When my revisions were complete, and my novel was in my agent’s hands, I got down to the serious business of daydreaming about selling my book. I wondered how long it would take. I tried to picture where I might be when I received the call (for some reason this was always outside of a café or restaurant, when in reality it happened in the women’s locker room at work), how I would feel (would I cry?) and, of course, how much the advance would be.
Where did I get the fuel for my daydreams? Mostly from Publishers Marketplace. I had signed up for their daily newsletter Publishers Lunch when I was looking for an agent. Every day a list of book deals appeared in my inbox. As a faithful reader of the daily sales report I knew that when deals were described with pleasant adjectives like “nice” and “very nice” and “major”, those words stood for a range of payment amounts, from one dollar to over five hundred thousand dollars. But advances for debut novelists were all over the map. Should I be having “good” daydreams or “significant” ones? I wanted more information. I kept digging.
Some advances— unusually large ones—are made public, I think just because they are newsworthy. Who isn’t interested in hearing about a debut novelist earning over one million dollars, like Matthew Thomas famously did for his 640-page debut WE ARE NOT OURSELVES? It’s the literary version of the American Dream. I found a few authors who were open about their advances. Debut novelist Ted Thompson wrote an honest account of what he made, from advance to foreign rights sales, and what that looks like in a day-to-day way. But most authors stay quiet on the topic. I finally gave up Googling Author Debut Advance, and made a vow that if and when my time came, I would be totally transparent.
Then my book sold.
I felt an overwhelming mixture of elation, joy and disbelief. I had to ask my agent to repeat the offer at least three times. It was as if I had risen out of my body, and I was watching a movie about someone whose lifelong dream had just come true.
It was a couple of weeks before the sale was announced publicly, which was great because it gave me a little time to get used to the idea. Here is what my Publishers Marketplace announcement looked like:
I was surprised how relieved I felt when I noticed it was lacking any adjectives like nice or significant. Seeing my name and the details of the sale of my book—the book that I spent years living in and giving my whole heart to—in print made me realize how private a person I really am.
This really shouldn’t have come as a shock. I was raised in an Irish Catholic family whose (unspoken) credo was “never tell anyone anything”. The most common phrase I heard growing up was don’t tell your father. And the one thing worse than telling was asking. It was considered bad manners beyond measure to ask someone a personal question. So I was shocked when people asked about my advance. My friends asked. My family asked. A couple of my coworkers asked. My boss didn’t ask, but he asked if I was quitting my job, which was almost asking. While I understood their curiosity, it felt like they were asking my weight and social security number and blood type all at once. After a few awkward conversations, I decided to take the topic off the table completely.
In the meantime I continued to read the PM sales announcements.
My not wanting to share didn’t mean I didn’t want others to share. Every day at nine a.m. the email would arrive in my inbox, and I would scroll through the announcements. There were advances for debuts that were smaller than mine, and there were advances for debuts that were larger than mine.
The more I looked, the farther away I moved from the joy and elation of having sold my book. With each new book announcement I found myself growing more anxious. Why did Jane Doe get x when I got y? How does she already have a pub date? Her sale announcement includes a blurb—should I already have blurbs? I was no longer searching for the answer to the question “What does a debut novelist’s advance look like?” I was searching for a measuring stick that I could hold my experience up to.
There is no easier way to make yourself miserable than by comparing yourself to others. As soon as you start comparing your advance, or your marketing campaign, or your tour schedule to those of other writers, two terrible things happen. You stop having your own experience. And you start to view yourself in opposition to other writers, instead of seeing them as your comrades. Realizing that I was making myself crazy, I unplugged from the publishing media, and felt the thrill of having sold my first book come flooding back into my heart.
So I say keep your book deal information secret, publishing world. Writers, when you are done querying, unsubscribe to the PM deals report. Stop reading Publishers Weekly. Don’t ask your friends what they got, ask them how you can help them. Free yourself from comparison, and let yourself be excited. You sold your novel. To a publisher. Your editor and the whole wonderful team of assistants and marketing people and designers and salespeople are all invested in making your book the best it can be. It’s your dream, and it’s happening. Don’t miss it.