15 years ago, I became an accidental novelist. I’d been the world’s happiest editor-in-chief of the kind of giant magazine women used to throw into shopping carts along with the Cool Whip—until I was replaced by a brash celebrity and liberated into unemployment. While I job-hunted, turning down positions in geographically undesirable cities and turning up my nose at situations that involved Kardashian-worship, I joined a writing workshop to amuse myself. Slowly, I fictionalized parts of my work-life into a book whose plucky protagonist was an editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine replaced by a brash celebrity.
Manuscript in hand, I approached two agents. One all but spit at my book due to its brand names, which were plentiful because the story was about a crowd who cared whether your handbag was from Prada or Target. The other agent immediately sold it in a pre-empt to an editor famous for discovering a 1956 novel called Peyton Place in the slush pile.
This publishing legend—reputed to be a glam Jackie O-type and obviously, not young—dropped dead before we met, though I did attend her standing-room-only funeral at Campbell’s, Manhattan’s poshest mortuary, where she was eulogized by Bob Gottlieb, a publishing prince who’d been the editor-in-chief of Knopf, Simon & Schuster, and The New Yorker. My orphaned book was handed over to a sweet, insecure editor who’d just joined the company. It went on to receive decent reviews in both The New York Times and its Sunday Book Review. Social media being embryonic, all I was expected to do to promote my debut was draw up a guest list for a luncheon at the Museum of Modern Art’s chic new restaurant and be on time when a limo delivered me to events.
What did I learn from this experience? Remarkably little. Did I find another magazine job? No.
As the internet grew, magazine staffs shrank until many disappeared. I began to hear about “content,” which was similar to magazine articles I used to edit minus the deep research and fact-checking. Editors I respected started turning themselves into variations of the flacks whose press releases they used to toss. Sometimes the positions former colleagues moved on to had titles I couldn’t understand. Is a Pipeline Ninja a managing editor in disguise? Is a Dream Alchemist’s primary responsibility to develop ideas? Much as I’d loved working on magazines, I gave up the hunt and decided I may as well continue to try and write books. Since then, I’ve published five more novels and a newsy reflection called Slouching Toward Adulthood, a title bestowed by a Joan Didion-loving editor.
I still don’t feel I understand book publishing all that well. That might be because its rules and expectations are always evolving. Still, I’ve learned a thing or two that I wish someone had told me years ago.
1. After you’ve read your book out loud and made hundreds of meticulous corrections, you will receive an “ARC” (advanced reader’s copy) and notice that the sentence in the middle of the first paragraph on p. 2 makes absolutely no sense.
2. Every year authors will start earlier to promote their books, a talent that has little in common with writing.
3. You will become embarrassed about promoting your book long before your pub date. Get over it.
4. As the relentless drumbeat of self-promotion proceeds, no matter how many times you tweet or post on Instagram and Facebook, you may feel it will never be enough. Trust me, it’s probably more than enough.
5. Other writers’ tweets will be much wittier than yours and receive four times the “likes.”
6. In your acknowledgment, you will forget to thank your husband.
7. After your book is published, it might be reviewed. This may hurt. Readers will feel obligated to award you one star on Amazon, explaining that “I will donate my book to the library so nobody else has to actually pay for this boring, nasty novel. Don't be looking for a movie starring Meryl Streep for this one.”
8. Your book may not be reviewed at all. This is worse.
9. When you read the final version of your book, if you had a dollar for each time you used the word “astonishing” you could buy a time share in Zihuantanejo and you will.
10. In Zihuantanejo you will write what you are convinced is your best work. It will not sell because its protagonist is female and older than 35, as are you.
11. Your historical novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald will reach #1 in Amazon’s highly competitive Scottish Lit category.
12. You will gradually meet, like, and befriend other writers. This will make you realize there is a true author community; avid readers often buy in bulk and can enjoy your book and my book. The magazine industry was different, with only one job tottering on the top of each masthead being chased by a small cadre of ambitious, over-qualified editors. Until we all became unemployed and nostalgic, the magazine community, if there was one, wasn’t half as friendly.
13. Depression will envelop you when you fail to intuitively grasp whatever new digital gizmo everyone is using but you, but you won’t care, because you spot an airline passenger reading your new book.
14. You send your agent 100 pages of a work-in-progress and hold your breath, praying she likes it.
15. Publishing a book will never get old, ever.