Howard Jay Smith is an award-winning writer from Santa Barbara, California. BEETHOVEN IN LOVE; OPUS 139 is his third book. A former Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellow, & Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholar, he taught for many years in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and has lectured nationally. His short stories, articles and photographs have appeared in the Washington Post, Horizon Magazine, the Journal of the Writers Guild of America, the Ojai Quarterly, and numerous literary and trade publications. While an executive at ABC Television, Embassy TV, and Academy Home Entertainment, he worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Symphony - "The Best Small City Symphony in America" - and is a member of the American Beethoven Society.
Thanks for letting us interrogate you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why you wanted to be an author?
As one of the characters Beethoven encounters on the road to paradise proudly proclaims, “What is a novel but a collection of lies we tell to reveal greater truths?”
I have been a working professional writer, screenwriter, teacher and TV executive for almost four decades, I am always on the lookout for great stories of historical figures where my potential protagonist wrestles with the same types of profound emotional or psychological issues that each and every one of us can relate to in our own lives.
From my very first short story about piloting a Cessna – about half a page long – which was written when I was in elementary school to my latest work on Beethoven, writing has always been a source of joy.
I wrote all though High School and college, everything from the school paper to newspapers. Even my college Master’s thesis was a draft of a novel about the social upheavals of the late 60’s and an accompanying teaching guide.
In my mid 20’s I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Scholar several times into Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Conference where I met the late novelist, John Gardner. John became my mentor and over the next few years I returned to Bread Loaf as a scholar a total of three times. There I worked with other greats of that era, John Irving, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. I also studied with John back in DC and Virginia. Gardner was hands down the best teacher I have ever had for any subject ever. It was through my work with him that I found my essential voice and truly began my career as a writer.
My first book “John Gardner: An Interview,” was published way back in 1979 by the now defunct New London Press. The best surprise was walking into a bookstore in Middlebury, Vermont, one summer and seeing it on the shelves and for sale. Wow!
Following that, I was a three time winner of the Washington, D.C. Commission for the Arts Fellowships. After publishing a dozen or so short stories in literary magazines and a few freelance journalism assignments, I headed west to what I imagined were the greener pastures of Hollywood and screenplay writing. I was a top writing Fellow at the American Film Institute. After graduation from that program I worked as a Film and Television executive at ABC-TV, Embassy TV and Academy Home Entertainment while also beginning a career as a screenwriter. I wrote over thirty screenplays and worked on numerous film, television, radio, and commercial projects.
Much of my career work has been related to not only writing, but business and finance. I have always been described as one of those “Left Brain – Right Brain,” kind of guys who goes back and forth between these two worlds.
The publisher of my second, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was Random House. It was a non-fiction work based on film and writing classes I taught at UCLA. We had great distribution through bookstores nationally and it was again, a great kick to walk into a bookstore and to not only find it on the shelves but to also be asked for autographs. That book sold in excess of fifteen-thousand copies but the profits were all gobbled up by Random House in shipping and distribution costs.
My experience in both finance and writing about musicians led me to the Santa Barbara Symphony – “The Best Small City Symphony in America,” – where I now serve on the Executive Board of Directors and head up their Development and Planned Giving Committees.
When I came across the story of Beethoven’s death -- how at his last moment a bolt of lightning strikes the side of his building, rousing him from a coma; his eyes open, he sits up right, he shakes his fist at the heavens and then collapses back to the bed and is abruptly gone -- I found the contrast to my own near death experience stunning.
When I was not yet twenty-one and going to school overseas in Singapore, I had a severe motorcycle accident. As my body somersaulted through the intersection, time stopped and a great and profound sense of peace and tranquility suffused my consciousness. Fear, especially that fear of death we all share, disappeared. My biggest surprise was landing very much alive – and in pain – on the other side of the crossroads and not the “other side” of life.
Beethoven’s death throes were so different from my calm transition. That led me to wonder what it would have taken for this great man to come to peace with all the turmoil and failings of his life – and there were many. In that nugget of a thought, Beethoven in Love; Opus 139, was born. Although those injuries still ache decades later – especially when it rains – researching and then writing this novel was an absolute joy.
Tell us (we won’t tell promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
The subline moments of being writer exist when I am in the middle of researching or plotting a storyline or immersed in a draft. Everything else, from putting food on the table, mowing the lawn or getting one’s kids through college are the demands we all must survive. Occasionally there are other high points, such as hearing your work is, “an absolute masterpiece,” or doing pubic reading and performances and hearing the applause of a crowd. Each of those moments though is offset by the need to land that next assignment or move past the praise to sell the next copy.
A writer’s life is filled with so many ups and down that staying even and calm is the greatest reward one can achieve. And if you are not prepared for that, give it up.
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
The publisher of my previous book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was Random House. It was however not only a non-fiction work based on film and writing classes I taught at UCLA, it was also a long time ago. After a number of attempts to reach out to literary agents and other publishers, I realized that the publishing world had vastly changed since “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” was released. Every agent I spoke with wanted either a celebrity driven piece or an easily commoditized book of 250 pages. Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 is neither.
My friend and fellow writer, Russell Martin, author of the non-fiction bestseller, “Beethoven’s Hair,” also runs a small independent press, SYQ. I ultimately decided to go with SYQ and found the process much more to my liking. I was involved and had control over every aspect of the process, including the layout, design and cover. I should add that the cover art was done by my son, Zak Smith, a well-known artist in his own right with five published books and paintings hanging in eight museums around the world.
The first five years I spent researching and writing “Beethoven In Love; Opus 139,” were clearly the creative side. Once done though I switched gears and treated the printing, marketing and sales of the book as a business proposition. What good is it if you write a great novel but no one reads it? I focused on marketing and treated the costs and time spent as one would a business start-up, imagining that it would take a while to recoup those expenses.
Clearly publishing and bookselling are industries that has been radically transformed by the web. Once I committed to a small press, I knew we had to maximize the use of electronic mediums to generate real business. The old models didn’t work and I don’t think anyone has figured out the very best methods to deal with the new reality just yet. Understanding that world remains a work in progress.
Recalling my experience with Random House where the profits were gobbled up by shipping, SYQ and I decided to limit sales to online outlets such as Amazon. We created a large web and Facebook presence and then hired a publicist to promote the book to national newspapers and radio stations. In the first few months following the release I did a lot of public readings and interviews on radio, in print, on podcasts and through the web.
One of the beauties of a book about Beethoven is that I was able to target diverse markets through Facebook. We focused not only the world of book readers and clubs but also to the music world and have had a fair amount of success in both those realms.
I have also performed in numbers of classical music venues in conjunction with soloists, small ensembles and even a full orchestra and choir. The musicians would perform Beethoven’s compositions and I would read related selections from the book. In fact my first public reading was for a gathering of Beethoven scholars at the American Beethoven Society’s Thirtieth Anniversary Conference. There I was, reading a work of fiction to the very people who knew more about Beethoven than anyone, and, thankfully, they loved it.
Now I not only have a following of devoted fans all over the world, I have also made a number of connections with the descendants of some of the true-life characters in the novel, such as the great grandson five generations removed of the woman, Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight Sonata and is one of the women consider as a candidate to be his mysterious Immortal Beloved.
All of these activities feed into daily Facebook posts and Tweets and those in turn have driven sales.
Not everything however has gone as smoothly as desired. There are no road maps yet in what is still uncharted territory. For the better part of the past year, I have often felt like I am being forced to re-invent the wheel. My first publicist was a very traditional book publicist from Hollywood who has a client list of many famous writers – but in this new reality she was of limited actual help and very expensive. I have since moved on to a publicist from the 21st century who understands the web and the results have been vastly superior.
In the end, though I have sold fewer copies than when I was with Random House, my personal return on investment has been much greater. Once a book is actually printed or put out electronically, one must be committed to spending both the time and dollars necessary on marketing. You can’t do it half way and expect good results. It takes total commitment and effort.
I would recommend this method of publishing, but only, and I truly stress this point, but only if one is willing to make significant additional investments in the time and money to do the marketing. This has not been easy. Finding the right small press, and hoping they have the key people one needs to do the proofing, the type font design, the layout, the cover is all essential. And once the book is actually printed or put out electronically, one must be committed to spending both the time and dollars necessary on marketing. You can’t do it half way and expect good results. It takes total commitment and effort.
Researching and then writing this novel was a long journey, every moment of which was an absolute pleasure. I learned ages ago that if you want someone to take the time and effort to read your book and find your work compelling and engaging, you must also be equally passionate about what you create. I absolutely love the entire process of crafting a story, from jotting down ideas and doing research when necessary, to shaping each line, each paragraph, each character, each scene. I want to transport the reader into a vivid and continuous dream that is so powerful, so all-encompassing that the next thing they know is that someone is calling them to dinner. So my first advice to any other would be writer is this: love what you are doing and let that passion be your motor or you will most-likely fail.
That journey however does not end when you type, “The End.” It is just the beginning of the next phase. You still must be the driving force behind the actually publication and marketing of your fabulous book that everyone will want to read.
What’s the snarkiest thing you can say about the publishing industry?
Get over it. Publishing is foremost a business that is strictly about profits and a company’s return on investment. It can be artistic and serve great art or produce great art, but never forget it is a business first. One series of classes I taught at UCLA was about getting writers to abandon their ignorance of the fact that they worked in “show business,” not “show art.” If you want to succeed with your best artistic effort you must also realize that it must fit a particular market if you are going to sell it and make a living.
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
I have been divorced enough times to know that my family did not always feel the same way about my pursuit of writing as a career to remain steadfastly supportive. Enough said.
What was the craziest or insane thing that happened to you in the book publishing process?
Agents who do nothing or worst yet, openly lie? Publicists who can’t earn their keep? Editors who can’t edit? Publishers who find every which way to siphon off profits? And all the blood-suckers out there who try to squeeze their living off your paycheck? Pick one. My earlier book, “Opening the Doors to Hollywood,” describes all too well and painfully the difficulty in getting ones work produced or sold. It’s filled with hundreds of those nightmarish stories.
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
I have worked almost exclusively through Facebook on this last round but would have wished I could have avoided it entirely. The time/reward ratio is a touch one.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
I pretty much described my process above and though a challenge, it works.
What is one thing you’d like to jump on the rooftop and scream about?
I gave up roof top jumping when I realized all I was doing was cracking the clay tiles I needed to keep the rain off my head. And I would have to pay to have them repaired.
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above doesn’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
One is either a writer by birth and breeding or not. If you love it you do it and find joy in the process. At this stage of my life it is all about the joy. And remember, when all else fails, the only one that can take away your sense of humor, is you.