Summer Pierre has experienced a common but not widely discussed phenomenon in the publishing industry: her book has gone out of print.
After her first book, The Artist in the Office, had been in publication for one year, Summer’s agent called with the news that her publishers wouldn’t consider another book project with her, due to low sales numbers. And, because of those numbers, any other publisher would be unlikely to publish another book from her as well.
After moving through the understandable emotions of shock, shame, and grief, Summer was able to reframe the experience as an opportunity. She emerged with a new outlook on the creative marketplace, and began to focus on creating and submitting her comics and illustrated stories (some of which are forthcoming on The Rumpus).
Summer and I spoke via Skype about the business of publishing books, no longer feeling lost to the fantasy of what it means to be a published writer, and how the experience of having her book go out of print led to pursuing her dream work.
The Rumpus: How did you come to write The Artist in the Office?
Summer Pierre: When I moved to New York in 2005, the Internet was filled with “Follow your dreams!” mantras, which often meant not having a day job and being artistic. I thought, What’s wrong with me? I have a job so I must not be a real artist. Meanwhile I’m writing and drawing and making music and doing all kinds of artistic things. Then I went to a party and met someone who was an Internet celebrity and had published a book. I thought that was as legit as it gets, so when I asked him if he did his artistic work full-time, I saw the shame come over him and he said, “No, no, not yet.” I couldn’t stop thinking about his reaction. He felt sheepish about having a full-time job.
I did a doodle of our conversation that night, and then a year-and-a-half went by, and I had the inspiration to make a zine about staying creative in a day job. I made the zine over one weekend and published a post on my blog that offered to send it to people for free. It went crazy because a lot of people reading blogs in those days were creatives at their day jobs. Once I got started and made it real, it had a life of its own.
Rumpus: How did your zine come to be published as a book?
Pierre: When I started giving away my zine, I got a lot of attention so I knew that there was something to it. So I put together a book proposal, and reached out to an agent that I’d been in touch with a long time ago about something else. She was on board immediately. What was so great about the subject I was writing about is that we were sending it to editors that were all artists in an office. That’s what editors are: they’re artists and they’re creative. I talked to six editors at different houses, and the best part was hearing about what artists they were. I remember talking to one editor who was a sock monkey artist and another that was a poet. I loved that all these people were coming out of the woodwork.
Rumpus: What was the timeline to publication?
Pierre: After I got an agent, it took three months to get a contract. And then it was a year-and-a-half later when The Artist in the Office was published.
Rumpus: Okay, so you have your first book published. Fast forward a year later, and you have this fated call with your agent. What was that conversation like?
Pierre: I was actually already on the phone with my agent and we were talking about ideas for my next book. She said, “My other line is beeping and it’s your editor, so I’ll call you back.” When my agent called me back she said, “Wellll, it’s not the conversation I was looking for.” She basically laid it out for me that because the sales of my book were so low, it would be unlikely that they would consider another book from me. The way the publishing industry works, were we to shop another book elsewhere, that publishing house would be able to look up my numbers and see how low they were and be like, “No, it’s not worth it.”
So basically what she was telling me was that my current career as an author was over and it was time to regroup. I remember that I had no words. I was in shock. I just didn’t know that this was an option. I had no idea that this was even a possibility. When I hung up the phone, I cried my eyes out. I felt like I got fired from a job that I had dreamed about for so long.
The truth of it was that I had mixed feelings on the opportunities that were coming my way as a result of the book. I was already feeling a little bit like, Well this isn’t what I thought I’d do. But still, it was the dream! I went to my husband, and he said, “Please just consider this an opportunity to try something new.” I knew that he was right but I wasn’t ready, so I was bitter for about a week. I was grieving. It felt like someone had broken up with me. It was that feeling of being ashamed and embarrassed.
It’s still something that I feel grief over and feel perplexed by. I really believe in The Artist in the Office and feel that there’s still a need for it. Especially now when the economy is so rocky and there’s a lot of misunderstandings about how to be creative in the marketplace. And it’s still radical to talk about having an artistic career with a day job. “She’s a poet and she works at a law firm?”
Rumpus: How did you shift those feelings of shame and embarrassment into thinking about this as a new opportunity? Was it a conscious process?
Pierre: Oh yeah. I remembered how I was complaining about the path I seemed to be on as a result of publishing The Artist in the Office when I got that call. I processed the feelings in my journal and asked myself questions like, What was it that I was unhappy with? And, What am I telling myself right now that feels so bad? I always try to create for myself what I need. That’s what The Artist in the Office was about, and that’s also why I wrote a blog post on my site about the experience. I’d never heard about this before, I’d never heard about another writer talk about this.
Of course now that I’ve experienced my book going out of print, I’ve heard from a lot of writers about the topic. It’s part of the publishing experience; in fact it’s a very common part of the publishing experience. It’s hard to talk about because it’s a public failure. One of the processes for me was being really honest with what I was feeling and at the same time, looking at the big picture. This was one wonderful chapter, but it’s just one chapter in my hopefully long life. At that point, I had a baby, and I thought of him and about if I were to die, my child would not think, Yeah, she was an author but her book went out of print.
What’s more tragic is if I stopped doing art all together. There was so much more that I wanted to do. So reflecting on what I really wanted to do also helped me look forward. Saying aloud the stuff I felt ashamed of set me free.
Rumpus: How has your experience shifted your view of the publishing business?
Pierre: It sobered me up. I look at books differently as a result of this experience. I now see the marketplace so clearly. As a consumer and a reader and a lover of literature, I never thought of that. When I go into a bookstore now, I just see market, market, market. There’s a lot less mystery. Which in some ways is sad and in other ways is sobering, because I no longer feel as lost to the fantasy of what it means to be a published writer.
There’s so much that goes into a) getting a book deal; and b) the success of that book. When I see bestsellers, I don’t necessarily see talent. Some bestselling authors are absolutely gifted and talented, but being talented doesn’t necessarily mean success. It goes both ways.
Also, in retrospect I realize that as a newbie author, I was so focused on achieving the dream of being published that I failed to realize being published is not a means to an end, but a responsibility. I see how my inexperience and short-sightedness really contributed to my book’s lack of sales. An author’s job these days is so much more than producing the work. It’s also about promotion and knowing the ropes of marketing and sales. If I ever get a book published again (and I sincerely hope I do!), I’ll do my part to get it in front of as many people as possible. I have a better sense of that now more than ever.
Rumpus: Did it also change your opinion on self-publishing?
Pierre: I really go back and forth on self-publishing because it makes so much more sense now. But, here’s something to think about: if you’re not buying self-published books, why would you self-publish your book? The thing that people forget is that you, as an artist, are part of an eco-system that needs to be supported as much as it needs input. Everyone wants a book deal and no one wants to buy books. I’m so perplexed by how many people want to feel validated by print but don’t want to support print. That’s what I mean by the larger view. It’s important for writers to read, but you should also be buying books so there’s actually a marketplace for your work to go into. Don’t you want to support that artistic world so you can participate in it?
Rumpus: Tell me about what you see are the misunderstandings of how to do creative work within the marketplace.
Pierre: One of the things that became clear to me once I did publish and realize the dream was the fantasy around the marketplace. I spent a lot of time as a “bedroom creative,” but I’ve now discovered that for a long time I was making non-marketable work. I always had this idea that if I did good work, it would automatically mean success in the marketplace. In fact, one of the things that day jobs do for you is give you the time and space to make the work you want, and that’s very different from making what the market (aka a larger audience) wants. Sometimes that coincides, but many artists don’t know the difference between doing “marketable work” and “personal work.”
The market is its own thing with its own pulse and rhythms. It’s something to study and to understand as an artist. Many creatives have expectations around public “success,” but send work out without understanding how it fits into the marketplace.
Rumpus: Do you separate your “marketable work” with your “personal work”?
Pierre: My day job now is illustration. That was another light bulb moment after my book went out of print. Illustration is a market. It’s a passion for me, but it’s also for hire and by order. It’s not my “creative” work. That’s something I learned. My personal work has a smaller, less obvious market. You have to balance those things as an artist.
Rumpus: How can a creative person be aware of the market and also create meaningful work at the same time?
Pierre: You should never, ever put off the work of your dreams. Life’s too short. I know that’s a cliché, but we’re all mortal on this bus. It’ll never be the “right” time or climate to do the stuff you’ve been meaning or yearning to do—so just do it now. Always make time for your dream work.
At the same time, if you want to make any kind of income or become known on a larger scale, think about some of the big subjects that you’re hearing about and get you excited, but that don’t have your voice in it. It’s that thing about understanding the larger conversation and learning where you feel ignited by that conversation. Like for me, I was buzzed about creativity, and what I was living was a day job and creativity, and I hadn’t seen anyone talking about that. It was my passion crossed with a reality I knew millions of people were living. You’ve got to try things out.
Rumpus: Inspiration has to come first. It’s what you’re excited about then thinking about how it fits into the marketplace, not the other way around.
Rumpus: What were some of your new creative dreams after experiencing your first book’s publication and performance in the marketplace?
Pierre: What it really woke me up to afterwards was how passive I’d been as an artist. If somebody liked something that I did, that’s what I focused on, as opposed to doing primarily what I liked to do and pushing that forward. I was waiting for someone to tell me I was good enough to do what I really wanted to do. So this experience freed me up to go after my dream work, which are comics and illustrated stories. It pushed me to pursue publishing my work in other places besides just my own blog or wherever else I was invited to publish. I had to move beyond my comfort zone. That’s something I’ve been actively working on. It’s helped me claim the artist inside me instead of being the “how-to” person from The Artist in the Office.
Rumpus: I loved what you said in your blog post about never hearing about the “quietly great life” of an artist. Can you share what you meant by that and why the experience of having your first book go out of print led you to realizing the kind of life you wanted?
Pierre: I had a movie version of what it was like to be an artist and writer. I wanted to be an artist in a movie, where you have your troubles but you still look great in your sweater set, and you meet all the right people and your book gets published and you’re famous forever. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but I secretly expected that would happen. I thought in those black-and-white terms, which is that either you’re famous or you’re nobody. That is such a win-lose scenario. It doesn’t leave much room for humanity, or for the very long story of life. It was very sobering to ask myself, Is this the end of my story? The answer was, Of course not. Life is not a movie, you don’t hit a crescendo and then the credits roll and there’s this awesome soundtrack. It keeps going. I finally admitted, I may not be famous. I may not have that level of success. Even so, I still needed to value my life and continue my dreams even if nobody knows or sees anything. It still has value.
Rumpus: Was there a relief in that?
Pierre: A little bit. Again, the grief was there, but I realized if I lived with that in mind, I could really treasure what I was living.
One of my absolute favorite writers is Kurt Vonnegut. Up until he signed with Dell Publishing, all but two of his books were out of print. The reality is that the publishing industry has a short vision of your career as an author—it starts and ends with the sales of the one book. As the writer, you should have a longer vision of your career and life.
Going out of print is not in the movie version of artistic life, but it’s actually extremely common, and that’s something that not a lot of people consider. One of the things that my friend Keri Smith talks about in her list, “How To Feel Miserable As An Artist,” is: “Bank all of the success of your hopes and dreams on one thing.” Your book publication is a wonderful thing to celebrate, and it should be celebrated, but it should not be the only thing you celebrate in your life. It should be one of many things to come.
All illustrations © by Summer Pierre.