[A continuation of Part I, in which The Blue Place, originally titled Penny in My Mouth, is published by Avon.]
What I forgot to mention yesterday was that although the sales of TBP were many times the level of my second novel, they were not as high as everyone had hoped, partly because that’s just the breaks, and partly, I suspect, because the book was orphaned just before publication.
Three or four months before a book is published used to be the most crucial time for marketing and publicity. This is when the publicists were cajoling media producers and editors to schedule programming, articles, and reviews. This is when the tour is laid out. This is when the major trade journals, like Publishers Weekly, are printing their industry-leading verdicts. This is when independent bookstores are ordering titles, when editors are talking up the novel at cocktail parties, and scouts are sniffing out possible translation deals. So when I tell you both my editor and my publicist quit Avon in this period, you’ll understand why I got bent out of shape.
A book going out into a cold hard world with no support is as pitiful as The Little Match Girl. There’s not much an author can do about it except hope that her agent can bully the editorial team to assign other champions. That didn’t happen for me (Avon was going through organizational upheaval). But the book sold a very reasonable number of hardcovers in the US, scored some juicy translation deals, and won and was shortlisted for a variety of awards. It’s still in print, in both paper and digital.
I tried not to think about the fact that no one in the UK, my native heath, had bought it. Tried not to dwell on commerce and focused on Aud. I started book two, working title, Red Raw.
Red Raw was to be all about Aud’s grief. Which meant I had to dig deep into my own experience of grief–the death of my little sister, Helena. It was difficult work and took longer than I thought. But I wrote the book and thought it was good. I gave it to my agent. She took it to HarperCollins (who had acquired Avon in 1999 and, along with it, the contractual option of first refusal). They didn’t really understand what I was trying to do with the book.
Meanwhile, through Colleen Lindsay, the new publicist at Ballantine/Del Rey (who were reissuing my two previous novels in new editions), I’d heard about this editor whose sensibilities might match my own. His name was Sean McDonald; he was at Nan A. Talese, a small but super literary imprint (Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, etc.) of Doubleday. I nagged and nagged and nagged my agent until she agreed to approach him and talk to him about Red Raw.
Long story short(er): in 2000 I found myself face-to-face with Sean in New York telling him he should buy my book. (Yeah, I know, what can I say. I thought he should, so I said so.) Three weeks later, he did. I felt about ten feet tall: Nan A. Talese wanted to publish my novel! Nothing bad could ever happen to me again!
Sean is a real editor. He looked at my book and said, Well, there are going to have to be some changes. We went at it, hammer and tongs. He was wrong on some things, and right on many. I rewrote the book. He asked for more changes. Hammer and tongs. I began another rewrite. A UK publisher (The Women’s Press) made an offer for both TBP and Stay, and planned to make them their lead titles. Foreign publishers–Italian, French, German–made offers. Everything was going brilliantly.
Then my older sister, Carolyn, died.
It’s not easy to write about someone else’s grief while going through your own. It’s like pulling the scab off, over and over. I nearly gave up; it felt damaging. But I didn’t give up. I rewrote Red Raw thirteen times. Somewhere along the line, I changed the title to Stay.
It was gorgeously published by Nan A. Talese in spring 2002: a really handsome object. I did a lovely little West Coast tour with very gratifying attendance at readings, etc. Reviews were sparse, though–book reporting was going through a huge contraction–and although they were complimentary, they were also clearly puzzled. The book was packaged as noir, but it isn’t; it’s essentially a hopeful novel. Readers and reviewers felt the dissonance.
Sales were okay in hardcover but very poor in trade paperback. Vintage/Black Lizard more commonly published noir and hard boiled fiction: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Raymond Chandler etc. Stay just didn’t fit.
Then the UK publisher went bankrupt. No one else there wanted the books. (One comment, “Oh, we’ve already bought our lesbian book for this year.”) This was before Stieg Larsson. (Sidenote, a friend of his told me last year he gave Stieg a copy of The Blue Place. I have no idea if he ever read it.)
Part of a writer’s job is blithe unconcern with the market, i.e. psychotic self-belief. I had a vision for Aud. I knew it I could write it. I wanted to write it. I set to work on Aud III.
[to be continued…]
14 thoughts on “Publishing history of the Aud novels, part II”
ok, wait a minute, this raises a LOT of new questions:
1) “HarperCollins (…) didn't really understand what I was trying to do with the book” and you re-wrote it 13(!) times. what happened to the previous (first) version(s)? i'm assuming they are non-existing/unavailable?
2) “Then the UK publisher went bankrupt. No one else there wanted the books. (One comment, “Oh, we've already bought our lesbian book for this year.”) This was before Stieg Larsson.” would you say it became easier to publish “lesbian” books after the millennium trilogy? why? (What does “lesbian book” mean anyway?)
3) there is this one very personal question i always wanted to ask (but never dared to): it seems it's normal to hit (mental, emotional) roadblocks while writing. what do you do then? how do you overcome these?
p.s. not expecting all questions answered by any means…
Kate, I rewrote the novel to get it right. So, no, the other versions aren't available anywhere because I wouldn't want anyone reading work that's not right.
The Stieg Larsson comment was more about the Nordic perspective rather than queer. As for what a 'lesbian book' is, well, I think the whole concept is ridiculous. But I've ranted about this before.
Answer number three is enough for a whole blog post of its own…
ok, thanks. as for q1: i understand the logic i was just curious about what changed in terms of story rather than writing.
as for q2: got the point from the previous post; that said, on second thought i like it when they have a queer shelf in my fave book store (makes my life easier); same sexual orientation is not a sine qua non but it affects how you relate to the characters.
Having just discovered the Aud books on amazon uk last month. I read / consumed them in a short period last month. Its really interesting to read about the energy expended in to getting the books out there. Thanks for giving us the background. I think all 3 are beautifully crafted works and Aud one of my favourite characters.
What changed? So many things I can't remember. The basic arc was the same but the details were different, e.g. the Carpenters.
AJ, I'm delighted to hear that. How did you stumble across them?
I am among those who were less than pleased with the ending of TBP. I'm pretty sure it was the first of your books I read. Despite the plot holes, I felt the quality was high enough to not hesitate to read Stay. That one freaking blew me away. I felt at the time that this was a writer who understood grief. I'm sorry to learn how well. By the end of Always, I was so happily exhausted for Aud that I actually hoped you wouldn't write about her for a while–give the poor girl a chance to rest!
I love the idea for the blog–the sections for the books. It's hard to imagine anyone now knowing about the trilogy, though I confess, I don't think about publishers when I buy, so wasn't really aware of the different publishers when I bought them.
ElaineB, couldn't have had Stay without the ending of The Blue Place…
One of those 'customers who bought this also bought…' recommendations. The cover did not do much for me but the reviews intrigued me. Downloaded the first chapter and then had one of those great reader moments of being completely submerged into another world. I am currently reading With Her Body (Conversation Pieces). I love the way you write women. Its raw, real and honest. So glad I found your work. Thanks.
Yes, the ending was hard to take. But lots of things are. Can't have the joy without the pain unfortunately.
When I am deciding to read a book by an author I've never read before, the first thing I do is see what else she's written. Is it part of a series? Would it be better to start with an earlier book just to see how the writer matures even if it's not a series? If the other books look bad, I might decide to skip it. I understand that many or most people don't do that, but I find that surprising.
That's why I read the books you wrote in the order you wrote them.
I like books by writers that understand people and love. I saw right away that you understood both. When I read STAY, I also knew you understood grief in a way that most do not. It blew me away.
I can only begin to tell you how much I admire you for writing that book. For the 13 rewrites and not quitting. It hurts me to even think about what that must've been like. I think it must've been a healing process in the end. I know it helped me and moved me immensely. And I'll always be grateful.
So now I want to know what you usually read. I'm always intensely curious about how readers come to my work.
Glad you like With Her Body.
Jennifer, thank you. Working on Stay, keeping at it, when all I wanted to do was flee, was one of the hardest things I've ever done. But I told myself, You're a writer, and gritted my teeth, and did it anyway.
It's a gift to know that it's helped others.
I had just reread The Hours by Michael Cunningham and was browsing his other books. Instead I bought yours. I think I chose it because I wanted to read something with a complex female character and it tied in with questions I was asking myself of how we see ourselves and our roles as women and the expectations that go with that.
My take on women is pretty different to Cunningham's! Glad you weren't disappointed.
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