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Eight Years Between Book Sales
A Discursive Accounting in Eight Parts
Yesterday I listened to Meghan Daum interview the Canadian writer Stephen Marche about his new book On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer (published in February as part of Biblioasis’s Field Notes series). At one point, Marche quoted two writers whose work has endured, and I found myself scrambling to write down these quotes. Both writers, in only a few words, summed up the crux of what I think makes the life of a writer so challenging.
James Baldwin, on qualities essential for sticking with it: “Discipline, luck, love, but most of all endurance.”
George Orwell: “Every life viewed from the inside is nothing but a series of defeats.”
Another writer I think of as very successful, still alive and well, Steve Almond, made a related comment last week at the AWP conference (on a panel assembled by the novelist Sara Lippmann: Nevertheless, They Persisted) that I’ve continued to think about: “A writer’s job is to outlast doubt.”
Those of you who know me might have heard me talk at some point in the last couple of years about the fact more than eight years passed between the sale of the last two books I published with Bloomsbury, The Virginity of Famous Men and Paris, He Said, and the two that came out this past October, Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos and Love in the Time of Time’s Up, a short fiction anthology I edited. Each was published by a small independent press, the novel by 7.13 Books (founded by Leland Cheuk in 2017), and the anthology by Tortoise Books (founded by Jerry Brennan in 2012).
I sold The Virginity of Famous Men and Paris, He Said in July 2013 in a relatively modest two-book deal ($60K for both books) to Bloomsbury. Paris, He Said was published in May 2015, and The Virginity of Famous Men in September 2016. Please Be Advised was acquired by 7.13 Books at the very end of 2021 for a 3-figure advance, the anthology a little earlier in 2021 for a 2-figure advance. In both cases, the presses offer royalty payments, so those royalties might cover the money I spent on publicity, travel, and mailings to bookstores of ARCs, postcards, and handwritten notes.
Small press publishers do the work they do in large part because they love books and care about our literary culture, not because they’re sure they’ll make millions or even earn a livable wage from their presses (if the press is charging its authors for everything, however, writer beware—to cite the title of a publishing watchdog newsletter penned by the writer Victoria Strauss). Corporate publishers care about literary culture too, but they’re also, in most cases, doing everything they can think of to turn a profit, which includes publishing more and more books in recent years with celebrity by-lines—books they’re paying astronomical sums for in some cases, e.g. it’s rumored Prince Harry received $20 million dollars for his memoir Spare. Whether or not his publisher will turn a profit on such an enormous payout is anyone’s guess—he’d have to sell many, many millions of books internationally, across all platforms, for the press to see any kind of profit (along with the advance, there’s also their advertising, marketing, and printing costs, and possibly a travel stipend for Harry too).
Why didn’t Bloomsbury continue to publish my work? Despite my erstwhile editor’s attempt to acquire two more of my novels, she couldn’t get in-house permission to do so. During the eight years when I wasn’t selling books, I was still feverishly writing them—about one novel or the equivalent of one story collection a year. Tangentially, in the last several months, I’ve come to realize I was motivated during six or seven of those eight years to keep writing one book after another because I believed I’d be able to sell one of them somewhere in New York, if not to Bloomsbury, but it didn’t happen.
I changed agents a few times too, each new agent enthusiastic about the novel I brought to them, saying they loved the manuscript, and that despite my terrible sales track, they thought they’d be able to sell this new book. Writing a novel a year while balancing part-time teaching and an administrative job—I look back on that period now and wonder, How the hell did I do that? Because these past couple of years—maybe it’s the effects of the pandemic or having hit a milestone birthday in 2021—I have not been able to sustain this feverish pace at my writing desk. I was motivated by the belief I’d eventually be paid, but that hasn’t happened, not like it did from 2012-2016, when I foolishly thought I’d be able to write a book and find a New York publisher for it who would pay me enough to supplement my non-tenure-track teaching income. (I’ve applied for tenure-track jobs too—which are not easy to get and are only getting harder as they continue to disappear.)
In answer to the question above, Bloomsbury didn’t buy my work, nor did any other New York press, because I hadn’t earned out my advances for my previous books (Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, Little Known Facts, The Virginity of Famous Men and Paris, He Said)—which totaled about $116,000. By today’s corporate publishing standards, that’s not a whole lot of money—especially for four books—e-book, audio book, paperback, and hardcover editions included, and was paid out in untaxed installments ranging from $2,000-20,000, over a period of several years.
I did have some critical success with these four books. My first novel, Little Known Facts, was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and received the Society of Midland Authors Award, a Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award, among other honors, and my other books received good reviews and awards including the Grace Paley Prize from AWP, the Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year Award, Ploughshares’ Zacharis Award, and a finalist nod for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, first-fiction category.
But. The truth is, if you don’t sell enough copies, good reviews don’t matter a whole lot after two or three books. (I’m sure there are some exceptions, i.e. writers who continue to be published by a corporate press, despite lackluster sales, but I can’t presently come up with any.) When my editor tried to acquire two novels that remain unpublished, I wrote four more drafts of one of them at her behest. The ending wasn’t upbeat enough, nor was the book itself upbeat enough (it was about the perils of a sudden, enormous windfall, but it did have humor in it, if not an unequivocally happy ending.) I spent about a year revising and submitting these different drafts, and ultimately the book wasn’t acquired. It still sits on my hard drive. I’ve published the first chapter as a stand-alone story and an excised chapter as well as, but was paid nothing for either publication (literary journals are definitely labors of love—often their editors are unpaid too.)
This kind of thing happens often—none of this is new, there are no guarantees, etc., but of course I was very disappointed, and each new disappointment felt terrible in its own way, especially on the heels of the other novel my erstwhile editor hadn’t been able to acquire, one she had sent me several emails in all caps about (I LOVE THIS SO MUCH), and so my hopes had been high but then summarily were dashed when my agent at the time called to say, “The sales people were saying, ‘Why should we care about this character?’ and ‘Well, we wouldn’t know how to sell this. Who would buy this book?’”
I remember raging to another writer friend over the phone about this response—the “Why should we care about this character?” sounded like a comment made in an introductory fiction workshop. But as an indie press publisher I know said to me a few years ago, “Bloomsbury published four of your books. They gave it a shot.” I realized he was right. They didn’t owe me anything more. (Technically speaking, my first book – Portraits of a Few… – was published by University of Massachusetts Press, which at the time was publishing AWP’s Grace Paley Prize winner in hardcover each year, and Bloomsbury acquired the paperback rights.)
Some mistakes were made, however—which is probably inevitable. My third book, Paris, He Said, published in 2015, wasn’t submitted to Publishers Weekly, the most well known of the pre-publication trade periodicals. This seemed a major gaffe to me when I learned of it, especially because my preceding book had received that cover review in the NYTBR. (Gah, hubris, I stupidly thought Paris, He Said would be shepherded toward publication with much affectionate hand-wringing by its stewards at the press.) It could be that P, HS was submitted to PW but somehow was lost in transit. In the end, it doesn’t matter how it happened, I suppose—it’s simply one of a myriad number of stories about writerly frustration and disappointment.
There are, of course, so many moving parts at a big press, and getting a book into a critic’s hands in a timely way isn’t an easy process—not the least because so many publishers and writers are clamoring for these critics’ attention.
After the two novels my Bloomsbury editor tried to acquire weren’t acquired anywhere else, I wrote two more novels and continued to write and publish short stories. I changed agents a couple of times and wrote Please Be Advised along with another novel, a goofy sex comedy, that was pure joy to write because I had reached the point where I felt I was absolutely writing the book I wanted to read. For its odyssey, I landed an agent I queried because he reps an author whose story collection I love to distraction, and I had a feeling he’d get my humor. He has sold a lot of books and was completely on the ball in every way, and he took me on despite his misgivings (“Your sales track for Virginity of Famous Men is abysmal, but I love this novel, and I think we can sell it”).
But then of course the book didn’t sell. We tried a few smaller presses, but they didn’t want it either. Humor is nothing if not entirely subjective, and therefore risky, and if you’re a midlist author like I am, it’s even more of a risk for a publisher—in their view, in any case. There’s also no shortage of newer authors sending their books to these editors, and proverbial fresh meat is generally more desirable in the publishing world than a cube steak, which I essentially was by that time—a rough, cheap cut of meat you only eat if you have to.
I went on to write a YA novel that this power agent didn’t like (I see his POV now too—it was well written but nothing special), and we parted ways. I got a different agent and wrote another novel, this one very different from the previous one, which didn’t sell either. This agent also tried to sell to Audible the earlier novel I’d redrafted several times for my former Bloomsbury editor, but after holding onto it for several months, Audible finally wrote to say they weren’t going to acquire it because the audio versions of my two previous novels hadn’t sold well.
This news also sent me briefly into the realm of apoplexy. Of course those two other audiobooks hadn’t sold well because aside from my attempts to publicize them through my rickety social media platforms and the plaintive emails I’d sent to some libraries, they hadn’t been noticeably promoted by either the audiobook producer or my publisher.
I know that these entities can only do so much—if you’re an author with a corporate press, you’re a part of a big family, and the parents can only give you so much attention. If you’re not a bestselling author, it’s even less likely you’re going to get the attention you think you deserve.
In between the agented submissions to big presses and more well-known indie presses, I was submitting some of my novel and short story manuscripts to book contests and small presses that didn’t require agents. I came up with an idea for an anthology that eventually became Love in the Time of Time’s Up. It was a lot of work to put this anthology together; I queried established writers I knew and loved who wrote short fiction and searched on my own for a press for this book when the pandemic hit and my agent told me New York was acquiring only a few books, and this book wouldn’t sell so she wasn’t going to send it out. Most of the queries I sent to university and small presses went unanswered. I was annoyed about this too—I was a short story writer, for God’s sake! I’d had work published in The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies! I’d won awards for my two story collections!
But of course again, no one cared. They were all, most likely, overextended, underpaid, tired of their email inboxes with their hundreds, possibly thousands, of well-worded requests for their time and money.
I kept at it, dogged and tired and sometimes very sad. I eventually landed with Tortoise Books, who had published the paperback version of The Virginity of Famous Men after Bloomsbury dropped the paperback version—I was told Barnes & Noble was planning to order only a small number of copies, which did not make the paperback version financially viable. The paperback was already in production, but there was nothing my editor or I could do—this was the marketplace, the woes of big business, it was a story collection, etc. Jerry Brennan at Tortoise Books was thrilled to publish VoFM in paperback, so onward, and I was thrilled he wanted it, and several years later he was equally enthusiastic about publishing Love in the Time…
There are so many stories about writerly disappointment—my own and others’. I will doubtless be writing about more of them here before long. For now, I want to conclude on a happier note—last October, 7.13 Books published Please Be Advised, the novelist (Pax Americana) and critic Kurt Baumeister, my editor. This happened because he saw a post I’d made on Facebook asking for advice about presses that were interested in comedic novels and didn’t require agented submissions. (The agent I was working with at the time didn’t think PBA would sell because it wasn’t really a novel—I disagreed, needless to say, and went another direction.) Kurt had become an editor for 7.13 earlier in the year and suggested I submit the manuscript.
I took his advice, sent him PBA, and eventually he acquired it. I probably celebrated for a week. It felt like someone had opened a window and turned on a light after I’d spent years living in the stale darkness. Along with Leland Cheuk and the publicist I hired to help us bring the book into the world (Sheryl Johnston), Kurt and I have put a lot of personal and professional resources into this novel’s editing and release. It couldn’t have been a more joyful experience to publish this book with him and Leland at 7.13 (other than, perhaps, Oprah calling to tell us she wanted it for her book club).
Please Be Advised is a goofy spoof of corporate office culture and it’s the love of my bookish heart. Please consider picking up a copy and telling others about it if you like it. (Incidentally, it was a Bookshop.org new-release pick for the week of October 18, 2022, along with George Saunders’ Liberation Day.) If you could also spend a minute writing a review for Amazon and Goodreads—only a few words required—I’d be in your debt.
Praised be independent presses and their editors—they ended my long losing streak.