As I prepare for my fifth book, Sex and the City and Us, to come out June 5, I’m looking back over the releases of my previous books and the lessons each has taught me. Every book brings new surprises, difficulties, and frustrations. And in my experience, there’s something about publishing that makes a lot of authors clam up about these difficulties; we all want to look like we know exactly what we’re doing and we are infinitely and effortlessly successful. There are so many gradients of success when it comes to books that it’s easy to fake your way through a major bomb with few people knowing; the only real gauge is making the bestseller lists, and that’s so huge. A book can be worthwhile without making those lists. And they’re so relative, anyway, that you can also make them with lower sales some weeks than others.
But I’m a big believer in sharing successes as well as failures in publishing so that others can learn, so that others aren’t reinventing the wheel that I fucked up.
With that, today I’m talking about my very first book, Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club. Every book is a special circumstance, but this one was a particular outlier. I was born 20 years after this kids’ show. I never really even watched it in reruns, and I was too old to have been a fan of the revival in the 1990s. This was, essentially, a work for hire. The folks at Grand Central publishing had this idea, and they were looking for a writer to execute it. They found me through word of mouth; as a staffer at Entertainment Weekly, I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars at the time, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez and such. I had always dreamed of writing a book, and this was a major publisher. Plus they were offering, astoundingly, a six-figure advance. My brand new agent—new to me, and new to solo agenting—signed me on with a relatively young editor. We were all mostly making this up as we went along. So it was pretty easy for me to, um, learn a lot of lessons here.
A few of the big ones:
- There aren’t many resources to tell you how to write a narrative nonfiction book. Believe me, I tried to find them. Writing a book is not just writing a long article. Though that might be kind-of what I ended up doing here, since it was all I knew how to do at the time.
- It’s extremely difficult to write a good book while also holding a full-time job. Particularly during a time of chronic layoffs at your job. Particularly when your job is also writing. I would write all day at Entertainment Weekly, then come home at night and write a book. And spend my weekends writing a book. And take vacations to write a book. I had no personal life. I broke up with probably a half a dozen people, at least, because of this book.
- Keep your agent in the loop on major developments with your editor. There’s a lot of lessons in this one, but if I had kept my agent informed, we may have averted several of the problems sooner. Here’s what happened: My editor made a lot of suggestions in my edits, and I dutifully implemented them. Namely, she suggested cutting large sections. My background in magazines taught me to mostly do what editors say and give the results back to them. So I did. The problem? The cuts took thousands of words from the draft and didn’t do anything to replace them. I didn’t know that coming in well below the contractual word count would be a problem; I thought I was just doing what I was supposed to. The upshot was that I had to add 10,000 words to a manuscript … in one weekend. We were pushing the deadline so much that it would knock publication back by as much as a year if we missed it. Another thing I didn’t understand until then: Publishers often want to put your book out at a certain time of year, so if you miss one window, they are likely to push your book by a whole year. Among other things, this means you don’t get your final advance payment until then. Plus, as my editor astutely and honestly said, “I don’t think either one of us wants to be talking about this book for another year.” I had a nervous breakdown, then wore the same pajamas for an entire weekend and drank a bottle of wine while coming up with two, if I do say so myself, rather clever solutions. First, I put all of the cut material together in one chapter called something like, “Life on Set.” (It turned out to be one of my favorite chapters, about basic stuff like how the Mouseketeers were instructed by a tutor in a little classroom trailer.) Then, I made a “where they are now” appendix about each of the Mouseketeers. This would heretofore be known as The Weekend of Ten Thousand Words. With hindsight, however, I realize that my agent could have stepped in at any point here to stick up for me and negotiate a rational solution. That’s what agents do! I was scared to “bother” mine, an insane idea but common for new writers who still feel lucky just to have a person called an agent.
- Support at your publisher is paramount. Unfortunately the executive whose idea the book had originally been died before it got to publication. This was sad, of course, but I didn’t even know him well enough to have been informed of his passing. The messages I was getting from the publisher just went from “everyone’s so excited, the entire sales team is getting Mouseketeer hats!” to … almost nothing. There was one lunch with a publicist, where I pitched ideas that she said were great, but we never executed any of them afterwards. Only much later did I hear why this shift had happened.
- You must assume your publisher will not plan any sort of tour or push much for publicity. It wasn’t until a month or two before publication that I realized nothing was happening. No events were planned. The publisher sent out a press release and some books, but that was it. I did one spot on NPR because the host happened to have been a Mickey Mouse Club fan. A few more nostalgic podcasts rolled in, but that was about it. In a panic, I quickly planned my own publication party in New York City at a bar. That was the extent of my “book tour.” Once I started asking around, my author friends all laughed knowingly. Of course I had to plan my own events, and, alas, bookstores need three months’ notice or more so they can have your books in stock and save a spot on their calendar. From then on, I’ve been making my own publicity and marketing plans and executing them myself. What I now know is that publishers can only put their resources fully behind a select number of titles; the rest are just gambles they’re taking. They need a sign that a book by a new author is going to get some traction before they really start pushing it.
The book ultimately bombed, dead on arrival with few events or publicity hits to give it momentum or prove to the publisher that it deserved more attention. Almost all of this came as a surprise to me; I figured the publisher knew what they were doing, starting with the idea itself. But it turns out we’re all just throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks. (An editor recently described her job to me as “like going to Vegas everyday.”) There was actually a point where my publisher decided not to put out a paperback, because hardcover had done so poorly; then they even informed me that they’d be mulching the remaindered hardcovers to make room in their warehouses for more worthy books. This is what’s known as “out of print.”
For me, however, there was a happy ending, and I consider this one of my luckiest breaks. This experience presented to me the general concept that I could pick a TV show and write a history of it. I loved that idea. I thought it might work way better if it was a show that actually meant something to me and actually had a meaty story to tell, along with continuing social repercussions. What if I wrote about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a formative series for me, a huge feminist moment, and the first show to have several female writers on staff?
That could work, and lucky for me, it did. The low sales numbers for Why? Because We Still Like You could have tanked my career in books; but Simon & Schuster publisher Jon Karp was a huge fan of Mary Tyler Moore and saw that the idea was good enough to trump my previous sales figures. Improbably, instead of being banished for bad sales, I would have two books out at the same time three years later. I’ll write about those next. They have a lot of happier lessons.