Every new author has two twin fantasies when they publish their first book. The first fantasy is that it will be a runaway best-seller. I imagined being interviewed by Oprah, or Scott Simon on NPR. “So tell me, Ms. Ingram, how does it feel to have such surprising success with your first book?” You really believe this might happen … for a while.
The second fantasy, more nightmarish, is seeing your beautiful book in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble with a sticker loudly announcing “Clearance $2.98.” Oh, the shame: the merciless, piercing arrow of reality plunged into the heart.
I’m guessing most authors experience neither of these two scenarios. Well, call me lucky. It happened; the thing that every writer fears happened to me a few days ago.
I took my children to the annual book sale at our local library to rummage through their detritus, and there it was: my book. The one it took four years to write. The one I painstakingly published not six months ago. There was the beautiful, familiar blue and white spine looking up at me, stuffed amongst two dozen other cast-offs in a broken-down cardboard box. Ouch. Double dog ouch.
I donated my book to the library with not a little pride and the intention that it be placed in their collection, not tossed in their sad little sale in the back room, heaped in with the other second-hand, 1970s paperback schlock. I picked it up and clutched it to my heart. It hadn’t even been read. I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse. My son said, “Are you buying that?”
“No, I’m not buying it,” I said reproachfully. “I wrote it! It’s mine!”
I walked around with it clutched to my breast for a few minutes, looking at the other books, my children trolling behind me, watching to see what I was going to do. This made me feel very self-conscious. A little voice in my head whispered, You’re modeling improper behavior, Mama-san. Taking it would be tantamount to stealing. “No, it wouldn’t!” I argued, “It’s mine! I gave it to them!” But I knew the truth, and there I stood, stuck between my nightmare and a hard place. I quietly slipped it back into the box where I’d found it. Maybe someone would buy it and actually read it. Maybe someone who really needed it, but couldn’t afford the $16. It consoled me only a little to see J. K. Rowling’s novel in a box that I passed on the way to the check out. Unlike moi, she got part one of the fantasy package at least, and then some.
I’m not giving up. My dream still plays in my head. I still can imagine getting the endorsement from Deepak, although that ship likely sailed a year ago. I still turn up the volume on the radio whenever Scott Simon interviews an author and imagine what that would feel like. I still harbor the vision of my book becoming a movie and I believe, for reasons I cannot explain, that it will still happen.
The truth is that a book, like a child, has a life of its own. You can do an amazing job shepherding it out into the world. You can do everything right, or even everything wrong, and that offspring will still surprise, dismay, or delight you at some point in the near or far future. You just never can tell. Genes and talent are not destiny. There’s always hope. And if that hope is dashed one day at the library, there’s always red wine.