“Magic 8 Ball,” I asked, “will my first novel be published?”
“Magic 8 Ball, am I a man?”
Edan Lepucki, in her recent article in The Millions, briefly plays with the idea of a) showing her cleavage in her author photo or b) falsifying her bio to make herself seem exotic (foreign) and male (thought to be more skilled/serious writers) as a means of getting the attention of publishers who haven’t been interested in her novel, which was (less interestingly) written by “an American woman living in an uncool neighborhood in Los Angeles.”
I’ve thought about this, too. And, like Lepucki, I gave it consideration “not entirely seriously, and not entirely in jest.” It’s occurred to me as a woman not-yet-beyond-relative-youth that in this country (and most others), breasts will sell just about anything. A “serious” writer posing topless with her manuscript? Sure, it reduces her to a sex object and reeks of desperation, but all evidence points to It Would Probably Work. As long as the book gets published in the end, isn’t it worth it? And isn’t it the people suddenly giving it attention because of a pair of breasts, and not the author, who should be ashamed?
Like I said, I’ve thought about this. I’ve also thought about creating a male, and fully Albanian, pseudonym (“Tsetsi” is exotic enough, but “Kristen” doesn’t have that foreign flair).
Because like Lepucki, I’ve been close to publication, and now I’m faced with a dilemma not so different from hers: what to do if a book doesn’t sell.
Like Lepucki, I’ve had an agent. But way back before finally acquiring that agent, a long line of query rejections had been blissfully interrupted by emails – and a phone call – from fairly big-name agents who said things like, “We love this, but literary fiction is hard to sell, and even harder when it’s coming from an ‘unknown.'”
That they liked it was good enough for me. I self-published. (This wasn’t a quick decision after one or two rejections. There were many rejections. More than enough for me to have “earned” the decision to self-publish, for those who believe it should be earned, and I have to admit that, when it comes to a first novel, at least, I’m probably one of them. At least try the query letters, the agents, the small press editors. You never know. And what you learn as they say no and no and no is how to be very damned resilient.)
Self-publishing itself wasn’t a bad idea, for the most part. It was
hard work time consuming to market the novel, but it was also educational. Lesson #1-5: Being reviewed by a widely read and fairly reputable publication, even being on a fairly well known radio program or a morning TV show (not the morning TV show, just a morning TV show), doesn’t mean diddly when it comes to sales. It doesn’t even give you bragging rights: “I was totally on that show,” you say. “For what?” they ask. You tell them the title of your book. “Oh!” they say very enthusiastically. “I haven’t heard of it.” Fun, absolutely. Ego-boosting – yes! Effective? Meh.
Things that help people hear about books: awards, prizes, reviews in publications that actually influence what people buy (NYT, Wall Street Journal, People), and spots on TV shows that influence what people buy (Today Show, other daytime and evening talk shows).
“What about a good book?” you say. “Don’t people hear about it if it’s a good book?” Sure they do. A few friends and family, or maybe one friend “who likes that kind of thing” if it’s literary, as mine was/is. Literary is simply harder to promote if it doesn’t have a trendy zombievampire element.
Last year, I decided I wanted to try again to be published by someone other than myself, because if you’re self-published, almost no-matter-what, you cannot get access to certain reviewers, publications, or competitions. I found a small press, and it was all very exciting, at first, but things started changing after about six months. No details about this can or will be offered, but I do have to accept that this effort, too, won’t result in what I’d hoped for the book.
So, what now?
Lepucki, for her own reasons, decided to give up on the novel that didn’t find a place with a publisher:
…these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate. My agent can continue to shop my novel around, but I have already attended its funeral. I’ve said my eulogy, eaten the casseroles, wept in the shower, screamed into my pillow. I have willed myself to move on. I must, in order to continue my life as a writer. I haven’t lost my tenacity, I’ve simply refocused it on my next book, which I’m more than halfway done with.
Part of her decision to let go seems influenced by the fact that this rejected novel of hers is a first novel. Her second one, she writes, deserves her full attention. And it’s probably true. To write anything well, you have to be in it. But during a conversation about this with my husband last night, he said, “How is trying to get the second novel published going to be any different from trying to get the first one published? Did she have a really good synopsis that made a publisher accept her second novel before it was written?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and “Good question.”
Why not just stick with the first one (if it’s good)?
Maybe, as she said, she was being stubborn about a novel she had to accept wasn’t good enough rather than tenacious about one that was. But if her first novel is actually good, and if she casts it aside forever because it’s a “first novel” (what some believe is an expected loss authors should prepare to face if they’re going to succeed), I think she’s making a mistake by not giving her hard work and creativity the loyalty and determination it deserves.
To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s first (and only) novel.
Gone with the Wind was Margaret Mitchell’s only novel.
Dr. Zhivago was Boris Pasternak’s only novel.
Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s first novel.
Unlike Lepucki, I’m not ready for a funeral, and I don’t plan to attend it until I’m the one in the box (preferably an old-age death). Tenacious? Stubborn? Desperate?
A few years ago, I wrote a short story that was turned down more times than anything else I’ve ever written (besides the novel, that is). It didn’t receive more rejections because it was worse than the others, but because I kept submitting it. The others, I decided after they’d received a couple of “not for us” notes, could be let go.
But the one I kept sending was one I knew was good and would be accepted by a respectable print journal.
Send send, reject reject.
Finally, I heard from an editor who said she loved it, thought it was beautiful, and hoped it was still available.
There are many lessons that teach writers to accept when it’s time to give up, take a break, put it away for a while, and they have their value, but it’s also critical to hold on to the one – even if it’s just one – that teaches when to keep pushing (and keep pushing…).
(Besides. Even if Lepucki attended the funeral of her first novel, I have a feeling she might still be hanging around at the grave site. I’m willing to let my book die, if that’s to be its fate…. My agent can continue to shop my novel around…)
On the subject of books and boobs…