Like most writers, I spent a lot of time wondering how it would feel to hold my first book in my hands. I imagined I’d caress the cover gently, open the book carefully to inhale my pages. Maybe a few tears would come, but they’d be happy tears. As my book crept closer and closer to its publication, I began anticipating the inevitable moment with increased intensity—I imagined I’d take pictures, then call my mother. I’d hold up my work—seven years, 30-plus revisions, and 108,352 words—while my husband marveled.
In the end, he did not see the box of advanced review copies—ARCs—in our driveway as he was getting home from work the night they arrived, and he drove over them with his car. The books were hardly damaged, just a few scuffs to the box, a couple dinged covers—it was more that the long-imagined moment was marred and thus made real. The car-running-over-my-books is an apt metaphor for my expectations about getting published: no moment, however awaited, looked the way I’d thought.
The hardest part about getting my book made wasn’t writing or revising or cutting—it was actually selling the thing. They don’t tell you this in college, or at the community writers’ workshop, or even in your MFA program. My grad-school friends and I already knew how lonely writing could be, but I wasn’t prepared for how wretched querying made me feel—how simultaneously tedious, exhausting, and demeaning the whole process became.
For several years, my book’s failure was my biggest fear. I’d easily devoted 10,000 hours to writing it, and when one agent told me to expect 30 rounds of revision to make it publishable, I cringed. In the end, of course, she’d been right. But making my own memoir was how I learned what it takes to create a book, outline to ARC, and a lot of that process involves trying to sell a perception of yourself, a certain version of your story that people will buy. The act of sending my memoir out, I discovered, is actually the process of sending yourself, time after time, to a stranger.
Usually, I never got any response at all.
The agents who did take the time to write from their Manhattan offices sometimes tapped out snippy replies—I just don’t see how I could sell this. Others were sweeter—You write beautifully….but I just don’t see how I could sell this. The kindest ones explained that although I wrote nice descriptions, my travel memoir didn’t have enough of a hook. There wasn’t much of an arc—nothing at stake, one said, and although she was trying to be constructive, the words cut deep. I’m certain that the gray hairs I have, I acquired during those desperate years—the years I tried to convince those New York agents my book mattered.
The querying process also taught me a few lessons about mercy, and I’ll always be grateful for the people “in the biz” who took the time to help me out. Through my undergraduate alumnae network, I located two agents who read my pages and wrote back lengthy, thoughtful responses. They taught me to take rejection less personally; so many agents talked like their hands were tied—they appreciated my work, maybe, but they knew the market wouldn’t. I was starting to see myself not just as a writer but as a floundering saleswoman, a flailing entrepreneur. Still, despite the heavy press of impending failure, I kept on writing, kept editing and polishing my book, tightening the focus—the version of myself I’d chosen to portray—with each revision. It occurred to me to quit, to back off or start over, but despite what the agents had said, there was actually too much at stake. All the early mornings, the late nights, the going-on-30 revisions; I just didn’t have the heart to give up on myself.
I started querying small presses that didn’t require agent referrals, and the months ticked by. I was teaching as an adjunct professor at the community college in town, and while the economy tanked and funding got withdrawn from my institution, I remembered my book—unpublished, yes, but written in full. I was more than just my job; I was a writer, however fragile the title felt.
But I was starting to lose hope. I was drinking too much wine as a way to temper the barrage of rejections cluttering my inbox, and as a result, I’d wake every morning at two or three or four and lie there, hungover and heart pounding, despairing that no one would ever love what I’d made.
“Nothing is ever anything,” my colleague explained when I bemoaned the possibility that my memoir wouldn’t get published. My colleague, an author of more than 30 (published) titles, repeated herself, looking deep into my eyes. “Kate, remember these words: Nothing is ever anything. Whatever you think you want, it never lasts. It won’t be what you think. Nothing is ever anything; it never is.”
Like every other step of the process, the good news didn’t arrive the way I’d always dreamed it would—there wasn’t any fuss, not even a letter, just an email from a man at an independent press I’d queried almost a year earlier. Took me long enough to reply, eh? But…I love this manuscript!
I read the email and started to weep. I knew next to nothing about this man, very little about his press, but his words were a key in a lock.
The next week, he sent over a contract, and a lawyer friend of mine graciously reviewed the entire thing with me over the phone. She stands out singularly in my mind as one of the ones who got it—who understood my goals, took my book seriously, and stood by me. Lots of people gently suggested that I not get my hopes up, and one friend told me searingly that she wished I’d waited for a “better press.” For weeks I wondered what that could have meant, because in the end, my book performed well, maybe as well as if one of those agents had taken a bite. Plus, it came out looking beautiful, with reviews from notable trade publications gracing the covers. My royalty checks are the sweetest money I’ve ever tasted, and I credit a quality publisher and his global distributor for those monthly payments. Anyway, this lawyer friend looked at the contract for my first book like it was Beyoncé’s contract for her first solo album; she spent hours explaining every term and clause, and then assured me, without irony or sarcasm, that she’d be there to review my next one, too.
On the day I signed the contract, I was in my mom’s kitchen in upstate New York, home for a few days’ vacation. I signed first, and then my mom, as a witness. Afterwards, we folded the heavy paper, tucked it into an envelope, and brought it down to the mailbox, where so much news, good and bad both, had gone and come before. We put the contract inside, but before we did, we both kissed the envelope for luck. Then we pulled the little door shut, listening for the old, familiar creak.
“Well,” my mom finally said, “that’s that.”
Authors must be beggars, especially at first. We voluntarily put ourselves in a position we haven’t occupied since high school, clamoring for popularity in the form of readership, agent representation, editorial approval, good reviews and glowing blurbs, promotions, giveaways, and endorsements—anything that remotely equates to sales. I used to shun social media—a time-waster, a confidence-killer—but I’ve joined Twitter and Instagram since publishing my book, and I troll those sites for followers like a kid paying for friends. I hashtag like it’s my job, because in a way, it is—this work of selling myself, this version of Kate, this particular story I’ve chosen to tell.
And when I find myself taking my social media accounts too seriously, I remind myself of my former colleague’s words: Nothing is ever anything.
Still, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. When, I shit you not, Donald J. Trump followed me on Twitter and, aghast, I blocked him as soon as I saw, my publisher teased me, mock-scolding. “You’re a writer now!” he said: Be merciless. Be brutal. Be the sales, not the person. Do whatever it takes.
When my book was finally released, the community college where I work hosted a reception in the library. I was really nervous—and really excited. It was the biggest literary event I’d ever had, and it was my first reading of my book. I dressed carefully, changing my outfit half a dozen times, and I coached my husband on what to wear, what to bring, what to say and not say. He was to be my salesman, my marketing rep, my PR.
People from all over the community came to the reading—most of whom I hadn’t ever met. Folks from payroll and the cashier’s office came over, introduced themselves, and told me how excited they were. Students from years ago stopped by to gush, and one told me she’d just been paid, so she was buying a book first thing. I wanted to give her a copy for free, but my husband shushed me. “You’re a writer now,” he muttered, something everyone seemed to realize but me.
My husband and I sold 10 books that night, and only a few to friends. When I stood to read the passage I’d selected, I looked out at the cluster of faces and felt an acute sense of gratitude. I saw my husband in the back, sitting tall. A few faculty members from the English department had shown up, a couple old friends from the community, but it was all the faces I didn’t know that left me breathless. Here they were, sitting before me, waiting to see what I had made. Tonight, the plain old library was transformed, not by decorations or music or lights but by me. I was the one who was different now; just like that, the audience made me an author, and I held my book in my hands.
After that, I received reviews from several national literary organizations, which helped us to sell hundreds of copies before the book even officially went on sale—and which will, my publisher assures me, help us to sell copies forever. I travelled to Washington D.C. for a lavish party where, along with four other authors, I proudly launched my first book. A professional photographer took my picture, and people I’d never met clapped me on the back, shook my hand, and bought my book. A few thousand copies sold in the months following the book’s release, and if an astronaut in the International Space Station wishes to download a copy, she can. I have more credibility in the publishing world now, and I’m hoping this will equate, at some point, to more clout at my college teaching post.
My colleague wasn’t exactly right—some things are actually something in the end. I will always treasure the review blurbs my publisher helped me to solicit from grad school professors, writer friends, and even famous strangers I dared myself to query. I love when someone reads my words and sees me anew—as a resource, perhaps. And it’s thrilling to sense little shots of fame—mentions from high-profile writers, shout-outs from friends on social media, and a copy of my book on display in the local library.
With lots of things, it’s true: Nothing is ever anything. For me, those nothings are the Twitter and Instagram accounts, the towering stack of query letters, and those despairing, wine-drenched nights. Little changed at work—my students remained unfamiliar with my writer self, and I suspect most of my colleagues won’t ever read the book.
But I can still remember the February night my dad finished his review copy. “It’s beautiful!” he declared unabashed—praise I can still feel in a sensory way. Last week, he told me he’s reading the book a second time, and I like to picture him at the kitchen table at home, turning the pages, reading my words. My folks drove 12 hours to get to my D.C. launch, and I’ll never forget seeing them enter the party, my dad first, dressed in nice slacks and a suit jacket, his hair combed back.
In the end, it all returns to where it began.
The book event in my hometown was a roadside signing outside the main bookstore. There was no reading, no fanfare, just a table and a stack of books and a chair.
From that store, I made my first book purchase using birthday money from my grandmother. For decades, I purchased Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, wedding gifts, and baby gifts from there. I’ve walked those narrow aisles so many times, and now I was sitting outside, signing my book. My parents came, too. They didn’t sit by me, didn’t interfere as people came and went, chatting and snapping pictures. An old friend sat by my side, a woman I’ve known since I was five or six, and my parents stood a few feet away, talking with people they knew. We sold all the books. At the end of the sale, we packed up our things, folded up the chairs, and then I said goodbye to my friend, and my dad drove my mom and me home.
Image Credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.