Goodbye publishing, it's been impressively miserable
“Two nights later in Miami at our corporate conference, a breakthrough. Breakdown? Breakthrough. It was the oddest, most unexpected thing. I began writing what they call a Mission Statement — a suggestion for the future. Hey, I'll be the first to admit it. What I was writing was somewhat ‘touchy feely.’ I didn't care. I had lost the ability to bullshit.”
— That’s right, I’m quoting Jerry Maguire
Two of the loneliest, most alone times in my life have been when I’ve launched books. Of course this is not what people — especially writers who have GET A BOOK DEAL on their vision board or whatever — want to hear.
Way before then, back when I was a teenager, I made a decision that would prove foundational to my life. I didn’t want there to be a gap between what I said or how I behaved and who I really was. This was probably inspired by the type of girl who was sickly sweet to my face then an absolute cunt behind my back. It’s interesting for me to realize now that that decision not only informed my behavior but also underpins the premise of each of my books — being open and honest about experiences that most people find difficult to discuss without drowning them in caveats. I actually had a realization during one of my book events: maybe I don’t understand what taboos are. Anyway, [WHITESNAKE VOICE]: here I go again. What feels the most dishonest to me currently is the pretending I’ve had to do around what publishing and promoting a book is like, at least what it feels like for me.
One thing I’ve noticed over time, as a woman in general and now as both a mother and a writer, is we’re allowed two expressible emotions: Happiness and gratitude, hashtags implied. Of course in the DMs you trade with other authors everyone screeches and wallows over how much publishing fucking sucks. How it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in your life. How you’ll be stress shitting until your book is published and forgotten which, you know, doesn’t take all that long actually. If you don’t keep those type of emotions in DMs where they belong, you will be met with immediate and visceral blowback. Because when you’ve chosen to do something on purpose you aren’t allowed to have complicated feelings about it I guess. And if you’re having a hard time with that thing you’ve chosen to do, well, it certainly couldn’t have anything to do with the system, could it? Live, laugh, love, sweetheart. Meditate and be kind, for everyone is going through something.
NARRATOR: Especially you, bitch.
It’s been more than a month since my book came out. I gave myself some time to calm down, to process what happened and how I felt about it. To pump the brakes on my wild thrashing and dark thoughts. At one point I realized I had spent days feeling like a cornered animal, breathing shallowly and rapidly. After I launched my first book and returned from my (real) book tour (that I paid for), I ended up sick in bed for almost three weeks. This time has been similar except in all the ways it was even worse. Because I expected more, got less, then didn’t want any of it at all. The highs weren’t highs, they were just terrifying. It’s annihilating to put a book into the world, especially when it’s about your life. Although what authors who write fiction — a story they have made up — could possibly be worried about I cannot begin to fathom.
I’m aware that writing about my life combined with the need to feel brutally honest about it is partly what has left me in that alone/lonely place. It’s hard to celebrate with the people you share a home with when those are the people you’re writing about. Even when they’re excited for you and supportive of you, you still feel this nagging sense of should I have done this at all? And then you go ahead and do it a second time anyway, like an absolute ding dong.
The truth is, I’ve been battling selfishness my entire life. And writing a book is selfish. Most authors are selfish people on some (or literally all) levels. An author who writes about their life, and the people in it, are the most selfish of all. But generally speaking, no matter what or who you’re writing about, you cannot write a book in a relatively short period of time without sacrificing something, someone, or yourself in the process.
I have sacrificed 2-1/2 years of my family’s life to this book. I have been checked out, my attention fully elsewhere. Not once did anyone complain or push back. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about myself over the course of writing this particular book, it’s that waiting for other people to check me is not what my marriage, my separation, or my family have ever been about. I’ve always been able to do what I want, when I want, for whatever reasons I want and sometimes I’ve had to hit the wall going a hundred to stop and question what I’m doing. And more importantly, why.
Two things can be true at the same time:
I am incredibly proud of this book
I wish this book didn’t exist
That last one is different than regretting writing it. I don’t regret writing it at all. The process of writing this book completely transformed how I thought and think about my marriage and myself. I would’ve never gotten to this point in my life, genuinely feeling happy and at home in my life again, without writing it. But I’m also not sure it was worth it. I’m not sure it was worth being so open about my life. I’m not sure it was worth feeling apart from my family for so long in order to write it. I’m not sure it was worth the anxiety I experienced in writing about those close to me, the sheer years it shaved off of my life in anticipation of how the book would be received by them, and ultimately to do all that and then feel the utter futility of publishing a book during a pandemic, a book that isn’t framed up pre-pub to be a winner, then to watch it basically sink into the sea before it’s even come out. I don’t know what the point was, ultimately, and that’s a sad way to feel after so much work, after so much of my life was spent on it.
The conclusion I’ve finally come to during the process of promoting this book is that I love writing, I have always loved writing, but I hate publishing. As an industry, it’s one of the most fucked industries I’ve ever had to deal with and … I work in advertising. I mean at least advertising has rules that even a monkey with a pencil can understand. At least people in advertising know they’re working in a business, whoring products, and not pretending they’re making capital-A-Art when in reality a lot of what’s being made are product extensions.
Publishing is an industry that’s a black box, making no sense and offering little to no guidance. It asks people to create a product then cuts them loose to pRoMoTe tHaT pRoDuCt with no scope of work (Also, hi, unpaid. The advance is for writing the actual book. Add a fucking scope of work to contracts if you want authors to do PR, marketing, and influencing too. I know what my day rate is for that.) and zero insight into the strategy, targeting, or budget. I would never accept a freelance job that had this as the brief.
It pushes you to bleed a little bit more for the public knowing all the while you’re the one who will be dressing those wounds alone. You will never make sense of it no matter how many books and newsletters about publishing you buy or subscribe to, no matter what you read. It will make you feel incredibly stupid, full stop. You know you are smart. Are you the smartest person? No. But are you a complete idiot? Also no. You will feel like the world has 14 contractual days to care about your book because it does. I’ve had to explain to friends that the more you think about a book like a movie — 2 weeks for people to care then it disappears — the more you’ll understand how it feels to work on something for years just to watch it pop for a minute (if you’re lucky to even get that) then vanish. Friends will assume that at least you got paid a ton of money and now you obviously write books for a living and you will laugh. Oh will you laugh!! Then some writers will be mad that you got paid at all and you’ll once again be drawn back to the rough parallels between publishing and motherhood, that you should selflessly be doing this all for love. What did you expect? You should be happy to get anything for yourself at all.
You will transparently see all the attention paid to other books yet everyone in publishing is like SELF-CARE, BABY, DON’T GET MAD!!! Oh my god fuckkkkkkk you. You will understand that comparison is the thief of joy but so is gaslighting. Publishing is designed to make authors feel literally insane and then tries to make you feel bad about having gone literally insane. An absolutely flawless system, no notes.
As the cherry on top, as all of this is happening, and your brain is trying to eat itself alive, you will get texts from friends from high school and former co-workers and other parents at your kids’ school that congratulate you on how much you’re killing it and what is it like to have a book that’s a best seller (!! I have no idea !!) and I cannot describe the shattering dissonance between these two experiences. To feel so alone and so fucked and so unable to thrash around negatively and publicly about it all (share the cover! repost the blue-checked-author’s-Insta-story-about-your-book! retweet the praise! link to the podcast!) while everyone around you thinks this is the best moment of your entire life because obviously. How can it not be? There’s no elegant way to tell people that you’re currently very busy feeling like your entire self-concept is being run across a cheese grater. Publicly. And perhaps maybe even pubic-ly.
It would be easy to read this as sour grapes. It would be the easiest thing in the world to read this and think this is simply sour grapes for publishing an unsuccessful book. Well, I’ll have you know I’ve published two unsuccessful books. But what even is success in publishing? Because no one can define that for you either! The vast, vast, majority, almost all books, don’t earn out their advance! How does this industry work! I literally do not know!! Publishing sets up authors — the most Looney Tunes people on the entire planet — to harvest sour grapes every chance they get, the industry’s lowest-hanging fruit and yes, honey, it is always in season.
Did I think this book would be bigger than my first? Would do better? Yes. But here’s the thing — as soon as this book started to gain even the slightest bit of traction, did I wish the book would disappear forever? Also yes. I went from feeling like I had fed 2-1/2 years of work directly into a wood chipper to wishing the wood chipper would work faster. I went from feeling that I wanted this book to get all the attention to not wanting it to get any attention at all, ever. Because, as anyone who goes viral knows, you never just get the good attention. You get the crazy attention and the hate attention and the weird attention. I wanted it to be a success without it making a peep. I wanted both everyone and absolutely no one to read it.
The thing is nothing bad happened. You might be reading this and thinking oh shit something must’ve happened, something must’ve gone off the rails. The other shoe dropped, her family hates her. I’m here to tell you not a single bad thing happened, that’s the absolute kicker. Not personally, not professionally. No one flipped out. I actually had the best belated birthday of my life when I returned from New York. I didn’t read comments. I don’t read (most) reviews. I have a thick skin and am extraordinarily resilient about this sort of shit to be honest. I’ve learned the guardrails I need to put up to protect myself from unhealthy spirals. I poured an enormous amount of effort, discipline, and cash into taking care of myself in the lead-up to my book coming out. And I still had one of the worst mental collapses of my life. The last time I so fully dissolved mentally, felt so adrift and lost, felt the walls closing in on me so acutely, was in the month leading up to telling my kids about the divorce. So, in that sense at least, this experience has been a fitting bookend.
All I know is that I spent three days in a hotel room, largely catatonic, unable to function beyond shuffling to the lobby for coffee and ordering room service, blankly staring out at the city splayed out in front of me, sleeping in a bathrobe with the hood pulled over my head, needing a friend to walk me back to my hotel after my book event, and having one crystal clear thought to take away from it all — I never want to feel like this again.
Five weeks later I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time, years really, and I still feel as clear-eyed and certain about the decisions I’ve made about my future as I did in that hotel room when I was losing my goddamn mind. I had always planned on taking the rest of this year off from work. For once in my life I had actually saved enough money to be able to make that happen. But originally I had planned to spend that time working on another book. I will … not be doing that. I don’t know that I’ll ever write another book again. I do know that I only have 2-1/2 years left with my kids in this house (actually less than that with my oldest). And I just lost 2-1/2 years to a book. A fucking book. It’s not worth it to set everything aside for a book again, especially given everything it seems to take from me each time.
I’m leaving publishing behind, at least for now, maybe forever. I don’t know. And maybe this newsletter will seal the deal for me on that being a choice that I can make for myself, who knows. I no longer care.
I do want to leave on a note of my two allowed emotions, though. Happiness. Gratitude. I think something that’s been easy to lose sight of is how profoundly positive the reader responses have been to this book. My gut in the days before it came out was that this book would find its readers eventually, and that is certainly happening. Given the topic and the state of culture/the internet generally, it’s surprising to me that I haven’t received a single negative message about the book, not one. In fact, I’ve received lengthy positive and vulnerable messages from readers. It’s easy to forget about readers in this whole mix. It’s easy to forget that I wrote the book I wished I could’ve read years ago. It’s funny how real readers seem to get lost in the process of promoting a book. Funny. Ha. Ha.
I also don’t want this newsletter to be read as an attack on the teams and the people within publishing who put so much time, effort, and heart into my books. That would be unfair and utterly misguided. Because it isn’t about them, it’s about my own personal choices crossbred with a fuck show of an industry crossbred with the current cultural and media landscape. It’s about the absence of outlets for reviewing and highlighting books and the unfair transfer of a book’s success to authors which is a cop out and an absolute joke of a strategy. It’s about how authors feel like to get a leg up they have to spend thousands of their own dollars on their own publicist and I swear to fucking God [*presses fingertips between eyebrows*]. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who worked on my books and I’ve especially appreciated the guidance and empathy, in particular, of both of my editors as I navigated the process as a newbie then an oldie and now as an absolute lunatic who’s setting the outbound bridge on fire as she crosses it.
I miss just being a reader. I miss thinking that publishing a book would change my life in only the good ways. I feel like I once again have to say “it’s a privilege to publish a book” and of course it is. The entire writing industrial complex, all those workshops and MFAs and online courses that encourage writers toward this Ultimate Goal perpetuate this message. Guess what, motherhood is a privilege too. But that doesn’t mean either one of these things isn’t designed, at times, to make you fail, feel crazy, and imply you should shut the fuck up about the hard parts. And to make you feel like if you had just done some things differently maybe you would’ve had a different, better experience. That it was all you this whole time. Never the system. Nope, just you.
In the past seven years I’ve been writing and working (as pretty much every author has to) almost constantly. I’ve been building my goddamn platform [*jerkoff motion*]. I’ve been publishing and connecting and learning and oh my god I am so sick of it all. Once I made the decision to not start on another book and to just disappear from publishing in general, I’ve been unsubscribing from everything. I canceled my subscription to Publishers Marketplace and I’ve never felt so free. If I never have to read about another author’s Significant or Very Nice Deal again it’ll be too soon. Publishing can’t even use normal transparent phrasing! Why! I’ve deleted every social media app from my phone and will soon be deactivating or logging out of all of my accounts. That step will be temporary, of course, I will be back. But it’s dawned on me that I haven’t taken a single substantial break from social media in 12 years. Not great! I need to take a break from all the ways the world keeps showing me everything I don’t have, everything it keeps training me to want, goals and awards and lists I didn’t even know existed 8 years ago. And I need to stop doing the same thing to other people, to other writers, who don’t know or see everything ugly and hard and scary beneath that perfectly filtered surface.
I will keep writing, because that’s what I like to do. But mostly I’m going to try to reorient myself toward real life and not some imagined future life that I keep hoping and working toward making happen. I have a real life, right here. It’s been here all along. I dipped my toe back into it a few weeks ago, when my kids and I took a spontaneous 32-hour trip to Maine. That’s where most of the photos in this newsletter are from. Off-season by the ocean in New England is about the best place to feel real life again. Because you will never get what you want and you will be ok with it. And off-season by the ocean in New England during an ongoing pandemic will double it all down.
I woke up before the sun and snuck out to walk the beach with my coffee. I noticed that the only people on the beach at that hour were women, alone or with a dog, staring out into the ocean silently. Unmoving. I smirked at the realization, thinking yeah that tracks. I had only been walking for maybe 45 minutes and one simple thought — you need a new place — popped into my head. I knew this meant not a new physical place at home, but a new place to visit and return to. And a new place to center myself emotionally. Not around a book. Not around my own pie-in-the-sky pursuits. I just need to work. And to make money. And to forget about the second career I’ve had for six years, two of those years during a pandemic for God’s sake.
I’ve realized that over the past couple of months it’s been one intense process of wanting things and not getting them, then getting them and not wanting them. The supply chain, attention, the supply chain, attention. We drove back from Maine and I wanted McDonald’s (it was a road trip, after all) but there was only a Burger King. I accepted the Burger King and looked forward to a vanilla shake with my fries but there would be no vanilla shake with my fries according to a piece of paper taped to the counter: NO SHAKES, NO ICE CREAM, SORRY.
I got the fries and they sucked, of course. The night before at a pizza place my kids ordered a lemonade and a milk but there was no lemonade or milk, the lady told us they’ve been trying to order lemonade for months actually but no luck. I got to have my Diet Coke though. I see on Instagram how an author had signed one thousand books, two thousand books, before her book has even come out. That’s the same number my book has sold in total, I think. A few days after that I prepped for a live TV interview and got on the Zoom early just as instructed but then I waited and waited and wondered what was going on only to find out I’d been delayed by Biden’s live address where he talked about how he’s not getting what he wanted either.
Weeks before, the day of a virtual book event, I had spent the afternoon curled into a ball, away from my phone and my laptop, wishing the world and the book away then had to get up and paint a face on. It was a book tour that largely happened in the same spot where I’ve done all my work calls for the past year. Everyone in my family had to be off wifi, I needed all the juice. Everyone had to be quiet, I needed all the silence. I had scheduled all my other interviews during the day, for the times when I thought I’d be home alone, but I actually never ended up alone. One kid was home sick. And then, oh yes, Jon got a breakthrough case of Covid four days before my book came out. Someone was always here. I was almost never anywhere.
I set up soft box studio lights and in the pre-event call I was almost in tears and so was another person on that call and then afterward I didn’t get to go back to a hotel or out for drinks with long lost friends. I didn’t even get to sit and drink my one glass of wine in my office before someone in my family FaceTimed me. I walked downstairs to make mac and cheese at 8:30 at night for my kids and me, the most pathetic late dinner. A school night. My son walked by me, saw my smokey eye makeup and said “wow you look scary” and unlike the times before when he’s said something similar and I’d zing him right back, I didn’t laugh. I stood with my head bowed at the sink, letting the pan fill up with water as my eyes started to swell with tears and I quietly replied, “It’d be great if you wouldn’t say something that hurts my feelings right now.”
If you’ve read my second book you know that I’ve been pretty mad at Maine, about my last trip there when I very much did not get what I wanted. I keep thinking that I’ve been mad at Maine for three years now. But no, it’s inexplicably only been one year. One year feels like three now. And in three years I will be the mother of two high school graduates. I don’t know how this happens, I don’t know how life happens anymore, I don’t know how the greatest things in my life can hurt so much, can take me down so hard. But they do. They do.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being a real reader.
“Of course I can’t complain, because everyone is always telling me to ‘enjoy it’. What would they know? They haven’t been here, I’ve done it all alone. Okay, it’s been a small experience in its own way, and it will all blow over in a few months or years and no one will even remember me, thank God. But still I’ve had to do it, I’ve had to get through it on my own with no one to teach me how, and it has made me loathe myself to an almost unendurable degree.”
— Yes I am really going to quote Sally Rooney in this newsletter (from BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU)
NEW FROM ME
• You are not going to believe this, especially after all that shit, but I have another book coming out LOL. THANK GOD it’s a book with like a thousand other writers! Out next spring, Embrace the Merciless Joy: The McSweeney’s Guide to Rearing Small, Medium, and Large Children will be the go-to gift for every smart and funny parent in your life! I have three pieces in this book, two previously published and one new. I am so, so, so excited for someone/literally anyone else to promote it.
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE — PUBLISHING EDITION
• “The State of the Literary Jonathans” in Vanity Fair. Ugh this is such an excellent piece and the kicker made me laugh out loud with my mouth! (These lines are not it but are also funny!) “The other way authors used to make a living was journalism. In 2021, that’s like working as an aspiring actor to subsidize your true passion, waiting tables.”
• “Kurt Vonnegut and the Shape of the Pandemic” on On The Media. This story absolutely blew my mind, not only from a craft perspective (the shape of stories) but in how it freshly framed up why we can’t seem to get a grasp on the pandemic as a plot we can predict. Just brilliant.
• “Behold, the Book Blob” in Print. Oh dear god I hate this design trend so friggin’ much. In my opinion a book cover should be a poster, a tiny billboard, transmitting to the reader some core, compelling element of your book. Blobs aren’t saying shit! Sorry! “What’s more, something is disconcerting about this ‘safe’ route disproportionately taken in service of women of color and debut authors in particular. These writers are deserving of what is so often afforded to their white and/or male literary counterparts: design that feels specific to the style, preoccupations, and general ethos of the author, a cover that wouldn’t have been created for anyone else.”
• Imagine your first publication being The Paris Review. I simply cannot! “America’s Dead Souls” is an extraordinary, devastating piece by my young pal (and former student of one of my friends because I’m old!) Molly McGhee. “At the end of her life my mother made less than $10,000 a year. Suffering from debilitating depression while caring for her aging parents, she found herself chronically unemployed, undermedicated, and overstressed. In our final phone call, as we navigated her looming eviction, she asked me, rhetorically: ‘Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?’ I didn’t have an answer for her. Or I did, but it felt obvious and stupid to say out loud. They wanted money. Everybody wants money. The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid.”
BYE BOOK, HOPE YOU FIND YOUR DAD
• FLYING FOR THANKSGIVING? You might see BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY at Hudson News in airports! If you do, I’d love it if you could snap a photo and email it to me (you can just respond to this newsletter). Or buy a copy of the book on your way to Thanksgiving and leave it on your smug in-laws’ pillow. Not a declaration of war at all!
• REVIEWS: I haven’t asked for this since the book came out because *I JUST COULD NOT WITH IT*. But! As a parting gift! If you read BYSSH and liked it please consider rating it/reviewing it on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you.
• BOOK CLUBS/FRIEND GROUPS: What I’ve learned about the hell storm of promoting this book is that I actually do enjoy TALKING about it and all the issues it brings up, i.e. having real conversations with real readers. So: I’m open to dropping in on a few book clubs (or groups of friends! I’m not a book club person myself tbh!) in December and January. If this is something you might be interested in, you can reach out to me by responding to this newsletter.
• TALKS/INTERVIEWS/PODCASTS/RECORDED EVENTS: If you’re interested in any of the book-y talks that I’ve done, you can find some of them here (scroll down past the blurbs). The recorded event with Laura Benanti is here (please note: you’ll need to hit WATCH REPLAY and register with your email to get a link to view or sign in if you registered previously!)
• WHEN I RETURN, it will be via this newsletter. If you want to hear from me again you might want to subscribe! It’s free because I don’t need the pressure.
• A-ALWAYS, B-BE, C-CLOSING, ALWAYS BE CLOSING:
Buy BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY here. Buy a SIGNED copy of BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY here (also, I’m still signing books for any VT bookstores that reach out to me). You will not find me freelancing again until January. You will not find me on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn and I refuse to learn TikTok to promote a book, fuck you. I unfortunately will be on Facebook/MeaninglessNameChange as part of my hiatus project of scraping off my children’s most precious moments, putting them into a (private) book, then deleting my account forever. In the meantime I can be found in real life by the only people I want to be found by. See you on the flippity flop.