Nine months ago my first book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message From a Blue Jay, was released into the world at a launch party hosted by Back Pages Books in Waltham, Massachusetts. On that magical Friday evening in late May, friends, writing colleagues, and a handful of strangers settled themselves into rows of fold-up chairs, smiled toward the podium, and listened as I read sections from two essays in the book. When the reading portion of the evening was done, a line formed so that I could sign copies of the book. The cash register kept ringing, and well-wishers chatted as they enjoyed cookies and cake. It was the night many first-time authors imagine with anticipation—the night when the dream you’ve nurtured all your life is transformed into a real-life moment.
What follows is different for every author. The select few who are published by large houses move on to book and media tours paid for by publishers and arranged by their publicists. The majority, who are published by smaller houses, might arrange their own readings at bookstores and libraries, explore ways to market new books online, or purchase copies at a discount to sell at literary events. They will look to their publishers for advice and support, but will pound the pavement largely on their own. Many will check their book’s ranking on Amazon periodically and try to guess what it means when a book jumps from rank 353,000 to 83,000 one day, and then drops to 827,000 three days later. Their book is, after all, one of millions of books sold online.
When an author’s first royalty check finally arrives, the reality of what it usually means to be a debut author hits home. This can be a surprising and humbling moment. When I received my latest royalty check, for example, I joked with the hard-working, confidence-infusing owner of my publisher, Buddhapuss Ink, that I was headed out the door to buy a private jet. Ever the optimist, she asked if I minded buying that jet one wing nut at a time.
It’s that moment when it can be tempting to lose sight of the original dream. Just a short time ago, all you wanted was to find a publisher who would say “yes” to your manuscript. All you desired was see the words you had agonized over in the early mornings and late at night bound into professionally published pages. You imagined turning your book over and over in your hands, seeing it published and real. What was important, then, was the hard work you’d done to create something you believed in—something true to yourself, to your artistic vision, and yes…to your dream. How that dream would rank on Amazon was the furthest thing from your mind.
When the reality hits, it is tempting to start thinking, “What can I do to make my next book sell better? Should I switch genres and write something that might be more popular? Should I produce something that’s really marketable?”
It’s understandable that for many, the answer is “yes.” Who doesn’t want to succeed in the industry or endeavor they’ve chosen? Who doesn’t want to be more successful?
But aye, there’s the rub. We each have to define the word “successful” in our own way. “Success” means different things to different people. In fact, it can mean different things to the same person at different stages of life.
So lately I’ve asked myself, “What does ‘successful’ mean to me?” I’ve never defined myself by any kind of financial achievement, but I have been caught in the trap of defining my success by parameters set by others. Like many authors, for example, I worried about who would review my book and whether it would be mentioned in top literary journals or publications. I also checked those rankings on Amazon, wondering what it meant when those crazy numbers rose or fell.
The big reviewers didn’t review Message From a Blue Jay. They rarely pay attention to personal essay collections by debut authors who are published by small houses. As for those numbers on Amazon? I noticed recently that when I purchased a single copy of the book myself (to make it easy to mail it to a relative), its ranking jumped.
In retrospect, however, I realize that my book was reviewed by some very important reviewers—readers. They posted those reviews on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online review sites (thank you!). I also received reviews in the form of personal notes and letters from readers who said they were deeply touched by my essays. Some said the book made them think about things they hadn’t considered. Others said that after reading it, they felt less alone. A few had met me personally once or twice, or not at all, but now felt that I was a friend.
A long time ago, I had a dream. I dreamed that I would publish a book. But as I traveled through life and through the publishing process, I realized that the dream was more complicated than that. What I wanted was to live fully by working hard and doing my best. Then, I wanted to throw that “best” out into the world and say, “See, I am here!” so that I might find others who would say, “I am here, too!”
I have found them, those voices saying, “I am here, too!” And I don’t think I could have found them by writing anything other than Message From a Blue Jay.
So, I guess I can say my first book is successful. I’ll just buy that private jet one wing nut at a time.
© 2015 Faye Rapoport DesPres
Faye Rapoport DesPres has spent much of her writing career as a journalist and business/non-profit writer. In 2010 she earned her MFA from Pine Manor College, where she focused on creative nonfiction.
Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail, Timberline and other publications. Her personal essays, fiction, and poetry have been published in Ascent, Superstition Review, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, as well as other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Currently, DesPres is an adjunct first-year writing instructor at Lasell College. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and their rescued cats. Message from a Blue Jay -- Love, Loss, and One Writer's Journey Home is her first book.
Thanks, Faye, for an inspiring, and thought-provoking piece!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series and that we'll see you again next week when our guest is Mariam Kobras who will be talking about knowing when to end a series. Until then, "Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat
Buddhapuss Ink LLC is proud to be a small, but solid house known for great fiction and nonfiction books, written for readers with brains by authors who have more than just one book in them.