“Everything is Riding on Your Author Photo.” Mary Childs on What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book
Or: How to Survive the Metaphorical Oncoming Bus That Is Your Book Launch
I thought having a book published would turn me into the confident, self-assured person I always knew I could be. I thought everyone but my enemies would be happy for me, and I would be, too. I thought I would become a morning person. So when my publication date finally came around, I was very disappointed that I didn’t become that better person—instead, I became a child.
I know publishing a book is a privilege, and I feel immensely happy, proud, and gratified to have been able to do it. I also felt like an absolute dolt for the entire process. Even when I got the contract, I was only happy for about a day before I was overcome with anxiety: What if the book—when I finally wrote it—was horrible? What if it revealed to everyone, once and for all, how foolish and not-smart I truly am?
Nonetheless, I was confused by my author friends’ nervous or fumbled reactions to praise when their books came out; why did compliments seem to roll off of them? Hadn’t they arrived?
By now I’ve talked to many of these friends, and am disappointed to tell you that they experienced the same terrible arc that I did, with their own tortured variations. Putting a book into the world is so much more vulnerable and volatile than we predicted. My theory is that anyone who says they are not experiencing some variation of this is either lying or a sociopath (or already established, or not Very Online, or possibly just a man?).
Because I assume that, much like with childbirth, some self-preservation mechanism will erase the more traumatic parts, I thought I would write down what I could remember of the experience. So, almost a year after my book’s publication, here you go. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following, know that you are not alone.
T- ∞ months
You are likely full of despair because you are in the writing/editing process. You are at the bottom of a well; you want to walk in front of an oncoming bus, and, crucially, get hit by it. You think the book will never be finished and every moment that it is not finished is intense psychological torture. I know. I’m sorry. But … time to get blurbs!! Never too soon! You want to give your important friends and industry contacts long enough to actually read your book (though some will not). Also: do not feel any shame at all in asking people. In fact at this moment I want you to gather up all your shame, and put it in a big box, tape the box up tight so that nothing can get out, and put the box in your basement, and lock the door to your basement. Your shame will not be useful until we are done. (Arguably it never is, but that’s between you and your therapist.)
Also, if you have any free time amidst the despair, can you start a TikTok and become influential in BookTok?
T- 6 months
Do you have a good headshot? Now’s the time! You must have an author photo which perfectly communicates your entire Author Persona. Everything is riding on this picture. What do you want to communicate? Are you smart? Or are you funny? Are you cool, artsy, aloof, accessible, vulnerable, beachy, generous, serious, flirty, fun, interesting, weird? These will determine your background, your head tilt, your degree of smize.
Here’s my word cloud, approximately: incisive, inquisitive, investigative, hard-hitting, deeply reported, gravitas, Michael Lewis. To make my author photo, I literally looked at Michael Lewis’s, picked an achievably similar background, and made my husband take pictures of my face in various thoughtful poses until it looked right.Think of a clever-but-not-bitter answer to “are you working on another one?” People do not really like it when the answer is “death first.”
Also: to whomst are you going to send your galleys? Start reaching out! We want this baby on all the lists, so galleys need to be in every editor’s hand. Should you spend money to buy golf balls on eBay that say the name of the company you wrote about, to make little care packages for editors? I mean sure, if you have someone in mind. Please don’t spend $50 on golf balls because you think this bit is funny but in the end you are just going to have a bunch of golf balls branded with the name of the company you wrote your book about and even your father-in-law does not want them.
T- four or five months
Every “most anticipated” book list is a personal insult. Even lists that objectively have nothing to do with your book, like “most anticipated cookbooks by nepo babies” or “a list of one book by Salman Rushdie.” They didn’t include your book, and it’s because they hate you and are embarrassed for you and of you on your behalf, and also they do not think about you at all. You might get on lists like “528 books Australian CEOs of mining companies should read on their vacation but not at any other time,” or “the 4,921 narrative nonfiction business books being published on this one specific date,” but, somehow, these will not be much of a salve.
I regret to inform you that this is true no matter the quantity OR quality of the lists you make it onto, even if you are on all the very best and most important ones (I’m told). It is never going to be enough. I haven’t asked, like, Hernan Diaz or Ann Patchett about this, but I am going to assume for my own health that even a comprehensive sweep doesn’t do it. I recommend you don’t say anything about this to your non-author friends, because they will think they can comfort you; they can’t. Nothing can.
Also, unfortunately, the duration of this one is until death. (Possibly beyond, I don’t know yet.) It just goes from being “anticipated” to “recently published” and then “published ever” and then “of all time.” The wound knows no realistic bounds.
T- three months
I hope all your edits are long-completed and you are starting to forget the trauma of writing. This is a necessary part of the process because you must forget in order to promote your book. You need distance.
You know how, sometimes, when you’re crying from a horrible fight or bad news but you have a meeting in 30 seconds, you can find a terrifying ability to wipe the tears and turn on a beaming smile and no one’s the wiser? Great. You’re going to have to do that, but on a macro scale. You can deal with the book trauma later, in its own time; that time is not now.
Right now you have to put all that away, maybe next to the shame downstairs, and flip on that smile. You now have two faces: one for those who know the truth (your close friends, fellow book authors, and also for some reason your dentist), and another, prettier one for the big world: your book is AMAZING and you are SO PROUD OF IT. You are HAPPY with it. The process was grueling but SO WORTH IT. Think of a clever-but-not-bitter answer to “are you working on another one?” People do not really like it when the answer is “death first.”
T- two months
Have you composed an enormous email about your book to all your friends and enemies and everyone whose email address you’ve ever acquired? You MUST ask them to (/demand that they) preorder your book because, as you know, preorders matter, and people are slow at accomplishing tasks so you have to give them time. I know because I did this wrong. Don’t forget to ask them to *review the book* on Goodreads and/or Amazon because early reviews determine a LOT (though under no circumstances should you read those reviews, ever).
T- one month
There’s a repeated sentence on page 7, and everyone who’s gotten a galley will tell you.
T- three weeks
At this point you start to get reviews. From your friends (hopefully), people who have galleys, people who heard you on the radio answer a question in a way that they did not like so they decide you don’t know anything about the subject you have covered for 10+ years and wrote a 110,000-word book about, and over time dozens and dozens of people will “find this review helpful,” probably going from potential buyer to not-buyer.
Let’s talk about reviews. First of all, as mentioned above, don’t look at them. Goodreads and Amazon are famously not FOR you. But, second of all, of course you’re going to look because you’re a person but more specifically a writer and therefore insecure and incorrigible. The reviews are going to be horrible. No matter what. Because people are mean and want to hate things. (People are also kind and want to love things, but you won’t remember them nearly as acutely.)
Some people won’t understand your book. Some people only like YA, or sci-fi, or historical fiction, but picked up your book by accident, or because someone told them to and that person was wrong. But you wouldn’t trust a random internet stranger’s views on, like, politics or healthcare or Beyonce, would you? So why are you giving them so much power now?
No, sorry, I just wanted to sound like I’d transcended. It’s not possible to avoid. So here I can let you in on a little trick, which doesn’t always work. For this, out of an abundance of embarrassment, I’m going to let the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman speak for me. He—like EVERYONE—got some negative reviews on Amazon.
Michael Schulman: At some point, I just clicked on one of their names.
Ira Glass: One of the people who hated your book.
Michael Schulman: Yeah. And that brought me to everything else they had reviewed on Amazon. And I realized that when you do that, you see what they liked. And once I saw what some of these people loved on Amazon, it completely neutralized them.
Ira Glass: So let’s go through some of the ones that you saw.
Michael Schulman: OK. So Kathy gave me two stars. She says, disappointing. Too much detail about people other than Meryl Streep. And not enough about Meryl herself. What did Kathy like? A cupcake stand that comes in lavender with polka dots. Five stars. And she just writes, perfect.
Ira Glass: What’s that say to you?
Michael Schulman: That she has enough cupcakes that she needs to arrange them on a cupcake stand in polka dots, and that makes her happy. My book cannot speak to that sort of—let me try this again. Perfection to Kathy is this cupcake stand filled with cupcakes with polka dots. And my book did not give her that same feeling, and that’s OK.
The guy who didn’t like how I answered Ari Shapiro’s question on the radio? He also reviewed a pair of toenail clippers (for men) which he gave five stars because “Fantastic for us old people that have fungus laden toenails.” When I read that review, I honestly felt much better. Bless him. (This trick obviously breaks when the reviewer demonstrates impeccable taste in their other reviews.)
T- two weeks
At this point, insecurity is at record highs. A friend posted that my book looked ~interesting~ and I was so hurt by her tepidity. I emailed a friend, “clearly she wants me dead???”
You will be petty and myopic and your only recourse is to lean on your VERY CLOSE friends (but make sure to spread the misery around—this is a marathon, not a sprint). At this point, your ability to remember what’s happening will start to flicker, and you will be acting a little erratically. Whenever possible, avoid driving.
T- one week
During this week, reviews for your book may start to come in. Unfortunately they will be impossible for you to process for a few weeks, if not months. It’s a good idea to pick a trusted friend as your “review screener” to read them for you, assess the overall tone/takeaways, and report back, so you don’t have to subject yourself to negativity that will never leave your mind should the review be bad. If the review is good, your screener can tell you, and then you can read it. Safety first! It’s actually a marathon AND a sprint.
You are blacked out. You are overwhelmed. You are typing homophones incorrectly, your emails are illegible. You are euphoric. The internet is the nicest place you’ve ever been. You have a party where your dearest friends and people you’ve never heard from are congratulating you, hugging you, petting you, telling you you’re a goddess, a queen. You did it. I’m so proud of you. Stop reading Amazon reviews. But do continue to remind your friends to leave one!
T+ one week
Euphoria hangover. I wrote to a friend “it’s like being at my own funeral but in a good way. i think i recommend writing a book.”
T+ six weeks
Here’s the good news: from here on out you will almost be a person again. Just one wracked with insecurity. The New York Times will review your friends’ book—your own friend!—and you feel mad because their review is better. I emailed one long-suffering friend, “when will this curse end do u know?” Well, it’s been a year and it still hasn’t. I do think it gets less acute.
T+ three months
You’re a person again, and you may start to try to feel like it. You can think about things that aren’t your book. You might exercise. You might go back and look at what you did in the past few weeks, and catch typos, or worse.
T+ six months
You will read harsh New York Times reviews of someone else’s book and feel a pang of sympathy for the author, and remember that, even when it doesn’t feel like it, things could always be worse. You will notice that the harshly-reviewed book was on the New York Times bestseller list, and you will retract your sympathy. No, no, wait, you will still feel it, for sure.
T+ ∞ months
Well, kiddo, here you are. You’ve arrived. You’re a published author and I for one couldn’t be more proud of you. Your prettier, smilier mask might start to feel less fake around now. From here on out, leave generous and glowing reviews for your friends’ books, for every book you read that you don’t hate; this is healing. If you hated a book, be quiet, and luxuriate for a fleeting second in the fact that you wrote a better one. Stop reading your Amazon reviews.