‘Eat More Cake’: The Pitfalls of Publication
You’ve been working on your book for a very, very long time. There have been moments when you’ve wanted to give up on the whole thing – when you’ve marvelled at your audacity ever to have believed you could be a writer. You pushed through those moments, and through writer’s block, procrastination and – probably – extreme financial pressure. And then, out of the uncertainty, the scarcely imaginable happened: you secured a publishing deal, and a year later your book was published.
And wait – it wasn’t just published, it was published to considerable acclaim. It appeared in the blogs you love, magazines and journals you read, Sunday newspaper columns you follow. You spoke on the radio about what inspired it; you read passages from it at events, and were interviewed by pre-eminent editors and authors. You even found copies of it on the display desk in your favourite bookshop, stacked snugly next to the kinds of book you actually choose to read. Once, you even saw a man snatch it out of his bag as soon as he got onto the same tube carriage as you, and read it, entirely rapt, until his stop.
But… you’re not happy. In fact, you feel insecure, an impostor and a failure. You can’t quite believe the good reviews for longer than five minutes after you finish reading them. You can’t stop thinking about that three-star review on Amazon that called it ‘forgettable’, or the fact that your favourite blog – the one that reviewed X’s book, which was published in the same month, so favourably – didn’t mention your own. You can’t forget that the Guardian review everyone congratulated you on called it ‘an extraordinary achievement for a first novel’, nor the Independent’s comment that ‘the pace sometimes lags in the final third’. You remember that question you fluffed on live radio, and squirm. And you can’t help but notice that the GoodReads reviews are becoming less and less frequent.
That’s because you’re a writer, and as a breed we are almost to a one perfectionist, neurotic, savagely self-critical and infuriatingly difficult to persuade. As a good friend of mine, who was published in 2016 to superlative coverage and celebratory reviews, put it: ‘I suppose nothing is ever enough. For short moments, I feel thrilled with the fact that I’ve written a book, and it’s been published, and people have read it and enjoyed it. The rest of the time, frankly, I just feel anxious about what a failure my next book will be in comparison.’
As her friend, I find this frustrating. But as an editor who has worked with scores of self-flagellating and endlessly unsatisfied authors, I am hardly surprised – and am pretty sure it’s why writers a) have the grit, determination and sort of dogged chutzpah to write a book in the first place, and b) go on to write their second book – and, ultimately, to keep experimenting and improving.
That doesn’t mean you should have free rein to obsess over every piece of negative coverage your book has ever received. The author Vanessa LaFaye’s ‘Letter to my Pre-Published Self’ gives some very useful retrospective advice to those approaching publication for the first time, but particularly the following two. First, ‘NEVER ENGAGE’ with bad reviews, even the ones that feel personal and spiteful; as she says, ‘That way lies madness and public humiliation.’ Second – and this advice applies equally to unpublished writers, and perhaps myself, too, right now, and you – ‘Go for a walk, and eat some cake.’