Enjoy the Ride – My Adventures in Publishing, by Guest Blogger Ellen Sussman

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.
Deb Danielle

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.

Ellen Sussman

31 thoughts on “Enjoy the Ride – My Adventures in Publishing, by Guest Blogger Ellen Sussman

  1. Ellen, I may have to print this essay of yours and affix it to my desk. Much of what you say here can be applied to other areas of life. Yes, enjoy the journey, you’re right. Thanks for sharing your insight and I look forward to reading your books. Congratulations on your successes.

  2. Ellen, this is a very insightful post and an excellent reminder to enjoy the process of becoming published. It’s far too easy to be freaking out and full of angst all the time and miss all the cool moments that happen along the way.

    As for being able to shield myself, I hope I’ll be able to, but I know it’ll always be a struggle to dismiss bad reviews, etc. After being an actor I thought I was prepared to go into writing and handle rejection better–I figured I was a pro at rejection–but I found out soon enough (during the submission process) that rejections hurt just as badly as they always did. Maybe I recovered faster but I can’t be sure. More work to do, obviously!

  3. Ellen, thanks for an insightful, if sobering post. I’m as yet unpublished but do sometimes fear that when I do get there, the hype over sales and the business part of being published might get to me.

    Thanks for the reminder to keep it real and always remember the real joys gained from being published.

  4. Thanks, all. Danielle — the reviews are the hardest. Because, of course, that matters — that’s about our work and not about the business. But I’ve started to see how personal reviews are. One review of ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS went on and on about how thin Blair was and how she got guys because she was thin. That just had nothing to do with the book. The reviewer must have been having a fat day!

    Still, it hurts. I know writers who won’t read their reviews. I wish I were smart enough to do that, but I’m not.

    I have one writer friend who was having such a hard time with reviews that she couldn’t get back to work on her next novel. The noise of the critics was too much in her head. Somehow we have to shield ourselves from that.

  5. Gail — the book that was sold in Germany was never sold here. Quickly, here’s that story. It’s pretty crazy. The book (THE AFFAIR) is about a woman in her 40’s who’s in a pretty good marriage, has a couple of kids, and tumbles into an affair of passion. The Germans bought the book right away, for very big bucks (six figures — amazing, really) and so my then-agent thought we’d get a huge deal in the US. Even Hollywood was calling — of course, Michael Douglas’s agent called about it. (Does he have to be in every movie about an affair?) But then the American editors all said a version of the same thing: how could this woman do this?

    Just think of all the books out there that are about men having affairs! So I do think this reaction had to do with some kind of sexism — or reluctance to look at women as sexual beings. My agent thought the editors were scared of the the sex scenes — but I don’t think that was it. More than a few of them suggested I make the woman a victim — that her husband beat her or some such nonsense. I hated that idea, of course — it has nothing to do with my heroine, her story, her sexuality.

    So the book was translated into German and published there in 2001. Recently they reissued it. Crazy, huh.

    a quick hello to Lauren — whom I know from Readerville.com!

  6. I’m having trouble with my posts. I just got my response in to Gail — and it got buried in number 5. I’ll repost it here and hope it comes out in the right order:

    Gail — the book that was sold in Germany was never sold here. Quickly, here’s that story. It’s pretty crazy. The book (THE AFFAIR) is about a woman in her 40’s who’s in a pretty good marriage, has a couple of kids, and tumbles into an affair of passion. The Germans bought the book right away, for very big bucks (six figures — amazing, really) and so my then-agent thought we’d get a huge deal in the US. Even Hollywood was calling — of course, Michael Douglas’s agent called about it. (Does he have to be in every movie about an affair?) But then the American editors all said a version of the same thing: how could this woman do this?

    Just think of all the books out there that are about men having affairs! So I do think this reaction had to do with some kind of sexism — or reluctance to look at women as sexual beings. My agent thought the editors were scared of the the sex scenes — but I don’t think that was it. More than a few of them suggested I make the woman a victim — that her husband beat her or some such nonsense. I hated that idea, of course — it has nothing to do with my heroine, her story, her sexuality.

    So the book was translated into German and published there in 2001. Recently they reissued it. Crazy, huh.

    a quick hello to Lauren — whom I know from Readerville.com!

  7. I do my best to live by The Five-Minute Rule, letting none of the external noise of being a writer – bad reviews, even good reviews, etc – distract me from the work. As for the potential enervating aspects of promoting, I do it all – things like blogging – so long as I’m enjoying it, but when I stop enjoying it I take a break.

    Oh, and being part of the extraordinary Backspace helps.

  8. This was a wonderful post (and reality-check), Ellen. I’m just learning about all of the extras that come with publishing a book, and it can be overwhelming–especially intimidating activities like self-promotion. (Not to mention gearing up for negative reactions!) Building community with other writers is such a salve for the scarier bits. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

  9. For a first timer you did good- I hope it was good for you too. : ) A friend recently told me- writing is craft- publishing is a casino. I’m trying to keep that in mind.

  10. Ellen, thank you so much for sharing this. I know so little about this part of the business and I feel grateful to have information from someone who has been there to brace myself with. And your funny and open writing style is inspiring me to run right out and buy your books (am especially interested in the German one! Is that available in English?).Thanks for being a Deb for the day!!

  11. I agree with what Amy said about how much what you’ve said can apply to the non-writing areas of life, Ellen. Even though my first literary romance was a troubled one, I find myself getting foolishly swept off my feet again on my own second time around. Your post is a great reminder to keep my pen moving on the next novel—which is the really fun part, and the part you can control (well…sort of control)—and to enjoy the process of publication for whatever it brings without expecting too much.

  12. Hey everyone- The Deb party is having some computer issues- you may see comments out of order or have trouble posting. If your comments aren’t appearing first scroll up to see if you are in the comment trail and if not email me eileen@eileencook.com and I’ll try and get you fixed up.

  13. Ellen, you hinted you had more to say about US publishing and why you had trouble getting The Affair published here… Feel free to expand!

    And related to some of the comments so far, I do find it tough getting the next book written while in the middle of all this pre-publication hoopla/self-promotion stuff. It’s a tough balance!

  14. Ellen, since life is a journey — and both writing as well as the business side of publishing are parts of that travel — there will always be rocky detours. However, as you’ve discovered, those detours can lead to the most wondrous places of true success.

    Congratulations on BAD GIRLS and is it possible to find an English translation of THE AFFAIR?

  15. OK — I’ll try this again. hope it works. seems that my posts were sent into the spam filter — which seems to happen to my emails often — must be all the sexual content!

    The answer to the question about the German novel is above (twice — sorry about that) — in post 6.

    So, no, Larramie, no English version of the novel. Except for the one buried in the back closet of my office!

    Luckily that publishing experience didn’t stop me. One thing I’ve learned, as Meg said, is to keep writing. And here’s the real surprise for me — I haven’t changed my idea of what I should write by what the market seems to want. I’m more and more convinced that we shouldn’t do that — it just doesn’t work to try to write a novel that we think will sell, or we think will be a best seller. We have to write the novel that’s simmering inside of us. I’m not about to write a Woman As Victim novel just because that sells. In fact, I’d fail miserably even if i tried.

  16. Hi Ellen! So happy at least we have one virgin here with us today! Sorry I’m only now getting on to post–been a crazy busy week. But I loved your words and they are so true, and re: writing to the market. I know it’s done, but I don’t get it. I write what I have in me and hope that people like it. I like to think that much of what I ponder are universal concepts, so if it’s something I think about surely there are others who do so as well!
    It’s not at all surprising that American publishing houses said that–it’s so funny the expectation they have with female protagonists. Definitely they have a much more Pollyanna-esque concept that at least I do! Good luck and look forward to reading you!

  17. That’s exactly how it worked for me with BAD GIRLS, Jenny. I realized that I was writing about my own bad girl experiences in personal essays, and started to think about what that meant, and why I did it, and what did it say about society. Then, when I tossed the idea out to other writers for an anthology, almost everyone said, yes, I want to write about that too. Now our readers are responding in the same way — it’s what they’re thinking about. lucky to tap into that.

    but sometimes i find myself writing about something less universal, less “popular.” and i have to trust myself that it’s equally important for me to do. they’re my demons and i’m proud of them!

  18. You’ve got to love the ride, and the work needs to be the most important part. All you can control is the quality of your own work — you can’t control other people’s reactions to it.

    As to critics — I always try to keep in perspective — who is this person in my life? We all want our work to be well-received; sometimes it won’t, for whatever reason. You have to decide what position, if any, the critic has in your life beyond an opinion on the book and go from there. It still stings, but it also keeps things in perspective.

    As for the people who love it: one of my plays was produced in Australia about ten years ago. The audiences were small, but enthusiastic. I got some great reviews, and one bad review by a man who believed “feminist” was a dirty word (he can’t help it if he’s wrong). About a year later, a letter was forwarded to me from a young woman. She’d come to the play in the depths of a suicidal depression. And one of my favorite lines in the play struck a chord with her “If you don’t like your life, go out and change it; don’t come whining to me about it.”

    She got the help she needed, went out and changed her life, and was now doing what she loved to do. And she took the time to thank me for it.

    Whenever I get blue about the business aspect of publishing, I remember that letter and it makes it all worth it.

    Best wishes, and I’d love to hear more about the book published in Germany.

  19. This is an interesting piece, both sobering and inspiring.You are a great addition to the week here at the Debutante Ball, Ellen and I will be looking for Bad Girls at the bookstore. I think a lot of women, of all ages, have a few great “bad” stories in them so I’m not surprised this has struck a chord. Good for you!

    And what a great conversation here today with so many people chiming in with their experiences.

  20. Hi again, Ellen. Obviously if it were up to us here at The Ball, The Affair would be published in English TOMORROW!

    I love the story of how your anthology came about and it’s such a great mix of stories,authors and voices. I have one or two of my own bad girl stories (okay, maybe a few more) if you decide to do a sequel!

    Here’s a question: do you ever get nervous about friends and family reading your work? I just reread my book for copyedits and I’m feeling a certain level of anxiety about all the sex scenes in it and imagining the raised eyebrows of people who know me.

  21. When I write a sex scene — or anything for that matter! — I write as if no one will ever read it. I need to keep the reader out of my mind completely. (I know other writers do this differently.) Later, I’ll ask myself: why will my sister think? (oy.) my daughters (gulp.) my friends? (duh.) my husband? (well, he likes all of it.) But I still put myself out there — and deal with the rest later.

    I just did a book tour event in Princeton, NJ, close to my hometown (I grew up in Trenton). My family and lots of folks from my earliest childhood turned out. I read from my essay in Bad Girls and found myself tongue-tied when I got to the word “nipple.” After that, I closed the book and just talked about it — no more reading! Turns out I’m not much of a bad girl in front of the home crowd!

  22. Pingback: Dear Writing Teachers of America — Top 100 books

  23. Ellen, welcome, the Debs are so glad to have you. Great post — so sorry for the technical problems.

    I think you’re right — I do agree you have to write without worrying what your mother, or the ladies at PTA, or your dad’s golfing buddies will think. If we censor ourselves, readers will know it is false, and we won’t connect.

    Thanks for being here.

    Lisa

  24. Ellen, I will choose my readings very carefully! And also write those sex scenes as if no one is ever going to read them.

    Thanks so much for being here today. We’ve enjoyed the conversation!

    Danielle

  25. I’ve enjoyed this conversation a lot — thank you, Ellen, for your insights. I agree with you 100% that the important focus — the heart of all of it — is the writing itself, and that it’s always wisest to write what you have inside you. I truly believe that if a writer brings this out, with honesty and care and craft, the writing WILL discover readers.

    Congratulations on all your publications, Ellen! and I too REALLY wish I could read German!!!

    Best wishes,
    Harriet

  26. Ellen, This is such a wonderful post, and so appropriate for me because I am going through the joys and anxiety of watching my first novel, The Fiction Class, hit the bookstores. I always imagined being filled with joy at the sight of my book in the stores, and I am, but I also worry–are there too many copies there? are there too few? do the sales people look at me oddly when I introduce myself? The only time I’m not worried is when I’m working on my next novel, and then I’m back in that nice little cocoon. Good luck with your book; I can’t wait to read it. Susan

  27. Thanks, Susan. Can’t wait to get my hands on The Fiction Class! Yes, there are too many worries — I wish we could hand over all our worries to the publicists and editors and agents so we could just bask in the fun of it all. You’re smart to be writing now. I’m two months away from the publication of my next book, DIRTY WORDS: A LITERARY ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SEX, and already the planning for publication is intruding on my sacred work time! I have to work hard these days to concentrate on the new writing so I don’t get swept away by the publication whirlwind. I’m going to a writers retreat in a couple of weeks and I’m planning on focusing entirely on new work — so that I’m immersed in it in time for the publication of DIRTY WORDS.

    Good luck — and enjoy the good times ahead!

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