URING THE LAST SIX MONTHS I've visited bookeditors at two large newspapers for which I sometimes review books. On both visits I was shown the "book room" -- the small, simply furnished place where bound galleys and review copies are logged and stored, some marked for reviewers, others destined for cardboard boxes where they'll languish until some assistant plucks one out for reading on the bus home. Because I'm a free-lance reviewer, I was interested in what these editors told me: 40,000 books a year are published in the United States; most books don't get reviewed; it's possible for a good book by an unknown writer to get passed over; even with strong reviews, a book may not sell. Because I recently sold my first novel and am awaiting its publication, I was also made dizzy by these conversations. As I eyed hundreds of last month's books, I felt I was standing in the shallows of an ocean, the undertow about to carry me -- and my book -- into the middle of nowhere.
There's no question, of course, that selling a first novel is exciting. There was my agent's bright voice on the phone, my parents' elation, my girlfriend at the door with expensive wine, notes and calls from friends cracking the usual jokes about huge autograph parties and Pulitzer Prizes. There was the odd compliment from one acquaintance, a pretty girl, who confessed she found me more attractive as a published novelist than as an unpublished one, and the backhanded compliment from another acquaintance, an aspiring novelist, who quietly congratulated me while decrying the sad state of publishers' tastes in general. And there were, inevitably, the lone flights of fancy. I could suddenly touch the binding of no novel, whether by Dickens or Dostoevski, without exclaiming to myself, "Hey! I'm a novelist now, too!"
If selling my novel was a little Mardi Gras, though, it didn't take long for rain to sweep down on the floats. The novel's price was one rainmaker. A hometown neighbor told me he planned to give copies of my novel to all his friends. He thought to ask how much it would cost. When I told him $14.95, he balked, then said, "I guess I'll have to wait until it's out in paperback." I explained that the book probably wouldn't go into paperback unless it sells well. The neighbor smiled sheepishly. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll tell my friends to check it out of the library, then." I thanked him, unable to say I had recently seen a news photo of local librarians, faces long, sending back boxes of books they were unable to pay for because of funding cutbacks.
The subject matter of my novel proved difficult for some to cheer about. "What's it about?" asked people I'd meet at parties. "Oh," I'd answer, "the story revolves around a black family and a Jewish family in my home state, Alabama." While I waited for the next question, I watched their eyes glaze over. Clearly, these potential readers were disappointed I had not uttered the magic words: "spy thriller," "industry expos,e," or "gothic romance."
I turned to my editor and publicist for comfort. My editor, an accomplished writer herself, took me to lunch to discuss final revisions. I digressed a moment and asked how my novel would sell, expecting her to confide it was destined for greatness. Gently, as one who had lunched with many a wide-eyed young novelist, she said, "If I weren't high on your book, I wouldn't have bought it to publish. But, you must be realistic. Launching a first novel is extremely difficult. Every first novelist believes his novel will be the exception." Stoically I nodded, hoping I hadn't betrayed the silly hope that I was the exception. By the time I had lunch with the book's publicist, I was well-versed in the numbers and percentages of possible failure. At the same time the kind woman shored up my hopes, she also warned me against building them too high. Then she mentioned a fact that sent me musing all afternoon. At best, she explained, a novel has a shelf life of about three months: if the book is still staring at the cashier after three full moons have passed, away it goes to the land of remainders. Three months? Is that longer than the shelf life of bologna?
Suddenly, everywhere I looked, journalists and industry spokesmen were proclaiming that becoming a novelist in this day is like offering oneself as a sculptor of gargoyles. I picked up The Washington Post to read a short, grim essay on America's not being a nation of readers. In The New York Times Book Review I came across a long, grim essay depicting the first novelist as a foolish Candide who presumes others will read his book. In Publishers Weekly I read of one paperback publisher who stated that first novel reprints were a "risky proposition," and that, though his company's reprinting a recent first novel would "incite hopes in young authors and subsidiary rights departments," the move surely wasn't "meant to signal any . . . policy." In a cover article on first novels in Coda, a magazine published by Poets & Writers, an editor was quoted as saying that most first novels will sell to only 0.001 per cent of the population. This percentage, I calculated, represents the number of people living on my block in New York City. If I were to sit in my window and read my book through a public address system, I could double the number of folks my work will reach.
Yet, curiously enough, I don't really feel discouraged. Perhaps I haven't been worked over yet by the slings and arrows of outrageous reviews. Perhaps I'm naturally sanguine. Or perhaps I haven't yet run into what every writer seems to fear most: a wall of silence.
I simply reckon that though I'm one of 40,000 writers to publish a book this year, I could be one of the 400,000 -- or forty hundred thousand -- not to get published. I can drop old girlfriends announcements of the novel's publication, proving that not everyone who set out to be a writer ended up in law school. Though my novel might not be another To Kill A Mockingbird, at least I can mail a copy to Harper Lee as a much belated thank you gift for having written To Kill A Mockingbird. I can be assured that some people will read my novel, especially those who suspect -- hopefully or fearfully -- certain characters are modeled on themselves. And I'm suddenly forced to make my private face public, a frightening but necessary act for someone like me, who, since earliest college days, has smugly thought his insights worth relating.
In moments of great self-confidence I even allow myself to entertain what I consider romantic thoughts. The first is that, decades from now, my great-great-grandchildren will blow the dust off my novel, and if the pages aren't corroded from the paper's acid content, read the words as clear windows on their forbear who sat in a room, drank tomato soup, and put images on a page. The second is that somewhere, on an early spring day, an elderly woman will, quite by chance, buy my book for 50 cents at a flea market. She'll tuck it under her arm, find a sunlit park bench, read my words, and later, magically, walk the street for an hour or so seeing the world as I once did.
On the brink of my novel's publication, I no longer feel I'm standing in the shallows of an ocean. I'm standing on the edge of a ravine, holding a pebble, readying to toss it down and see if, moments later, I hear a tiny plink! Chances are, as with all who stand on ravine edges tossing pebbles, I'll hear nothing. But if I do, what sound could be more thrilling?