My First Book – And What I Learned From Its Publication


Slightly more than a year ago, my first book, “Not The Same Family”, was published. It shouldn’t have been, according to conventional publishing wisdom. It hadn’t yet earned enough badges of honour. After all, John Grisham famously received a dozen rejections for his first book, “A Time To Kill”. Paul Auster collected 17 for “City of Glass”. Even Stephen King got 30 for “Carrie”.

Both publishers I had approached had come back positive. But one reverted faster than the other. I felt morally obligated to go with the first responder. The contract was duly signed. And the rest became – a slowly unravelling nightmare, like something straight out of a Stephen King story.

To cut a long dream short, I shall say only that the publisher and I found ourselves embroiled in irreconcilable “creative” differences. They wanted to make considerable changes. I longed to be published, but not at the expense of losing my voice. I resisted. They stood firm. I agonised. I offered to accept a few changes. They were adamant. I struggled some more. Finally I suggested we go our separate ways. They seemed relieved. We parted company.

I went back to the other publisher. They were happy to pick up the thread. But now I had grown a little wiser and little less anxious. I sat down with this publisher to check out their editorial philosophy, and to share my writerly vision. Mutually satisfied and assured, we proceeded to embark on the journey most recently aborted.

Attempt number two turned out like a dream – a sweet one this time. The book was duly published with some, but not a drastic amount of editorial revisions. The publisher got their book, I retained my voice.

Lesson # 1

Voice is a strange thing. No two publishers hear yours the same way. Don’t rush into getting hitched with the first publisher who offers you a contract.

So the book was duly launched. I sat back and waited for the reviews to appear. None did. Not the week after. Nor the weeks following. I told myself that the Festival (it was launched during, but not as part of the official programme of the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival) was too crowded, that there was too much noise, and that the book reviewers were too pre-occupied with the more established writers. I waited for my turn to come. The weeks turned into months.

The little I know about marketing, a good product doesn’t just sell itself. It does need a little help in terms of exposure. In the case of a book, the minimum, over and above a launch event, would seem to be a review. I remember reading somewhere that 95% the books published don’t ever get reviewed. I guess I shouldn’t feel so neglected.

But my wife had another take on this. “Be thankful that you haven’t had a review yet – it may not necessarily be a good one.” I wanted to tell her that that was highly unlikely, but I kept my mouth shut. Just in case she turned out to be prescient.

The annals of book reviews are littered with bad reviews. Savage ones sometimes. Even someone like John Irving got a drubbing from the legendary Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, who labelled his then latest book, “Until I Find You”, a “tedious self-indulgent and cruelly eye-glazing read”. The book sales were reportedly affected.

There is no guarantee of a good review, even for a bestselling author. I should know. I myself once panned another famous writer. In a published review of “A Man In Full”, I had said that “Man” looked like “a case badly needing Viagra.” But in that instance, my comments didn’t make even the slightest dent in the sales, Tom Wolfe, being the celebrity he was then, and I, being the non-entity I was – and still am.

Also, the truth is, book reviewers are a discordant lot. The same book can invite different reactions. John Banville’s “The Sea” (winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize) was savagely dismissed by Michiko Kakutani, loved by Gail Caldwell (Boston Globe), found boring by Robert Macfarlane (Times Literary Supplement) and given a rave review by Philip Adams (London Review of Books).

Lesson # 2.

No review is better than a bad review. And no one reviewer has the last say on any book.

I write because I have things to say, and stories to tell. And I publish because I want them to be read. I’m reminded by what Ursula K Le Guin said : ‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’ That’s what I tell people anyway, when they ask me.

“So what’s your beef?” asked my wife. “You have written, your book has been published, according to your publisher it’s selling reasonably well, anecdotal evidence suggests that many copies are commonly being shared among more than one reader, and copies continue to be checked out at the local library.”

Sheepishly, I conceded that I might have been impelled by more than just being read – and that is being read more, much more. I pleaded guilty to the ‘sheer egotism’ that George Orwell had suggested as one of the motivations to write, ‘the desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death. etc., etc.’ It’s amazing how wives can always catch you out.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who recently passed, waited 12 years after the publication of his first novella, Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca) in 1955 before he gained worldwide acclaim with the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in 1967. Herman Melville never won recognition for “Moby Dick” during his lifetime. I am neither a Garcia Marquez nor a Melville. God knows I am just a simple old Soh craving a little more affirmation, a little sooner. Yes, I hear you, Mr Miller.

Lesson # 3.

“The writing is its own reward.” – Henry Miller (1891-1981)


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