly a billion dollar industry, audiobooks remain an enigma to much of the literary community. The stodgiest of librarians, teachers and wordsmiths swear on the Dewey Decimal System that it’s not the same thing as reading, even though countless students are more auditory than visual when it comes to learning and basic retention. I would even argue some audiobooks—yeah, I’m talking to you, Infinite Jest and Ulysses—are far more accessible than their print counterparts. Much of this bad reputation is the fault of the audiobook industry itself. The idea that audiobooks were a supplementary item, as opposed to a unique artistic expression of an author’s voice, was forged in the 1980s and early 1990s by print publishers who would produce these poorly abridged recordings that sometimes had as much as 90 percent of the original text cut. That’s not an abridgment; that’s a trailer.
Another thing I blame on the industry is the quality of the recordings. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and a bad recording with a bad narrator will chase away a consumer faster than a one-star review. Don’t talk about how digital technology has reduced the cost of production; rather, explain to me why I can hear the narrator clearing his throat or a car horn blaring in the background. And please, spare me the rant about how a novel is somehow more authentic when read by the author. I’ll concede a memoir or a maybe a self-help book that doesn’t require any histrionics to pull off, but fiction? Ninety-nine percent of novelists are ill-equipped to read their own books. It’s like George Lucas saying he has the looks and acting chops to play Han Solo better than Harrison Ford. While, yes, I realize authors possess a uniquely intimate knowledge of their characters, I also realize I could hire a hundred actors—some of whom have over a thousand audiobooks on their resumes—with more believable tone and inflection in their voices.
I am one of those rare English majors who manages to pay his bills on time, but much of my success is just dumb luck. I’ve never used a head hunter. For almost every job I’ve wanted, with the notable exception of a PR position with the Indianapolis Zoo when I was an unpolished 23-year-old, I’ve been hired almost on the spot. I got hired by Recorded Books after answering a generic help wanted ad in the newspaper. While trying to acquire the audio rights to E.L. James Fifty Shades series from her original Australian publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House, I mentioned offhand to one of their editors I had a manuscript on submission to several New York houses, and within a month I had a two-book deal.
Published in 2013, Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer tells the story of a boy “stumbling his way through and beyond adolescence in the late 1980s in small-town Indiana…hypersexual, drunk, stoned, prone to fits of spontaneous masturbation, occasionally Catholic, and accidentally well-intentioned.” Its 2014 sequel, Making Out with Blowfish, drags the protagonist of the story kicking and screaming into middle age and suburbia, much to the anguish and occasional delight of those who are left in the wake of his continued arrested development. Sound familiar? Without delving too much into the details, I concede my life has inspired if not outright informed both of my novels, but that’s a discussion for another day.
I had intended to at some point to coalesce this narrative into a few prescient words of advice for aspiring writers, but lacking the ambition to formulate a clever segue, I’ll just get to it. Write what you know. Do what makes you happy. Listen to an audiobook. Just don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re about to win the lottery or waste your time sending cease and desist letters to every BitTorrent website that posts your e-books illegally. Be occasionally Catholic and accidentally well-intentioned. It works for me.
Brian Sweany has worked for audiobook publisher Recorded Books since 1999, first as a library sales rep and then as Director of Acquisitions. His 2013 debut novel, Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer, was hailed by Hunter S. Thompson biographer William McKeen as, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Leave It to Beaver.”New York Timesbestselling author Mary Monroe calls his new novel, Making Out with Blowfish, “A five-star treat from a five-star author… a fast paced, easy to read story with characters that practically leap off the pages…flawless.” Brian lives in Fishers, Indiana with his wife, three children and two rescue dogs. For more information, log on to www.briansweany.com.