As Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. hits the shelves this week, I thought I’d offer my reflections on how it feels to be a first-time author.
August 31: The “Day Before”
Tomorrow, my first book, Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. breathes its first breath of life (at your local booksellers). Awaiting that day has been akin to anticipating the birth of a first child. This day is filled with excitement, fear, anxiety, hope and trepidation. The butterflies that fill my stomach aren’t quite as painful as labor pains, but the waiting game is equally excruciating. Will anyone buy it? Will reviewers savage it (and me)?
Chasing Zebras isn’t likely to make the New York Times Bestseller list. It’s not a hot new novel, a self-help book or expose of anything. It’s a television book—hopefully engaging and well written. But for me, seeing my name on the cover of the book (never mind the photo on the back cover) is the dream of a lifetime. And much more importantly, I hope it’s the starting point for a new phase in my professional life.
The journey of the past two years has been full of highs and lows: the inevitable rejection emails and the joy of finding an agent who truly believes in your work; a publisher enthusiastic about the project. In her fabulous book The Forest for the Trees (which I highly recommend to every first time author), Betsy Lerner suggests that writers are prone to “magical thinking.” She argues that authors always fill in the lack of news (whether from agents, editors, publicists or whomever) by imagining the worst possible bad news. It’s usually not. She sure has me pegged.
While my book was in the first edit, weeks went by; my neurotic half was sure that the editor was doing a slash and burn on my manuscript. In my mind, whole chapters bit the dust and my best work lay in tatters (or with big red lines through them as only Microsoft Word can so cruelly do). Finally, a week after I thought I would have the manuscript back in my hands (or on my hard drive), I began to panic about the delay, imagining the worst. I was positive they hated the manuscript and were deciding how to politely tell me they couldn’t publish it!
Of course there was perfectly reasonable explanation for the short delay. Chasing Zebras is a long book, and the edit was taking a bit longer than anticipated. And when I finally received that email with the edits, I was undeniably relieved. The angst of the previous few weeks immediately lifted and I was happy to see only minor edits and a suggestion here and there. Phew! Magical thinking, indeed.
Jump forward a few weeks and the galleys, essentially a PDF of the book’s interior. I’ve never been one to get excited about galleys. Having been a magazine writer/editor, I long ago learned that galleys were the thing you reviewed using a straight-edge to do a line-by-line, letter by letter proofread with fingers crossed that you didn’t find more than three mistakes (because then it costs and you get on the executive editor’s sh*t list).
But to a first time author, galleys are living proof that the project is real; it looks like a book. The manuscript had been transformed into a book! Typeset and sidebarred, adorned with photos my publisher had kindly licensed, this was no longer the 600 page manuscript I’d written months earlier. This was a book. My editor wisely suggested that I print it out and read it—like, you know, a book. Like I was reading it for the first time.
I liked it. I liked the book – as a reader. But like every writer and editor on the planet, I could not resist taking a heavy blue pencil to it. And like in days of old, this is a job done by hand, not by pixel. Finished with my handiwork, I boxed it up and sent it off in the post to Toronto, where all the final changes were incorporated for printing (yay!).
“It’s really going to happen,” thought I, with amazement. Fleeting visions of launch parties with champagne fountains, book tours, even Oprah (after all, she, like me, is a…voluptuous… Chicago girl). I started doing “author” things: I finalized my end of the media list and sent it to my publicist at ECW Press; I set up a website bearing my name (as pretentious as that sounds)—I’m still not quite accustomed to the name “BarbaraBarnett.com.” More weeks pass. I did my first interview, and then my first (Internet) radio interview. I talked up the book and did more interviews. I waited.
Then it arrived—my advance copy from the publisher (with an additional 20 copies to come from a week later). It was in my hands: a real live, glossy-covered trade paperback in all its 430-page glory. I flipped through the pages, seeing some of the interior photos for the first time. I picked a random page and started reading. Were those words mine? Of course I showed the thing to everyone and everything that moved within four inches of me; it sat conspicuously on my desk so anyone who had the misfortune to enter my office would see it (and ask about it). And of course compel me to talk endlessly about it.
I brought it with me to lunch at my favorite restaurant, just leaving it there on the table while I tweeted on my iPad and checked my mail. Servers noted the glossy photo of Hugh Laurie on the cover and a crowd gathered. “You wrote that?” I held court. I felt like…an author. I had my shiny business cards at the ready with my Blogcritics URL on one side and ordering info for Chasing Zebras on the other. “It’s not out yet,” I explained. “But you can pre-order,” I explained coyly, handing off a business card. But the book was still a couple of weeks away from its “street date” and at this point, it became a waiting game. Fast forward to…
September 1, Just Past Midnight
What an incredible thrill to visit the Barnes and Noble website and discover which brick and mortar stores have already stocked Chasing Zebras. Not all stores yet have it (and I’m told more will), but to see it “in stock” at the big B&N in Skokie (where I grew up, and across the street from my alma mater, Niles North) was very cool. I’m sure all those Niles North English teachers who gave me barely passing grades are rolling their eyes—and those teachers who saw in me back in the day a writer with potential (I’m talking about you, Ms. Belser!) are smiling.
Author James Purdy once noted that “most books come into the world stillborn.” The chances of any book being successful are very small, but I also think that Purdy also meant that there are no fanfares playing (unless you’re JK Rowling or Stephen King) at a book’s birth. Although I was sore tempted to locate my copy of Clarke’s “Trumpet Voluntary” and prove Purdy wrong. Instead, several Twitter friends tweeted their congratulations, and I had a celebratory glass of wine.
Then I checked my Amazon.com sales rank. Yes, I confess. Like many neurotic, magical-thinking authors (as I’ve now learned), I have become addicted to the opiate of the published: the Amazon sales rank. It’s a wretched habit, but one to which addiction is almost inevitable—especially when it’s your firstborn. And then I discovered NovelRank. They’ve taken Amazon’s sales rank game and algorithmed it into an actual sales tracking tool. Cool. Every author should go there. Now.
Wednesday Morning September 1: Official Launch of Chasing Zebras
Woke up at 6:30 a.m., after a night terror about zebras pursuing me through the local Borders Bookstore. Maybe it’s a sign. Whether it’s a good sign or a bad sign is still to be determined. Hmm. Needing to reassure myself that this is not all some sort of dream, I called the local B/N to check whether they actually had the book in stock. They did. “I’ll be glad to hold a copy,” said the helpful clerk. “What’s your name?” Embarrassed to admit I was checking on the availability of my own book, I said it wouldn’t be necessary and politely hung up the phone. Off to the bookstore, camera in hand.
They must have known I was coming, that’s all I can say. Old Orchard Shopping Center is one of those megamalls where it’s virtually impossible to find a close-in space, but there it was. First non-handicap space—right in front of Barnes and Noble—just like it had been waiting for me!
Anyway, I headed down to the Film/TV section and there it was! My first instinct was to scream for joy and grab everyone within the reach of my voice to gather and behold the two copies of Chasing Zebras sitting on the shelf. Fortunately, I wasn’t in one of my impulsive moods and adopted what I imagined to be my most auteur-like demeanor.
Politely waiting at the customer service desk until my turn, I pulled out a business card and introduced myself to the department manager. He was completely unimpressed (although I’m sure he’d deny it), but congratulated me anyway. I shyly asked if he’d like me to autograph the copies for the store, and I was delighted (and surprised) when he thanked me, handed me a pen and told me that they’d put a sticker on the book saying “Autographed by author” and place the book on a special table! Cool. I left the store with a spring in my step and promptly shared my photos with my Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
Other friends stalked their own local bookstores from Manhattan to Seattle, snapping photos of Chasing Zebras as well. The evite for the book’s launch party was finally finalized and review copies were mailed by my diligent publicist at ECW to media outlets far and wide, throughout the U.S. and Canada.
And so I sit here at my computer nervously awaiting the first editorial reviews to hit. The book is born. How many will it sell? Will people like it? Will the critics ravage it—and me? Only time (and a lot of patience) will tell.