The Crazy, Risky Lottery of Publishing Books

I have a standing weekly Zoom meeting with Katherine Richards, my liaison at Girl Friday Books, my publisher for The Burning Light of Two Stars. Katherine and I have been talking every Monday at 10 AM for six months now: looking at cover designs (there were SO many iterations—some of which I hated—until we got to the final design—which I loved), discussing paper quality, brainstorming the best replacement book title, looking at interior page design, discussing delivery dates for copyediting, page proofs, and Advanced Reader Copies.

I really like Katherine. She’s incredibly steady, good humored, and always gets me the answers I need. She’s fielded my excitement, frustration, and myriad questions with aplomb. We work well together.

This week, when Katherine’s lovely flat face showed up in my Zoom screen, she immediately said from her square, “I have some bad news.”

I waited.

“Your book isn’t going be ready at the printer in time for your pub date. There’s a paper shortage. They can’t get the paper in time.” She said something about not enough people working in the paper mills to meet demand. Ouch. My book had fallen victim to yet another Covid supply chain problem.

A sinking feeling filled my chest. I waited for her to say more.

“It’s going to be delayed by a week.” Okay, I said bargaining with my resident taskmaster, my inner control freak, that’s not so bad. I looked at my phone and scrolled to my calendar. A week late would make my new pub date October 26, the day before my mother’s birthday. On October 27, Temme would have been 94. It’s been seven years since she died.

As Katherine explained how Girl Friday was going to address the print delay problem, I flashed on the warm face of my astrologer friend, Kay Taylor. When choosing a pub date for the book, I had Kay do a natal chart for the book (forgive me—I am from Santa Cruz!). As Kay explained, the pub date would determine the birth chart for the book and influence the book’s trajectory into the world.

“Whatever you do,” Kay told me, “Don’t publish it any earlier. Everything will be in retrograde. Not a good time to start a new venture.” She gave her stamp of approval to October 19th.

Now I wondered, what about October 26th?

As I thought about the influence of the stars, Katherine kept talking—telling me it was too late to find another printer. I’d already paid the printer half the money. It was a done deal, and the paper simply wasn’t there. The only thing under my control was how I was going to react. That was my one and only choice.

I took a breath and let it go, shifting from disappointment to damage control. Katherine and I came up with the plan for notifying all the podcasts I’d already recorded that were being held in reserve to air during my launch week. She said that Girl Friday would be happy to help contact all those show hosts. That was generous. I had them all on a spreadsheet. The two of us got off the call.

But the supply chain problem got me thinking. About how little control (read: none) I have over what happens with this book. The Burning Light of Two Stars is book #7 for me and I already know how little influence I have over what happens to a book once it’s released into the world.

My first book, The Courage to Heal: For Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, co-authored with Ellen Bass, was a runaway underground bestseller. Ellen and I did a great job researching and writing the book, we filled a desperate need, and spoke to readers in a voice that was reassuring, clear and compassionate. We did everything we could to write the best book we possibly could and created a resource that’s still used 30+ years later, a book that changed millions of lives. But that wasn’t the outcome we expected or even dreamed of. For me, it was a complete surprise. We did not control that book’s trajectory. We happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right product. Creating an excellent book that met a need was just step #1. The only part of the process we could control: our own work output.

Lots of terrific books are released every year, every month, hell, every day—and that doesn’t mean they’ll sell or find an audience. The average self-published book sells 200 copies. I’m not sure how much better the stats are for a book with a publisher behind it, but in publishing, nothing is ever guaranteed. A wildly successful book requires more than great content, a terrific story, or an innovative marketing campaign. Big publishers sink millions of dollars into books that flop. Crappy unreadable books become megahits. Just think of Jaws. Have you actually ever tried to read it?

Sometimes, the effort authors put in and the excellence they create meets opportunity: your book fits the zeitgeist of the time. That’s what happened with The Courage to Heal. A book on healing from child sexual abuse was needed. We created an accessible one and it was the first. There was a hunger for what we were offering. And as a result, the book hit critical mass in the first year of its life, and just kept selling, passed hand to hand, woman to woman. And when it crossed the 100,000 copy threshold (approximating here), it basically started to promote itself. It took on a life of its own. Thirty-three years later, it’s still selling.

I was 31 when The Courage to Heal came out. Thirty-one when I learned that that kind of rocket ship is possible. The publication of The Courage to Heal changed my life, but I’ve never had another success like that one. Not for lack of trying.

In 2001, I put maximum effort—and the $70,000 I inherited from my father—into promoting book #6, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation. I was determined to create another The Courage to Heal. And you know what happened? My reconciliation book came out right after 9/11, and the mood of the country was definitely not reconciliation—people were hungry for revenge. I Thought We’d Never Speak Again was a great book, but it came out at the worst possible moment. History was not on my side.

That’s when I learned just how little authors can control.

Editors leave publishing houses and books are orphaned. Books get lost in publishing mergers. Another author publishes a book that fills your niche months before yours comes out. A life emergency keeps you from promoting your book. You can’t find a publisher. Your publisher screws you over. You and your coauthor have a fight and part ways. Your topic is considered yesterday’s news. Your timing sucks. You’re unlucky. Or there just isn’t enough that’s unique about your book to make it stand out from the hundreds of thousands of other titles competing for readers’ attention.

I’ve seen all of that happen. Some of it has happened to me. I’ve commiserated as it happened to friends, fellow authors who’d sunk years into their books. I’ve watched it happen to students. First-time authors expect their lives to be transformed when their books come out, and when that doesn’t happen, the let-down can be tough.

And here I am on the verge of publishing book #7. Only this time, instead of a big publisher paying for everything, I’ve gone hybrid and am paying for everything myself. And I mean everything. Not only does this book have an ever-growing price tag, it’s also all I’ve been doing for months now. At the start of 2021, I said this year would be about two things: our new puppy and this book. And Luna and The Burning Light of Two Stars has been pretty much my whole life since January.

I’m fully committed to this launch, but sometimes, after putting in twelve hours in a day, I reflect on what a crazy profession I’ve chosen. The risk I’m taking. The investment I’m making that I could easily lose. The dream I have of this book reaching its audience and taking off may never come to pass. And yet I’m committed. I’m in for the long haul. Not just until launch day, but afterwards. Promoting a book, shepherding its journey is a major commitment over time. Most people have no idea.

When I think about my life right now, despite living in the same house, having the same spouse, and drinking the same hot drink every morning, all I see is uncertainty. Uncertainty about the virus, our country, our democracy, the climate, women in Afghanistan, the world we’re leaving to our grandchildren, all of our futures—and yes, this book.

The Burning Light of Two Stars is now available for presale. When you buy the book before its release date, you help me by generating interest with reviewers, librarians, and bookstores. To read about the great presale bonuses you can get, hop over here.



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