Rachel Barenbaum Talks to Courtney Maum, Author of Before and After the Book Deal
Rachel Barenbaum, Novel Incubator alum and author of A Bend In The Stars, recently interviewed Courtney Maum about her latest book, Before and After the Book Deal. The two authors spoke about the publishing process, how to prep for author interviews, rejection and jealously in the book business, and why author advances are like a combination of Monopoly and the Greek myth of Orpheus (“take your money when you pass go, and don’t ever look back”). You can join Courtney Maum for her upcoming event "A Writer’s Guide To Surviving Your First Book Deal" on Tuesday, January 28th at 6:30pm.
Courtney Maum and I met in Providence, RI this past summer. Her gorgeous novel, Costalegre, was launching, I was on week two of my Bend In The Stars tour and we were both presenting at a Cardigan Connection event. I was petrified that I was about to share the stage with a Rockstar like Courtney, but from the moment she walked in she was talking me down from my panic and could not have been more kind and encouraging. “Ask me anything,” she said – and I did. While standing stage right, waiting for the lights to dim, I threw out every publishing question I had (and believe me – there were too many). She should have asked for a break or excused herself to grab a bite (later she would share that she hadn’t had time to eat since breakfast), but instead she answered and answered – even as we were interrupted by fans who had brought all three of her books to the event for her to sign before she started.
Everyone is terrified, she assured me. Hire a publicist or trust your in-house publicist, it’s a toss-up most of the time, she confided. Small press/ big press, doesn’t matter as much as your editor, she explained. And then: Selling ten hardcovers tonight would be a win. Really. She had answers, grace and wisdom beyond anything I could fathom. I was an instant fan for life and so when her newest book, Before and After the Book Deal (Catapult, 2020) came out, I devoured it, read it in one sitting and hung on every word.
Writing with humor and drawing from her own deep experience, and that of dozens of other authors and editors, Courtney manages to guide writers through the tremendous / horrendous / terrifying / mystifying / incredible process of publishing. Not only does she describe every scenario this writer could imagine, she also seems to have a gift for addressing every emotion – even the ones that bring down the strongest amongst us. Whether you are still working through a first draft or about to sell your second novel, this book will feel like a warm fuzzy hug and it will help set you free from most of your fears. As Courtney makes it clear: we are not alone. We at DeadDarlings and GrubStreet were thrilled when Courtney agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff!
Rachel Barenbaum: Courtney, thank you for writing this book, for being so honest and for just putting it out there. Why do you think no one wrote such a comprehensive, frank and open book like this before?
Courtney Maum: Thank you for reading (and enjoying!) my book. You know, I do think that there are other people out there that could have written this – Rebecca Makkai comes to mind, so does Roxane Gay. Those are two writers who are very honest about the industry and who – although they are tremendously successful now – worked really hard to get where they are. Success didn’t come to either of them overnight.
First of all, this book took a tremendous amount of time to put together. So maybe it’s just a question of other writers lacking time. Secondly, the book was something of a hard sell. A lot of gatekeepers thought that the book was too niche, or that there might be blowback for me as a writer “exposing” the industry. As with most books, I had to believe in it ten times harder than anyone else. As for the opaqueness of this industry, honestly, I think a lot of it comes down to the simple fact that nobody – at heart – knows what works and what doesn’t in terms of book sales.
Sometimes even with a ton of marketing support (i.e., money) a book doesn’t go anywhere, and sometimes you have a book with a small press – I’m thinking of Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else that ends up all over the Internet because Kendall Jenner has taken it on a yacht with her and Post-It noted the hell out of it.
No one wants to admit that they don’t have control over the outcome of your book – of any book – so people cross their fingers, keep their lips sealed, and hope for the best.
RB: You wrote: “Publishing is an industry that is powered by rejection: regardless of the level that you’re playing at, you are going to hear ‘no’ more often than ‘yes’ throughout most of your career.” This quote is why I love this book. It is pithy, 100% accurate – and yet no one ever talks about all this rejection, about the fact that every writer at every level experiences it. Can you talk more about this?
CM: When writers are coming up, years before they have a book deal, rejection is the name of the game. It’s not only normal but expected that for every ten stories you submit or articles you pitch, probably all of them will be turned down. But once you start having publishing success, and definitely once you publish a book, it isn’t normal or expected any more to complain about rejection, it is perceived as gauche.
But the rejection at the “successful writer” level is really intense, and it can feel overtly personal. You are left off of lists, your book isn’t long listed for awards, you aren’t sent the “hot” galleys, you aren’t invited to the cool literary festivals everyone else is going to, you realize your advance wasn’t nearly as big as someone else’s…at this level, it’s true that a lot of the rejection stems from feelings of inadequacy, competitiveness and envy, and these aren’t pretty feelings. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist, or that you’re alone in feeling them. I decided to take one for the team and just air out all that dirty laundry, admit how jealous we can be of other people’s success even when there are people jealous of what they perceive as our success. It’s an ouroboros, truly.
RB: I do a lot of author interviews and you explained my reasons for doing them as if you had stepped inside my head: for free books, for the opportunity to engage with accomplished authors and to forge relationships with editors. And yet when I talk to other writers and encourage them to start pitching interviews, many are terrified. How do you encourage writers to just get started?
CM: It makes it easier if you have a third party helping you reach out to the writer, a magazine or a blog. It can feel awkward to Facebook message someone out of the blue. But a lot of people truly have no idea how to speak to writers about their books. Even intelligent well-read people sometimes shut down: they can’t differentiate between what they should / can / shouldn’t say. Lots of us assume that writers are too busy or too famous to be bothered by our humble interview, but the truth is that most writers are normal human beings sitting at their desks, stumped by one thing or another, grateful for the opportunity (or diversion) to talk about their work.
Interviews can be tedious if people are asking the same questions you hear all the time. It is nice when interviewers have read through some of your most recent interviews or posts to see what you like to talk about; when they make an effort to make the interview stand out.
And I get why people hesitate before contacting a writer they admire. You might think – who am I? I’m just some bozo with a Word doc. But most writers, kind writers, understand this is all part of an apprenticeship program. All of us have been there, were without agents at some point. All of us have sent out those horrible query letters, have been out on submission with editors. We’ve all been through these rings of fire. That’s why I put this book together. When you don’t know what’s ahead, it’s terrifying. At least with passed-down information, you have something to focus your anxiety on.
RB: And yes, there is a lot of anxiety. More specifically, what advice do you give to get people started?
CM: I’ll tell you – this is how I prep for interviews: (1) Read the book (seems obvious but I have had interviews where people haven’t read the book) (2) Most authors have to go on the personal essay tour of duty before publication – read those pieces. See what they’re publishing about, get a sense of where the author’s head is at. For example, a few years ago, Alexander Chee’s thing became: I am no longer writing without payment. If someone trying to contact him for an interview hadn’t known about that – they could have had an awkward moment, asked an inappropriate question or missed the opportunity to ask a good one. (3) I try to look through at least ten of the subject’s last interviews, not necessarily interviews for the book in question, also interviews for other books or collections. I look to see what has changed. Have they moved? Maybe they were on the West Coast, now they’re in the Midwest. What’s it like? It is nice to throw in a few questions that aren’t about the book. With Ottessa Moshfegh, I found out she used to be an incredibly serious piano player. We had a nice tangential conversation about that, which I think really added to the interview.
A good interviewer can see the heat in an author’s past interviews, see where they sound on edge or bored. Don’t let that happen to you. Do the work, find the hotspots and proceed accordingly. There are some giant questions that will come up in every interview and that’s OK. But, you know, surprise them a little. Keep them engaged. You don’t want to ask anything wild or offensive. You don’t want to come across as some perv on the phone! But it’s fun to ask – Do you have writing snacks? Do you have music you listen to? A dream vacation spot?
Often times you read an interview and it seems like the author’s book came out as this perfect first draft and then the author went on tour, but that’s just not the case for anyone. (Almost) everyone is sitting around in ratty leisurewear, writing, revising, revising once again. There is a lot of hard work and doubt involved and you are doing a service to writers and others if you try to unearth the interview subject’s problem-solving skills.
RB: So now I have to ask, do you have a favorite snack?
CM: Stinky cheese and chocolate.
RB: I love it! And yes, this might be a plug for DeadDarlings – we need more writers doing interviews. Let’s talk about money. Except for the common lament that we’re scraping by, most writers don’t talk about money. But you do. One of my favorite lines: Advances are like a combination of Monopoly and the Greek myth of Orpheus: take your money when you pass go, and don’t ever look back. Can you talk more about this?
CM: One of the reasons it’s such a taboo topic is vanity, there is something personally at stake. Did you get enough? Did you get less than someone else? But really it comes down to loyalty and respect for your publisher. The problem is that advances have so much to do with your publisher’s size, the salability of the manuscript, the salability of the writer. I would love to live in a world where this doesn’t matter, but people who have a really engaged social media following tend to get a better advance. The publisher thinks that if this person has a built-in group of 50K followers, they will sell books to almost all of them. But that doesn’t always happen. It still takes a very specific kind of person to get followers to buy books.
I don’t think there is a world where we will have a union like SAG-AFTRA. It is not possible because all publishers are not equal. We have indies, micro presses, the big guys. One house can offer $1 million and one $5K. On one hand, this has to do with how much money the publisher has in the bank. But the other hand…is more complicated. All publishers choose lead titles, titles they put more money, weight, time and effort behind. I think that’s fair. It doesn’t feel fair when you don’t have a lead title, but that’s the way the world works. Even if you’re retail shopping, there are some items in the windows, books facing out in bookstores…there is always a hierarchy.
We can’t have some sort of communist approach where everyone gets the same amount of money. Ideally, the differences in advances would be less alpine than they are now. Really, it comes down to your agent. Your agent has to advocate for you and ask for an amount of money that’s deserved.
Where writers can have more control is in negotiating pay for freelance work, honorariums for literary festivals and conferences, speaking engagements, things like that. That is where we can group together and take the Alexander Chee approach – I love your outlet, but I’m not writing for you for free.
RB: You gave a piece of advice that Christopher Castellani, GrubStreet’s Artistic Director, also gave me right before I published – and it has kept me sane: “It’s important to establish your own definition of success before your book comes out – a benchmark you can meet on your own terms, a goal that isn’t dependent on how other people’s books perform.” What are reasonable goals? What are crazy goals?!
CM: I wrote an essay on this recently and I think this answer sums this up, or tries to: "The challenging truth of the publishing industry is that to be successful in it — mentally successful, emotionally resilient — your definition of what success is has to live inside the parameters of what you can control. Sales and publicity lie outside of these parameters, critical reception and awards, too. What you can control is your ability to try and write again once you have already published. What you can control is the amount of time you spend in your chair, huddled over a story, working hard to get a sentence, paragraph, chapter transition to work right. Putting the best of yourself on the page and into it, that's what you can control."
RB: There is so much in this book – tremendous information – and I can’t help but wonder, what did you leave out? What did you have to cut?
CM: Oh, God. Nothing. It feels pretty exhaustive to me. Can you think of anything?
RB: (We’re both laughing because – no – this interviewer can’t think of a thing!) You interviewed a lot of other writers while working on this book. What surprised you the most?
CM: The interviews about what people have experienced on tour were mind blowing. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore had a pretty terrifying story about a man who brought a gallon of milk to one of her events and sat in the front row to drink it. It was really well attended because she had just come out on the NYTimes bestseller list. During the reading, he guzzled the entire thing. I don’t mean to make light of this, nor did she in sharing this tale—the man clearly wasn’t well. But Miranda didn’t know what to do. So, she kept reading. The milk wasn’t making it into this fellow’s mouth, not all of it. It was splashing on this clothing and getting on the floor and the people next to him and she felt stuck in this socialized attitude of “don’t say anything, just keep reading.” But, of course, she doesn’t remember anything from that evening except the man drinking the milk.
Then there’s the time an author got served divorce papers in the book signing line.
There were so many terrible stories. For people who are lucky enough to go on a book tour, no one has a perfect night. A lot of people have had no one show up, or there’s one reader there and the author just says, “Can I just take you out for a beer?”
RB: “Even pushing nine thousand hardcovers a week is a tremendous number of books. You’ll understand just how many books that is when you spend five hours in a car to drive to a book event where you only sell three,” you wrote. I so, so appreciated this because – been there, done that. Why do you think so many assume the life of a book tour is all glamour?
CM: Authors on social media is a game of smoke and mirrors. Instagram shows the glory and the fame, a writer in front of a desk with a line of people waiting for their signature. Most of us are not going to post a picture of an empty bookstore with one sleeping person in it. So, from an outsider’s point of view, if an author has a book out they are the focus of attention and it looks glamorous.
There are a lot of people who will go their entire lives without being asked to speak in front of a room or to be on the radio. Being the focus of cultural attention is a privilege, a huge privilege. Especially when you get to the big leagues and publishers are paying writers to go to events, arranging car services to whisk them around. And that does get glamorous. Listen, Entertainment Weekly is not doing a feature about writers who have Irritable Bowel Syndrome or under-attended events.
RB: OK, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing Before and After the Book Deal. How did this book come together?
CM: Quite a few gatekeepers thought this book was a terrible idea. I didn’t, so I fought for it. Along with Catapult and my agent, we decided to add a “Before” section to what was originally only “After,” and that opened the project up and made it more accessible to a wider audience.
But how I did it? Big picture, I sat down and listed out every petty fear, doubt, success, everything I could remember about my own experience and what others had told me about theirs. Then I organized these worries under larger headers—milestones, really. Then I came up with sub-categories and in those, I left notes to myself about the exact industry professional or the kind of industry professional I’d want to contribute in that specific section. For example, in the part about two-book deals, I had two bullet points:
- Find an author who had a successful experience with their two-book deal
- Follow this with an anecdote of an author who cracked under the pressure.
Sometimes, I would know who I wanted to get a quote from, but even if I did know, I’d check with other industry professionals and my publisher to make an alternate list of people I could interview. In that way, I protected myself from only talking to people from my direct circle of colleagues and friends.
RB: Finally, let’s get personal. As predicted in your book, authors are asked about this all the time… so here it comes. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?
CM: I’m working on a memoir right now, so it’s non-fiction and self-help a-go-go. I’m reading Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk To Someone. Ada Calhoun’s Why We Can’t Sleep. And Heather Havrilesky’s, What If This Were Enough.
RB: Thank you, Courtney, for this book, for your honesty and for your time. Before we go, I want to mention that you are doing an event in Boston at WBUR’s City Space on January 28th at 6:30pm with GrubStreet’s very own Michelle Hoover. Hurray! Specifically, you’ll be moderating a panel that includes Michelle (writer and GrubStreet Novel Incubator instructor extraordinaire), Ben Mezrich (writer) and Esmond Harmsworth (agent) – on everything you need to know about publishing. Readers can find more information here.
About Courtney Maum:
Courtney Maum is the author of the novels Costalegre (a GOOP book club pick and one of Glamour Magazine’s top books of the decade), I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and Touch (a New York Times Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the Year selection), and the handbook Before and After the Book Deal: A writer’s guide to finishing, publishing, promoting, and surviving your first book, forthcoming from Catapult. Her writing has been widely published in such outlets as the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and Poets & Writers. She is the founder of the collaborative retreat program, The Cabins (currently accepting applications), and she also runs a service called “The Query Doula” where she helps writers prepare their manuscripts and query letters for an agent’s eyes. You can sign up for her writing-advice newsletter, Maumalog, at CourtneyMaum.com.
RACHEL’S DEBUT NOVEL IS A BEND IN THE STARS. It has been named a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It is also a Boston Globe Bestseller. Rachel’s second novel, The History of Time Travel, is forthcoming from Grand Central (2021). Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer for the LA Review of Books, the Tel Aviv Review of Books and DeadDarlings. She is a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor. She has degrees from Harvard in Business, and Literature and Philosophy. She lives in Brookline, MA. www.rachelbarenbaum.comSee other articles by Rachel Barenbaum