Both Therese and Allison have talked this month about the anxieties surrounding the publication of a book. It has been on my mind, too. In my other role as a writing teacher, I sometimes have the pleasure of watching an aspiring author cross the barrier of a first sale and join the ranks of published authors. Several of my students are publishing their first books in the next few months, and I’ve been thinking a lot about their journey.
In our internet savvy world, most writers are well-educated in the process of creating the public relations spine they will need to promote their books—a good-looking, professional website; a social media presence; probably newsletters or blog tours. Some may pen articles. Writers have learned to take control of PR to supplement publisher strategies, and it’s been good for us and our books. It’s important to ask for numbers and pay attention to what those numbers are, and stay in touch with editors and agents to know what’s going on.
However, what we don’t always talk about is how to prepare internally for the publication of a book. First books, of course, since the experience is new and can be surprising and unsettling, both for good and ill. There are also subsequent books that can try a writer’s mettle: the book following a huge, smash success (see Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful talk HERE), or a when the writer has particularly fallen in love with a book, or it has special meaning.
In all cases, the process is the same. You spend months or years slaving away to perfect a book. It goes through dozens of readings from peers and professionals, and is rewritten and rewritten and rewritten until you can recite entire passages from memory. It has tested you and you’ve stretched and you’ve done your very best work. When it’s finished, it goes through another set of hurdles—being admitted through the gatekeepers of agents and editors and editorial boards and publishers. Largely, at this point it leaves your hands. Publishing professionals and sales people take over, finding cover images they think will work, and titles they think will sell the book, and writers to give quotes. Agents talk it up at various meetings; editors brag, orders come in, print orders are set.
The book stands in the wings, ready to come out on the stage and shine.
Reviews come in. Maybe they are admiring. Maybe they are disdainful. Most likely, there will be a mix. Maybe readers suddenly send a flurry of emails and comments to web pages. Maybe they don’t. When the numbers come in at the end of the month, maybe it will have sold a lot of books and maybe it won’t.
The writer has zero control over most of the things that happen during this period. After having complete control, it’s dizzying to suddenly face the fact that all the work is done. It’s like sending a kid to college—you’ve done your best. Now they have to live their lives.
Two things are important to remember:
#1 Once the book is published, it no longer belongs to us. It belongs to each individual reader.
#2 The book is not the writer who wrote it. Your book is not you. You are not the book.
Offering a book to the world is like mass-producing a blouse. Mostly, you will never get to see the person wearing it who loves it the most, who carries it into the future, long after most everyone has forgotten it. Happily, you will not see the person who wears it once and tosses it in the trash, either. And, trust me, both exist. As much as we’d love to be universally adored, it never happens. There is no book on the planet that was loved by every single person that read it.
Reassuring, isn’t it?
The woman who loves the blouse loves it because it makes her look good. It reinforces her best idea of herself, and when she wears it, good things happen. A reader (or reviewer) who loves a book loves it for a lot of the same reasons. It reinforces his sense of self and his ideas of what a book should be. It fits into a pattern he can identify.
The woman who throws the blouse in the trash hates it for personal reasons, too. Her mother likes blouses like that. Her boyfriend gave it to her and she’s sick of him. It makes her look fat. A reader/reviewer who hates a book brings herself to the page, too.
The reader who brings herself to the book also considers the book HERS, not yours. When I read about Edward in Twilight, he is not Bella’s great love, he is mine. That Meyer birthed him is incidental.
This is true of every book, every reader. The woman in the street, and the reviewer who loves or hates it, and the public sentiment in a newspaper—each and every one of those people owns that book. Not you.
Kinda weird to think about, isn’t it? But it also makes the entire publication period a lot easier to manage. If I don’t have to take every review to heart, then I’m free to keep writing what I love to write. I don’t have to change anything. I can simply embrace the readers who love me and let the ones who hate me find somebody else to read. As personal as it feels to be disdained by a reviewer or reamed by a reader (and trust me, I remember the reamings and trashings word-for- freaking-word sometimes!), it isn’t personal. It’s about the communication between me and a single other reader. Intimate. Personal. One to one.
Can reviews and reader letters be helpful? Yes, as a body. When I measure the reviews and comments I’ve collected about The Lost Recipe for Happiness over the past year, I see that people love the food and ghosts and the dog. Some readers are very shocked by the (rather graphic) sex, but their numbers are small enough I’m not going to let that influence me. Some reviewers commented on the inclusion of recipes, but that’s non-negotiable, because for me, the food is a big, big part of what I’m writing about right now. The recipe haters aren’t going to love my books. There are readers who don’t get me, but my readers are enjoying where I take them.
If a heavy percentage of reviews and letters complained about the sex or the food, I might consider whether I was handling those aspects right. If my numbers were terrible, I might try to figure out what I might do to make them better (and as I’ve written many, many books, I’ve explored those ideas many times). But I wouldn’t let a couple of bad reviews or snarky comments on Good Reads or Amazon get me down.
Meanwhile, to get through the publication period, there are some practical suggestions:
–Allow yourself to check ratings/numbers/comments on Amazon/B&N/Good Reads, etc only once PER WEEK.
–Let somebody filter your reviews for you. Agent, best friend, husband, whoever. If my agent doesn’t send me a review, I know I don’t want to read it. And really, why would I want to have those words carved on my heart for time immemorial?
–Put the good reviews where you can see them. Not in the office. Maybe by your coffee maker.
–Read reader emails if you do happen to get a bad review.
–Work on the next book. Nothing you do will influence your career more than writing solidly good books over and over again. It’s the best possible thing you can do. There will be another book and another. Mostly we don’t experience the meteoric or the catastrophic. Thank God.
Any other tips? Do any of you have rituals you practice to give a book good luck on its way? (I do!) How do you keep yourself sane?