It is, of course, inappropriate for me to be writing here by way of introduction to PW's feature on debut fiction writers.
My book, The Areas of My Expertise, was published last October. It is a compendium of fascinating trivia, historical oddities and amazing true facts, all of which are made up by me.
For obvious reasons, the book was categorized officially as "Humor/ Reference." The newspapers, however, had their own ideas. The New York Times, for example, filed my book under "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous," which was apt enough, while the San Francisco Chronicle categorized it as "Nonfiction," which is a perverse way of describing a book proudly full of lies masquerading as actual knowledge, and, thus, perfect.
That said, however, one might go on to say:
A) that all fiction is nothing except a collection of made-up facts; and
B) The Areas of My Expertise was in (actual) fact my first book, and I found in the experience of seeing it published the typical mix of excitement, nerve-wrack and shame.
So I suppose then I might offer here some advice on HOW TO BE A FIRST-TIME AUTHOR OF FICTION, plus some miscellany to boot.
1. Go On Television
As you may know, before I was a writer I was a high-powered book publishing insider like you, dear reader, a one-time professional literary agent charged with shepherding young novelists out into the world and leaving them there, on the mountaintops, to be devoured by the creatures of the night.
For a while, I had a little joke with the writers. They would ask: "How do I get my first book published?" and I would recommend that a good place to start was to be famous. It was a good little joke on all the literature being written or ghost-written by people on television and in movies, and we would laugh and laugh. Or I should say, I would laugh, and the writers would pretend to laugh, but inwardly seethe and hate me.
Now that that I have been through the process myself, I am sort of embarrassed. It turned out that, like most cruel jokes, this one was actually true, and it really does help if you can manage to go on television. It really, really, really, really helps.
Like all first-time authors, I had attempted to cultivate a readership before and during the book's publication. But everything I had done on behalf of the book up to that point: the readings, the bloggings, the trained talking parrots, the message-zeppelins—even the writing of the book itself, it seemed—all paled in comparison to what happened when I was lucky enough to appear on television's The Daily Show for four minutes. The impact was like winning the lottery: the humbling hand of chance, the winner's guilt, the immediate purchase of solid-gold yachts.
Apparently, most people like television. And based on the electronic mails I received thereafter, they are all in college, and they are all buying books, which as an elderly person of letters, I found to be the most cheering surprise of all. (Except when the college students would write: "I am a poor college student, and so I cannot afford your book." That really annoyed me. That's why I insisted that my publisher bring out something called a "paperback edition" of my book, which is cheaper and more flexible and so more easily rolled up into a hash pipe.)
So yes: go on television if you can. Also, go ahead and win the lottery while you're at it.
2. Ride the Internets
If you cannot go on television for whatever reason (perhaps you are an agoraphobe? A ghost?), there is another means of mass communication which might interest you, called the Internet. We had something similar to it in my day called "the porn telegraph," but now apparently the Internet is a vibrant place for communication of ideas and written work as well.
I had a good idea for this Internet. I would ask people to draw a certain hieroglyph (in this case, a chalked capital H surrounded by sunrays—which you likely know is the signal given among tramps and hoboes of the 1930s that the time had come to take over the U.S. government), take pictures of the symbol and send them into a central Web site. What I had not counted on, however, was that Internet people are not, by and large, chalk owners (too "old media") and could not heed my call.
Then something surprising happened. In my book I listed the nicknames of a number of historical hoboes, and that number was 700. Someone out in the world whom I do not know was tickled by this idea. Using the Internet, he suggested that cartoonists start sending in their own illustrations of these hoboes. This occurred, rapidly, amazingly, absolutely disconnected from me. Many of the artists did not even know where the 700 hobo nicknames came from, or that they were drawn from a book written by me. One of the artists was named "Ape-lad."
This idea was cumbersome, of course, just like book-reading is cumbersome, but it spread over the Internet the way a book spreads through life when you're lucky: organically, spontaneously, guided by Ape-lad.
I found this experience exciting, dizzying and instructive: it reminded me that once your book has left your clutches, you are no longer the engineer of its destiny, just one more hobo among many. You give your work over to your readers with the understanding that some of them, sadly, may be cartoonists. And that's for the better.
3. Hoard Your Book
Perhaps you will be lucky enough to have your book published in hardcover. Perhaps you will even be lucky enough to have your book published in super-hardcover. Be glad, but hoard those copies. For even the super-hardcover editions (which, as you know, is covered with titanium and diamonds and cannot be opened except by a powerful, mechanized prying device called "the jaws of literature,") shall not last.
I recently received a paperback copy of my book, and it made me very sad. I realized that the hardcover would soon go out of print. They are precious artifacts. No one will make your first book exactly this way again. And as they go, so too will fade inevitably this experience of seeing your first book into the world, an experience which has a single, short print run.
So quick, check: Do you have enough? I recommend keeping at least 100 copies of your book; one to show your friends (if asked); one to keep in a vault (not necessary if it is a super-hardcover, in which case the book is its own vault); one to hold on to drunkenly in the night to remind you that, yes, it all really happened; and 97 backups to be kept hidden on the mantelpiece, in plain sight, where no one will ever see them.
As I held the paperback in my hand and felt all of this—the readings and the bloggings, the radio talks and TV shows, the impossible thrill of something once dreamed made hard and real and bound between covers—retreating behind me, I realized I have only three copies of the hardcover of my book left. Would one or several of you please buy me 97 more? Let me remind you: I have been on television, so you sort of have to.
That is all.
|Hodgman, a former agent at Writers House, an occasional commentator on This American Life and a "resident expert" on The Daily Show, lives in New York. The Areas of My Expertise comes out in paperback on Sept. 5 from Riverhead.|