In March 2020, a book will come out with the praise of Stephen King. The book will garner praise from other big names, and articles about the book have already pointed out its seven figure advance. The publishing industry has been hard at work since last year to make sure you know about this book.
To those familiar with the controversy around American Dirt, this may sound familiar. A white woman has written a book that fictionalizes a story many people have survived and the book is receiving tremendous backing and promotion. The book this time, though, is titled My Dark Vanessa. The book I wrote, Excavation, is a memoir with eerie story similarities, and was published by a small press in 2014.
The road to publishing Excavation began in 2012, when my friend, author Emily Rapp, suggested I write a Modern Love column.
I had never heard of Modern Love. I had no idea what its cultural significance was, that it had millions of readers and fans. I knew it was in the New York Times, which I didn’t read. Emily said, Hey, you should take a shot at this! and I took her advice, because at the very least, I could treat it as a writing prompt. I could find a way to write about love in a fresh, interesting way.
I wrote an essay I was proud of, if not terrified to share, because it centered my queerness, and told the story of the adulterous relationship that led me to my current partner. I was shocked when the essay was accepted. The day after it was published, I was swarmed by agents who casually emailed and asked me for the book, a sample chapter, something.
I wrote an essay I was proud of, if not terrified to share, because it centered my queerness, and told the story of the adulterous relationship that led me to my current partner.
I’ve been writing and thinking of myself as “a writer” since I was 6. All the people closest to me know me as a reader and writer. To have agents suddenly reaching out to me, who had only been publishing in literary journals, felt surreal.
But I didn’t have the book they wanted. In a few cases, I replied, boldly, I don’t have that book written, but I have another book. I proceeded to tell them about the book I’d been actively working on since 2002, the book I was calling “What Is and What Should Never Be” that would become my memoir Excavation.
Excavation tells the story of my eighth-grade English teacher and how he began a sexual relationship with me, which would last five years. It takes place in the late 1980s/early 1990s San Fernando Valley, just over the hill from Los Angeles. The book attempts to bring the reader into the mind of the adolescent I was, struggling to be in a “relationship” with a man I believed I loved, unwilling and unable to see what was actually happening. I made a conscious decision to not use the words familiar to this type of story, like victim, or perpetrator, because these were not words I used at the time. I wanted my reader to understand the harm involved. I also wanted readers who had been through similar experiences to see themselves in the book, and feel less alone.
I chose a well-meaning, lovely agent from a boutique agency who also happened to be bicoastal. We were able to meet over a drink and I instantly knew we were not a good fit. I didn’t articulate this; I was overwhelmed by having an agent at all. I have since learned that this is something to pay attention to and make decisions about before moving in any direction. We signed a contract. With my new agent’s guidance, I shaped up the draft of Excavation as best I could, and in the spring of 2013, she tried to sell “What Is and What Should Never Be.”
While my manuscript was out on submission, my agent asked me if I would like to read the comments of the editors who “passed.” In an effort to get as much feedback as possible, believing it might help me make a better book, I said yes. I started a Word document with all the editors’ names, the house they were from, and their comments on the book. I offer these as examples of how the publishing industry gates quietly but effectively work.
Here are an anonymous few.
Wendy Ortiz is a fantastic writer and I found her memoir moving and complex. The problem for me is that I’ve put myself on a memoir moratorium — at least for a while — because I’ve bought too many and they’re becoming increasingly hard to publish.
I don’t think that we could achieve the sales result that we’d need to make it work and properly launch Ortiz’s career.
Thanks so much for sending me Wendy Ortiz’s powerful memoir. There’s a muscularity here, a refusal to wallow, that I really responded to. In the end, though, it was a no; I’m finding that it’s harder to get memoirs like this one their fair share of attention as people become somewhat inured to tales of slow discovery of trespass. I really hope, though, that you find her the right editor and house for this. She’s a striking writer.
…despite Ortiz’s powerful writing, we ultimately felt that it would be difficult to find a wide audience for the memoir.
I admire very much Ortiz’s willingness to look back at this traumatic time in her life with nuance and perspective. She resists the easy dichotomies and digs deeper, which makes for a much more rewarding read than many of these stories. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t quite have the passion for this project
Given that and the flurry of memoirs with a similar focus that have been published in the wake of the Sandusky and Catholic priest scandals, it would be difficult for us to break this out in such a crowded market. Make no mistake: Wendy’s story sounds like it should absolutely be heard.
A number of editors never even replied, which, I’ve learned, is par for the course.
My takeaway from this experience was that I did not have the kind of platform publishers wanted from a debut writer; that memoirs were not considered viable in the market; and that editors, while they liked my writing, could not imagine how they would market such a “difficult” book. I also wondered how other writers broke through publishing’s gates successfully.
Out of frustration, out of sadness, I reworked a draft of an essay that encapsulated the story told in Excavation. It was published online at The Nervous Breakdown. Some time after it was published, I looked at the few comments readers left. One was from Kevin Sampsell, who I knew from the small press world. He ran a small press, Future Tense Books, and appreciated my essay. He asked if I had any manuscripts he could look at. My agent was wrapping up her failed sale of the book, so I said to Kevin I’d let him read it. I was shocked when he told me he wanted to publish it the following summer.
It can be a long road to publication when signing with a big five publisher. Editors come and go. Books get put on hold for a variety of reasons. Here was a small press publisher who wanted to publish this book the following year. No big publisher could do that. I had no faith at that point that anyone would give me a second look — they already hadn’t. I wanted to hold out for the editors who never responded to my agent, still hopeful I’d get a chance with a big publisher with what would be my first book, but I was learning they never would.
I said yes to Future Tense Books, and entered into a verbal agreement with Kevin about its publication. I should have known better because no one should enter into any business agreement without a written contract but I figured this was how some small presses operate. Many small presses don’t have money for advances. Kevin and I have an agreement about how much I make in “royalties” but by no means are these official royalties. My expectations at the time were getting adjusted again and again: Here’s what’s reasonable. Here’s what you can expect. The exchange — publication of a book that took 14 years from first draft to final book form — was enough for me at the time. I knew the book had potential — that given the right conditions, it could be an important book to high school students, teachers, therapists, and anyone who deals with survivors of sexual abuse. I also knew it would speak to readers who had dealt with similar situations in their lives but had never found a book written by someone who had gone through it. I knew, because I looked for that book, from 1986 on. While I believed in the book and its potential, the publishing industry didn’t give the impression that it had that much potential. And so I compromised. It was more important to me that the book existed.
When Kevin made the offer, I contacted my agent to let her know I would not be needing her services because I was “selling” my book without her help.
The book was published in July 2014. There was no publicity budget. There was me, my publisher, and the three people who worked with him — cover designer, editor, intern. I created my own Excel spreadsheets with the places I wanted to do readings at and the venues I hoped would cover the book either with a review or interview. My mentor helped facilitate the coverage Excavation got in the Los Angeles Times. I had run a bimonthly reading series, Rhapsodomancy, since 2004. By 2007, writers making stops in L.A. contacted me to read. Their agents and in some cases their publicists contacted me. I’d amassed a decent network of people, and this helped tremendously once Excavation was in print. I organized my own book tour of the west coast. I planned and scheduled my own interviews, podcasts, and other book events. And as I had hoped, readers were starting to read the book. From that point on, I started getting emails from readers who wanted to let me know how much the book meant to them, how they had survived similar situations. Those emails showed me the book had meaning.
As my own publicist, I researched book contests and entered a couple, because that was all I could afford. Small presses often don’t have print galleys to offer six months prior to publication, so like many other small press books, Excavation was not covered in publications like Kirkus. Contests, too, needed multiple copies of the book for their judges, and I didn’t have multiple copies in advance to send. When venues like the Los Angeles Times Book Festival invited me to be on a panel, they required copies of my books, which forced me to scramble. Small press authors are limited in what they can achieve with such forces at work.
Meanwhile, I had no agent again. One was courting me, though. She was a junior agent at a big agency, and I was flattered. For nearly two years she checked in with me intermittently, asked me how my writing was going. When she went on maternity leave, she told me I could send her assistant any writing I wanted her to look at, give feedback on. In 2015 I felt energized by how Excavation was performing. People were reading it, sharing it, taking photos of the book by the ocean. I was so heartened I asked the agent to commit to me, or I’d go seek another agent. We signed a contract, and I told her I wanted, more than anything, to see Excavation get a reprint at a bigger publisher. Because she was a good agent, she did what I asked. She put Excavation up for auction to be reprinted in Spring 2015 to radio silence. The book remains with Future Tense. In the aftermath, I moved on to another agent.
Since then, I spend a good amount of time traveling to colleges and universities around the country to talk to students, and more often than not it’s Excavation they want to talk about. I have judged book awards and I’ve been asked to nominate other writers for major national awards. I’m asked to mentor by national organizations and I’ve been invited to talk to a District Attorney’s office to help attorneys who deal with victims of sexual abuse understand why victims don’t come forward, and when they do, how best to communicate with them and get them resources. I teach workshops, do readings, help other writers as much as I can. Meanwhile the book continues to have what’s often referred to as “a long tail” — as in, even though it was published in 2014, people are still reading it, borrowing it, buying it, talking about it. My ultimate hope for Excavation, still, is that it will eventually be reprinted by a bigger publisher so it might find its readership beyond the one it currently has.
When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal, because that’s when the big guns like King come out. I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to — the publishing machine will make sure as many people know about it as possible. It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.
As we watch what’s taking place with American Dirt — demented praise, the Oprah effect, border wall centerpieces at book parties! — I can tell you that similar celebrations will happen around My Dark Vanessa. It has to, in order for that advance make any sense.
When I casually mentioned on Twitter that I was “looking forward” to the book that sounds like mine coming out in March, droves of my readers expressed their outrage.
Some had read the galley. Some had read the synopsis. I have not read the book and have no interest in that story, fictionalized, sensationalized. I typically don’t read the books that have those kinds of advances. There are so many more good books out there that got little to no advance. I’m here for those. Soon after I mused aloud on Twitter, the author of My Dark Vanessa contacted me. Apparently it had come to her attention that people were comparing the books and were upset. She confirmed that she had read Excavation in 2015, and offered a number of other influences in the writing of her novel. I dealt with this email the way I deal with things I don’t need in my life: I put it in a folder and decided I didn’t need to look at it further. Before I did that, I forwarded it to two other trusted people, to make sure my rage was proportionate. The consensus was that there were suddenly an awful lot of justifications, a little too late. The questions I have about it go unanswered.
I wonder about an industry that wants to pay seven figures for a fictional book about sexual abuse. I wonder about an industry that is constantly taken to task for perpetuating white supremacy in its mostly-white field, from receptionist to first reader to editor to CEO. I wonder about a debut author, under duress of Twitter opinion, who finally reaches out to say she read my book, back in 2015, but trying to create cover by highlighting its other major influences. I wonder about writing a fictional account of sexual abuse, mining books that deal with the subject, including a memoir that, while small, impacted a good number of people, then never reaching out to the author, only until public pressure demands it. I wonder why a debut author wouldn’t see for herself the similar ways our books are marketed, and have a conversation with her publicity team. But then I wonder, why do I have to be the one drawing these conclusions? And why must I spend my time and energy talking about this, beating this point, instead of talking about my work itself?
I wonder about an industry that wants to pay seven figures for a fictional book about sexual abuse. I wonder about an industry that is constantly taken to task for perpetuating white supremacy in its mostly-white field, from receptionist to first reader to editor to CEO.
Extremely troubling is that this is just one story of many. I am by no means the only writer finding herself in this kind of situation. Many writers, some that readers will know and others won’t, have reached out to me to share their stories, and while commiseration is helpful, it just goes to show there are many similar stories you will never hear about. These are writers with real concerns about how they will be viewed by the industry if they tell their stories of publication or rejections publicly.
I wonder why people in the publishing industry — people I’ve met at conferences, people who’ve come to my readings, people with power — have smiled, nodded at me, in some cases publicly acknowledging my writing, but then have kept me outside the gates. If I follow the “logic” that the example of American Dirt portrays, it appears that once again a white woman has written a fictional experience of a subject and publishers find it more palatable, worthy, and marketable than when a writer of color writes it from lived experience.
…despite Ortiz’s powerful writing, we ultimately felt that it would be difficult to find a wide audience for the memoir.
“Wide” is likely code for white.
We want to do better! the publishing industry says. Another graph showing “diversity” gets published. Another outcry happens. Nothing changes. From the agents to the publishers’ offices to the editors to the CEOS, the publishing industry remains 84% white, and they will often make decisions as such.
I still see the potential for my book to reach readers it has never been able to reach, but because I’ve been kept outside the gates, I don’t imagine that reach will ever happen. It is more palatable to publishers and their (mis)perceptions of who readers are to give massive amounts of money to one (white) author who can fictionalize a lived experience of people who are marginalized in the literary world. American Dirt shows us that, too. In time I imagine My Dark Vanessa will exemplify this as well.
As Porochista Khakpour tweeted of this,
so look, publishing, here is how it goes: if you starve a bunch of talented writers of color — try to tuck them away all indie & obscure — but then dump the millions you supposedly do not have (lol) on white writers who are basically ripping off their lives, a problem you will have!
My story is just one example of how the publishing industry works. Gatekeepers have kept me, and so many others, out. Now is the time to call out the publishing industry (as we have, as we do, as we keep having to do) for its racism and small-mindedness about who gets published and who does not; who gets massive advances and who does not. Writers, of course, will hopefully benefit from this discussion, this protest of how things are always done. My hope is that the publishing industry will see, acknowledge, and repair their industry. I imagine the kind of overhaul this might require, starting with the inclusion of people of color from the very “bottom” of the industry to the top, as well as the reconsideration of how many millions a publisher might put into one book to the exclusion of other talented writers.
Now is the time to call out the publishing industry (as we have, as we do, as we keep having to do) for its racism and small-mindedness about who gets published and who does not
But the ultimate beneficiaries? In the end, it is the person who looks for the story they need. The person who picks up the book in a bookstore or library, who stays up all night with the work, and so moved, tells their friends, who read the book and then tell their friends. Readers.
If only the publishing industry truly listened and genuinely changed.