This summer Stephen Colbert highlighted a dispute between book publisher Hachette (which publishes all of Colbert's books) and book-selling powerhouse Amazon by urging his viewers to purchase Edan Lepucki's California from independent retailer Powell's Books. Not long after, Colbert asked Lepucki to recommend her own favorite book by a recent Hachette author, and she chose Stephan Eirik Clark's Sweetness #9.
Here Lepucki and Clark discuss the surreal experience of receiving the "Colbert Bump," as well as the expectations and realities of being a first-time novelist.
On The Colbert Report:
Edan Lepucki: I recognize that I'm probably the luckiest novelist in recent memory, because Sherman Alexie, a writer I greatly admire, raved about my book on The Colbert Report, and then Mr. Colbert himself urged his viewers to buy it — on his show and on Twitter. I signed 9,000 pre-orders at Powell's Bookstore, there was a profile of me in the New York Times, my tour doubled in size, and I sold many books. I'm like a walking four-leaf clover.
Until this point, my absurd career fantasies included being a crossword puzzle clue (Four letters across, author Lepucki)… and, OK: dancing with Ellen DeGeneres to celebrate my National Book Award nomination. What has actually happened is shocking. I still can't believe that I went on The Colbert Report myself; for the appearance I wore a lot of makeup, my hair was curled like a poodle's, and I could barely breathe in my Spanx undergarments. But, hey — an authoress has to lean in, right? (By the way, Stephen Colbert is very nice.) The whole thing makes me giggle.
One of the greatest parts about this whole surreal turn of events is that I had the chance to read your book, Stephan, and recommend it on national television! I got to be a reader again. And we got to email, and share our joys and insecurities, and just, you know, be writers together. I also got the chance to meet Sherman Alexie and thank him in person for what he did for California. (On the plane headed to Seattle I read his latest collected stories, Blasphemy; it had been a couple of years since I'd read his work and, wow, I was stunned by the grace and punch of his work. What a writer.)
Stephan Eirik Clark: About a week after my book was mentioned on The Colbert Report, a colleague of mine at Augsburg College said, "It's like the hand of god has come down and touched you!" I wanted to remind this man that he was an atheist, but instead I nodded and smiled and agreed that I was incredibly lucky. And I was. With just one mention on that show (and thank you again, Edan and Stephen), millions of people became aware of my book, pre-orders took off, and I received a flurry of media attention that I otherwise wouldn't have gotten. My first reaction was shock and gratitude, but after a while I felt no less positive about the state of books and readers in general. The Colbert Bump didn't get so much media attention and public support because everyone wanted to talk about me and my novel. People wanted to support book culture, to say that books and writers matter, and that we should be doing everything we can to ensure their continued existence, if not their success. In short, The Book is not dead!
Edan, your book, which I'd wanted to read since first learning of it in the Little, Brown catalogue, was actually one of the few novels unrelated to food that I had the pleasure of finishing in the months leading up to my book's release. (And as a former Angeleno who lived through the Riots, the Malibu Firestorms, and the Northridge Earthquake, I thought for a while it was a memoir of my old fantasy life, because I too had wanted to flee for the safety of some green place up North.) I'm sure you are experiencing the same thing — as your book makes its way out into the world, you find yourself hurrying into your local bookstore to buy every book that your own writing is compared to.
SEC: My first book, a collection of short stories, was published by a small press that's located in a state better known for its maple syrup and ice cream than its book business (Vermont). I didn't expect to sell many copies, and I sold even fewer still (most of them to me, I suspect).
I'd always envisioned a larger audience for my debut novel, in part because it was a novel, and in part because you have to think like this if you're going to give a book 13 years of your life. Still, even after selling Sweetness #9 to Little, Brown, and even after receiving some early support from my publisher (They were going to advertise! And invite me to New York to meet some media types!) I knew not to quit my day job (or to even get any of the fancy upgrades when I leased a new car). There are just too many books out there, and only so many readers. For a no-name, debut novelist to break out and achieve even a small amount of success, something you can't plan on has to happen — a great review has to come in, or your novel has to become a hit with book clubs, or Oprah has to descend from the clouds and say, "This one! Buy this one!" And yes, sometimes, alone in the dark, I would fantasize about Oprah. But it went no further. I knew not to expect anything. It was more reasonable to hope that slowly, over time, my book would sell just enough copies for me to earn out my advance and be invited back to publish a second novel. That was my goal all along.
EL: Honestly, almost everything I'd say about my experience publishing a first novel has already been said by Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits. He's been doing a series on Little, Brown's Tumblr called "Ask a Debut Novelist" and his answers are honest and thoughtful. I recommend them to every novelist, aspiring or otherwise.
Before my book, California, came out, I had modest hopes for it. Or, let's put it this way — I had the same hopes that every literary fiction writer in America has: I wanted the novel to be well-received, critically. As for sales? I didn't want it to disappoint, but I didn't expect it to be a best-seller, either. Like Stephan, I wanted the opportunity to write and publish another novel. That is all — and that is also no small task.
It's interesting that I dreamed of critical success — a smattering of good reviews — but not necessarily a wide readership. I think many of our writer friends will say the same. Would selling a lot of books in a world inundated not only with great books, but also with great television and film, not to mention entertaining Twitter feeds, be too much to ask? Probably. But are we also simply writing for other writers? Probably. And is that so bad? These questions have been sloshing about my head for the last couple of months.
Now that my book is a best-seller… what do I feel? Of course I am delighted and grateful and flummoxed. I mean — seriously? That just doesn't happen for unknown writers of literary fiction!
(And not to be all cheesy, there's also this: No matter what happened to my book, I felt like a success long before my publication date, back when my family read California. Their excitement magnified my own, and allowed me to be proud and satisfied with what I'd worked hard for. I did it! I am a novelist!)
Sales aside, what has most surprised me most about publishing a book is how vulnerable I feel. The first week of my book's release, I told my husband I felt like a lobster without a shell. Between cackles of joy, I cried. What made it worse was that I had nothing to cry about: My dream was coming true, and — thanks to Stephen Colbert — it was coming true in a big way! I am sure I would have been crying either way (I never do well with big transitions), but the Colbert-induced spotlight is bright. Believe me, I am thankful for the attention; it changed my life and my career and I will be forever grateful. I am also occasionally freaked out by it. Suddenly my book has readers, and suddenly being a writer means talking with strangers about your aesthetic choices, and smiling through it all, and writing something for BuzzFeed where you try to say something valuable, and listening to people decide whether or not your book "deserves" the Colbert Bump. It's intense! I wrote a book, I love it, it has flaws, I still love it, so there, the end. I'm a novelist!
SEC: While I agree the media attention can leave you feeling vulnerable and uncertain (I'm certain the worst interview I ever gave was the one that will find the largest audience), I don't think we're quite writing for other writers just yet — if only out of consideration for our poet friends, who'd then have nothing to lord over us when we meet. But I would like to build on your comment about critical success. I, too, certainly wanted some good reviews, but more than that — I hoped that some of the writers I admire would discover and enjoy my book. When my publisher first sent out galleys, I asked that I be able to include a personal letter to those authors who had been most influential and important to me. At this point in the process, we were trying to get blurbs. But I didn't expect my letters to secure them; it was enough to know that I could send these letters, along with copies of my book, to the some of the country's greatest living writers. "Thomas Pynchon?" I remember thinking. "And Don DeLillo? I can have copies of my book sent to Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo?" Just to imagine them pulling the novel out of its envelope, maybe turning it over to read the description... that was my I-did-it!-I-am-a-novelist! moment. That one of the titans I sent a book to was kind enough to write me back was all the more thrilling, and until a certain something happened the most unbelievable part of the process.
On the Surprises of the Publication Process:
SEC: Almost 18 months after selling my debut novel to Little, Brown, I found myself CC'ing six or seven people on an email to my publicist and worrying that I'd somehow left someone out. If the sheer number of people involved in the publication of my book came as a small surprise to me, the fact that so many different people could improve that same book was something of a shock.
I knew all along that my editor and copy editor would help, and that the marketers and publicists and sales people would do more than I ever could to get my novel in front of booksellers and readers and critics. But I never would have guessed that even a lawyer and a graphic designer could make Sweetness #9 a better work of fiction.
The legal read took me by complete surprise. When I was told an attorney wanted to discuss my book with me, I felt a bit like a kid called into the principal's office. What did I do wrong? In the end, though, the experience was incredibly valuable, because in pushing my manuscript here and questioning it there, the legal read caused me to revise in places and add a new level of depth to certain elements of my fictional world. I'd tell you all about it in exhaustive detail here, but I'd have to first get everything cleared by legal, and I'm not ready for another whispered conversation on the lower level of a darkened parking garage.
(I made the parking garage stuff up, I should add. I'm a fiction writer. It's what I do. So don't enter it into the record as fact.)
What I can speak about in more detail is my experience working with the graphic designer who did my cover. Before she got to work, I was asked to think of what imagery might best represent my story, and it occurred to me that while an artificial sweetener was at the center of my novel, I'd never described its packaging and contents. So I did just that, and sent the revised pages to the designer. These were the details that I now think of as completing the novel.
EL: Wow, now I feel kind of lame! No one from legal contacted me, and I only just recently met and communicated with Julianna Lee, who was both your and my book designer. She's a genius, no?
At The Millions, I've interviewed a number of people involved in the publication of my novel: my copy editor, Susan Bradanini Betz; my editor, Allie Sommer; my agent, Erin Hosier and my publicists, Carrie Neill and Amelia Possanza. I've been conducting these interviews because I want to give readers and aspiring writers the chance to see behind the curtain and learn just what's involved in getting a book to readers. It's also important to me that I acknowledge just how collaborative the book publishing process is. I wrote California alone in a room, but that wasn't the last step — far from it. I've come to consider these professionals as not only my advocates, but friends and fellow book-lovers. Since they're all women I am pretty sure we're going to start a coven together.
(Also: I now know that if more than three people call you on speaker phone, chances are the news will be very, very good.)
SEC: I know, that's actually how I found out about Colbert. My publicist called and said my agent was already on the line with us. "What is this," I asked, "an intervention?" I guess in a way it was.
Edan Lepucki is a fiction writer. Her novella, If You're Not Yet Like Me, is available now. Her first novel, California, was published by Little, Brown in July.
Stephan Eirik Clark is the author of Sweetness #9" (Little, Brown & Company), and the short story collection Vladimir's Mustache, a finalist for the 2013 Minnesota Book Award.