They say you don’t want to know how sausage is made. Book coverage is like sausage in that way: better not to know exactly how the gatekeepers of mainstream media choose which books to crown as must-reads each season—just swallow it down with a cold beer and call it a night.
But if you’re a debut novelist who’s covered books for a glossy media outlet, you already know. You understand how subjective it can be. You’ve seen with your own eyes how many galleys pile up in the office each month and how many, in spite of their merit, just don’t make the final cut, sometimes due to nothing more than a lack of page space. So what then?
Honestly, I’m still trying to get my mind around it. But one piece of advice I’d like to offer my fellow writers is not to let it get you down. The fact that there are still mainstream print media outlets willing to devote precious pages to book coverage at all is a triumph we should all be celebrating. And some major brands (Cosmo, for one) have even been doubling down on their devotion to books. So let’s all remember to give thanks.
Secondly, try to remember that though we’re writers—and writers are supposed to be artists, and books are supposed to be art, and, sure, we can pontificate about craft all evening long—what a magazine editor has to do is convince readers (who most likely read at best around five books a year) that your book is the one to pick up and spend money on and read in its entirety, even if it means putting the phone down to do so.
I once came across an interview with the author Amy Hempel in which she was asked to relate one piece of advice that she gives to her creative writing students. She replied with a question they should keep in mind: “ ‘Why are you telling me this?’ Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer. Is this essential? Is this something only you can say—or only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone’s life better, or make anyone’s day better? And I don’t mean the writer’s day.”
I’ve kept a printout of this quotation taped to my bedroom wall for years, and I think any writer looking to compose a novel that will attract the attention of book reviewers and editors would be wise to do the same.
I also try to remind myself that even though the list of books that garner the most buzz each season can feel arbitrary or even disheartening, I do believe the cream rises to the top. The best books are the ones people (real people!) hand off to their friends, their siblings, their parents and say, “You’ve got to read this.” Word of mouth will trump media attention every time. (Unless you’re a celebrity, in which case you’re guaranteed people will buy your book only to say they hated it, but you still win.)
And finally, one last important thing I’ve learned is that covers do matter. People do judge books by their covers, and the magazine editors deciding whether to include your book on their pages are working in a visual medium. So if you’re less than thrilled by the cover your publisher proposes, don’t be afraid to ask for an alternate version. Odds are that they want you to be happy with the final product, anyway.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: enjoy it all. Forget the press.
Camille Perri’s debut novel, The Assistants, will be published by Putnam in May. Perri was books-editor-at-large for Cosmpolitan and has previously been the assistant editor and books consultant at Esquire, a ghostwriter of young adult novels, and a fiction reader for the Paris Review.