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Publishing Moves On. Do Readers?

Kudzu, by Katie Ashdown

It’s been more than six years since my debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter, came out. Most days that seems like an eternity. Publishing is slow and merciless, like kudzu: in a race against a turtle it would lose every time, but if you gave it a trellis tall enough it would grow to blot out the sun. The Kitchen Daughter is the only novel I’ve published so far under my own name, and it’s entirely possible it’ll be the last.

When you finally break through into traditional publishing, the world is full of possibilities. Disappointment almost inevitably follows. This is, believe it or not, not always a bad thing. The most you can hope for is that the possibilities are many and magical, and the disappointments are small and fleeting. The book becomes a New York Times bestseller or it doesn’t; you earn out your advance or you don’t; you’re offered the chance to publish again or you’re not. But it isn’t as if there are only two possibilities, success or failure. The best and worst thing about publishing is that you can and probably will live in the space between those two poles for years, even decades.

And so, six years. Six years in publishing is forever. The Kitchen Daughter will get no more newspaper or magazine reviews. You won’t find it on the shelves of your bookstore. It isn’t included in roundups of 5 Food Novels That Make Your Mouth Water or Six Novels With Narrators On the Spectrum Whose Worlds You Need to See — not because it doesn’t fit, and not because it isn’t good, but because it isn’t new. And publishing coverage is about the new. (See above: kudzu.)

But you know who doesn’t care about whether or not publishing has moved on? Readers.

I got an email the other day from a man requesting a signed bookplate for his wife, who has been reading The Kitchen Daughter during her recovery from breast cancer. Once a year, I hear from high school students who are reading it as an assignment for their Honors English class. I see messages on Twitter and Facebook, not necessarily intended for me at all, in which readers on the autism spectrum recommend the book to each other or to loved ones. (Those sometimes make me cry.) Even out of print, the book lives on in thousands of copies in thousands of places: on readers’ nightstands and bookshelves, in Little Free Libraries, for sale at used bookstores and in church basements, and of course, eternally available in e-book with just a few clicks. (I still get semi-annual royalty checks from the sale of Croquembouche [1], a 99-cent e-short story, and I don’t mind telling you that I laugh at how small they are and then I cash them anyway.)

As writers we have many goals. And it can be easy to get discouraged if we don’t meet them. But the truth is, even if your first book is a miraculous success, a true runaway bestseller, that doesn’t mean everything will be permanent peaches and cream, at least not if you hope to make a career out of writing book after book — the greater the success, the greater the pressure. There will always be something to celebrate and always something to mourn.

I’m not writing this to bring fellow writers down, or to dump a bucket of ice water on your dreams of how awesome it will be to see your book as a physical object, with a cover and pages, for the first time. (It is mind-blowingly awesome.) I’m here to say this: whatever happens, you’ll have readers. You may hear from them and you may not. They may number in the thousands or the hundreds or the dozens or the ones. But any book that you put out into the world will have a life longer than you can know, and it’ll touch people in ways you never foresaw.

When you look at it that way, six years is barely the time between heartbeats.

About Jael McHenry [2]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [3] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [4] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.