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Writing for Love or Money

Photo by : ISerg [1]
Photo by : ISerg

Many of these posts are dedicated to writing and publishing a first novel, and I have to say there is nothing better. It is magic when you receive that first ARC, hold it in your hands, and see your name on the cover.

But what happens after that is something we don’t often talk about. Especially when what happens isn’t magic.

I don’t often discuss my route to publication, partly because I was asked not to by my first publisher, who had never before bought a previously self-published book and wanted to hide the fact that they had just done so, and partly because I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon with those selling the dream. I know the odds. I know it’s easier to self-publish than ever before. But I also know what a huge issue discoverability can be. What I do say when asked about publishing my first book is a well rehearsed answer: “Emboldened by our ignorance, my husband and I decided to self-publish.”

We started a small imprint, intending to publish the fiction of local writers. As software publishers who had won awards for our products, we were accustomed to selling into the retail channel and had successfully negotiated licensing and distribution deals with major companies, an accomplishment we hoped to duplicate in the world of letters. “How hard could it be?” we asked ourselves. I’m glad now that I didn’t know the odds.

The truth is, it can be amazingly difficult, not just to have your book noticed, but to get reviews, find a distributor for a one book company, and to acquire shelf-space that is more than one copy, spine-out as opposed to the front-of-store displays larger publishers negotiate. This was back in 2007, but, even now, finding an e-book marketing hook for fiction is very challenging. That is not said to discourage, but because it is true. Unless you’re incredibly lucky. We did our homework, though, and decided to proceed. We hired an editor, a PR company, and a printer. Then we held our breaths, wishing for the kind of magic all first time writers need.

I was one of the lucky ones. A starred review from Publisher’s Weekly led to a publishing deal with one of the big five, one that would allow both myself and my husband to leave our day jobs and pursue our long suppressed artistic yearnings full-time. If I said I wasn’t eternally grateful, I would be lying.

But—and this is a big but—my publishing deal came with a contract for a second book, then a third and fourth. My two-week book tour turned into almost six months on the road. Thirty foreign translations (with translators’ questions) came and went, along with interviews and blog posts and all the other promotional details of the writer’s life. I made the deadline for the second book by only 45 minutes. Still, I did make it, and my editor liked the book. I’m on my way now, I thought, still trying to dismiss the impostor syndrome I’d been harboring since self-publishing. I began to relax. My first book had become a New York Times and international best seller. My second book was about to come out. My wildest dreams had come true.

And then, I missed the deadline for my third book by almost two years.

What the hell happened, you wonder? The truth is, I’m not altogether certain. I’ve thought a lot about it. I have a number of theories. There were many life changes, elements that certainly played a part psychologically: The big one was that both of my parents died. Then the publisher reorganized; my original publisher and my editor were let go. My agent quit the business. My second book didn’t do as well as the first. My nephew (of whom we were guardians) developed a heroin addiction. All true. And taken together, all of these things played their parts. Except for my wonderful husband, everything else I had counted on in life was disappearing. I was clearly depressed.

But there was even more to it than depression. The book I was writing as my third book had been just a germ of an idea when I pitched it. We were in a lovely restaurant in NYC: my agent, my editor, and my publisher. I had just finished detailing what was intended to be my third novel, when someone casually asked what I had in mind for my fourth. Driving from Boston to New York, I’d had an idea that excited me. It was quite commercial, something Hollywood might term “high concept.” To the best of my knowledge, no one had approached the subject before.

There was a long silence at the table as I finished my pitch. Bad move, I thought, pitching an idea that was not yet fully formed.

“I love the idea,” my publisher said. “Drop everything and write that one now.”

I was excited at the prospect on the drive back home. Over the moon in fact. A large advance had been negotiated for this book and the next. Along with the promise of huge marketing campaigns. “Set it at least partly in Ireland,” the publisher suggested. I thought it a great idea.

Then reality struck. How do you take a concept and turn it into a book? It proved to be the most difficult project I’d ever undertaken.

First, I read every research book I could find on the subject. There wasn’t much, which gave me creative freedom but not much inspiration. Next, I pantsed it for a while, writing whatever came to mind in a ragtag stream of consciousness, trying to discover a story in the flood of detail and backstory that was filling page after page. When I got to two hundred pages, I read the WIP.  There was nothing I could use. I was trying to engineer a story that didn’t exist. All I had to show them was a book that contained none of the elements they’d wanted. It was a mess. So I didn’t show them anything. The deadline came and went.

The next year was a journey into publishing hell, with threats of publisher lawsuits and financial ruin. But by now, the story had begun to gel. The problem was, it wasn’t the story they had contracted for, and they hated it.  I couldn’t go forward with what they’d wanted me to write, and I couldn’t go back. I began to hate writing. It had become about product not process. It was no longer a passion, it was a job. I felt chained to my desk. My family’s livelihood depended on it. I was resentful. And growing to hate the career I’d longed for all my life. I told myself, I’d finish the book, but it would be my last.

You know the old saying:” the darkest hour is just before dawn.” It was true for me. I had a new agent who’d inherited me when my first agent quit. She suggested I consult with a talented freelance editor she knew who would talk through the story with me, without any agenda beyond creating the best book possible. And then she told me to forget about the deal.

Both pieces of advice turned out to be good ones. In talking to the editor, I realized I knew the story far better than I’d thought. It wasn’t the book I’d pitched. It still contained the idea that had first inspired me, but that idea was no longer the unifying concept. All the locations had changed. And the Ireland thing? Couldn’t do it. I had lived there briefly several years ago, but the truth was I didn’t know the place well enough to write about it, and no amount of research would change that.  Ireland went. Then Boston disappeared. Soon I was back in Salem and in neighboring Pride’s Crossing, places I know well. The story was taking on a life of its own, and it was working.

It seems a lifetime since then. The book is arguably the best I’ve written so far. It sold in two days to a better publisher who offered (ironically, I think) an even better deal. I am now a hundred pages into my fourth book, and I’m once again loving the process.  But I will never again elevate the deal over the work. Or pitch a story I’m not yet sure of just for the sake of fulfilling a contract or receiving an advance.  Lesson learned. For me to write anything I’m proud of, it can only be for love.

How about you? What are the challenges you face with your writing? Do you write for love or is there another reason?

About Brunonia Barry [2]

Brunonia Barry [3] is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal, chosen #1 of Strand Magazine’s Top 25 Books of 2017. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. Barry was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia served as chairperson of the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee, as Executive Director of the Salem Literary Festival, and as a member of Grub Street’s Development Committee. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.