The Agony of Publishing a Book
By Peter Lourie
What is the hardest part of writing a book? Starting it? Writing draft after draft? Finding a publisher?
How about after you’ve done all that, and now it’s on its way to store shelves and you’re waiting for reviews. And waiting.
The vast majority of the one million books published in the U.S each year will sell less than 250 copies in their first twelve months. A tiny percentage of books are published to the sound of trumpets. Truth is, most are launched to crickets. In fact, such was the case with my most recent book, Locked In Ice. Published in total silence.
So silent that it didn’t have a single review by the time it came out on January 29, 2019. An author’s worst nightmare.
I’m writing this article now because reviews have since started trickling in— good ones too (sigh of relief)—but let me say a few words about what it was like to wait in silence for those responses…
When that happens, you wake up feeling as if something is missing. You feel disoriented, out of place. Like maybe you got drunk the night before and now you have to live with the vague feeling that you might have hurt someone’s feelings or done something embarrassing. Like maybe you did something brave, or foolish or out of character while under the altered reality of too many drinks, and the real world with all its insecurities and doubts rushes back at you.
You pour five years of effort into something (the process is the thing! And the process is pretty great), but now it’s time to see how it will stack up. If all that time was worth something.
You force yourself out of bed, struggle into a shirt, and head down for coffee all the while feeling hollow inside. As if some big indefinable thing is tearing at your guts. You know that feeling—as if you’ll never find peace again, as if the sun’s gone down and might not come up.
That’s how I felt for days with no reviews. Bereft. Drinking coffee. Hollowed out by insecurity and caffeine.
With every other book I’ve published, at least a few good reviews came out well before publication. Usually excellent ones in fact, some starred reviews (A starred review recognizes books of outstanding quality), Notables in Social Studies, Oprah’s list, and a few moderately good reviews, and some with a critic’s sideways punch to the gut.
After pub date for the new book, I would gladly have taken a sucker punch to the face for just one small review. I believe in my adventure tale about the great Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen more than I have any other book. And rightfully so, the survival story of Nansen’s quest the top of the world is one of the least known yet most important narratives of polar travel ever recounted!
Yet the book launched and I had zero reviews. Why?
All I heard was a deafening silence that sucked the confidence out of me like a mink sucking blood out of a chicken. The slow-building evolution of esteem that I’d gained from publishing 26 books deflated as precipitously as if I were a teenager facing his first rejection.
Ya, I wanted a good review. But I wanted any review. One review. I wanted someone to read my book and like it, so that I could know that five years of work was not for nothing.
I wanted to hear from people who didn’t know me, who didn’t know anything about polar exploration, who never thought they’d ever be interested in ice. A lot of ice. Wandering around lost in North Pole ice in the late 19th century.
I wanted them to read the book and tell me something–what they thought, what they learned. If they were glad they took the time.
But I heard nothing. As days stretched into weeks, I started to wonder: Had it ever reached the stores? Or gone online? Was it on the planet Earth?
I did get one or two emails from polar experts I’d interviewed for the book. When they told me that they couldn’t put it down, the sun almost peeked out. But did I believe them?
Until I heard from the great outside, all I could do was walk around the house like a husk, the shadow of a former writer. Walk and wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake twenty-eight years ago when I published my first book.
If I survive this, I said to myself, I am gonna change careers and do something useful for someone.
Why write, I asked myself? Why do this to yourself?
Not for the money—I write in spite of needing to teach to supplement my writing income.
Not for the fame—my current state was proof of that.
For some unknown reason I am driven to write. And I love big projects because I love research. Maybe I should find more teaching, I thought, or write shorter pieces for Medium where I don’t have to wait years for feedback. Perhaps it was time to donate all my creative energy to my friend’s library in the slums of La Libertad, a fishing village in El Salvador.
But now, fast forward two weeks and the clouds have finally parted. Reviews are coming in and friends are telling me what they like about the book! The Arctic sun is rising above the horizon after a polar winter, and boy does it feel warm, this land of the midnight sun. The long night is over and I’m already beginning to forget those dismal days. I feel like a new self, revelling once again in possible topics to explore.
How quickly the seasons change once they’ve been weathered. Already I feel that familiar itch of a new book asking to be written.
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