There was a huge amount of buzz around the release of The Geek Feminist Revolution last year. More buzz than I’d seen for any book I’d ever written. People were telling me on Twitter that they’d bought three or four copies and were making all their friends read it. I heard from booksellers that the books were flying off the shelves. We went into a second printing almost immediately. I did a book signing in Chicago that sold a bunch of books. The reader response at BEA was surreal. It was magical.
This, I thought, is what it must feel like to have a book that’s about to hit it big. This was it. This was going to be the big one. It was going to take off. I gnawed on my nails and watched as big magazines picked up articles from it and it got reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and I waited for first week sales numbers.
I expected to see at least twice the number of first week sales for this book as I had for any previous book. The buzz alone was two or three times what I was used to. This had to be it….
But when the numbers came in, they weren’t twice what I usually did in week one. They were about the same as the first week numbers for The Mirror Empire. And… that was…. fine. I mean, it would keep me getting book contracts.
But… it wasn’t a breakout. It was a good book, but It wasn’t a book that would change my life, financially.
Reader, I cried.
It’s been strange since then, because everywhere I go, people come up to me and congratulate me on the release of the book. It has the best reviews of any book I’ve ever written. People come up to me and burst into tears at the head of the signing line and thank me for writing it. It’s a transformative book for people. It’s a manifesto. It’s a book that’s even more relevant now after the election. It changes people’s lives. I’m very glad I wrote it, though it nearly broke me to do it.
But it’s not making money hand over fist, I’m not quitting my day job, and while yes, it’s selling steadily and well, this is not the breakout book I was tentatively expecting it to be (not this year, anyway). It will likely earn out by the end of this year, based on what I know (though we’ll see. I’ll get royalty statements soon). But it’s hard to say this out loud to people when they congratulate me about the book. Lots of people would love to have a book that’s sold as well as it has. But that’s the sixth book I’ve had in print, and you know, you get tired of the emotional rollercoaster in this business after so many years of it (only five years! But egads, I feel that I’ve lived a lifetime of publishing bullshit in that time).
I was thinking about this again because my agent noted that it was in June last year when I started to have trouble writing my next book, and needed to push out the deadline not long after. And you know: June was when I got my first week numbers for GFR. These things, I realized, were not coincidental. I took a lot of time off at the end of last year to regroup, physically and emotionally, after the letdown. Then the election happened, and we all lost a month to readjusting to the new reality.
It’s difficult to say these things out loud to new writers, that most of the books you write will mean a lot to some people, but that they won’t make you rich. They won’t even pay enough for food and health insurance. You will have to work two jobs, novels and day job, until you retire. And maybe even still then. We want to talk about the six or seven figure book deals, the breakout hits, the fairytale stories. But the majority of writers face only this: writing the next book and the next book and the next book, building an audience from scratch, from the ground up, hustling out a living just like everyone else does, cobbling together novel contracts, Patreon money, day jobs, and freelancing gigs.
Life is pain, princess, and publishing is just another part of life. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No reward but the emotional squee of fans and the passionate fan letters. Those rewards will need to be enough, for me, for many of us, for a very long time.
I will not give up hope for the breakout. I mean, you just can’t. I’m barreling into my launch party month for The Stars are Legion gearing up like it’s going to be the next space thriller hit. You have to. I’m reminded of something a colleague once told me about creative work, which is that you must care intensely and personally about a thing and then somehow be able to let it go, and then do it again and again. Writing novels is like that. Believing every book is your best book, the book that will be read by millions (or at least hundreds of thousands!). You can’t give that up. It’s what drives you forward. And it’s how I plan all of my book launches.
Certainly, any of my backlist books could still breakout at any time, but I need to acknowledge the emotional cost of that rollercoaster of hope and despair. We are all of us just working to put food on the table and revolution in the mind, working, and working, until death or the apocalypse or both.
There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
But sometimes it’s painful, princess.