Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2019 | 38 minutes (10,294 words)
For me the low point came two months after publication, at a playground a few blocks from my house. I sobbed on the phone with my sister, eking out incomprehensible sentences about my career this, my life expectations that, writing this, the publishing industry that, until finally my sister said, “Maybe you should look for a different job?” and I realized the jig was up — I was doomed to keep doing this ridiculous and often seemingly pointless thing.
A few weeks before this, I’d received my first letters from readers telling me how much they’d loved and needed the book, and I’d had another sister-to-sister phone call — just as wrought with emotion — in which I raved about all the deeper meaning and purpose of this milestone and how it wasn’t about the sales and the metrics but about what mattered blah blah blah. I ping-ponged like this for awhile, alternately aglow and despondent, hopeful and wretched, until finally I just started writing again and got on with it.
I never expected writing my first book to involve such a process. Perhaps the experience was intensified in my case because I am a full-time freelancer and the stakes felt so high, or perhaps it is always like this. It doesn’t feel much different this time around, with my second book forthcoming next April, although I’m going into it so much more aware of what to do and when.
The publishing process remains incredibly opaque, with a quasi-mystical air — the unicorn blurb! The starred review! — and although much more has been written now about staples like preorders and publicity, the psychological and personal dimensions of the experience are largely hidden.
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After my first book was published, I wanted to form some sort of support group with other authors to discuss all that we left out of our bios and social media and readings and events. What follows here is not as soppy as all that, but hopefully as helpful and illuminating. I reached out asking women writers to share their thoughts on their first books, and I’ve compiled their responses in a type of publishing forum. Some have more journalistic books, others more literary; some have published with major presses and other small ones; some work full-time as writers and others have day jobs. They were all kind enough to get honest with me about that singular and jarring experience: the first book.
Meet the authors:
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her work has been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, among others. She is a former Olive B. O’Connor fellow at Colgate University, and her work has been supported by Literary Arts, Wyoming Arts Council, and the Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes/NSF. She has a BFA in photography from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA in creative writing/environmental studies from the University of Wyoming. She lives and works outside Portland, Oregon. [Editor’s note: Ologies is Chelsea’s first book.]
Melissa del Bosque is an investigative reporter at ProPublica. She has written about the U.S.-Mexico border region since 1998 for various media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The Texas Observer, The Guardian, The Intercept, and Harper’s Magazine. [Editor’s note: Bloodlines: The True Story of a Drug Cartel, the FBI, and the Battle for a Horse-Racing Dynasty is Melissa’s first book.]
Deborah Copaken is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of Shutterbabe and The Red Book, among other books; an Emmy award–winning TV news producer (for ABC, NBC, CNN); a multiple award-winning photojournalist for hundreds of publications, including Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times; a columnist at The Atlantic as well as a former columnist at both the Financial Times and the Observer. She’s a staff writer on the TV show Emily in Paris, as well as a consultant on Younger, and a screenwriter on the TV version of Shutterbabe. Deborah’s writing has also appeared in many other publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, Slate, Elle, Glamour, and Paris Match. She’s currently at work on her seventh book, Ladyparts, a memoir of bodily destruction and resurrection during marital rupture for Random House. She lives in Brooklyn.
Eva Hagberg Fisher’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Wallpaper*, Wired, and Dwell, among other places. She is the author of the critically-acclaimed debut book How To Be Loved: A Memoir Of Lifesaving Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019).She holds degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley and Princeton, and has a Ph.D. in visual and narrative culture from UC Berkeley.
Heather Hansman is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Outside, The California Sunday Magazine, Smithsonian, and many other outlets. After a decade of raft guiding across the United States, she now lives in Seattle. [Editor’s note: Down River: Into the Future of Water in the West is Heather’s first book.]
Erika Hayasaki teaches nonfiction storytelling at the University of California, Irvine, where she is an associate professor in the literary journalism program. In 2014, she published her first book, The Death Class: A True Story About Life (Simon & Schuster). Her longform feature stories and essays have appeared in Wired, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Foreign Policy, The California Sunday Magazine, Pacific Standard, and other publications. She is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Fellow in science and environmental reporting, and is currently reporting and writing her second narrative nonfiction book (Algonquin).
Jennifer Matthewson is a writer and entrepreneur originally from the Midwest. She is the founder and editor of Daily Blender, a digital publication focused on food, drink, travel, and culture, now in its 11th year. Her first book, Career Diary of a Caterer, was published in 2007 as part of a career guide series, and is utilized in culinary courses across the country.
Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her full-length essay collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in March 2019 and her lyric essay chapbook Devotional was published by Red Bird in 2017. Individual essays have appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, The Georgia Review, Passages North, Shenandoah, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is the founding editor of After the Art. You can read more at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.
Peg Alford Pursell is the author of A Girl Goes into the Forest and of Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, the 2017 Indies Book of the Year for Literary Fiction. Her work has appeared in Permafrost, the Los Angeles Review, Joyland Magazine, and other journals and anthologies. She is the founder and director of the national reading series Why There Are Words and of WTAW Press.
Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to America in 1990. She is a feminist writer, author of Mother Winter (S&S, 2019), and a painter living in Portland, Oregon, with her two children. Her latest work appears in Guernica and Lit Hub.
Andrea Warner is the author of the bestselling book Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography and We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music. She is a settler who was born and raised in Vancouver on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Find her on Twitter at @_AndreaWarner.
1. What were your expectations and goals going into the publication process? How did they shift as you got further in — from promotion, to publication day, to six months after release?
Melissa del Bosque: I signed a contract that gave me about one year to turn in the first draft. I was terrified I’d miss the deadline and have to return my advance. The contract was a powerful motivator. I didn’t even think about the second phase, which was having my editor accept the manuscript to be proofed and eventually published. Turns out that’s an even bigger deal. You can turn in your first draft but if your editor thinks it’s terrible you’re going to have to rewrite it until you get it right. At the end, you’re basically exhausted after turning in the manuscript, going through editing, and proofreading, and then it’s time to start promoting the book!
Sophia Shalmiyev: I am still only two months post-release, but what I am finding out is that if you didn’t sell well enough to go into second printing within that first month, it is assumed your book will be a commercial failure. I knew nothing going into this process. Going out on submission I wondered why this editor was chosen over another, but my agent either had had coffee with these people or thought our tastes aligned. I was a nobody coming out of nowhere. So when the rejections were pouring in, I was not upset, but when even the indie houses said my book was too experimental or didn’t win them over the way Maggie Nelson (who recently spoke in a Rumpus interview about pubs rejecting her work) might, I grew despondent. I needed to believe that there was that person out there who wanted a break, who wanted to take a ride that was a bit dangerous, and that turned out to be a new editor in a very old publishing house. As Chris Kraus said: It’s nice when they let one slip through the cracks. I was grateful beyond words and happened upon my dream editor by accident. Also, everyone was out on vacation. I got signed on August 4th, so maybe that tells you something. Therapists and editors are all GONE baby gone. He was manning a ship under the radar, and I was the silver fish who flopped into his sleepy net.
I was grateful beyond words and happened upon my dream editor by accident. Also, everyone was out on vacation. I got signed on August 4th, so maybe that tells you something. Therapists and editors are all GONE baby gone. He was manning a ship under the radar, and I was the silver fish who flopped into his sleepy net.
Erika Hayasaki: Like any first-time author, I hoped for immediate success and strong reviews, but I also knew how rare that is. I had a solid publisher, which offered a marketing team that arranged press interviews. I was fortunate and privileged in that sense. But the overall process of book release was a haze. I had given birth to my first child six months before my book release day. The book itself had been finished for a while (final edits were complete nearly a year before it was published). I remember bringing my 6-month-old daughter to New York for a book party and press interviews, and she got very sick and was hospitalized, so I was running back and forth from book event to bedside. When she was released from the hospital, I remember nursing her in the lobby of radio stations in between press interviews. I think it all should have been super exciting, but I was so wrapped up in the early stages of motherhood and I felt as though my journey with the book was already somewhat behind me. The experience of reporting and writing the book took me on an emotional journey, and by the time it came out I was already on another entirely different kind of emotional journey.
Six months after the book release, press opportunities died down and I basically went back to regular life. I was not suddenly a famous writer. I remember having at least one book reading in which only three people showed up — and they were all my friends. I canceled the reading and the four of us went out for drinks. All the while, I was still teaching and trying to freelance. Despite my prior newspaper career, I was still relatively unknown in the magazine world and struggling to establish myself. The fact that I had published a book really did not matter to magazine editors when I pitched them.
Deborah Copaken: I was coming from the worlds of photojournalism and TV news, so I had no expectations or goals whatsoever. I didn’t understand how a book tour worked. I didn’t have many author friends. There was no internet back then, so no literary Twitter or “presales are important” Facebook or countdown-to-my-book Instagram. In fact, Google had just been invented, so the book tour and its responsibilities took me completely by surprise. When I saw the list of cities and the various TV and radio interviews, it was both thrilling and scary. After two years spent in a room by myself, I would be taking my baby on the road. But then the reviews came in, many of them extremely sexist — New York Magazine called me a “soccer-mom-in-training”; Salon’s headline was “Bang-Bang Girl”; Talk Magazine and even the Women’s Review of Books — a feminist publication! — blamed me for my own rape. There were many days during this period when I was curled up in a ball on one hotel bed or another thinking, “How? Why? It’s a fucking book. Why this sexist venom?”
Eva Hagberg Fisher: I expected it to be pretty intense and overwhelming. I expected not to really have a clear idea of what it was actually going to feel like. I also expected to get pretty strung out on the validation and attention, so I tried to preemptively put a lot of structures in place so that I could stay grounded: regular therapy, meditation practice, bringing a friend on book tour with me to remind me that I’m “Eva,” not “Eva Hagberg Fisher, author.” A month leading up to publication I started telling friends I felt like a content generator or email server — I just had requests coming in and writing/podcast appearances going out — and it was intense intense intense. Publication day itself was pretty rad; I ended up having a really clear day, doing a photo shoot for the New York Post in the park, then having my launch event in my hometown. I’m about two and a half months post-release, so I’m not sure what six months will be like, but the flare of attention has definitely simmered down and now I’m just living life as a published author. It’s mostly the same, honestly, day-to-day. Just with the knowledge that I’ve achieved the singular goal I always wanted, and so now I feel sort of aimless and adrift.
Jennifer Matthewson: As I’m sure a lot of first-time authors will say, I expected to have more management from my publisher. It was a small publisher in D.C., but there was no marketing at all, so I had to do it all myself. I think it’s a complete shift of expectations once you realize you’re the one salesperson for your book.
Heather Hansman: I think initially I just wanted to write a book that I was proud of, and that got the facts right, because I was so excited by the idea of having a book in the first place. As the publication date got closer I became much more obsessed with who might read it, and how it might sell, and if it would be respected. I’m still in that slightly insecure obsession phase (does it ever go away?), which is exciting and terrifying and anticlimactic all at once.
Andrea Warner: My first book is called We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music. I thought I had some understanding of the publication process, just from previous work I’d done on a much smaller scale, from friends who had navigated it, and from watching and reading about other authors’ experiences over the years. I could get behind the deadlines and keeping myself on track because I’ve been a freelance journalist for years, and I like deadlines. I also know how to hype my own work online afterward, even though it always feels a little awkward. My publishers were two men and supportive. They approached me about writing a book and invited me to pitch them any ideas.
The majority of the sexism I encountered was after the book came out. I was prepared to encounter sexism since that’s just a part of living in a patriarchal world, particularly the various corners of the world I’ve chosen to insert myself. Publishing and journalism and the music industry are deeply entrenched in the classic “good old boys” network–style of gaslighting, invalidating, and erasing women’s work. I knew I would run into things, but I was still occasionally blindsided, and never more so than after my book came out and the number of male journalists who just ignored the book altogether, or who asked me “how’d you get this?” rather than asking me anything about the book itself. And then I had the flipside, which was male journalists who did choose to read the book and interview me or just email me and say, “Wow, I didn’t expect to like the book as much as I did!” They either didn’t want to interrogate, privately, why they thought they wouldn’t get anything out of a book written by a woman about four women, or they really thought this was both a compliment and an act of admitting their own vulnerability. It happened so much that I actually wrote an afterword for the third printing about why it was such a fucked up thing to say to me.
2. What, if any, myths were exploded for you in the publishing process?
Shalmiyev: My number one myth is that the publishing house will pay for your travel. I have maxed out all my credit cards to go do the gigs I wanted to do, and I gave up many many more because I was not encouraged in that direction. A book tour for an unknown author sells no books, not enough to justify it. Yet, sitting at home and doing nothing would have been a new low. The other myth is that you can be honest and be yourself. You cannot. You will get in trouble. I feel like I am in trouble every day I speak and have my book anywhere in proximity. I have a lot of negative feelings about the industry treating its editors and agents like rags to be used and wrung out. They are overworked and exploited, and for what? The capitalist model just doesn’t work. Plus, the schmooze is incredible. You have to like talking to strangers nonchalantly about craft and sales.
Every once in awhile you’ll connect with a reader or an interviewer on tour, and it will feel worth it, but not worth it in the same way writing and having written the book feels worth it. –Deborah Copaken
The other myth is that you will think everyone who seems interested in your book will buy it and actually read it. That’s a big myth that you have to let go of because it’s the reason you write, to be read. Most of the interviews and the reviews and other media coverage I got was through years of engagement and the relationships I had with the other writers. You have to do this work unless you are a unicorn and your publisher thinks you will shit diamonds. It is a slush pile unless you know people.
Hayasaki: I think most people assume that if you get reviews in big media, your book will sell better. That didn’t exactly happen. I was fortunate to have reviews in the New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, and other media like NPR, the L.A. Times, and MSNBC. The book was translated into a few languages, and it was optioned by producers for a TV show for NBC. But it was not a bestseller, not even close. The TV show development fell apart at the pilot stage. By the way, having a project optioned or sold to Hollywood does not always involve a big paycheck, contrary to what writers might imagine, especially since so few options are actually made into films or shows. I think first-time authors don’t realize that if your first book isn’t a hit, it might be harder to get a second book deal. Many of my writer friends warned me of this after experiencing it themselves, and I realized it was true after I tried to sell book idea number two, which was rejected by every publisher, and book idea number three, which was also rejected all around. I had better luck with book idea number four, which I am now writing, but it still went through many rejections.
Copaken: My biggest myth was that the book tour was the reward for writing the book. Writing the book is the reward for writing the book. The book tour and its concomitant responsibilities are necessary evils to sell books. Every once in awhile you’ll connect with a reader or an interviewer on tour, and it will feel worth it, but not worth it in the same way writing and having written the book feels worth it.
Hagberg Fisher: As much as I tried not to mythologize what publishing a memoir would do, I definitely did. And I thought that it would change me in some fundamental way. I believed that finally achieving this lifelong goal would somehow rearrange my internal cellular structure — would finally fill that void that I’ve been trying to fill in one way or another since I was born. But it didn’t. I’m the same person with the same insecurities and challenges and fears and self-obsessions and all of that.
At the same time, publishing the book did open up new spaces in my brain to have thoughts I hadn’t had before. I’d been so focused on telling a particular narrative — I got sick, I got better, love helped along the way, and so did my marriage — that I hadn’t let myself acknowledge a steadily increasing alarm that was telling me I needed to leave my husband, and soon. The day the book was published I felt this moment of relief, that I could turn toward the truth I’d tried to run from while I was writing and preparing for book tour, which was that the person I had married no longer felt available to me, and that I was desperately lonely inside this arrangement.
And at the same time, publishing the book felt, finally, like it marked the end of my illness. I’d done all these rituals to sort of tell myself that I wasn’t sick anymore, but my body didn’t believe it until the book — in some senses an official record — felt really set in stone. However many thousands of copies were supposed to exist existed. I couldn’t edit. I couldn’t go back and change them. That story was done. So I was ready to figure out my next story — and that, it turns out, was leaving this marriage.
I believed that finally achieving this lifelong goal would somehow rearrange my internal cellular structure — would finally fill that void that I’ve been trying to fill in one way or another since I was born. But it didn’t.
–Eva Hagberg Fisher
Randon Billings Noble: Bookstores won’t always want you to read at them! And sometimes — when you ask — they won’t even write back to tell you no.
Hansman: The biggest one is that I think of book publishing as less of an ivory tower. I used to think that you had to be an amazingly brilliant writer to publish a book, but now I see it as much more of a business, and I think publishers are trying to find books that will sell. (I don’t mean that to sound totally jaded, I think there’s some overlap there, but still.)
Peg Alford Pursell: I discovered a number of unpleasant realities. For example, to my shock, no review copies of my book were printed or sent to review outlets. The publishing date was moved several times, and while I’d heard of that happening, no reasons were given, which gave me cause to wonder if, in the long run, the book would actually be published, which created a huge amount of anxiety for me as I went about setting up appearances around the country, often drawing upon or doing favors for friends in academia, for example.
3. What was the biggest mistake you made?
Del Bosque: I didn’t push my agent hard enough to sell my proposal. I assumed he was the expert so he knew best, and so I waited when I should have been pushing to get my proposal done and sold.
Shalmiyev: Not getting that Modern Love column the way my agent and everyone told me I should?
Not realizing there is a legal side to this writing real people thing. Get ready to shit your pants if you want to tell THE TRUTH. The publisher won’t let themselves get sued.
Thinking women get treated better in publishing because there are so many of them. It is not true. It is still a daddy system and the girls must play by the boys’ rules.
Assuming I would be face-out or on the “just out” table cuz I have a new book with a big house. Many shows I went to didn’t even unpack my galleys and promo copies. They are doing their best but most likely they don’t have the space for you.
Hayasaki: When I wrote my first book, I think I was a respectable writer with a solid track record. But when it came to book writing, I had blind spots, even at the level of basic craft issues. I’ve studied nonfiction writing a lot more intensely since I wrote my first book, thanks to teaching and being part of a program at the University of California, Irvine that focuses on narrative nonfiction storytelling, and thanks to freelancing for magazines and websites that run longform stories. I came out of the newspaper world when I landed my first book contract, and although I wrote news features, I didn’t fully understand all the forms and styles that literary journalism and creative nonfiction can take in book form, or how to pull it off perfectly. After reading many different approaches, and experimenting in my own writing for different outlets, I feel more prepared and (slightly) more confident going into my next project. I am not sure if this really was a mistake. Sure, I could have waited longer to publish a book to work on my skills. But this is part of my growth as a writer, so I wouldn’t change anything.
Copaken: Letting my publisher bully me into naming my book Shutterbabe instead of Newswhore, its working title, or at the very least Shuttergirl. I knew that “babe” would be an issue and follow me throughout my life, a thorn in my side. Which it has. The whole point of the book was to turn the male gaze on its head and be the one looking out at the world — the female gaze — not being objectified by it. In fact, The Female Gaze would have been a much better title as well. I wish I’d thought of it back then.
Hagberg Fisher: Ever going on Author Central to look at my sales numbers.
Chelsea Biondolillo: I didn’t have writing — essays or critical pieces on related topics to support the book — ready to submit in the spring while waiting for blurbs to come in. I mistakenly thought I’d have time to write this stuff then — and instead I was writing to blurbers, filling out interviews, writing to colleagues and former colleagues, organizing all of my own press materials, updating my blog, scoping out local options.
Matthewson: Not going at it harder. I scheduled radio interviews and book readings, created direct-mail postcards, managed the process as best I could, but I was a new mom (I wrote the book while I was pregnant) running a catering business, so I had very little time to put into marketing the book.
Hansman: I think I was so thirsty to have a book that I said yes to everything and didn’t ask for more money or support. I would have gone slower and questioned everything. And I think I would have tried to build more time into every part of the process, although that’s tied to money, so it feels like hard space to carve out.
Alford Pursell: When it comes to small, independent, boutique publishers, I believe it’s important for an author to give it her all to support the publisher, who is taking the risk to publish one’s book in ways that the big houses don’t. And often with fewer resources. So when my debut was slated to be published by my indie publisher, I lined up events upon events upon events. I said yes to nearly every last request. This was too much. I lost sleep (always a rare commodity); I gained weight. My routines of writing, exercise, and meditation that keep me healthy were disrupted with so much travel and time zone changes, and the work of trying to maintain or alter them grew stressful. My stress level was off the chart.
4. What advice would you give another debut author?
Warner: If you can, write it into the contract that you have to be involved in the cover design, or that at least you need to have co-approval. Ask to see the marketing plan several months in advance, and ask about distribution plans. Make sure that you’re comfortable in the editing process to push back on changes you do not agree with, but don’t get too precious about the feedback. Everybody should be on the same side of just making the book as great as it can be. Make a plan as to how you want to approach the research component and the writing component, and build in some time at the end of your process to do a major edit of your own before you even submit the book. Find out what needs to happen on the publisher level for the rights to revert back to you.
You can be knocked over by waves of sadness in the middle of an otherwise happy process. You can find “fun” things difficult. You can feel flat or wan or arrogant or introverted. It’s all part of the curve! –Randon Billings Noble
Shalmiyev: Write a very compelling tell-all or political opinion piece for the New York Times and make sure it goes viral? These supporting essays must go out on publication or around then. You will become insufferable. You will start to hate yourself. You will hate other people’s books. It is exactly like planning a giant wedding every day. You will be cashed out by the time you walk down the aisle. Specifically, make real friends in this writing world somehow. I don’t know how that happens without internships or an MFA or pitching and going to book events all the time, but it is sort of the sauce. You know that girl who seems like she was born to write that book and has all the likes and retweets? She has been hooking up other writers forever. She is an editor or has friends in high places. Sometimes she gets lucky and makes friends with people who are brilliant. Also, review and interview people you admire.
Hayasaki: It is a good idea to ask yourself before you make the plunge into your first book — is this a subject I want to talk about for the next five-plus years? Because you will be living with it for a long time. It is also a good idea to make some freelancing connections before the book comes out so you can write different stories and essays around your book topic. This will help publicize the book.
Copaken: Don’t believe the raves, don’t believe the pans. Your book is somewhere in the middle of those. Book tours, these days, are not what they once were. You’re going to have to hustle on your own. If your parents’ church/synagogue group invites you to come, go! Don’t read Amazon, don’t read Goodreads, and for God’s sake, if you slip up and do read them, please remember that most user reviews say much more about the user than about the book being reviewed.
Hagberg Fisher: Invest in therapy!!! I’d been in therapy for years, and my therapist and I started working on book stuff as soon as I sold the proposal. We just knew it was going to be my kryptonite. We got to work together on issues around validation, hope, shame, fear, anger, etc. — all this stuff that started coming up around publication. Jealousy!!! Jealousy’s a huge one. I cannot recommend solid mental health treatment enough.
I also invested the last third of my advance in publicity — hiring an independent publicist and going on a book tour. I’m glad I did that because I can feel like I gave the book my best possible shot.
Also remember that people are really excited to support authors, and also people have their own often incomprehensible reactions! It was important for me to be able to detach from how other people were feeling about my book.
The bad review that you’re writing in your head is 100,000 times worse than any actual bad review that will ever be written. No need to write that bad review!
Biondolillo: As soon as your draft is in, start writing the work that you can publish (ideally online) around the release. Essays on your process, lists of the books and music that inspired you, critical reviews of related books, compressed excerpts if you are publishing mostly new material. Scope out places you’d like to place something and draft out a piece that could fit there — when you pitch it later, you’ll have a head start. Reach out to places that have published you before and thank them for the support and encouragement and ask if they have interviewers or reviewers who you could get in touch with. If you have contacts at universities and want to participate in symposia, reading series or the like, you will likely need to reach out at least a year in advance. And if you can have any say in the release date, try to come out just before the Conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), so that you can leverage the book fair, readings, and events.
Noble: There’s a big learning curve — both professionally and emotionally. And no matter how much you think you’ve prepared, something unexpected and likely uncomfortable will happen — a weird review, a rejection from your hometown bookstore, an offensive question at a reading. Try to take whatever it is it in stride and handle it with grace, but whatever you feel behind the scenes is A-OK. You can be knocked over by waves of sadness in the middle of an otherwise happy process. You can find “fun” things difficult. You can feel flat or wan or arrogant or introverted. It’s all part of the curve!
Hansman: You’re your own best advocate! The publishing world feels veiled and complicated, and I was worried about offending people or seeming high-maintenance, but I wish I’d been upfront about my concerns and needs right off the bat. Don’t just be excited to be there! That goes for editing help and promotions and every facet of the process. It’s not in my nature to be loud and ask for things, but in my experience, and from what I’ve heard from other writers, you aren’t going to get things you don’t ask for. I was also surprised at how lonely the writing and editing process were — far more so than magazine pieces and other writing projects I’d done before. It felt like I was alone on a weird island, working on a big, amorphous, inexplicable thing for a lot of the process. Try to build a community and lean on other people when you’re writing. I think for the most part people were more than happy to help, I just had to buck up and ask.
It’s not in my nature to be loud and ask for things, but in my experience, and from what I’ve heard from other writers, you aren’t going to get things you don’t ask for.
Alford Pursell: Be aware that in public appearances, you may be asked questions that feel personally intrusive. Prepare yourself. You don’t owe the answers to every question asked (or even any question). Recently, my husband coaxed me into watching the Golden State Warriors play Game 1 in the NBA playoffs. In an interview at game’s end, (the amazing) Steph Curry was asked why he’d worn two different colored shoes — late in the game he’d changed shoes and worn a yellow shoe and a black shoe. He replied (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m going to keep that to myself.” Yes, indeed. We don’t need to give away anything we don’t want to share.
5. Do you think your gender influenced your experience?
Del Bosque: I think women communicate differently than men. Period. I often start sentences to my agent or editor with “I’m worried about …” For me it’s an opener for when I want to discuss something that’s important. I think men hear the word “worry” and they go “oh oh” and start tuning you out. We are socialized to be less direct in conversations because we can so easily be perceived by men as too pushy or too bossy or bitchy. That can be a real drag sometimes.
Because I’ve often written about corruption, drug cartels, and organized crime, my knowledge on these subjects has sometimes been questioned. It’s always been by older men who were especially scandalized to hear that I’m also a mother. They really thought I was crazy and should be at home. Ironically, these were men who knew little about these subjects, yet expounded on them for several minutes as if they’d written the book, not me. On the other hand, every agent I’ve ever met in federal law enforcement, or members of the criminal world — once they understand you know what you’re talking about — that’s what matters most to them.
Shalmiyev: Just read my review in the New York Times by Alexandra Fuller and the four to five rebuttals that came out and it becomes evident that hating women who do personal work but don’t clean your soul the way you wish will be punished. I love being a woman and that is a crime, too.
Hayasaki: I had a female editor. My protagonist was a woman. Many of the other characters in the book were also women. Most of my reviewers were women, and even if they had criticism, they were kind, fair reviewers. I recall one male reviewer. He was not particularly kind. Was that a gender thing? Who knows? But he did seem to have very different journalistic and story sensibilities, and I was not sure how he ended up selected to review my book.
In a related issue, however, there remains a huge racial disparity in publishing. Most editors I pitch or work with in magazines or books are still so white. My first book sold easier, I think, because it had a dynamic white woman at the center of it. Recently, while trying to sell a book involving Vietnamese-born sisters separated at birth, I received positive feedback on the proposal. But at least one rejection from an editor (who liked it enough to pitch it to her team) went like this: “Last year I bought a book about a Hmong rice farmer in Fresno, CA, who is from Laos, and there is a feeling that two stories (which truly could not be more different) are too close.” In my mind I was like, “OK, so they filled their Asian book quota already?”
Copaken: Yes. Absofuckinglutely. I was pilloried, either for giving up an exciting career in war photography and sexual freedom and agency to get married and start a family or, conversely, for having a dangerous career in photojournalism and the kind of sexual agency typically attributed to males in the first place.
Where do I even start with the sexist remarks? There are so many. And by the way, women critics were as bad as the men in their sexism. Here are some doozies.
“But even readers who are sympathetic to her views about sexual politics will wonder about her desire to eat her postfeminist cake and have it, too. Anyone who professes to be as worldly about men as she does shouldn’t be so shocked to find out that men are often violent pigs.”
– a male critic at New York Magazine
“Between 1988 and 1992, she dodges a few bullets, faces down a tank or two and screws half the foreign press corps along the way.”
“Kogan, who left photojournalism for TV news in 1992, and then left journalism altogether in 1998 to become a full-time mom, is not, contrary to the media buzz around the book, some kind of neo-fem heroine to women journalists.” (fact: I left TV journalism to write the book she was holding in her hands in 1999, a year later. I was never a full-time mother.)
“Bang-bang girl: An ex-photojournalist who brags about screwing half the foreign press corps is no feminist hero — she’s just an opportunist.”
– Salon (female critic)
“Could there possibly be something about herself that invites these abuses?”
– Women’s Review of Books (female critic)
Hansman: I think it has, both positively and negatively. My book is about resource use and adventure, which are both traditionally male-dominated publishing genres, and in both pitching and promoting it I think people were eager to box me into a familiar narrative because I was a woman writing about being outside. I got a lot of “Ohh, it’s like Wild,” which is patently not true. There were constraints there, for sure, and the assumptions were frustrating, but I think there’s also a growing desire and market for that kind of story, which might have helped land me the deal in the first place.
Alford Pursell: I read somewhere that Nora Ephron once wrote, “The words ‘thinly disguised [autobiography]’ are applied mostly to books by women.” In some ways, it’s easier for readers to focus on the author than on craft. I go to many book events and it’s hard for me to recall ever hearing a male author being treated as if he were a character in his fiction. With my first book, conflating me with my characters was a regular occurrence. Patiently, I’d explain that I write fiction for the beautiful freeing reason that my ideas, situations, settings, characters, etc. don’t need to be facts, that imagination and craft form the basis of my writing.
6. How did publishing your first book influence your career?
Del Bosque: I think it showed that I could do more than just write magazine articles or newspaper stories. These days in journalism you have to be multifaceted in your approach.
Warner: A first book under your belt establishes you as something of an authority on its subject. It makes a difference, even if it’s a small press.
Shalmiyev: It hasn’t yet, but I hope I will get some more teaching gigs here and there. I hope I can finally get a fellowship or a residency now that my youngest is 6 years old. I am still very broke but everyone assumes I am raking it in. People do not buy books; they just talk about them. I don’t know that I will see royalty checks. I just want some good gigs that don’t tie me up too long and help me get by. You can have every review and that doesn’t mean there will be click that moves your book into the basket. Please do not shop on Amazon, people!
Hayasaki: It helped me get promoted to a tenured position at the university where I teach.
Copaken: I became someone others considered a writer instead of just knowing, from age 4, that I was a writer. I started earning money from my writing instead of just doing it for my own pleasure and sanity. And in so doing, I found meaning in paid work that I’d never found before. At the same time, in this day and age, with rare exception, one cannot count on authoring books to pay the bills. So I have a day job as head writer at a Silicon Valley start-up that’s trying to break the back of Alzheimer’s. I’m a staff writer on Darren Star’s new show, Emily in Paris. I have a column at the Atlantic. It’s taken me awhile to understand I cannot give up the day jobs, and I never earned a master’s in anything, so teaching writing at a university was off the table. That being said, I’m a single mother supporting my three kids without alimony, and I feel proud of that.
That being said, I’m a single mother supporting my three kids without alimony, and I feel proud of that.
Noble: I’ve been searching for a job as a tenure-track professor of creative nonfiction and having a published book is key. Now that Be With Me Always is out in the world, universities are expressing interest.
Alford Pursell: Despite the upsetting experience of having my first publisher close her business down just after publishing Show Her a Flower, A Bird, A Shadow, the book garnered attention. It was named INDIE Book of the Year for Literary Fiction and was featured by Poets & Writers Magazine’s second annual 5 over 50. Personally, I felt I’d weathered something that had been unthinkable before I signed that publishing agreement, and that helped me to feel more courageous and less thin-skinned, which allowed me to query my next publisher with my next manuscript. To my greatest happiness, Michelle Dotter said A Girl Goes Into the Forest captivated her and she wanted to publish it. The book comes out July 16th from Dzanc.
7. How did publishing your first book influence your understanding of writing, and your identity as a writer?
Del Bosque: Personally, I really enjoyed being able to work on one story for so long especially after hustling story pitches for so many years. I am at a point in my career when I really like to dig deep into a subject. I have gotten very hard on myself about the types of questions I want to answer in my writing. After having written about the border and immigration for so long, I’ve seen the same stories circulate time after time, and I feel like the narrative needs to progress in a new direction. But that can be really hard, because it really requires you to think and see differently, and it’s so easy to stay in your comfort zone.
Shalmiyev: I am too exhausted to care anymore who thinks I am a real writer or not. Endurance: That’s what it is. Endure hatred and slights and people telling you to take it easy and putting you down and assuming crazy things about you. Endure them not liking you or your style, or your feminism or whatever.
Hayasaki: I think we go into our first book thinking getting it published will be a moment that defines us. After your first book, you realize it’s not like that. My book became a part of my life. But my life is made up of very different roles, identities, and intersecting stories. I am a writer. But that is not all I am. I have friends and neighbors who connect with me around our kids and interests, and some of them have no idea that I have written a book. My husband and I do not sit around on the weekends and discuss my writing career. He is not a writer, and while he is absolutely my biggest supporter, I have writing groups that I belong to for that. Untangling these identities has been essential to my survival as a writer. If I am criticized or rejected, I can take a step back and separate it from who I am.
I think we go into our first book thinking getting it published will be a moment that defines us. After your first book, you realize it’s not like that. My book became a part of my life. But my life is made up of very different roles, identities, and intersecting stories. I am a writer. But that is not all I am –Erika Hayasaki
Copaken: It unfortunately made me more of a timid writer for a while. Writing Shutterbabe was the most liberating act of writing I’d ever done. I’ll never be that free again, writing without truly understanding that every single sentence can and will be taken out of context and beaten to a pulp. But having my first book become a bestseller out of the gate also allowed me the freedom to say fuck off to naysayers who said: “But is writing really a career?” “When are you going to get a real job?” “How nice to have a hobby!” “Isn’t it just kind of really narcissistic to sit in a room all day writing your thoughts?” “I mean, I wouldn’t want to put myself out there that way, but you do you …” “How do your kids handle it?” I wear the banner of writer proudly, without apology. I understand that those kind of comments all of us who are writers receive say much more about the person commenting than about our work.
At the same time, having a book in their hands makes readers feel they know you, so they reach out through the ether to ask you to give them advice or read their manuscripts, and in that sense, you have to have boundaries. I love the letter from a reader/stranger who wants nothing more of me than to say thank you for what I’ve written. I love helping out young writers I know or have met, or friends of mine who want to write a book but have never done so, to get started. I get frustrated by the letters from readers who are total strangers to me asking me to coffee, or to read their work, or to blurb their books, or to “pick your brain for an hour or so.” I understand them, for sure, and I certainly get the impetus, but it feels bad, as a writer, to not have time to respond to everyone or to simply respond, “No, sorry, I don’t have time.” There are only 24 hours in a day. And I have three other jobs so I can get my writing done.
Hagberg Fisher: I had to become a better writer to write this book — and I spent years developing my skills in workshops, with editors, as a magazine writer, etc. I was very aware while writing the book of how much I’d learned and how it really had taken me 15 years of writing professionally to be able to write this book. I’ve always thought that I was a writer, so my identity feels pretty much the same. Although it’s validating (see above) to be able to tell people that my book is just in their local bookstore!
Biondolillo: My book is coming out on a small press and I have had to act as my own publicist and marketing team lead (I have been fortunate in the extreme in that my partner is a very good designer, and so he has helped a lot with promo materials).
At first, I was frustrated about how much I couldn’t possibly get done on my own, especially while working a day job that isn’t at all related to creative writing, but the more I heard from folks who were unhappy with their covers or their tour support or who might review their book in some major outlet, the happier I was that I had so much control over the process. I fell more in love with my book each time I read from it and became more interested in who could find something useful in the essays rather than what the book could bring me. Don’t get me wrong, it would be nice to have a publicist! I’m just not sure I’d trade my autonomy for one.
Noble: It’s funny — I had heard that publishing a book both changes everything and changes nothing. But I recently told a writer friend that going on tour has really helped my anxieties about being on the academic job market. I’m really enjoying being the author of Be with Me Always, I said — meaning that I wasn’t always and only a candidate up for evaluation; I was also an author who people wanted to read, and listen to, and ask questions of, and be taught by. This has been wonderfully affirming.
Hansman: I had to be less precious about it and slog through some dark, uninspired parts, but I think that’s actually helped me as a writer and forced me to just put words down on the page, which, in the least romantic of days, is what it’s actually about. And I think it actually helped underscore my identity, or my ability to feel confident calling myself a writer. There’s something externally validating about being able to say that a publishing company has faith in your words. Internally, being able to dig into a long-term project and have time and space and words to be obsessed with something changed the way I write, too. I think the best part of the process was getting to be so embedded in something that sentences and paragraph structure were showing up in my brain at random times.
8. What will you do differently the second time around?
Shalmiyev: I will hire an independent proofreader. I am going to preface this by saying that my gratitude to my publisher, editor, production team, typesetting team, proofreader, and every other person who had to read the book is so enormous that I would give them anything, all my favorite ‘’90s riot grrrl dresses and carry babies for them. And yet. I will never ever live down the errors that made it to the final copy. I think about it at least once a day. They are intrusive thoughts. When I was doing the audiobook version of Mother Winter, I was dying dying dying at the typos and we had gone to print already. But I didn’t notice the one that a less-than-gracious reviewer would shoot me in the head for. The passage is where I talk about trauma and how a hunted animal never stops feeling hunted. English is my second language and for some reason in my mind, ivory is akin to teeth and horns. I knew that poachers kill rhinos for horns because the powder made from them is believed to make flaccid dudes more horny. So brutal and such a great anecdote about misogyny and injustice. I made the mistake of saying that a rhino is hunted for her ivory. Everyone at my publishing house who read the drafts and then galleys and then final, who happened to be native English speakers, and who are trained to look for obvious flaws, didn’t catch that one. I made the mistake and was blind to it: A horn can look like a tusk, like ivory, and it isn’t, but it just came out of me that way. It is not my team’s fault. My point about an animal never recovering from persecution was the point, but it cost me dearly. It cost me dearly because the reviewer was some safari colonialist oppressor who just wrote a memoir about the “lessons she learned” from her white colonialist oppressor dad. Again, the irony of her “checking” me so mercilessly and pointlessly in the New York Times while she has [such] privilege is astounding.
I am maxing out more cards and hitting someone else to proofread and not have these feelings projected onto my in-house family.
Copaken: I’m working on my seventh book, a memoir called Ladyparts for Random House, and I have not yet cracked the code on how to do this whole publishing thing properly, so when I figure it out, I’ll let you know. I guess the one thing I will say is this: It’s not about publication, it’s about the daily act of placing your butt in a chair and putting words to paper. It’s about connecting with readers. That’s it. Everything else is sales and window dressing.
Biondolillo: My calendar will be better organized and I’ll lobby for a release date just before AWP (instead of just after — it was such a bummer not to have copies for Portland). I’ll also make sure I have a trusted friend who can help handle some admin tasks.
Matthewson: With the career diary, the premise of the book was already set by the publisher. On this second round, I’m pursuing publishing differently — I’m writing the essays first, then approaching publication. Hopefully, this will ensure that the pieces remain true to the way I intended them, despite any necessary edits. I’m also pursuing agency representation, to help navigate publishing houses and contracts. With my first book, I was just happy to be published. With the second book, I’m looking down the road and aiming for greater audience outreach and a long-term publishing relationship with multiple books over the next decade.
Hansman: I would set aside money for fact checking/editing/other parts of the process. I was surprised at how much of that fell on my shoulders. And I wouldn’t be scared about being perceived as pushy or a try-hard or annoying.
9. Other thoughts/anecdotes/experiences to share?
Warner: A lot of my first book is confronting my own internalized sexism and trying to engage with that in an honest, funny way. I continue to do that work, and I encourage all of my fellow white, cis, hetero women to work on that as well as our racism and homophobia. I think it’s vital to be aware of my privilege and particularly to be aware of my white privilege in the publishing industry. I don’t need to take up all the space in these conversations around sexism and barriers to entry. I am a fat woman and do experience a lot of fatphobia, so I do take a lot of pleasure in subverting spaces traditionally reserved for conventionally coveted bodies (like magazine covers, doing TV, and making sure that my author photo shows my fat face and was included on the flap of my second book). I take pleasure in that because there’s still so little positive fat representation in media.
Shalmiyev: It is a dark and depressing business and I don’t know any other way out of it because all I want to do is write books of all kinds. I want to stop feeling like I am fucking up all the time. I want to just talk about the work and my feminist values and learn from others and have community. I am bad at this. I say too much. I seem ungrateful because I tell the truth. There doesn’t yet seem to be a space for me to be myself and not feel scared. If you want to be a part of a small and curated catalogue at an indie, you will have to know people. Some agents don’t want to waste time on such low advances and they don’t take cold pitches. It is a pickle in a jar in the locked cabinet.
Copaken: Because I have several day jobs, I do all of my writing from 5 a.m. until 7 a.m., when I have to wake up my youngest and get him off to school, then from 8:30 a.m. or so until noon, when California wakes up, and I’m on duty for my other jobs. It can be done, but it takes intense discipline and a good coffee machine and letting yourself off the hook to sleep in now and then, as well as every Saturday. (I’m a Jew. It’s my own form of Shabbat, I guess, to give myself Saturday mornings off from writing, although I do break that rule, too, so I guess set your own rules and then learn how and when to break them.)
Hagberg Fisher: One of the things I’m most grateful for is that one of my oldest friends, Adam Nemett, published his novel, We Can Save Us All, a few months before my book came out. We got to be real talk book pals — and go through the extraordinary experience together. He sent me the best email the night before pub day, giving me hype and also gentle hand-on-shoulder warnings about how the hype can feel — and reminding me that the attention does fade. I definitely recommend having a friend like that that you can talk to about all the weird confusing behind-the-scenes thoughts and feelings that might not necessarily feel “on brand” for the book — I know I can text him anything, and he’ll remind me that I’m not alone in feeling like that, and also that it’s pretty extremely cool that I got to achieve my childhood dream — no matter what happens.
Biondolillo: I thought the wrong things would be hard. Writing to ask for a blurb was embarrassing, but ultimately composing a love letter to a favorite writer is kind of fun — what was tough was sending several reminders. I had to fight every instinct in my imposter lizard brain that shrieked, “If they liked it, they’d have responded by now!” It’s not true. Everyone is just really busy, especially sought-after blurbers. And to expand on that, in general reaching out (to bookstores, reviewers, etc.) wasn’t tough, especially not once a writer friend shared a couple of templates, but getting folks to respond, confirm, commit, and once they did, to coordinate all the related tasks/events — that was difficult.
In one of my past careers, I was a project manager on multimillion dollar software implementation projects. Had I appreciated the complexity of what all goes into launching a book from the author side, I would have brought more of those skills to bear earlier. As it was, I was often overwhelmed, distraught, and stressed out in the weeks leading up to my launch.
Hansman: It’s been really interesting to see how much more seriously some people take books than other kinds of writing. I’ve seen more feedback from strangers on this, which makes me feel excited about the value and the longevity of books.
Alford Pursell: My ideas about this crazy process of putting a new book out there in the world spring from an interview I recently read with Percival Everett: “If the reader wants to get something out of the book, that’s fantastic. But, looking to a writer to understand the world, thinking I have a message — I mean, I write for a living. That’s evidence that I’m mentally deficient. So, don’t listen to me. You go find art. You consume it, and you create a picture of the world to help you understand it. It’s not about me as an artist telling anybody anything. It’s just up to me to make the world, to create the world and place as accurately as I can.”
Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear, Anxiety, and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood, forthcoming from Pantheon in 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at http://www.sarahmenkedick.com.