I will admit, and I am not proud of this, I almost gave up — not on writing, but on the idea that I would find a publisher for my debut novel, An Untamed State. The manuscript had been making the rounds for some time and the feedback was mostly positive but not positive enough in that frustrating way that makes you think, If you think so highly of the writing, why don’t you just buy the damn book? Publishing is confusing.
My best friend talked me off the ledge time and again, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely. She believed in my book when I nearly lost my faith. She had a gut feeling that the book would find a home, the right home. These days, she enjoys saying, “I was right all along.” She is quite smug about it and I have to allow her this because, well, she was right all along.
Before I sold any books, I often found myself wishing I had an agent or a book deal. There was one small problem: I had not written a book nor had I queried an agent. I was simply enamored with the idea of having a book with my name on it.
Slowly but surely, I got myself together. I assembled some of my writing about the Haitian diaspora experience and that became my first book, Ayiti. It was published by a micropress, Artistically Declined Press, run by a great guy with a lot of heart and passion for good books, but no money to speak of. I signed the contract without an agent. I received no advance. I made my own e-book. My mother’s wonderful photography graces the cover. Ayiti has remained in print for three years. I have earned $205.60 in royalties. That is a success story.
Of course I wanted more. I wanted the splashy publishing dream. I wanted a billboard in Times Square, wherein I wear a billowing vest while my book’s title hovers nearby. I put together a short story collection, Strange Gods, which still hasn’t sold lest you think it’s all fun and games, and wrote a proposal for my novel. After a great deal of research and fretting, I queried one agent, in truth, the only agent I have ever queried.
It’s kind of absurd but she took me on and once I wrote my novel, she tried to sell it for nearly a year. Then, my essays started getting some notice. Other agents began soliciting me and though it was scary, and loyalty is important, I made a switch. My new agent was very confident and before long she sold my novel and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, to two different publishers. It was surreal to get everything I wanted in one bright flash. It still feels surreal. People ask how I’ve gotten here and I hardly know what to say.
I had no idea what to expect when working with bigger publishers though I heard the horror stories so I suppose I expected very little — no money for publicity, editors who don’t edit, good books languishing without the publisher support they so very much need and deserve. I’m also a writer of color and I was told my prospects as one were especially grim because publishers don’t know how to market us and readers don’t want to read our stories.
I did not know publishing moves glacially. When I eventually looked over each contract, I offered up thanks and praise for my agent. I know how to read but I didn’t understand much of what I saw in those papers. There were lots of arcane words and numbers and basically, I understood I would receive a rather modest sum of money in exchange for the publication of my books. The first and only dream dashed was the one where I could quit my job to write full time.
This next part may sound like a love letter but it is also the truth.
At Grove, my editor Amy Hundley championed my novel from the first day. Just after she bought the book, I was in Boston for a conference. She and her amazing partner came up just to meet me. I humiliated myself because that’s how I roll. Two friends and I were at 826Boston, where I would be reading that evening. There was a large Bigfoot statue. I was, as one does, taking pictures of these lovely friends licking Bigfoot’s nipples. On the periphery, I noticed this woman but I didn’t know who she was. I am awkward and don’t engage with strangers well. When she said hi, I said hi kind of dismissively, and returned to my photo shoot because priorities. Later, during the reading, I realized that the woman looked familiar because I had stalked her on Facebook. It was a mortifying few steps when, during an intermission, I went to introduce myself to her properly.
The next evening, we went out for sushi and talked for hours. Amy wore fabulous glasses and sexy boots and she was gorgeous. I thought, All my dreams are coming true because I have a chic New York editor! She truly saw and felt what I was trying to do in An Untamed State. She loved Mireille, my protagonist, as much as I do. As Amy edited me, she only asked me to make the book better on the book’s terms. She knew I didn’t want to write around but instead preferred to stare directly into the violence. She supported that decision. She became a friend. Everyone else at Grove has been wonderful too. When I wasn’t thrilled with the first cover design, they listened to my concerns. I ended up with French Flaps and deckled edges and a beautiful cover. The sales team has championed the book. My publicist has championed the book and patiently read my crazy emails about travel arrangements. I am in the middle of a 13-city tour. A publisher could not do more to support a debut novel.
Harper Collins is publishing Bad Feminist in August. They are a much bigger publisher, a behemoth, and you can tell the difference—there are forms for everything, they have their own speaker’s bureau, there is a bit of a procedure to get into the building. Though Harper Collins is a behemoth, people have been just as generous and available. Cal Morgan, who was long supportive of my writing, is always there with humor and generosity. He’s fancy but he also gets hands-on with writers. My editor Maya Ziv and I became fast friends because we enjoy very important television shows, romantic comedies, and music. She has a thick mane of red hair and is very New York chic as well. She talks fast and is always trying to get her authors’ books in the hands of passionate readers.
When I visited the HarperCollins offices, there was a large phallic sculpture bearing the publisher’s name in front of the building. I did a photo shoot, of course. The sculpture was really quite large, erect, and turgid. Inside the offices, everything was slick and hushed. On one floor, there was a video studio in which I filmed a video with a dapper woman who does something I can’t remember. We had a sales meeting while sitting around a very big, shiny table. That table was so, so shiny. Everyone had clearly read my book and had great ideas for how to put it out into the world — buttons and T-shirts! Just outside of that meeting room was a huge Hollywood cutout for Divergent. It literally took up an entire wall.
This all sounds utopian. I have nothing to complain about. I have had fun. I have written exactly the books I wanted to write. I have learned a lot seeing how the proverbial sausage is made. Some illusions have been shattered (PCs dominate publishing instead of Macs) but my faith is mostly intact. Such a positive experience seems to be a rarity, so I am holding this blessing tightly in the warmth of my hand.
I still play devil’s advocate with myself. There are so many books and talented writers out there. Nothing humbles you and clarifies your place in the writing world like obsessively refreshing your Amazon sales rank. This is, admittedly, a sad, sad thing to do but I am not averse to suffering. Some days, there are literally 300,000 or 10,000 books selling better than mine. I stare at these numbers and whisper, “I am not a special snowflake.”
There is also the reality of publishing — it is filled with people who love books but there is always a bottom line. You are only as good as your last book. You vault over one hurdle and 10 more appear. Are the reviews going to be good? Are there going to be reviews at all? Are you going to sell enough copies, in the right places, to the right people? Are you going to make the publisher’s investment worthwhile? Anything could go wrong, I am constantly reminding myself. This past 18 months could become a painfully glimmering memory of how good my writing career once was.
And then there is this. Professionally, my life has never been better and I am grateful for all of it. My personal life is a bit dismal. I have lovely friends and family who are endearingly supportive but selling two books doesn’t change my propensity for depression. Making a publishing breakthrough doesn’t make everything better. I have all this good news and no one to share it with. I look at the growing stack of books I’ve written and I am so proud. I cannot help but think, Writing is not everything. It can’t be.
The challenges of diversity in publishing are also on my mind, constantly. I wish I didn’t have to think about these things but I cannot overlook reality in the face of my good fortune. My editor Maya recently sent me an ad for Bad Feminist and several other Harper Perennial titles that will appear in magazines soon. It was a lovely ad, but I was the only person of color included. I emailed her and said, “This is nice but you could use more brown writers,” and she said, “I know.” She didn’t make excuses and we had a good conversation about diversity and publishing — it wasn’t the first and it will not be the last.
I don’t want to walk through the halls of one of the largest book publishers in the world and see no people of color in editorial positions. I don’t want to look at best-seller lists, week after week, devoid of the excellent books being written by writers of color. I don’t want publishing to perpetuate this atmosphere where writers of color and women writers worry that even if they get a shot, that shot won’t be enough. In five years, I don’t want to have the same damn conversations now that we’re having about diversity in reading, writing, and publishing. I will, somehow, make sure more writers of color and women get the chance to be this lucky and hold such blessings in the warmth of their hands. I’m going to keep writing. I’m going to keep fighting. I’ve had a taste now of what publishing should be like for more of us. I am never going to stop.
Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest. She is the author of Ayiti, An Untamed State, and Bad Feminist.