Hitting Reset Part 2
It’s five days out from Fat Tuesday so I’m trying to get this letter out early before I disappear into the beautiful void. This morning I’m off to buy a sack of oysters for a party tonight. I am already planning on being hungover tomorrow and I know it will be worth it. I love that feeling of flipping the switch and just sinking into the Mardi Gras moment. After I send out this letter, consider the switch flipped.
I love to take a walk through the neighborhood this time of year
But before I disappear, I wanted to continue the discussion about the various ways my books have been rejected by an editor over the span of my writing career. (You can read part one here.) I’m writing on this topic because I think it will be helpful to hear that no matter where you are in your career, you can still get rejected at any moment…but also you can bounce back, too.
I’ll tell you a story today about being outright rejected by a publisher, forcing me to move on entirely to a new editor and house. This has actually happened to me twice, if you can believe it. (I’m sure you can.)
This situation was with my second book, The Kept Man. I had published my first book, Instant Love, at a Crown imprint, with a brilliant young editor named Sally Kim, who is now Publisher at Putnam. Sally had done a beautiful job of publishing my book, which was a linked short story collection. I remember her really respecting my voice, telling me she didn’t want to change that part of my writing. My recollection was that she focused her energy on strengthening the links between the stories, and, in general, bigger picture things. I was lucky to have an editor who really encouraged me to be myself, so I didn’t have to worry about fitting in any other box but my own. It was a great experience my first time out, and I learned a lot from being edited by her.
When I went to her with my second book on submission, she passed on it. I was sad that I wouldn’t get to work with her anymore, especially because I liked her so much as a person. But the sense that I had was that there was nowhere for me to go within that house. My book had had a totally respectable launch, made some good lists, got a few reviews, though not in the NYTBR or the Washington Post, for example. I recall it being on the Oprah summer reading list. But it wasn’t like it sold a million copies (I think maybe it has sold less than 10k copies overall in the last 16 years) and I didn’t win any awards. I did fine, not great. So my publisher didn’t feel like they absolutely had to keep me.
I could have just disappeared after that. I remember how it stung, to be deemed easily disposable, even though at the time Sally assured me it wasn’t me…it was them. Still, I felt freaked out that I would have to start all over again. A reset on my career.
I asked Sally about it last week, and she gave me a characteristically forthright but positive response:
“I think a fair representation of why we didn’t continue with the new book was that it was a bit more literary than what our imprint was doing at the time, and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to support it in the way that it needed. And I knew it was a book that could launch you to a new level...and honestly, even though I wanted to work with you forever, I didn’t want to stand in the way of you getting that chance. I think (I hope?) publishers are more self-aware in this way now...but back then, it was a bigger deal (and heartbreak). I was heartbroken to see you go, but I knew you had to.”
Sally truly is the nicest person.
I ended up selling the second book to Riverhead after that, which was then a house certainly skewing much more literary-commercial than that first imprint I was with. So it’s true — they were a more appropriate house for me.
It can be a real struggle to find the right home for an author. Even if you love the editor, and the editor loves you. I’ve been both released from publishers, and I’ve left to follow an editor to their new house. In total I’ve been with five publishers: Crown, Riverhead, Grand Central, HMH (RIP), Ecco, and next January, with the 1000 Words book, I’ll have a sixth: Simon Element. Nine books with six publishers, I’m exhausted just thinking about it!
The fact that I’ve bounced around so much is one reason why I focus like I do on the idea of community and the actual pleasures of writing itself. That’s what keeps me steady. Because the business side of it is just so volatile.
When I think about the long term of my career it’s not in terms of who is publishing me, but instead in terms of how I’m spending my time, making sure I’m being forward-thinking and positive in all ways. I focus on maintaining my voice and figuring out the kinds of stories I think are important and natural for me to tell. And I try to use social media not just to present and promote my work in a way that’s entertaining and useful and positive but as a way to develop a robust community.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not all on my own — I’ve had the same wonderful editor for five books now. And I am hopeful I can stay with my current publisher for a long, long time. I think they’re cool as hell. But as a writer I will always have to look out for myself more than anyone else will.
That first experience with rejection really did prime me for the future. How a yes can turn into a no only to turn into a yes from a different publisher. (And then turn into a no again, two books later, which is when Riverhead dropped me for my fourth book!) There is no fairy tale ending for most authors. We just hope we can continue to put our stories out there. I feel fortunate I will have my 9th and 10th book come out next year. But also, I know it’s not just luck — it’s because of the work I have done to get myself there. Your career is dependent on actually sitting down and writing and staying focused. Through every emotion and frustration I have had along they way — and they were myriad — I never stopped writing.
Recently it’s been a rough few months in the publishing and media world. (I was thrilled to see the new Harper Collins contract has been ratified, congratulations to the union!) But we should never get so distracted by the ups and downs of the publishing world that it impacts our writing itself. That should be for us. That’s ours. And no one can take that away from us.
Stay steady, friends.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to Trans Lifeline.