Outside the lines

“I’m the Johnny Appleseed of the publishing world,” boasts writer Michael Frederick, coffee steam wreathing his face.

We’re huddled in a back booth at Earth Fare, and the vagabond novelist is spinning a compelling tale about smashing through the publishing empire’s imposing brick wall.

Gifted wordsmiths whose names ring no bells with Oprah Book Club readers can thank the Asheville-based Frederick for figuring out how to circumvent the system. The chances of an unknown author, however talented, getting a national publishing deal are distressingly slim. Frederick didn’t get one either — but after 20 years of vain attempts, he devised a clever strategy for sneaking past the seemingly impregnable defenses of the publishing industry while making a decent living: He sells his novels directly to libraries throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“There are so many closet writers out there in these small towns who want to do what I do. I just give them hope,” he maintains. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Frederick gives great phone and possesses the marketing savvy of a young Bill Gates — if you think pit bulls are determined, you haven’t met this guy.

Driven by unrestrained zeal for his craft, Frederick says he’s written every day since he was 5. Although he self-published his first novel, White Shoulders, in 1979, he’s reluctant to discuss it. Yet it was during this time that Frederick formulated the sure-fire, unheard-of promotional style that led to his eventual remarkable success.

Telemarketer by day, writer by night, he relied on old-fashioned, door-to-door peddling to sell his first manuscript. You heard right: Frederick unloaded 10,000 books in two years just by knocking on doors.

“I averaged 20 books a day. I was in my roaring 20s, I was a salesman, so I really put it out there,” he recalls. “But that experience really wounded me as a writer — [it was] enervating, exhausting in so many ways.” Hoofing his product through small-town neighborhoods, Frederick embodied the classic image of the ’50s Fuller Brush man — a perspiring loser, eternally hopeful, dragging around a suitcase stuffed with unwanted products.

Undaunted, however, he persevered. And while he was selling, he was also fantasizing: “I hoped somebody along the way would read it and say, ‘Oh, it’s great — let’s turn it into a movie.’ So I switched to screenplays.”

During the next phase of his writing life, Frederick pumped out eight original screenplays, which he sent to L.A. producers. “But I got tired of these guys telling me my work wasn’t right for their studios. And I caught them lying. When I’d submit my work, I’d turn page 50 upside down, and that’s how it would come back. They weren’t even reading that far,” he sighs.

After years of callous rebuffs (he keeps all his rejection letters thumbtacked to a wall in his office), Frederick turned one of the movie scripts back into a novel, because, “I had to know if Mary in Keokuk, Iowa, liked my stories.”

Ledges is the story of a divorced mother of three who marries a man twice her age, trading the safety of her extended family for life on a farm near Iowa’s Ledges State Park. Then the children uncover the unsavory past of their abusive stepfather, Dutch — a formidable character Frederick wrote with Clint Eastwood in mind.

“I’ve had a hundred readers tell me Eastwood [would make a good] Dutch,” the author remarks. Again he hit the road, peddling his tales. “Since Ledges takes place in Iowa, I began working the towns around Sioux City, where I was living at the time. A Midwest town has a little village square with a courthouse in the middle and businesses surrounding it, which makes selling door-to-door ideal. I called on florists, gift shops, beauty salons, anybody I thought might carry my books. In 1998, I sold 4,000 copies in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.”

Wearied by relentless canvassing, however, Frederick decided to try retail. But store owners insisted on refunds if the books didn’t move within six months. “So I was still [giving] refunds a year later, and I said, ‘To hell with that.’ I knew I had to try something else.” On the heels of the retail washout, he sought to reinvent himself yet again, never pausing even for a second to consider giving up.

And at this point, salvation came, from the unlikeliest of sources: the public library.

“I just fell into it,” he says modestly about his revolutionary sales scheme. “Now, I get many readers per book, and libraries pay $16 each instead of the $4 I was getting retail.

“I spend 90 percent of my time marketing and 10 percent writing,” he confesses. But thanks to his workhorse persistence, Frederick now has more than 200,000 readers, judging by how many people check out his books in more than 5,000 libraries (including Asheville branches).

“I call up 10 to 15 libraries a day, tell them I’m selling my two small-town mystery novels. Half the time, I don’t have a chance at a bigger library, because I’m out of that publishing loop and I’m self-published, which means my books are dismissed because of aesthetics.”

But, he insists, “The stories are gems.”

Frederick’s third novel, due out in January, is about a telemarketer. Dare we say autobiographical? We do if the book’s about a record-breaking telemarketer: Frederick’s selling feat even caught the attention of the Guinness Book of World Records, which is considering creating a special category for him: Most Books Sold Door-to-Door.”

But with two years of solid library sales under his belt, Frederick already has enough attitude to see him through.

“My books are circulating every six days in Tennessee, every eight days in Maine,” he pronounces. “Now that I have my libraries to support me and my readers who like my work, I want the publishing world to know that I don’t need them anymore.

“And I want other writers to know that they don’t need them, either.”

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