It was just over a year ago that my book Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever was released, and I am now at liberty to reveal a piece of information about which I have heretofore held my tongue:
Swish has not sold as well as my publisher hoped it would.
I have no idea what this means in terms of actual copies sold, since this information is more difficult for an author to get hold of than, say, the Golden Fleece. But I had lunch with my agent some weeks after the release, and the fact that the sentence that contained the word “failure” ended with “not your fault” didn’t prevent me from bursting into tears.
This is how publishing works: Each season publishers like Random House put out a number of books, each of which tends to fall into one of three categories: sure-fire bestsellers, like any book by Dan Brown or John Grisham; pretty good bets, like books by celebrities; and everything else. Publishers plan to spend a significant amount of money promoting all the books in the first two categories, but there simply isn’t enough money to commit firmly to supporting all the books in the third category. What happens, therefore, is that publishers give them all a little help so they can get off the ground. Then they wait to see which two or three catch on; once they’ve figured that out, they commit to supporting those two or three firmly, and perforce leave the rest to get by as best they can. As far as I can tell, the time a book has to catch on before the publisher has to stop paying attention to it is about six weeks. It’s hideous, of course, but it’s also exactly what I would do if I were a publishing company; given that the number of books published a year has more than doubled in the last seven years (from 135,000 in 2001 to 280,000 in 2008*), while the number of books bought a year has stayed more or less the same, I’m astonished that any company can do more than scrawl a book’s title on a Post-It and toss it out the window.
But now, back to our story. After I stopped crying, and finished a pint and a half of Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle ice cream, it became crystal clear what the problem was:
The title and the cover.
When the book was released and the reviews started coming in, I was delighted, because for the most part they were very favorable. But then I started to notice something, which was that almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be fluffy and shallow, but then I read it and I loved it.” Then people who had read the book started e-mailing me, and almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be fluffy and shallow, but then I read it and I loved it.”
The problem, it turned out, was that while many people saw the cover, thought the book was going to be fluffy and shallow, and bought it and read it anyway and loved it, they were far, far outnumbered by people who saw the cover, thought the book was going to be fluffy and shallow, and, since they weren’t interested in fluffy and shallow, went and bought something else (Backdraft: Fireman Erotica, one presumes).
(At least there were more people who bought it anyway and loved it, though, than people who bought it and then grew angry when it wasn’t fluffy and shallow. Seriously. A couple reviews were like, what is this? Where’s the Cher? There are hunky guys on the cover, why is he telling us about his dead mother?)
Now: I think the hardback cover is brilliant and beautiful. Since I know myself, I get a kick out of the disjunct between the cotton-candy outside of the book and the much richer chocolaty insides. Unfortunately, my editor and I forgot that the book-buying public did not know me. Seeing the unsubstantial outside, therefore, they assumed that book had an unsubstantial inside as well. It was awful. They were judging the book by its cover.
(There’s also of course the very real possibility that the reason people weren’t buying the book was that it was bad. But let’s assume this wasn’t the case, if only for the sake of discussion.)
So my publisher was about to do what was as I’ve said the only sensible thing: admit defeat, sell the paperback rights (which meant that they would at least make some of their money back), and move on.
Then I got a strange e-mail followed by a phone call from a Very, Very Famous Person, whom I can now reveal to have been Sir Elton John. He had read Swish, he said, and loved it. He said many other nice things about the book and offered to do whatever he could to help me out.
I e-mailed my editor with this information, naturally, and after a time got a reply containing the fabulous news that her boss thought they could use this as a sales hook, so they were going to go ahead and publish a paperback. Repackaged, with a new cover and a new subtitle. Naturally I celebrated by eating another pint and a half of Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle ice cream.
It took literally months to come up with the new cover and subtitle, but my editor’s assistant told me that I should see this as a good sign, because they wouldn’t spend so much energy on something they didn’t really believe in. (Then my editor got laid off—note, please that she had become my editor after my last editor had gotten laid off—but her assistant stayed, so I felt I could still trust her advice.)
So the paperback was released today. It’s called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, it has a beautiful cover (click the image below to enlarge) that more clearly implies the material inside, and it’s graced with a foreword by Elton John. Of course I hope it will become a smash hit, but mostly I’m just grateful that the book has gotten a second chance.
*These statistics don’t include the 285,000 books self-published in 2008, which number represents an almost 500% increase from 2006.