Publishing a Book in the Worst of Times

But counting my blessings, nonetheless.

Let me begin with gratitude.

Thank you to everyone who subscribes to this newsletter and takes the time to read it (and sometimes respond, cheering me on). Thank you to everyone who has bought the updated edition of Goodbye to All That, and spread the word about it. Thank you to Books are Magic and Rough Draft Bar & Books for two fun Zoom events, to emcees Isaac Fitzgerald and Ryan Chapman, and the contributors who read. Thank you to LitHub for excerpting Emily Raboteau’s Goodbye to All That essay, “Shelter in Place,” and Harper’s Magazine for excerpting Leslie Jamison’s essay, “The Assistant’s Loft.”

I recognize that getting to publish a book—getting to do any of the work I do and be supported for it—are tremendous privileges. I am grateful for them, and to all of you.

Two weeks after my pub date, though, I’m also feeling terribly deflated. It’s a privileged-person problem, but real nonetheless, and one others are grappling with, too.

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The other day I posted a tweet about how anti-climactic it is to publish a book in the midst of a pandemic, only being able to conduct events over Zoom. A number of authors responded, affirming that it’s been the same for them, which made me feel less alone.

Of course, this was not exactly news to me. For a year now I’ve been taking part in LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel—a vehicle for helping authors connect with readers at a time when live in-bookstore events are impossible. On the VBC I’ve been fortunate to get to host a (very occasional) memoir-centric “talk show” called Personal Space. Each author I’ve interviewed has talked about how depressing it feels to put a book out into a world where everyone is so isolated, and not even the good kind of isolated that makes people want to curl up with books and read.

No, right now the most voracious readers I know are struggling to engage with anything much longer than a social media post, while most writers I know are at a loss for how to string together any significant number of words and meet their book and periodical deadlines (myself included). Everyone is so deeply traumatized, on multiple fronts.

According to a recent New York Times article, “about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.” Obviously, in this moment, books and other reading material are a tough sell—and while lots of people are signing up for (and in many case paying for) newsletters, I know that I am able to read only a fraction of the many I’ve subscribed to.

All this to say that it’s a lot to ask anyone to buy and read anything right now, when at the end of the day—after taking in each day’s difficult news, doing what they can to effect change, and trying to shepherd their families through drastically disrupted lives—they’d understandably rather just be lulled by TikToks and streaming television. And yet I find myself in the awkward position of having to ask people to buy my book (one many already own an earlier version of, no less), leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, tell their friends, etc., etc.

I hate having to do it, but I must. For each anthology I’ve published, I’ve received tiny advances and distributed most of the money among my contributors, which is only fair. I rely on money on the back end—royalties through sales—to pay myself for my work, which is hard. No, with an anthology you aren’t the author of most of the book. But the pitching, curating, writer-wrangling, negotiating, editing, coordinating writers for various events, and all manner of book promotion add up to a demanding job (even when you’re only adding seven new long-form essays to an existing book, as I just did). It’s work I love, but it takes a tremendous amount of energy, thought, discipline, and care.

What’s more, I rely on the book’s success to ensure my future in publishing. It is, at least in part, a numbers game. So right now I’m that annoying person pushing a book in disastrous times. I’m doing it because it’s my job, my livelihood. I’m trying to make it look like fun, but it mostly isn’t.

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Next year I’ll be that person again. But with any hope, in June, ‘22, when my memoir comes out, we won’t be going through another pandemic, or a new wave of this one, that keeps me from having live, in-store events.

God, I love live, in-store events. When the first edition of Goodbye to All That was published in October, 2013, in-store events were everything for me.

For the first one, at Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, I got myself a snazzy dress and shoes, and even hired a friend to deejay. It was so excited, I treated it as if it were my second bat mitzvah. (My first one was kind of lousy, anyway. Basically: the cantor’s daughter gets the utility room for free, and the “entertainment” is a rented juke box.)

I went completely nuts promoting the first edition of Goodbye to All That and then did the same for Never Can Say Goodbye. After I completed the three events for each that the publishers would support, I put together additional events on my own.

The first book won and Indie Forward award, and my publisher wouldn’t buy and affix the stickers indicating that, so I did. I purchased several rolls, then went from bookstore to bookstore, asking if I could sign and sticker books on my own. Wherever I went, for work or fun, I signed and stickered books while I was there, like a maniac. I think it helped. Honestly, it was also fun as hell. What a nice way to break up a boring day of meetings somewhere—jump into a bookstore and tend to my books, maybe even adjust them so they were facing out. I’d do it all again if I could.

I mean, I am double-vaxxed now. My last shot was 4/16, so in a little over a week, I’ll be good to go. Maybe I’ll plan some outdoor events this summer, or even an indoor one for the fall.

In the meantime, though, I need to do something for myself, to mark this occasion in a happy way. One author who responded to my tweet said she bought herself a cake. Maybe I’ll do that. Yesterday my sister sent me tulips to cheer me up, and it helped. It also reminded me to be especially kind to the authors in my life who’ve had the privileged misfortune, but misfortune nonetheless, of publishing their books at this time.