It’s amazing how much mail can accumulate after only ten days away from home. A mound of it awaits me. But, like everyone else, I know that more than half of it is junk mail—advertising and whatnot that keeps the United States Postal Service afloat. My junk mail is easy to spot: it usually comes addressed to Ms. Lisa Nikola. That’s because no one can figure out my name. I mean, who—or what—is W. Nikola-Lisa? A man? A woman? A postal box? Admittedly, it’s a hard name. What does it mean? Where did I get it? Why the “W” at the beginning? And, for heavens sake, why do I have a woman’s first name as part of my last name?
Even though it’s a hard name, I try to have a little fun with it. When I start a school program I usually ask the younger kids what they think the “W” stands for. Their guesses are amusing, to say the least: Winston, Wilbert, Windsor, Willy, Walter, Wendy (I guess this child wasn’t really paying attention), and, my favorite, Writer. Yes, Writer. It makes perfect sense. If you’re a kid and you have an author speaking to your class and his first name starts with the initial “W” it makes sense that you might think his first name is “Writer.”
In any case, I said that these were responses from younger students. I don’t ask older students what the “W” stands for. The reason: I asked them once and it didn’t turn out so well. It happened at a middle school (as everyone knows anything can happen at a middle school). With an auditorium filled with 5th and 6th graders, I began my author program the way I do with young students: “Hey, who knows what the ‘W’ in my name stands for?” A boy sitting with his friends in the middle of the auditorium immediately shot his hand up.
“All right,” I responded, expecting to add another name to my growing list, “tell us, what does the ‘W’ stand for?”
“Weiner!” he shouted, grinning at his friends.
The place fell apart. It was total chaos. Teachers stood up, trying to quiet their students. The principal came to the front of the auditorium waving his hands. It was, to say the least, a very embarrassing moment and the last time I ever asked older kids to guess what the “W” in my name stands for. Now I just tell them outright: the “W” stands for William, which it does (and has for every first-born male in my family going back for several generations). But since I use half of my last name—Nikola—as my first name, I reduce William to its first initial and use W. Nikola-Lisa as my pen name.
Nikola-Lisa? How did you come up with that name?
Like most things in my life, there’s a short answer and a long answer. I usually give the short answer in a large public setting, like a multi-age school assembly: Nikola is my given last name and Lisa is my wife’s last name. When we married, we hyphenated our last names because we thought they went together so well. There’s a musical quality to the name Nikola-Lisa. That’s the short answer.
The long answer is a little more complicated and I usually reserve it for more intimate conversations with adults. You see, Nikola is my given last name, but Lisa is my former wife’s last name. That’s when people start to look at me funny.
You kept your former wife’s last name?
To me it’s quite natural: we had two daughters and after we split up I raised them. Since they had the last name Nikola-Lisa, I kept it as well so we would have the same last name. Anyway, my second wife looked at both of my names and announced, “I don’t want either one of them.” In fact, she tried to get me to change my name when we married. Since I use Nikola as a first name, she thought I should change my name to Nikola Cooper (Cooper being her last name). Not only did she think that it was a great name for a writer, but she also thought that I wouldn’t have to explain my name anymore. Since I had already started my publishing career with the pen name W. Nikola-Lisa, I thought Nikola Cooper would just complicate things, so I stuck with the more melodious, but enigmatic W. Nikola-Lisa.
I did use Nikola Cooper as my alias, but only once. My wife and I bought a house together about twenty years ago. In the process of getting it ready to move into we had to deal with a lot of workers—plumbers, carpenters, roofers, electricians, and the like. Well, every time it was the same thing. I’d call someone and talk to them for a while and at some point they’d ask, “What’s your name?” When I said, “W. Nikola-Lisa,” they’d say, “What?” and then I’d have to spend another ten minutes trying to explain it.
So one day while I was talking to a contractor, he asked, “What’s your name?” and without thinking I replied, “Nick Cooper.” And that was it. No follow up. Nothing. He got it immediately. So, for the next few weeks I went by the name Nick Cooper: Hi, Nick Cooper here, have any nails? Hi, Nick Cooper here, have any paint? Hi, Nick Cooper here, have any… It worked like a charm.
After the house stuff died down I went back to using W. Nikola-Lisa. Then, one day the phone rang. I answered it. A woman on the other end asked, “Is Nick Cooper there?” I hesitated, then said, “Well, yes, I’m Nick Cooper.” She replied, “Nick, you haven’t paid your hospital bill.” It turns out that the woman worked for a hospital and she was trying to track down a former patient by the name of Nick Cooper who had skipped town without paying his hospital bill.
“Well, I’m not really Nick Cooper,” I said, backtracking. “I mean I only used it a couple of times.”
I’m sure she thought I was a little wacky, but I managed to convince her that I wasn’t the Nick Cooper she was looking for.
I’m thinking about all of this as I quickly sort through the mail, tossing those addressed to Ms. Lisa Nikola into the recycling bin. After the quick mail sort, my focus shifts to the small pile of mail that’s left. One envelope catches my eye. It’s from a publisher, a publisher that I’ve published several books with in the past. I rip the top of the envelope open and pull out the enclosed letter. It’s a royalty statement.
I unfold it excitedly, and get right to the chase—the last line indicating how much money I’ve made this royalty period (for the record, whereas traditional publishing usually pays semi-annually, non-traditional publishing, especially if it’s a digital product, usually pays monthly). This statement is from a traditional publisher, so the figure I’m looking for is for six-months worth of book sales. But wait. What’s this? You’ve got to be kidding. It’s a royalty statement for—trying not to laugh (or cry)—eleven dollars and eleven cents.
Eleven dollars and eleven cents!
I try to see the symbolism behind this paltry amount. Now, I’m not superstitious or anything, but $11.11 is an odd arrangement of numerals, kind of like my oldest daughter’s birth date—Friday, November 13th (which, for some reason, reminds me of the movie The Shining). But I don’t think that I’ve actually earned eleven dollars and eleven cents. You see, over the years I’ve developed a conspiracy theory that goes something like this: there’s a room full of accountants at each publishing house that takes great pleasure in sending out fake royalty statements, just to goad authors, to take them down a notch, to make them appreciate the publisher’s efforts to publish their work and keep them alive.
The more I think about my royalty statement, however, the less agitated I become. After all, it’s for two books published in the 1990s. I’m lucky there’s a twinkle left in them at all. I published the books when you could still make sense of the publishing world (which means I gave all of my rights to the publisher, as well as my first-born child), and that’s why royalties are still dribbling in. But, I shouldn’t complain, after all they did fairly well—at least one of them did.
The one that did well is a children’s picture book about life on a medieval manor entitled Till Year’s Good End. I wrote a dual text: one to read aloud to young students and the other for older students to read to themselves. I learned this from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Bog King’s Daughter,” where the narrator tells the reader that while young storks are quite satisfied with muddle-duddle, cribble-crabble, the older storks want something with a bit more meaning. The idea for the book came from reading about the medieval “Labors of the Months.” If there is one theme that describes the Middle Ages, it is survival: peasants worked every day, tending to their landlord’s crops and animals, then, if time permitted, to their own small plot or “croft.” The book resonated with teachers because thematic units on the European Middle Ages are a big deal in school.
The other book is a nativity story that features a black holy family. It didn’t start out that way: it started out as a fairly traditional nativity story featuring Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. But I got stuck halfway through the piece and couldn’t move forward. Nothing was gelling, so I put it aside and started to work on some other writing. Then, one day, I ran across Bruce McMillan’s Mary Had a Little Lamb, a picture book version of the popular children’s song. The book stunned me: McMillan, a photographer, presented the text in its original version, but not the characters. Although the lamb was a soft, downy white, Mary was black.
The contrast between the white lamb and the black Mary shook me to the core. As a white male born in the 1950s, the Mary in “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was always white, no question about it—always. McMillan’s presentation effectively turned this world upside down. But not just this world; he also turned that other world upside down, too—the world of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Instantly, I started to envision an entirely different nativity story, one in which the principal characters were black (which isn’t that hard to imagine given the fact that the holy family was of Middle Eastern origin, and possibly, according to some historians, of North African descent). The resultant book, with illustrations by Cynthia Saint James, was gorgeous, but it had limited success (two other nativity books came out the same year, each one featuring Jesus as a person of color).
But that was then and this is now. And now both books are print-on-demand paperbacks in the Simon and Schuster backlist. Did I have any say in the matter? Of course not: that’s how contracts work in the pre-digital age. Rights don’t necessarily revert to the author unless formally asked for in writing or until the book is effectively out-of-print for at least two royalty cycles. But convert a traditionally published book to a print-on-demand paperback and—voila—the book never goes out of print (and the rights never revert to the author).
And that’s why I just received $11.11 in the mail from Simon & Schuster. It’s also why I slowly made the transition from traditional publishing to independent publishing.