Solidly mid-list. That’s how an agent described my work a few days ago in her very flattering letter telling me that she wasn’t interested in representing me to sell my next novel. She also said many of the things I’ve become accustomed to hearing about my work—that the writing is lovely, that it beautifully captures the dynamics of its small Montana community. But all those nice things were followed not by an ‘and,’ but by a ‘but.’ The same ‘but’ that I’ve been hearing a lot lately, which is that this book is too quiet to be a breakout novel.
And it may sound strange, but I was grateful that she was the first to acknowledge something I’ve suspected for years now but haven’t heard outright from anyone. That I have somehow become a ‘mid-list’ writer. And what that means is that I am likely to have a better chance of making the Red Sox pitching rotation than of finding representation. Okay, I’m exaggerating. Slightly.
The signs were all there. The sales of all my books since my first novel have been mediocre at best. I have not been able to break in with a major publisher again since novel number one. I’ve been reviewed by some smaller publications and newspapers, but nothing like In Open Spaces, which was reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times, made the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller list, and was named on a couple of ‘best of’ lists for 2002.
And then there are the other signs—those that come from your fellow writers, and which for me are the most painful. People who were eager to read your first book say nothing about the new one. They promote other people’s books on their blogs or their Facebook pages, with glowing reviews, but for you it’s a resounding silence. And you don’t know whether that silence means that they haven’t read it, or they read it and think that you’ve lost it. But you don’t ask. You will not ask, because that would put them in the awkward position of having to say ‘I loved it’ when they don’t mean it. Except for a few devoted friends, you are in exile among your own kind, and there are few things that make someone feel more alone.
So what happened? How did I get here? That’s really the mystery of this whole business, this amazing adventure we call writing.
It’s embarrassing to look back on how naïve and/or foolish I was when In Open Spaces came out. It started with a bang, with a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. And for the next couple of years, everything seemed ridiculously easy. Every time I turned around, there was another piece of good news, whether it was a gig as Writer-in-Residence at St. Mary’s College, or an invitation to appear on another panel, radio interviews, the list kept growing. It was translated into French! I was convinced that this was how it was going to be for the rest of my career. Maybe the most embarrassing thing, thinking back on that time, is wondering how many people I ignored who were in the position I find myself in now. How many really nice, talented writers tried to talk to me about how hard it was, and I did NOT want to hear it. I was afraid, as we all tend to be, that it might be contagious. I’m sure I thought to myself that they were just not trying hard enough, or—here’s the worst reality a writer can possibly imagine—they aren’t as good as they think they are.
I know that I am at least partially to blame for the way my career turned. There were missteps along the way. The most significant mistake was in the process of trying to sell novel number two. In Open Spaces was originally sold to William Morrow, in 1999, when they were still a separate entity. But a year later, about the time we finished editing, Morrow was swallowed up by HarperCollins, my editor was among those who lost their jobs, and for a while (two and a half years, actually), my book got lost in the sea of books that a merger produces. There was a period where they weren’t sure it would be published. There was an even longer period where I heard absolutely nothing, which was worse. It had taken me eight years from the time I wrote this book to find a publisher, so on some days, the thought of waiting another year or two wasn’t the worst thing in the world. But there were other days when it felt like a horrible joke.
Thankfully, after being assigned to five different editors, all of whom left the company, a junior editor was willing to take it on, and it came out in 2002, three and a half years after I signed the contract. But she too left the company, a month before it was released. I would imagine that Harper was surprised at the modest success of In Open Spaces considering it didn’t have anyone pushing it in-house. But I was eventually assigned to another editor to negotiate the second novel. He was a big fan of the first, so I was sure I was in good hands. I wasn’t worried at all.
Because it had taken so long to sell In Open Spaces, I had another novel (actually, three) that were finished, and I had also begun a sequel to In Open Spaces. So I sent him one of the finished novels, and was surprised that he wasn’t thrilled with it; he thought the fact that it was a complete departure from the first would disrupt my momentum. This was the first small indication that things might not be as smooth and easy as I expected. But he was very happy to find out that a sequel was in the works, and asked me to send along what I had, which was only a couple of early chapters. A few weeks later, he contacted my agent with an offer. A very good offer. Five times the advance I got for my first novel. Today I would take that offer without a second’s hesitation. But basking in the success of my first novel, and prompted by a suggestion from my agent, we arranged to meet with my editor, and we discussed the possibility that he might get me a better offer once the novel was finished. The idea of getting more was too appealing to pass up. So I officially declined their offer, with a wink and a nudge to my editor.
And I did what writers are supposed to do. I went to work, and close to a year later, I was nearly finished with the first draft of The Watershed Years. What happened next is so predictable I can’t believe it never even occurred to me at the time. When I contacted my editor to tell him the new novel was nearly finished, he had some bad news. He was leaving the company. They gave the finished novel to a different editor, who was not interested.
That’s where everything turned. My agent was not able to find another publisher, and it was another five years before I found one on my own. In the ten years since In Open Spaces came out, I have published two novels, both to publishers I found myself, and I was fortunate enough to co-edit an anthology with Lynn Stegner, daughter-in-law of one of my heroes. The advance I received for my second novel was one fifth what I received for my first. The advance I received for my third novel was one one-hundredth what I received for my second novel. It was not six figures, or five, or four, or even three. It was a two-figure advance. And I was happy to get it! That’s how far things have fallen.
The hardest part about being a mid-list writer is that people assume, because you have several books out there, that you don’t have to worry about whether your next book will get published. People are constantly asking me for advice about how to find an agent, or whether I will recommend them to a publisher. I often don’t have the heart to tell them that I’m looking for an agent myself, which is a whole ‘nother story. People assume that if you’ve published three novels, publishers are eager to have you join their stable. It makes it difficult to find a sympathetic ear for this dilemma. Because there are so many people who would give anything to be where I am. Even among writers who are in the same position, it can become a painful topic. It’s almost as if we share an overwhelming fear that talking about it will perpetuate it. That the perception will permanently solidify the reality. And none of us wants that. It reminds me a little of my homesteading ancestors. In talking to people who grew up during the pioneering days, one common theme is that no one is comfortable talking about how hard it was. Because everyone was in the same boat. Nobody wants to be known as a complainer. It’s even uncomfortable writing this down, honestly.
It may seem to the outside world that having any books published at all should be satisfying enough. And there are moments when that’s true. But overall, I can assure you that’s not enough. At least not for me. Because from the beginning, my goal has been to become a better writer. All I ever wanted was to form a relationship with an agent that would give me some kind of consistent progress in becoming a better writer and building my career. Good reviews, and I have had more than my share, only validate the hunger for a day or two. Letters from people who love my work are better, but again, those only keep me going for a few days at most. In the end, it will always come down to whether or not someone is out there waiting to read the next thing I write. Someone who believes that I still have something to offer.
So where does this leave me now, today, without an agent or a publisher, with two finished novels waiting patiently in folders on my computer, and a third well underway. Not to mention the memoir. Well, it’s simple, really. And also incredibly clichéd. But what writers always need to do in the end is to write. There have been many many times during these years that the rejections have battered my confidence to the point where I’ve considered giving it up. Every time I get my royalty statements, which come every six months, my resolve gets tested in ways that sometimes take weeks to overcome. But the desire to write, it seems, is a sickness for which there is no cure. Except writing.
If I were the only one going through this, I would know it was me. I would know that I really am one of those people who think they’re better than they are. But I know so many writers, many very good writers, who are struggling with this same situation. So the question becomes when did experience become a detriment to getting published? When did it turn from “You have a solid track record, so we’ll definitely give your next book a look” to “You’ve had your day in the sun, and you didn’t generate enough sales, so it’s time to give others a chance.” It’s not hard to understand in some ways. Who would publishers rather deal with, someone who has enough experience that they want to make sure things get done right, or someone who’s so grateful to be published that they’ll agree to anything? I get that.
But here’s the other thing that keeps me and other writers going and probably always will. This woman, who I’m sure came into the publishing business for the same reason everyone does, because she loves books, doesn’t know anything. That is not a slam, or a criticism, it is a simple fact. Every agent I’ve ever dealt with (well, okay, with one exception) has been incredibly respectful, articulate, encouraging, and sympathetic to what it’s like to be in our shoes. But they will also be the first to admit that they don’t have a clue what is going to take the book world by storm. It’s not hard to identify bad books. But the number of good books that get published increases a little every year with the advent and growing ease of self-publishing. And the thing that distinguishes 50 Shades of Grey from every other bodice-ripping romance novel is a complete mystery to everyone. Until it gets out there and we get a chance to see what kind of groundswell happens, or doesn’t happen, none of us knows what the fate of our next book will be. The odds will never be in my favor, but there will always be that small percentage of a chance that my small stream of words will wriggle its way into that narrow crevice and break out into the world like a fucking typhoon. And because I have that completely irrational, often unearned ego that all writers need to keep going, I’m always preparing for that ride.