For years I wrote for fun and self satisfaction, the best reasons to write. In 1983, our team solved a complicated murder. A freelance writer in Imperial Beach from True Detective magazine contacted me for an interview.
When we were done I said I was interested in writing and asked how to get started. He gave me the address of the New York editor. The writer said, “There are lots of writers, but not a lot of cop writers. You should do okay.”
The company sent their guidelines and I submitted a query for the story I had just been interviewed for. The company granted me the assignment. The firm put out six different detective magazines. When you sent in a story you never knew which magazine would run it.
I wrote the murder story in the first person, mailed it, and nervously waited for a red-marked rejection. Two weeks later I received a check. Two months later the story appeared. I was in heaven. I was now a real writer, by commercial standards anyway.
I wrote about murders throughout the county. I knew most of the homicide detectives and several deputy district attorneys. Once I asked a new deputy DA for an interview. He said he’d have to check with his division chief. Later, he said when he asked the chief about the interview, the chief said, “Go ahead. Nobody reads that $#!t anyway.” Not exactly a vote of confidence, but not a refusal either.
I did this for 17 years, writing about eight stories per year. I thought of writing a book, but resisted. The pay for a 5,000-word story was decent, and they paid quickly.
In 1999, as a D.A. investigator, I worked the most bizarre fascinating case ever. I thought this was too good for the likes of True Detective so, on a whim, I queried the editor of Vanity Fair.
A few weeks later I was shocked when they called and said I could do the story. The editor said they wanted a 6,000-word story, but they could only pay a certain amount per word. When I picked myself up off the floor I agreed.
A writing contract includes something called a “kill fee.” This means if they pay you, but don’t print the story you have to return 75 percent. When I received the gargantuan check I cashed it, but didn’t spend any.
I kept waiting for the story. Two years later I called and asked if they wanted their 75 percent back. The editor explained that September 11 and Enron had knocked my story off their board, but I could keep the money because they might print it anyway. They never did. The first 100 pages of Vanity Fair are advertisements so my huge fee was chump change to them. They own the story. I would have loved the notoriety of seeing it in print.
The detective magazines eventually folded and I decided to try a book. It took me almost a year to find an agent. Most major publishers won’t look at anything unless it’s been screened by an agent. Once I found one, he sold the book right away.
It was fun. I loved the re-writing, the editing, and even the marketing such as the radio and television appearances and the signings. Three years later I wrote a second book.
Surprisingly, the pay for a 300-page book was far less than my check for the 6,000-word Vanity Fair story. I made about “a buck an hour” for the first book. With four royalty checks it came to about $1.50 an hour. Writing is a tough, frustrating business. To rely on it as a livelihood is beyond risky.
My publisher was embroiled in a money fight with Borders and many of my books sat in a warehouse instead of on Borders’s shelves. Sales were poor. Guess who was blamed? Like I said, the biz is tough.
The Star-News opportunity came along at the right time. My agent died and finding a new agent is more difficult than writing a book. I became sick and didn’t know if I’d be around to finish a book. The Star-News column is great fun and keeps my quill sharp in case I do another book.
Basinski’s column appears the first and third Friday of the month.