Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Styx Odyssey
Chronicled by
BookSurge Author

Styx has cut quite a path in its journey from its origin in Chicago to dominant arena rock act in the 70s and 80s to its delta days today as a touring and recording band. Rock biographer Sterling Whitaker chronicles the band’s odyssey in his book The Grand Delusion: The Unauthorized True Story of Styx.

Writing, researching and publishing the book, which came out in March of 2007 from Print-On-Demand publisher BookSurge, was a voyage not without perils of its own. Whitaker shared some of his thoughts on the trip the book took from an idea in 1993 to a bound book in 2007 in a recent email interview.

How long did it take to write and research The Grand Delusion? What was the toughest part of that process? I actually first conceived the notion for a Styx biography back in the early Nineties. I was working as a freelance music writer in Atlanta, and a group called Damn Yankees came to town. It was a "supergroup" composed of Ted Nugent, Jack Blades from Night Ranger, and Tommy Shaw from Styx. I had been a massive Styx fan as a kid, and Tommy had been my favorite member, so I went to the show to do a review/interview and got to meet him briefly. Styx at that time had reunited without him, and very recently he had tried to visit them backstage and famously been denied, an incident that made the newswires everywhere. When I asked him about it in passing, Tommy answered off the record in such a way that made it apparent that the story of Styx was much juicier than had ever been told. I conceived the idea for a book right away. The timing seemed perfect, with both Styx and Tommy very active in the charts at that time. I put out interview requests to all Styx members and Tommy was the first to answer. I interviewed him in 1993 for a book that was then laboring under the working title 'Rockin' In Paradise'.

Then grunge came along and turned the industry on its ear. Styx lost its deal, Damn Yankees lost its deal, and I lost my market. I dropped the project indefinitely.

In 1995 Styx reunited, this time WITH Tommy, to do some promo for a Greatest Hits record. That turned into a hugely successful 1996 reunion tour which then spawned a Gold live record and another very successful tour in 1997, and the band announced its first studio record with Tommy since 1983. The band was very hot again, but it was not to be . . . they had a huge falling out during the recording and the resulting album wasn't that great, and by the time the band went on tour to support it, they had fired their longtime lead singer Dennis DeYoung. That turned into a period of several years of turmoil, during which VH1 filmed an episode of its show 'Behind The Music' devoted to Styx. It was one of the most highly-rated episodes in the history of the show, and after it aired I was convinced that my market was now re-ignited. I also knew that despite the success of the show, the real story had not been told. So I picked up the project in 2001, read my old notes and decided to start over with a new tack. The Grand Delusion took about five years after that.

The toughest part was getting the band members and their associates to see the value of participating in a project like this. That's always difficult, because they have chosen to hide so much over such a long period of time and are reluctant to see a lot of it come out. In the case of Styx there has also been litigation, so some of the original band members who have sued one another are bound by certain legal constraints. In the end I was able to convince a lot of people, but there were many holdouts as well. So from the band I interviewed Tommy Shaw, drummer Todd Sucherman, and Glen Burtnik, who had replaced Tommy on guitar in 1990 and then returned to the band on bass from 1999-2003. Glen Burtnik also wrote the Foreword for the book.

Van Halen may play with David Lee Roth again. Aerosmith had a bitter breakup, but has been back together for quite some time. What are the chances that Dennis DeYoung and the other primary members of Styx play together again? Will Journey and Steve Perry reunite before Styx? The situation with Styx is what it has always been. There have been times when they were together, and times when they were apart for years. There have been times when they were speaking and times when they were not. I always joke that on any given day when the band is together, they are one phone call away from being apart, and when they are apart they are just one phone call away from being together again. I firmly believe that Dennis will be back with Styx in some permutation before they all retire. Anything else would make no sense. Since they really are too far apart as people to make that work over a long period of time, I see a Dennis reunion as their end game; something that they could do once before they retire as a way of going out, if not exactly on top, then somewhere closer to the upper middle.

Steve Perry is another story entirely. He apparently has no desire to sing in public whatsoever. It would surprise me if he ever joins Journey for anything again, but then, the music business is full of surprises. Every day brings some new wackiness. It never fails to amaze and amuse me.

What kind of reaction has the book received from members of Styx? From fans of the band? I don't believe most of the members have read it. I know they have expressed huge trepidation about it to the people around them, which is too bad, because it's not a scathing indictment of the band or anything of the sort. It's a very balanced view of the band and its music. Still, Styx has always had a terrible relationship with the print media—much of it self-inflicted, in my opinion—and they tend to be very, very, very defensive about what appears in print. The members who have actually bothered to read it seem to have liked it well enough. Glen Burtnik even wrote the Foreword. I have had very positive feedback from people that work for the band, which is interesting.

The fans have overwhelmingly embraced the book. The vast majority of fans have given me superlative comments on it. The reviews on Amazon are all excellent. I have received almost entirely positive feedback for the most part, which is very gratifying. When you are writing a thing like this, you work in a vacuum for years at a time with no idea whether your intent is actually making it to paper, so it's really great to have that acceptance. There have also been a very few fans who have objected to certain elements of the story, the interviews or the way I presented some characters or situations, and I've tried to separate what part of that is a fan's need to see their idols as heroic from what part of it might be a legitimate criticism of the work. I always try to view criticism as an opportunity to grow. As proud as I am of this book, I always want the next one to be even better.

How have you gone about marketing the book? What marketing tactic has been most effective for you? What has been least effective? Because it's POD, and because Amazon is the parent company of BookSurge, it made the most sense to target the initial marketing efforts to the online community. I offered some special incentives for buying the book online and used PRWeb to put out a press release to online, print and radio sources. I also got a website called to run an excerpt of the book the week it came out. I have been pretty successful in getting interviews on classic rock radio, which has not only driven some great sales online, but has had the nice side effect of creating some book store demand as well. About ten percent of the sales I have made have been through special orders from book stores. Online interviews have been another good source, and giveaways of signed copies through radio promotions have also been great for getting the word out.

The second phase of my marketing plan involves traditional book stores and libraries. Now that there is a demonstrated demand for this book online, it enables me to approach distributors armed with some numbers that might help them to justify taking a chance on a largely unknown author and his self-published book. They are generally very wary of that scenario. I actually just got word yesterday that a library distributor has made an order, and I also have pitches in to a specialty store distributor and a major distributor that sells to all of the major chains. I feel pretty confident, based on how things have gone so far, that the book will duplicate its online performance in book stores as well. The most effective marketing tactics have been press releases, e-mail blasts, radio interviews and giveaways, and online interviews.
The least effective have been banner ads and Google Adwords.

This is your second book with BookSurge. What led you to choose BookSurge as your publisher? What's your experience been like with the company? I chose BookSurge initially because I liked the way their royalty structure worked. I published a book called Unsung Heroes of Rock Guitar with them in 2003, and that experience was absolutely disastrous. I left it to them to format the book, and I was dissatisfied with everything from the cover, to the photos, to the paper quality . . . the result was a physical book that I just didn't feel good about. That made it hard to go out and effectively promote it, and predictably, it was a huge failure. But it was a learning experience, albeit a painful one. It taught me what NOT to do, which is a good thing to know.

I would never have considered using BookSurge again but for the fact that they were acquired by Amazon. That has made all the difference, and my experience with The Grand Delusion has been great for the most part. Of course there are still nagging little problems, but I know people who work with major publishers and the truth is, every publisher has its drawbacks.

How has the company changed since being acquired by Amazon? It's essentially a different company with the same name, as far as I'm concerned. The physical quality of the books is far, far better, the presentation is much better, which makes it possible for me to go out and compete with books published by major houses. That certainly was not the case the first time around. The customer service is also much better, and they don't have the fulfillment issues that they used to have anymore, either. With Unsung Heroes of Rock Guitar I had it happen many times where someone ordered that book and got something else in the mail entirely. I have been happy with the quality control, customer service and fulfillment since being acquired by Amazon.

Before going to BookSurge, did you attempt to find a literary agent and/or traditional publisher? If so, what was that experience like? I did, and it was the same old runaround. Styx is a very successful band, but one with a bit of a puzzling stigma because it got such terrible reviews. As a result of that, the band is misperceived, under-reported and under-represented. Most people in the music business don't realize how huge the Styx fan base really is, let alone the book publishing business. I did have some discussions but I wanted to write a very specific kind of book, one with the emphasis on the music and history of the band, and wasn't surprised when self-publishing turned out to be the best way to get that done. Traditional publishers are good at what they do, but what they do is mass market books for a short period of time, bank the money and move on. The Grand Delusion is a book that I feel strongly can continue to be creatively promoted year after year as Styx continues to perform 100 dates per year and releases new products. My having control of the production, promotion and distribution is really the best way to ensure that.

I understand you're working on a Van Halen book. How is that coming along? When can we expect that to be released? I'm workng full-time to promote The Grand Delusion right now and don't intend to start anything new until I am pretty sure the sales have peaked and slowed way down, which so far has not happened. I anticipate working this one project pretty single-mindedly until at least the end of the year, if not into next year. And in the meantime the word is that another writer is coming with a Van Halen biography in August, so I'll have to wait and see what kind of job he did to decide what I will do next. If he did the job right, I won't be interested anymore. If he didn't, then there will still be room for me to come along with a better version and say, "Here's the DEFINITIVE story of Van Halen." Otherwise I have toyed with the notion of a Journey bio, and I have also given some serious thought to an unauthorized biography of American Idol. I honestly don't know yet.

To any other writers I want to say, despite the "amateur" stigma that can be associated with POD publishing, if you write a great book and present it in a high-quality package, you can still separate yourself from the pack and publish your own work effectively and profitably, and with far less hassle than you would have with a traditional publishing deal. It's working very well for me!


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