The Book that Nearly Killed Me
Ghosts and Ballyhoo: Memoirs of a Failed L.A. Music Journalist, is the story of how I overcame endless failure, bottomless rage, implacable predators out for my scalp, and a chronic illness that has left me housebound. I had no plans to write this book, because the music industry broke my heart and spirit. By 2002, I hated music, even though I was a gifted bassist until osteoarthritis cost me my ability to play.
Once I was diagnosed with my incurable autoimmune disorder, everything changed. My rage fell away, and I began to see things differently. Instead of forever mourning what I'd lost, I now felt gratitude for what I once had. To close the door on this indescribably tumultuous chapter of my life, I joined a bass discussion forum, planning to write a few funny stories about what it was like to be a music journalist in L.A. Hopefully some people would chuckle, and then I'd move on to... whatever.
Instead, the readers loved the stories so much they cajoled me into making a pitch to a publisher, and I landed a book deal. Happy ending, right?
Well... Not exactly.
In 2001 I'd published another book, In Cold Seat: Interviews with Really Scary Musicians. It's a great book that has been in print for twelve years now. But getting it published was horrifying. People I was forced to involve in the process were so undependable that I nearly lost my mind. Ghosts and Ballyhoo is the fifth book I've had published; each time I tell myself, "Never again." But I can't help it. I love to write.
Ghosts and Ballyhoo is the best work I've ever done. However, publishing and trying to market it has been a train wreck that seems destined to go on forever.
The freelance editor I hired failed to meet the deadline, so I had to gather together twelve volunteer proofreaders from Talkbass.com. I parceled out the manuscript, and they came through brilliantly for me. The editor--whom I'd paid $1500--offered no explanations or apologies. After I turned in the manuscript, the publisher sent me the galleys, and I told the editor he could redeem himself somewhat by proofreading them. He leapt at the chance, profusely grateful. Then I never heard from him again. Getting screwed twice by the same person on one project is pretty rare, but I managed it.
How can I express this next part?
People who'd agreed to provide me with materials simply didn't. They said, "Sure! Be glad to!" and then ceased to exist as far as I was concerned. I had to shell out thousands of dollars in licensing fees to people who make their living creating such materials. I don't begrudge them the expense, but I wish that those who'd made promises had kept them. Oh, well. If wishes were fishes, we'd all be up to our necks in dead, rotting fish. Or however that saying goes.
I can't be any more specific, but other offers were made that I accepted, and there was no follow-through, forcing me to learn new skills and pay for even more work by professionals who earn their living doing the things that my contacts had offered to do for free but then... what? Forgot about? Decided weren't worth even another second of their lives because I'm an absurd waste of time myself? Who knows? But it's the same with every book.
The marketing campaign I'd planned was over before it even began. A good analogy is that it was like a skyrocket full of elephant dung. That's all I can say about it. My second attempt ended June 25. My third try begins when I can find another publicist.
The First Web Designer
In late December of 2012, a fan of my work--I'll call him "Frey"--offered to create a great Website for me. It would be a technological wonder. He sent me his portfolio, which was great. His company had worked out a clever way to utilize the WordPress technology to create low-cost Websites that gave customers the biggest bang for their bucks. It looked fine, so I signed a contract with Frey's company.
Here's what the contract said in part:
[The company] (hereafter referred to as the Supplier) would like to offer a new Web solution for Thomas Wictor (hereafter referred to as the Customer) with a new design. The solution will be set up by the Supplier with WordPress.
The Supplier will deploy the Web solution built on WordPress solution built by the Supplier, and the Web solution may be hosted in a design and technical operation managed by either the Supplier or the Customer.
The offer consists of open source Web publishing solution, standard components, some custom components, setup, development, testing, and project management, deployment and support of which will be invoiced based on time and material.
The price quoted was $155 an hour. Since the company isn't American, I overlooked the screwy English.
A Big Distraction
On January 16, 2013, my father was diagnosed with stage-four bone cancer. What followed was the worst period of my life, as we tried to save him. The disease and his fear took his mind almost immediately. He loudly negotiated missile treaties with the Soviets, complained of a highway of squirrels scampering by the millions through his bedroom, and demolished everything within reach in his frantic search for specs on pipe-laying barges, receipts for cigars his father bought in 1936, and a phantom catheter. My brother Tim and I did battle with Dad several times a day for weeks. We forced food and his medication on him until finally we had no choice but to put him in hospice. He died on February 23. While fighting my dying, raving father, I kept at my Web designer, asking him when the thing would be ready and getting no response.
The day Dad died, my Website went up without my knowledge. A friend ran across it and let me know. The site was a turd that would've made people scream with laughter and pelt me with garbage. There was no getting around the fact that it was a just a WordPress blog. All Frey had done was sign me up at WordPress, post my brother Tim's artwork on the home page along with a menu, and then put the blog online. There was no content whatsoever. While I looked at it in complete shock, not quite believing that this was the product of a person who'd thanked me for how my writing had helped him deal with tragedy, Frey sent me this link and told me to get cracking:
It was gibberish. You're reading the work of someone who got straight F's in chemistry, algebra, and geometry. It's a miracle that I graduated from high school. Well, not a miracle: My teachers took pity on me for being mentally subnormal.
I wrote a reply:
I was under the impression that my Website would be offline until I could do all the work on it. A guy just told me he found it, and since it has no content yet, this is a disaster for me.
So please take it all down. I don't know how we got our wires crossed this way, but I can't have that blank Website up there with no content at all. It's making me look ridiculous.
Take it all down immediately, please, and send me the bill for the work you did.
Thanks very much. I'm sorry it didn't work out, but I have to move in a different direction now.
If you read Ghosts and Ballyhoo, you'll learn that I have terrible anger issues, so much so that they blew out my immune system. I wanted to write the most savage message of which I was capable, but I'm trying to improve myself. My father had just died a horrible, protracted death that left my mother, Tim, and me traumatized far more than we'd expected. I'd forgiven my comatose father for his sins, and I'd taken part in his Last Rites because I wanted the ugliness to end. So I decided to not write what I really wanted to say to Frey.
Here's his response:
Ok I understand. I have no idea how we got crossed over either, such strangeness!
I'll remove it.
I am sorry it hasn't worked out the way you wanted, if there is anything more I can do for you, just let me know :)
That cute little smiley emoticon made my day.
Then I got a bill for $2500. It said that Frey had spent one hour on my site. Somehow $155 had become $2500. I wrote to the president of the company to complain about the price and the cheap-ass blog masquerading as a Website. He pointed out where the contract said specifically that I agreed to a WordPress "solution," and while Frey had spent an hour of clock time, in elapsed time it was spread out over two eight-hour work days, which is why it came to $2500. As a failed math and chemistry student, I couldn't understand what that meant.
However, still reeling from my father's ghastly, squirrel-infested, mind-warping death and in the middle of working with a second Web designer to get my site ready by the end of March, I just paid the bill and told the company president that he was a shameless thief. Frey sent me a few friendly e-mails asking if he could help me with anything else. I ignored them. Though I wanted to fly out to his home and twist off his head like a light bulb, I kept my mouth shut for the sake of his baby daughter, a photo of whom he'd e-mailed me.
The Second Web Designer
After much searching, I settled on Daniel Burns of Los Angeles. I sent him a query and told a friend about my decision. My friend recommended his own friend, a great designer with an impressive portfolio. I contacted her, and she responded immediately. We discussed my ideas by e-mail and seemed totally in synch. I decided to go with her. Daniel responded only hours later. He understood my decision and hoped I would contact him again if I needed to.
I'll call the second Web designer "Glista." She sent me a schematic of my site and told me how much it would cost. I nearly threw up, but I signed the contract on February 28--my mother's birthday!--because Glista's client list was incredible and I figured you get what you pay for.
Glista included a "production schedule" in the contract:
March 1 - submission of site map
March 3 - submission of wireframes and specs; backend development commences
March 6 - presentation of design concepts
March 13 - presentation of prototype pages
March 14 - front end development commences
March 20 - front end and back end template integration
March 26 - final testing
Sounds great, doesn't it? A real pro!
She didn't meet a single deadline. Not one. I saw no design concepts, prototype pages, testing--nothing.
I bombarded her with e-mails, all of which she ignored. At one point she put my content up on a site where I could edit it, so I taught myself the rudiments of Web design and did as much as I could. Since much of my content wasn't included, and since I'm a writer, dammit, not a Web designer, I eventually ground to a halt.
March 26 came and went with nary a peep from Glista. On March 29, I sent her a message:
Well, we've missed the deadline, and I may be up shit creek unless we figure out a solution fast.
Unfortunately, you haven't responded to most of my questions, so I've had to learn how to do things on my own. Since I'm not a Web designer, I've hit the wall. Also, a lot of the content isn't available for me to create links and things.
Sadly, you haven't met any of the conditions of our contract. No design concepts were presented to me; no prototype pages; and of course no final testing.
Things happen. All I care about is solutions.
So: Here's what I propose. You can keep the deposit on the condition that you turn over everything that you've done so far so that I can go with the L.A. based designer I wanted to go with initially. I went with you because [withheld] recommended you, but as we can both see, it hasn't worked out.
You're the second Web designer to screw me, so my demand that you give me everything you've done so far is not negotiable. I insist on it. It's not reasonable to make me start all over from scratch a third time when all I did was take people at their word.
You did do work for which you should be paid. But not only have you not fulfilled your part of the contract, you haven't even responded to most of my questions! It's totally subprofessional. I can't even get to my own Website to try and solve the problems myself.
I need a response immediately. I also need a way for you make it so that the L.A. Web designer can pick up where you left off. He or she will need access to your work and the ability to duplicate it.
Theres's still time for me, if you cooperate fully. If not, I'm fucked. Well and truly fucked. Okay?
For once she responded.
I'm so sorry I have been focusing so hard on the designs I haven't kept up with things so well. Could you please consider giving me a couple more days to get the design to you?
I really really do not want to let you down.
I should have communicated to you more clearly why I was behind on the deadline and I'm very sorry for that. I was embarrassed because of a medical issue that has come up and that I've just started treatment for. I have been working trying to meet expectations in spite of this and didn't want to use it as an excuse for being behind.
Please give me another chance. I think you will like what I'm working on. The backend of the site is almost complete (I need to check through that everything is there as per your mails). After that I need to skin it with the design and test. We are very close to completion we really are.
I wrote back.
I'm sorry, but you missed every single deadline. I have no more time to spare.
I have an incurable illness that keeps me housebound; I suffer from depression; my father just died horribly. In many ways I've had the worst life of anyone I know.
But since I was eighteen years old, I've met all my deadlines and fulfilled all my obligations, regardless of the gigantic burden I carried around with me.
You had ample opportunities to tell me that you were in over your head. Giving you another chance will change nothing. The dynamic will be the same, because you knew all along that you weren't meeting deadlines or responding to my messages. It shows a total lack of respect. I won't tolerate that from anybody.
I'm in the process of finding another Web designer. That might take a couple of days. If you have my Website up and running by then, fine.
But I've already contacted the L.A. designer I wanted to go with initially, before [withheld] asked me to talk to you.
If you want to continue working on the site, that's all right. But when I find another designer, you MUST turn your work over to him or her, or I'll be forced to take legal action against you.
You knew that a Web designer had already screwed me on this project, and then you did the same thing! Actions have consequences, so now I have to find another designer. There's nothing personal in this. I need to protect my interests.
I'm sorry. This could've been really great.
I then spoke to the person who had recommended her. He said he was at a total loss. Glista had recently begun taking Zoloft and was reacting badly to it. That was the "medical issue" she mentioned. I told him I had no sympathy whatsoever, having been on antianxiety medication myself since 2007. During that time I wrote and published four books.
The Second Chance
Unfortunately, Daniel Burns told me that he couldn't create the sort of Website I wanted by the end of March, even if he took over from where Glista left off.
He wrote, "What they have so far in terms of structure is an out-of-the-box CMS, with your content uploaded to it. Must've taken them no more than three hours to get that completed."
He simply couldn't continue customizing the content-management system in time for when my publicity campaign would begin. I had to stick with Glista.
I wrote her a message.
After reviewing what I want, Daniel Burns says he can't get a custom Website up in time, so I'd have to choose a predesigned one. I can't do that, because it won't reflect what I wanted and what you said you'd give me.
So you get to finish what you started.
I hope you pull yourself together and fulfill your contractual obligations.
You can still redeem yourself. I've been taking Paxil and Lorazepam (now Valium) since 2007. In that time I've written and published four books and have almost finished a fifth. My problems outweigh yours by an order of magnitude, yet I've been able to meet deadlines. You know why? Because my problems are my own. They're not anybody else's. I've never made anybody else pay for my own issues.
At any rate, I'm putting this out of my mind until I hear either from you or from my publicist.
You can go ahead and fuck me a second time if you want. It won't make any difference. I've been fucked by the best, and I'm still here. I'll survive.
Or, what you can do is break away from the pack, stop thinking only about yourself, and put your energy into making my Website what I want. You never showed me any concepts, so I don't even know what the thing will look like. It doesn't matter at this point, since there's no time left.
But you can prove yourself to be an artist. All I care about is art. If the bullshit of the past couple of weeks makes you into a better artist and makes my Website better art, it'll have been worth it.
All you have to do is choose to not be like almost everyone else. Clarity is the only thing that matters. And art.
Do your best.
Still, what Daniel Burns wrote really bothered me. Three hours of work in over a month? So I did a little online sleuthing, and I discovered that during the time that Glista said she was too ill to work, she posted photos online of gourmet meals she'd prepared, fantastically expensive restaurant meals she'd eaten, dinner parties she'd hosted with cheesecake for dessert, baths she'd given pets, and a competition she'd had with said pets. There were photos of family events that took place far from home.
On March 30, I wrote a message to the person who'd recommended her:
Now I can see what she was doing instead of working on my Website. Look at the dates. She was too ill to complete my Website, but she felt good enough to post cutesy photos on [withheld].
On Monday, I file a complaint with the [withheld]. I also begin to publicize her name as a ripoff artist, and I contact a lawyer. I have our contract; I have dated screen shots of my unfinished Website; and now I have screen shots of these. I'm going to sue her for the cost of hiring a real Web designer; I'm going to sue her for whatever damages I can; and I'm going to post her name and her correspondence on my new Website, whenever it goes up.
If she wants to avoid all that, she must upload ALL my fucking content on my Website TONIGHT so I can do her work for her while she posts photos online and writes long, giggling captions for them.
And the Website must be finished by Monday. She said she needed two days. If she can't finish it by Monday, she needs to tell me, and then she needs to hire a real Web designer to finish it for her by Friday of next week, and she needs to pay for it out of her own pocket.
Sorry about all this, but I warned her not to fuck me. She went into this with her eyes wide open, so everything that's going to happen to her is her own fault.
I'm telling you this, because she clearly doesn't take me seriously. Maybe she'll listen to you.
She'll be making the worst mistake of her life by ignoring this ultimatum.
I waited all day, but there were no changes to the content she'd posted on my one-third-finished Website. So, on March 31, I wrote another message:
This is why I told you that giving you a second chance wouldn't be worth it. The dynamic wouldn't change. If you had contempt for me the first time around, giving you a second chance would only make you feel more contempt. You knew full well what you were doing. During the time you were allegedly too sick to work, you were busily posting photos of the fun you were having.
I was forced to give you a second chance, and as I knew would happen, you did nothing. Not only are you doing nothing, you've rigged it so that I can't do anything, either. You've derailed my entire career.
So, here's the deal: On Monday, my time, you're to give me one of two messages: The Website is finished, or you haven't finished it and you'll hire a real Web designer to finish for you by Friday, April 5, 2013.
If I don't hear from you on Monday, the following things will happen:
1. I'll file a complaint on you with the [withheld].
2. I'll inform Paypal that you ripped me off and I'll demand a refund on my $6000.
3. I'll contact a lawyer to file a claim for damages from you, since the stress of this experience has caused me to suffer the rotational vertigo attacks that I haven't experienced since 2011.
4. I'll put up a Website to sell my book, but it'll actually be a chronicle of my experience with you. I'll include scans of the contract, the due dates, dated screen shots of my nonexistent Website, screen shots of your meals and dog that you posted when you were supposedly too sick to work, and your e-mail begging for more time. I'll tell the world how you treat your clients.
Remember, this is entirely your fault. You have nobody but yourself to blame.
You can still avoid this self-inflicted catastrophe by simply doing what you claim you're capable of doing. Or, conversely, admitting that you can't and hiring someone who can.
Or admitting that you weren't only two days away and that I'm not going to get a Website out of you. In that case I'll simply get a refund and file a complaint with [withheld], but I won't publicize your failure.
Let me know on Monday what your choice is.
That did the trick. Suddenly, changes began on my Website. I contacted the friend who'd recommended Glista, and he wrote back, "Thank fuck!" because he's an evangelical atheist. I went to bed, and when I woke on April Fool's Day, my Website was nearly complete. It was an even bigger turd than Frey's WordPress blog, indistinguishable from one of the free, do-it-yourself Websites offered by Internet service providers.
A reader recently asked me why I even want a Website, because he'd never seen one that made him want to buy an author's books.
It's a huge challenge to my creativity. I envision my real Website as a means of not making you want to buy my books but persuading you that you can't live without them. The Website is to have books, contests, video, audio, and photo galleries. It's supposed to be as much an art project as my memoir. I intend to publish a lot of books, but first I have to prove to you that I'm worth your hard-earned money. The Website will show you that I can deliver.
Glista was a flop, a pitiful poseur with delusions. I wrote her a final message.
Although you didn't contact me the way I asked, I see that you've mostly finished the Website.
I'm sorry to say I don't like it.
1. You've not incorporated the changes I sent you all along.
2. It's not easily navigable.
3. You didn't follow my directions in placing the supplementary material for Ghosts in galleries named after the chapters.
4. The photos with long captions look ridiculous.
5. It looks like a $900 Website instead of a $12,000 Website.
If you'd sent me concepts instead of throwing dinner parties and posting photos online, we could've discussed this.
Anyway, let's call it a day. I'll tell PayPal that I need my money back, but that's the only action I'll take.
Sorry it didn't work out.
Daniel Burns at Bat.
So there we are. I'm on my third Web designer (fourth, counting the one who did this site), and we all know what they say about third times and charms. This Website is a placeholder, until Daniel Burns finishes my extravaganza. This one will then be switched to another of my domain names so you can still read how I got screwed until I was nothing but a sack of skin, empty of everything except bitterness.
Here's what I've learned during the process of writing this book and trying to market it:
1. Work only with total strangers.
2. Keep the relationship cordial and ice cold.
3. Demand that all contracts have penalties built into them for not meeting deadlines or for misrepresenting services offered.
4. At the beginning of every professional relationship, tell people to read page 207 of Ghosts and Ballyhoo and insist that the person have lunch with my brother Tim and me first.
5. When even the tiniest thing goes wrong at the beginning, immediately terminate the relationship, because it's a harbinger of catastrophe.
6. If the person doesn't respond to an e-mail within a day, terminate the relationship.
7. Assume that every agreement is a lie and a scam, and prepare a workaround.
8. When that little voice in your head says, "Hmmm... This seems to be giving off a faint odor of decayed flounder," bail! Bail! Bail!
9. Never give anyone a second chance, because if they have no respect for you the first time around, they'll have even less respect for you if you give in to their pleas for an opportunity to redeem themselves.
10. Caveat to No. 9 is that a second chance can be given when you have absolutely no other option because you've been nailed to the wall through your scrotum.
Compare what I look like now with how I appeared only a few months ago, when Tim took my author picture. I haven't shaved since January 16, the beginning of my father's war with hallucinations, memories, and terror. Poor Dad left his affairs in such a mess that'll it take a year to clean everything up. I had to postpone my publicity campaign for two months while I hired two designers: one for this site and one for the permanent Web presence that will include all my books, video, audio, contests, and image galleries. I told people--I told them!--that writing nonfiction is hazardous to your health because you have to rely on others. But would they listen to me? No. They wanted what they wanted: a book. So I wrote it for them, and now I'm a shambles.
And with Mom's permission, I can reveal that January 16 was also the day she was diagnosed with lung and ovarian cancer. Her operation on April 2, 2013, was successful, and her prognosis is guardedly optimistic.
Thank you all, and good night!