It’s my pleasure to introduce Caroline Leavitt, the amazingly accomplished author of eight novels, blogger, editor, screenwriter and just about everything else. Her essays and stories have appeared in New York Magazine and Redbook among many others. Her next book, Pictures of You, is coming out in January, 2011, published by Algonquin.
I know it sounds odd to say this, but I was incredibly stupid when I first got published. I was really young and living in Pittsburgh, unhappily married and I knew nothing about publishing. Every astonishing thing that happened to me, I took for granted, sure that it was supposed to happen. There were no other writers around me to tell me that my experience was a rarified one. Oh, do I wish I had known how lucky I was!
Mine was a Cinderella story. After years of rejection I sold a story for $50 to the Michigan Quarterly Review. A week later, two envelopes came to the door, both big and brown, which I knew meant a story being sent back, and I was about to toss them both out, when I decided to open them. One was a letter from a New York literary agency wanting to represent me. Another was an announcement that I won First Prize in Redbook Magazine’s Young Writers Contest.
Everything after that was really fast. Suddenly I had an agent and the short story sold as a basis of a novel to a publisher with a two-book deal. The book sold to Italy and England and Germany and more, and excerpts were published all over the place. I had a film option from Paramount, and rave reviews poured in everyday. I was on TV, flown to New York to get a full-page interview with Publisher’s Weekly. Feted and wined and. And what did I do to make this happen or to keep it happening? Not a plonking thing. That was just the way it was back then. I imagined this state of grace and happiness would always happen, with every book.
Cinderella woke up pretty fast.
Over the years, I saw the business change in earthquaking ways. My publishers went out of business, or were eaten up by other publishers. Sometimes big publishers promised everything and then when sales didn’t meet their expectations, the promises faded into the ether. Editors were fired and novels were orphaned. Once, for my third novel, the whole marketing and sales force left the day my novel came out. Tours stopped happening, unless I wanted to pay and arrange my own, which I sometimes did. Reviews were harder and harder to get and readings didn’t happen automatically.
It’s a very different world out there now. It’s much harder to get published, and certainly much harder to stay published, and the author has to be out there and make things happen. Many publishers don’t do a whole lot of promotion for their authors and the authors have to shoulder that task—and many, like me, had a steep learning curve. I began to learn how to promote myself, how to get my name out there in articles, as a book critic, as an essayist and blogger. Social networking is part of my job, and though it eats away at writing time, it pays dividends.
The happy news is that I’m lucky again—and I hope I’m smart. I adore my publisher, Algonquin Books, who is sending me out on tour (!) and to bookseller’s conventions, but I don’t, can’t and won’t sit back the way I did with my first few novels and expect the garlands to flutter on my curly head. Instead, I do my part, because that’s what publishing is these days, a partnership. I’ve worked hard to forge connections in the media, to build a blog and the platform you really need to help push your books. I’ve also conquered shyness to turn myself into the funniest, most dramatic speaker I can be (When I spoke at BEA, my editor told me later that I was so nervous beforehand, that she and my publisher were a little worried. But as soon as I got to the podium, they said I transformed. That transformation was from hours and hours of practice and memorization in front of the mirror!
Publishing is different now. You can’t just be a writer. Get on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads and interact. Have a blog and write letters to organizations that might be interested in your book. And oh, yes—write the book you are desperate to read. Because in the end, all the promotion in the world won’t matter if that shiny elusive thing—a gorgeous read—is not in place.