by Katie Singer * 2001
After the sale, everyone will want to know if the story’s autobiographical. Quickly, you will learn to say, “No-no. It’s fiction.” They’ll ask, “Will you be on Oprah?”
If you call an experienced author, she will suggest you get a website, a publicist and a therapist and that you build a mailing list. Another writer with an advance twice as large as yours will tell you that she was never reviewed in the New York Times, her publicity department forgot to tell her about a TV appearance, and when she attended a gathering with forty book reviewers, her publisher would not send along copies of her novel. You’ll see how unhappy she is. She just had a pacemaker installed. You will be certain your experience will be different. You will be positive.
Conversations with your agent will skyrocket your dream life with words like Spielberg. You’ll wonder if you could agree to having your novel made into a movie, because you have rarely seen movies made from novels that you admire. Don’t worry so much! Except for the rate of your blood pressure, none of this will amount to anything.
For sanity, you should start your second book.
It will take three months for a contract to arrive, and a month after that for a check. The parents whose domestic habits you’re about to reveal for all the world to read will voice skepticism. If you’ve sold your book, why do you still need money from them?
Once you have actual cash in the bank, get yourself out of debt as much as possible. Next, write checks to a photographer and a makeup artist who can make you a glamorous headshot. Then, your fourteen year old car will need new struts and a muffler. Notice the metaphors. That’ll be $600.
Your editor’s assistant will phone. She’s the one who found your novel in the haystack. You are crazy about her, and grateful that she knows so much about publishing. She’s twenty-two. She will say, “I’ve over-nighted your book cover.” You will wonder if the designer read your novel. Was there some kind of meeting about your book that did not include you? When you open the envelope, you will hate your cover: it will not relate to your novel at all.
Your agent and your editor will already have gone home for the day. But in your time zone, it’s time to shop for dinner. Fume and whiz around the store with your cart. Strategize for the next morning, so you can tell those New Yorkers, tactfully, that you cannot live with this image. With a cover like this one, you’d rather not publish the book. Near the lemons, run into a former beau. “I heard about your novel!” he’ll beam. “You must be flying!”
The next morning, call your agent. Go ahead and rant. Then, let her speak so you can catch your breath. Keep that steady while you hear her tell you that she loves the cover. If you breathe quietly for a few more seconds, she will say, “Let me handle this.”
Good! This is what agents are for! Soon, she will report that your editor wants to talk with you.
Start your pacing.
Or, lie down. When you lie down, you’ll have a good sob and a revelation. You will understand the designer’s beautiful interpretation. “Sure,” your editor will say when you reach each other. “Everyone hates their cover when they first see it.”
You will be thrilled about the new novel you start. You’ll want to talk about it with your editor. Your agent will explain that you can’t do this until you have three chapters and an outline (or whatever your contract says). If your editor buys your proposal, you’ll have to deliver a completed manuscript within a year–eighteen or twenty-four months if you’re very lucky. Be honest. You have never started a story at the beginning, and outlines make you crazy. Can you really work with a dead line (should that be a compound?) hanging around?
If three days pass and nobody at the P.O. or the grocery store offers congratulations, lean against a wall to recover from the pangs of withdrawal.
Start paying your web designer.
Make a new goal to look professional, not like a slob who works in pajamas. Begin locating thrift shops that will allow you to assemble a book tour wardrobe. Go for browns and navy blues, nothing stripy or neon,
To tolerate your blooming ego, your spouse will need to turn into a saint.
Most days, you’ll feel sick of yourself.
THE EDITING PHASE
Once you read your editor’s comments, you will be perfectly clear that this book is going to be published. The manuscript will be due back in New York in three weeks, so there isn’t enough time to write a new one. Maybe you could start a 12-step program for people who write autobiographically.
Meanwhile, relish your editor’s single-spaced, seven page letter about what you can do to strengthen your novel. You will be in Writer Heaven, to have your work so intelligently considered. The day before the manuscript is due back, your computer will only type the letter ‘n,’ or it will confuse the upper and lower cases. Giggle a little. These are also metaphors!
Next comes copyediting. Like dirty housekeeping, your misspelled words, poor grammar, mismatched names and dates will accumulate along your manuscript’s sidelines. This copyeditor will notice you’ve got a character sautéing her broccoli in one paragraph, then eating it steamed in the next. She will know everything you missed when you did not pay attention in grades K-12: a spider is an arachnid, not an insect. In 1917, American soldiers would be returning from war, not heading to it. You’ll be buried in your dictionary, trying to find out if coat rack is two words or a compound. You will realize that with all these mistakes, your final copy is bound to be riddled with errors.
Take out your checkbook again. Pay the song writers who’ve permitted you to quote more than two of their lines in your novel. Pay your Yiddish spellchecker, your web marketer, the makeup artist (this time for a lesson in how to apply your own makeup on tour) and your freelance publicist. And take comfort. All of these expenses, plus postage and long distance calls, are tax deductible. Put something into an IRA–a nearly forty-year-old writer should have some savings.
You will need yoga. If you go for massage, therapy, or tax help, like everyone else, those folks will mainly want to discuss how you got an agent.
At a cocktail party, you will meet a bookstore manager from a nearby city, and offer to give a reading in his store. He will nod, and tell you that when Barbara Kingsolver read at his store when her first novel appeared, one person showed up. He will say, “and it was a great reading.”
Your agent will report that an editor from a big publisher’s audio division wants to put your novel on tape. This is great, because you need health insurance. But while your manuscript is sent around for committee approval, Rupert Murdoch will buy this whole company. In two weeks, the audio editor who loves your novel will be fired.
Remember your saint? One morning, he will reach for your hand and gently squeeze each of your fingers. He’ll whisper, “Neither of us has to be anywhere this morning.” Ohmygod. You can remember editing your novel’s sex scenes, but you won’t remember the last time you had sex. It’s a month before your pub date. You’ll wonder if your body can handle it. Your yoga teacher will have moved to India.
At the laundromat, you’ll run into a poet whose work you admire. “Congratulations,” she will say. Smile, feebly, and say you are overwhelmed. Hear yourself tell her that what you are going through is nothing like what poets go through. It’s a whole different scale.
Oh dear. Swallow your spit. Wonder if there’ll ever be grace for you to explain yourself and apologize. Doubt it.
When you first see your novel in final form, it may be anti-climactic. You’re just tired. It will take a few weeks for your ten complementary copies to arrive; you’ll pay for the rest. Every friend you ever had will expect that you give them away for free.
Imagine that you are photogenic and have served on your city council for eight years (the time it took to write your novel). So, you decide to run for president of the U.S. The election will be held in a few months. This’ll give you an idea of what it’s like to publicize your first novel. The difference is that presidential candidates vying for media attention number about three; novelists compete each year with 100,000 other authors.
You will need a snappy, six-word reply to the question, “What’s your book about?”
There’ll be the Kirkus review. Everyone knows that the people there write from chairs studded with nails. Build your character! Give the review a good laugh.
Now, a few months before your book sold, your publisher’s parent company merged with another big company. Just as you begin your tour, the parents will merge their warehouses. This means you will need to appreciate your publicist at moments when you are, shall we say, not at your best.
Two weeks before your pub date, your publicist will quit.
Try a meditation class.
A friend in another state will report a review of a novel that sounds similar to yours. Look up the writer’s name and call her. When she answers the phone, sing halleyluyah! Now you can complain to someone who understands. Jane, the writer, will have just returned from a conference attended by 600 booksellers. Each seller got a little bag containing the books of the authors on panels. Jane had bought a darling outfit for the occasion. A few hours before the panel, she learned that her books had not arrived. Moan while she describes how she tried in vain to work a FedEx miracle without an overnight. Do not ask what happened to her outfit.
When you complain to Jane that your contract said you were supposed to get three months to edit your novel, but that you only got three weeks, she will tell you she had only one week.
Drop to your knees.
Two days before your home town reading, your books will not have arrived at the bookstore that is hosting it. Call your (new) publicist. She’s got a direct line to the warehouse. Keep your voice at a level she can understand. Politeness is helpful.
A word about readings. Do not read for more than five minutes. This way, when it’s time to buy your book, everyone’ll still be awake. Two weeks after reading in your hometown, the independent bookstore that hosted it will go out of business. Put your call in to God about this one.
Fly to a big city and find yourself warmly greeted by the manager of a lovely independent bookstore. He’s the one who hosted Barbara Kingsolver years ago. Fifty chairs will be assembled for your reading. The manager’s wife, another bookseller, and one customer will sit in the front row while he reads a brilliant introduction to your novel. Go ahead and blush. And, given what he told you about Barbara Kingsolver, the size of this audience will be a good omen.
You should get comfortable with small audiences. Or, if you have a large crowd (5+), don’t expect your books to be delivered. If your books do arrive in time, you will have no more than four people in the audience. If you have a large audience and books, the store’s credit card machine won’t work. If this type of stuff doesn’t happen to you at least 50% of the time while you’re on tour, I will assume your name is Stephen King, or that you pray to a god the members of the Authors Guild do not yet know.
Back at the airport by 7am after your big reading, you’ll learn your flight has been canceled. You will be confirmed on another plane at 8pm. A little voice will whisper, “This is not a health hazard. This is a privilege.” Plus, now you’ve got time to go to the bathroom.
Your partner’s mother will have sent a huge bouquet of flowers for your reading at the independent bookstore. When you phone her during your time out at the airport and she hears how few people attended your event, she’ll be upset that it wasn’t publicized. She knows how wonderful your novel is. You’ll try to explain how things are in publishing, but she won’t get it–nor will most people. “If not Oprah,” they will say, “then how’s about an audio? Or Book-of-the-Month-Club?”
Like most coordinators, the one from your next event won’t have read your novel. During dinner, before your reading, she will rave about another book. She will tell you that she has invited twenty-three women to her house next week to discuss this book, in fact.
At a gift-selling holiday bazaar, you’ll be assigned to share a table with beanie babies. You will take a Local Author sticker, sometimes posted on your book, and plant it above your breast. The attention you receive, compared to that of the beanie babies, will illuminate your understanding of publishing, Y2K+. Two rows down from your holiday station, a palm reader will warn you about becoming cynical.
Officially now, you are in the winter of your success.
A writer whose novel came out a year before yours will mention that all of her reviews were published within six weeks of her pub date. Six weeks after your pub date, you still have not had one review in a big-city daily, no TV show, no radio interview (you will be offered one on a fabulous show in Denver, but the host will be out of town the week you’re there, and she only does face-to-face interviews.)
A reviewer who panned your book in a nationally distributed publication will say that one of your main characters was traumatized when her boyfriend ended their relationship. If you call this person to inform her that the boyfriend ended the relationship by committing suicide, (and to ask how she gets the nerve to review books she doesn’t read), you’ll be arguing with the first law of advertising: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Be grateful for the attention.
People will assume that you’ve become rich. What do they mean? That you’ve got a comfortable bed? (You do.) New shoes? (You splurged there.) A washer/dryer in your apartment compound? (Nada.) If being really rich means having a whole morning to write without interruption, dream back to the days before your book sold.
Notice that other writers with first books have longer tours, and theirs are advertised in The New Yorker. Relatives will clip favorable reviews of other recent novels and mail them to you. Jane’s book will go into second and third printings. But at your grocery store, people will say they’re jealous of you. Just nod. Do not open your mouth. Trust me.
Remind yourself that feeling self-absorbed, depleted and miserable is not a permanent condition. Open a fan letter from a man who enjoyed your book after finding it at his library, and feel a little boost. Nice.
AFTER THE TOUR
By now you know that publishing can leave a person woefully disappointed, and bring her weakest traits into plain view. A famous writer with forty years in the biz will tell you, “It’s like the Middle East.”
What’s to be done? Expectations run celestial. Delivery is on a human scale.
Your partner will go camping to give you each a bit of solitude. Make soup, scour your tub, clear your desk, and take out a blank notebook. There’s a ring. It’s your agent. Her husband has accepted a job on the west coast. She will move there, too. She will leave publishing. This is the woman who loved your novel (after twelve other agents turned it down), and negotiated its sale with brass ovaries. She’s the one who calmly explained your contract, answered your panicked calls, and never asked about your second book until you brought up the matter. Genuinely, you’ll be happy for her. In California, she’ll have her own washer and dryer. (In New York, she went to the laundromat, just like you.)
Your mother will send you one of Martin Arnold’s columns from the New York Times. It will say that your second novel needs to be more daring than your first. It will say, “A novelist’s career depends on showing that the first promising book was not a fluke.”
Don’t bother with what this guy thinks. I mean, The Times did not even review your novel. As for your mom, remember, she’s had to deal with people asking if your story’s autobiographical, too. Try my next tip.
Buy arty cards and stamps, and thank each person who helped bring your book to life. Thank your editor and her assistant, your agent and her mentor, your book’s jacket designer and copyeditor, your web designer, the authors who wrote blurbs for your jacket, your publicists, all the booksellers you met, the folks who reviewed your novel, each writer who ever gave you advice, the folks at your public library, and everyone who wrote to say your book made a difference in their lives. Do not forget your mom. Thanking people can help you realize you’re glad you published your book.
You will still get asked if you’ve heard from Oprah and if you’re sure that the novel isn’t autobiographical. Just say, “I have imagination.” Or, say that the reader brings much more to a book than the book gives to the reader. Also, literary questions about your novel (for reading groups) can be found on your website. When they ask, “How’s the book doing?” say, “It’s doing well.”
Actually, of course, the answer is complicated. Three months after your pub date, the two cities where your novel takes place will have sold out of your book, but not restocked it. The unsold copies from other parts of the country will be returned to your publisher’s warehouse. If you’re lucky, they’ll be remaindered; shredded if you’re not. “Just like a high school creative writing project,” Jane will say. “It (your book) doesn’t exist anymore.”
A friend who’s worked on her first novel for four years will call. With unbounded glee, she will say, “I just typed ‘The End!'”
Oh dear. Simply being on a phone with you could kill her enthusiasm for all things literary. Tell her you’re concerned, and she might ask, “Well, what are your favorite things about publishing?”
The question will stop you in your tracks.
Remember the teenagers who read your book and asked intelligent questions. Remember the note from your editor that said how thrilled she was to publish it. Talk about Jane, your editor’s assistant, the other writers you’ve gotten to know, and the booksellers who’ve become your friends. Count four reviews by people who actually understood your book, and seven heartwarming fan letters. One reader in Rhode Island loved your book so much she probably sold six or seven copies herself. Realize you’re proud of your novel, your partner still loves you, and one relative even put it in writing that she enjoyed your book.
Soon enough, you will wake up to a line in your head. Pay attention–it might be the beginning of an essay. You’ll be nervous, because more fiction is expected from you now, not essays. Fax what you’ve got to Jane. Listen to her laugh hilariously. “Oh,” she will sigh. “There really is no such thing as bad experience for a writer. It’s all material.”
And you’ll say, “Just a minute. I need to write that down.”