The Debs are thrilled to welcome Ellen Sussman as this week’s guest blogger. Ellen’s anthology, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, was published by W.W. Norton in July, 2007 and became a New York Times Editors Choice and San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller. She is the author of the novel, On a Night Like This, (Warner Books, 2004), also a San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller which has been translated into six languages. Check out her website at: www.ellensussman.com for more information.
I’m a virgin! I just thought I’d start with that – haven’t been able to utter those words in a long time. This is my first blogging experience – and I’m pleased to do it (so to speak) here. Thanks, Danielle, for inviting me to send my thoughts your way.
Since the “topic” is publishing this week, I thought I’d talk about my experience – my wildly different experiences — with book number one, book number two and book number three. It’s really about expectations, in part, and perhaps even more so, about how to separate the experience of being a writer from the very different experience of the Business of publishing.
I published my first novel, THE AFFAIR, in Germany, in 2001, but no American publisher ever bought the book, so even though I made real money on that book, it never felt like the Real Thing. First lesson: publishing is really about the amazing opportunity to have other people read your book – imagine that – rather than making money, at least to this writer. And yes, folks in Germany were able to read the book, but I was so removed from that experience that it never felt real to me. Maybe later I’ll write about why I think American publishers wouldn’t touch that novel – sexism, real bias against women as sexual beings, prudishness! – but let’s put that one on hold.
I published my first U.S. novel, ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS, with Warner Books in 2004. In the year before publication of ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS there was lots of buzz – my publisher and agent expected big things for the novel. And so I expected Big Things. I remember Pam Houston came over to my house one day (to teach a master class – I teach private classes in the San Francisco Bay area) and she told me: don’t expect publishing a novel to change your life. I nodded and said of course and thought: but my novel will change my life!
It didn’t. The book came out, got some good reviews, sold well enough, and two months later, slinked off to the back of the book stores. I went home and thought: Did I enjoy that experience? Here’s the toughest part: beyond disappointed expectations, beyond the let down that the moment of glory is ever so fleeting, I spent most of those months worrying. I worried that the book wouldn’t sell well, that my editor (whom I loved) would be disappointed, that I’d never sell another book again. And because I was worrying so damn much, I wasn’t having much fun.
I’ve spent my entire life (since I was 6!) wanting to be a writer. I’ve spent my entire adult life working hard at my craft. This was what I had waited for. This was the goal: the published book. And I almost ruined the experience. I spent way too much time thinking about what was wrong (not enough reviews, not enough media coverage, not enough folks showing up on book tour) and not about what was right (amazing fan emails, true pleasure at talking about the book with readers at book clubs, the wonderful feeling of that book in my hands).
Book Number Three: This past summer WW Norton published my anthology, BAD GIRLS: 26 WRITERS MISBEHAVE. This time, I was going to do it differently. I decided to enjoy the ride. I decided to never ask how many books were selling. I only checked my Amazon numbers about once a week. (OK, maybe twice a week.) I’d show up at a bookstore and think, hey, a few good folks have showed up in this heat wave. Somehow, I rearranged my mindset – and it worked. I have loved my experience with BAD GIRLS. I have taken each good review as a gift, I’ve been amazed at each media opportunity. I had set my expectations lower so I wasn’t disappointed. (In fact, this has been a pretty wild ride – far exceeding my expectations. A real coup — BAD GIRLS got a terrific full-page NY Times Book Review!) But more importantly, I stopped worrying about the Business of publishing. My job is to write (and yes, as we now know, to help promote – but I’m lucky – I enjoy a crowd) – my publishing company’s job is to sell books.
I wonder if other writers have struggled with this – can you separate the fear of disappointing sales from the delirious thrill of finally publishing your book? Can you build up enough of a shield to protect yourself from mediocre reviews (or few reviews), small turn-out at readings, going into a bookstore to proudly sign your book and find that they don’t have your book? It’s a very tough business, and most of us have busted our asses to get a chance to be a part of it. But the real deal is the email you receive from a reader that says: I stayed up all night reading your wonderful book.