Note: Too many years ago to properly recall, Mike Sager in San Diego, CA, and Phakama Mbonambi, in Johannesburg, South Africa, began an email correspondence. Eventually Mbonambi founded WordsEtc, the first black-owned and edited literary magazine in southern Africa, for which Sager is Editor at Large. This piece was written for the magazine. To date, TSG has published eight books. Three more will be published in January 2014.

My Dear Phakama,
Early this morning, as I was working through my email—the new cover art for my second novel (can’t wait to show it off!); last minute housekeeping on three different websites to enable the launch of our first Young Adult title; the disappointing news that the first proof of an eBook formatted in a (free) manner we hadn’t tried before was not exactly up to snuff—the cacophonous silence was interrupted by an odd pair of shadows dancing across the periphery of my computer screen.

Entranced, I swiveled around in my chair. Squinting into the sun through the ingenious translucent window shade, I could see the silhouettes of a couple of hummingbirds feeding on the brilliant orange flowers of the giant succulent (Aloe marlothii) that lives beside my office. A quick Wiki visit confirmed my recollection that the species—which always makes me think of the mysterious and deadly plant in the musical “Little Shop of Horrors”—is native to your homeland, Phakama, as are many of my fondest plants, and a good number of the residents, frequently encountered in my part of southern California. (Can I mention that these same residents tend to be a bit prickly like the plants?) Marlothii’s seasonal inflorescence is a compound panicle, a woody stalk with many branches covered with tiny fluted flowers that draw all manner of insects and bees and small colorful birds; when the racmes dry and fall, the remaining skeleton resembles a giant thorny antler harvested from a huge and fanciful beast. Over the years, I’ve exhibited an assortment of unique specimens as sculptural pieces, planted in rocks in a large glass vase in the entryway of my house. With no co-workers anywhere in sight, no water cooler available, this is the kind of mission that typically occupies my break times (if not the more humdrum tasks of laundry or errands or foraging for food).

Accustomed as I am to spending the bulk of my time alone, engaged in the solitary craft of making words appear—or looking up information about weird plants and cult musical films on the Web, or staring out the window watching hummingbirds feed—working with other children in this new creative sandbox is proving to be refreshing. In the lexicon of the digital age, the primary pursuit of The Sager Group is “self-publishing,” but it is hardly something I can do by myself. To date, the roster of participants in my little venture include: A Japanese designer, a pair of Romanian programmers (one in San Francisco and one in Transylvania), the writer/producer from Seinfeld who coined “yada yada,” the inevitable lawyers in New York and Hollywood, a documentary filmmaker who learned his trade shooting porn, an LA-based British movie agent who once managed (and may have been orally intimate with) the 1970s pop music icon Cat Stevens, known now by his Muslim name, Yusuf Islam. A Midwestern professor of copy editing and journalism, a master proofreader in Staten Island who assisted Woodward and Bernstein with their Watergate stories at The Washington Post, my best friend from fourth grade (he designed the logo), the former head of the school of communications at the University of Illinois, an ex-running back for the Baltimore Ravens NFL football team, a PhD from a Jesuit college who shape-shifts into a writer of young adult, romance and vampire novels. An alt-weekly writer who gets paid to party with rap stars, a deviant poet from the rainy northwest, a housewife/editrix with a tattoo monkey climbing her shin. My talented 18-year-old son and his multi-ethnic hip-hop network, a Dutch Web designer and his Serbian programmer, a part-time assortment of student and post-graduate assistants, a man once known as the “Teen Tycoon,” a former Navy Seal and his brainy Taiwanese wife who keep my technology running. And then there’s Andrew Greenstein.

Ten years ago, Andrew was a college senior who’d signed up for my first writing seminar in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California, Irvine. He was one of those bright, eclectic students who are good at too many things to settle down with only one; he played drums in a rock band and varsity lacrosse and had a cute puppy and wanted to travel the world and do something with his writing. Over time we would stay in touch, and I would supply a number of professioral recommendations—grad school, journalism school, law school. As it was, he chose the last but decided not to go into practice; instead he founded a tech firm based in San Francisco called SF AppWorks.

Lucky for me Andrew showed up at my door with his pretty girlfriend one day in August 2012. They were on a short holiday in San Diego. I was in deep trouble. I’d made a lot of promises and telephone speeches and prognostications; I’d collected reams of editorial material and sought free permissions from popular commercial publications (some of my finest writing?). I was looking to achieve the lofty goals of helping myself and others make our ideas happen, to eliminate gatekeepers, to harness the means of production.

But up until then, I couldn’t find the right people to help me turn my ideas into reality.

Without Andrew—and all the rest—The Sager Group would never have been more than a self-delusion.
***
Let me tell you how it began.

For the first six years of my working life I was a devoted employee of a large and respected newsgathering organization. In professional situations, when I introduced myself, my name was “Mike Sager from The Washington Post.” It was as if Mike Sager was my given name; from The Washington Post was my family name. My family was great and powerful. I was a loyal and dutiful son.

During my years in daily journalism—post-Pentagon Papers, post-Watergate—the Fourth Estate was seen in America as a force for truth and good. Along with The New York Times, The Post carried the torch of our Constitution’s important First Amendment, which guarantees a free press and freedom of expression. Thus equipped, modern journalists helped end wars, brought down corrupt presidents, exposed wrongdoings and crime. By the mid-‘80s, with the inception of televised tabloid news, gossip websites and paparazzi tactics, perceptions of the press would begin to shift.

Today, the notion of a journalist seems less and less like Woodward and Bernstein, and more like two guys on a motorbike chasing Princess Diana through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel to her death.

But when I left The Post, looking to pursue a more literary form of reportage and writing, newspapers were still thriving. What I was giving up was something my co-workers and I ruefully called the “golden handcuffs.” I wasn’t just leaving a job. I was leaving a big important job. And I was leaving home, the place where I’d been plucked from the ranks of copy boys and promoted to reporter, trained and allowed to make my mark… the only place anybody had ever heard of me.
Plus, I was giving up my name.

Which never really hit me until the first time I went to the stationery shop to order business cards.

Mike Sager?

Who the hell is he?
***
As the days of my freelance experiment continued, I learned that the independent writer had to wear a number of hats. I was responsible for cold-calling new clients and making professional contacts, convincing editors to assign and publish me, reporting and writing stories (and making them sing). I had to send out invoices, keep track of expenses and deductions, hunt down payments, make projected income tax payments, find health insurance, market myself and my work, make connections, get myself out there. I was the salesman, the factory, the work force, the accounting department, the public relations flak.

Maybe it was the isolation of my profession—I’ve spent an awful lot of time alone since 1984, when I left The Post; I like to say I haven’t had a proper job in twenty-nine years—but somewhere along the line I began to think of myself as The Sager Group…the many faces of Mike. When an editor would refuse to return my call, or turn down a story proposal, or kill the article on which I’d worked for nine months, or put dingbats instead of paragraph breaks in my perfectly constructed prose, or just generally boot-stomp my sensibilities or my self-worth, which happens a good deal in this business, no matter how successful you are, I tried to remember that it didn’t ultimately matter what this one joker said or did. We have a great expression in this country: “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.” It speaks to the relativity of taste and opinion. And I believe it is particularly true when it comes to anything involving the senses—art, food, music, film, design, sexual attraction. As a writer, you always serve at the pleasure of the king; one asshole’s opinion matters way more than anybody else’s. Usually that guy or gal is the one who’s paying you. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Ever try to argue an editor out of killing a story? Vainglorious. A great word. I am not too proud to tell you: I have left the newsroom of The Washington Post in tears. I have cried in a phone booth on the corner of Clinton and Delancy Street on the lower east side of New York. I have assumed a prone position on the cool and eco-friendly bamboo floor in my office and sobbed. All because somebody’s opinion of my work counted more than my own. And because at that moment, I and my opinion didn’t matter one iota.

When I was a child, I was an overweight and unexceptional kid, but my parents loved the shit out me and thought I was the greatest. When something went wrong for me, my mother—who grew up Jewish in the not-so-tolerant American South during the eventful years of the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust—used to bolster my spirits by telling me: “Nobody’s better than you.”

What she meant, I am sure, was “You’re as good as anybody else. You have equal rights.”

However, in testament to the importance of semantics and repetition when it comes to propaganda, the message inculcated was the one uttered, the actual words I heard over and over again. Disappointed, furious, gut-struck by some arbitrary editorial decision and the resulting psychic bloodbath—a condition all of us writers know well—I would lick my wounds and tell myself: “He might be the editor of So and So, but I’m the president of The Sager Group.”

And so it went. The story hated by all the big editors in literal-minded Washington D.C. became the story loved by all the big editors in literary New York. The story killed by the high-profile magazine for political reasons became the story, later collected in a book, that garnered critical acclaim (and accurately forecasted the future of the Palestinian movement for statehood). The story that took nine solid months of investigatgive effort and paid only $1,875 plus expenses became the basis of two movies and an award-winning documentary; today that story is still one of the top five stories accessed on various longform sites on the World Wide Web. And then there’s the story that was to become a book. It was turned down as a proposal for a magazine article three times over 10 years so I just took it up myself. The book proposal hit the market after two years of research—just in time for the financial crash of 2008. It received only a paltry offer of advance and was abandoned. Some months later, the magazine version would receive a National Magazine Award, the Oscar of our industry, my first. (You can read the longform version in my new book, The Someone You’re Not.)
***
Of course, everything wasn’t all bad. One thing about me: I’m one of those feisty little guys who pop back up real quick. In time things began to flow more easily. I put a few years on. My skills aggregated. My work started to become a little more known. Today, when it comes to the pantheon of writers, I’m decidedly under the radar, more cultish than popular. But what matters to me most is that I’m able (thanks mostly to my beloved mother Esquire, which has fostered me mightily these last sixteen years) to wake up every morning and come down to my office and create stuff.

For reasons I can’t really explain, as my career progressed, I began spending a good deal of my time ministering to other writers and artists. (In fact I wouldn’t be writing this today, nor would I be involved with the amazing and inspirational project that WordsEtc has grown to become, had not Phakama Mbonambi been moved to email me some years ago.) Maybe it’s another side effect of working alone. I need people to talk to? Or maybe it’s genetic. My father was a small town gynecologist known for his sympatico and bedside manner, a former college fraternity president who would go on to become the lay president of our Temple, a man known for his good listening skills and his command of Robert’s Rules of Order, the guidelines generally used here in the anal and democratic west to facilitate discussions and group decision-making.

Why people choose to call me, I cannot explain. (Maybe ask Phakama?) But what I do know is that I enjoy spending my time in this way because it helps people, for one. And also because it helps me. (Honestly, that should really be number one.) I know you’re supposed to say piously that you love service for the love of service, that you love to give back to humanity and what not, but I think the truth is really that each little deal in life should be set up to yield a win for both parties. Each call or email (or Facebook message, text or Tweet) feels so complimentary, each question so important to the asker, that I am inspired to return the honor with my best effort at wisdom. It truly does feel good to give. But maybe a big part of that is because it feels so good to be singled out and needed. As my subjects in my journalism need to be heard, so do I, I suppose.

Over three decades, I have read, edited and advised hundreds of students and writers and artists. Even if The Sager Group existed in real time only as account names with Federal Express and Staples, one of our big office supply chains, clearly it has expanded. To the many faces of Mike have been added the voices and emails of many others—as to their own particular faces, most I’ve never actually met.

The point is this: I can’t tell you how many times, while talking with people about their ideas, or even just sitting here at my window, dreaming up ideas for myself, that I wished I could just wave a wand and make something happened. What a great fucking project. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could just make it happen?

Now, with the advent of self-publishing, I finally can.

I can write something into existence. I can put it out there. Hopefully someone will like it. Hopefully I’ll make a living. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

There are two mottos associated with The Sager Group. The first I stole from my interview many years ago for Rolling Stone with the well-known rapper/actor/entrepreneur Ice Cube. He came into the music industry as part of the group called NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitudes), at a time when rappers were pioneering a new business model. Instead of indenturing themselves to big record companies, they were recording their own music in their own studios, forming their own labels, and making distribution deals. “We harnessin the means of production,” Cube told me militantly. It has stuck with me ever since. Even in this Internet age of everyone liking and linking to everything and everyone else, one truth is clear: Without great content, a creative product that grabs and holds and entertains and somehow effects your life, all you have is a bunch of thumbs up and smiley faces.

The other motto, in Latin, is Artifex Te Adiuva. This one I came up with myself, with a grammar assist from a local teacher at the one private school hereabouts that still offers the ancient language. It means Artist Help Yourself. In the translation, the connotation of help leans toward the notion of enabling.

And so I have.

Free of the gatekeepers, I enable myself and others.

So far we’ve published five books, including Next Wave, a well-received collection with commentary of 19 literary journalists under age 40 that is already on some college syllabi. You can read about all of our offerings on our website, www.TheSagerGroup.net. We have also signed several more books for Spring and Fall 2013.

High Tolerance is a novel of race, sex, celebrity, murder and marijuana. Set in Hollywood during the great screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08, it is based on my decades behind the scenes covering all those topics in La La Land.

Outview, by Brandt Legg, is the first book of his Inner Movement Trilogy, a coming of age thriller of mystics an magic written for the upper age range of the young adult market. The second book is called Outin.

I’ll Show You Mine, by the noted underground poet Greg Gerding, is an oral history of love, sex and intimacy—a revealing peek into the hearts and bedrooms of everyday people.

Also slated: A pair of collections devoted to women in journalism, one a bible of great female literary journalists, the other a history of women writers in the newspaper game. A professor from the University of Missouri journalism school told me recently that nearly 70 percent of all journalism students these days are women, yet women’s historical contributions to the trade are sorely underrepresented in the literature. If I am not being too indelicate I can tell you the modest sums financing The Sager Group at this point come from a small inheritance left to me by my father. He spent a lifetime serving and listening to women and bringing babies into the world; women were also the source of his income. I think it fitting that The Sager Group serves women journalists in this fashion. I have also been working with a pair of young women who started a website of women’s longform writing for everyone, www.TheRiveterMagazine.com. We have all these great women coming out of into the market. But most of the longform writing these days is published in sports and men’s magazines. Women writers (and professors of literary journalism) are vocally frustrated. If only some of those dozens of fat fashion mags would publish one real story in each issue….
***
It wasn’t so long ago that everyone thought books and writing and big ideas were doomed by our modern age of quick takes and sound bites.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral: The source of our supposed demise—the Internet—turned out to be our savior, bringing to an ever-widening world audience an unexpected renaissance of opportunity for writers and readers alike.

By harnessing the means of production, The Sager Group can dare to dream.

I guess the next step is to sell some books.

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