In January 2008, I sat down to begin the book that would define my young adulthood, a memoir about a two-year period in the Middle East that challenged everything I thought I knew about politics, war, and human nature.
The problem is, average Americans don’t read much serious journalism about the Middle East. Who can blame them? It's mostly depressing, polemical, hard to relate to, and full of jargon. Even worse, it rarely has a plot. I, for one, prefer reading books that have some kind of driving narrative momentum.
What Americans do love to read are travelogues and funny, semi-romantic coming-of-age memoirs set in exotic locations. So the plan was that my book, Fast Times in Palestine, would offer a “spoonful of sugar” to help the history, politics, and hard realities go down. I saw it as a chance to fill a hole, define a new genre — plot-driven mass market travel memoir journalism.
Within a few weeks I had a top-notch agent (the one who sold that book The Helpthat’s been all over everywhere for as long as I can remember...). She helped me refine my proposal and write three sample chapters, and she sent it to twenty major publishers. We got some early interest from editors who asked to see more chapters before making a decision.
Before I could finish those extra chapters, the financial crisis hit. And it was pretty much crickets from then on.
My agent and I eventually parted ways, but I continued writing and refining for two more years, hoping the publishing world would recover and I could try again once I had a finished manuscript. I moved to New York in March 2010 and networked as hard as I could. There were many promising leads, and two small houses offered to publish my book. But they didn’t have the kind of reach or advertising budget to connect with the mainstream audience I was targeting, and they would have charged at least $20 for a trade paperback, which is plain deadly. (I wrote more about my decision to turn down two publishing contracts here.)
So I took the plunge and self-published in May 2011, hoping that if I made enough sales and got enough good reviews, my book would come to the attention of an agent or commercial publisher, and the book would be back on track.
So far the reviews, including several blurbs from some of the best-know personalities in Israel/Palestine journalism and activism, have been excellent. I’ve received dozens of gushing emails from around the world that made my heart feel light. I’ve had two successful book tours, and I’ve sold around 1,700 copies.
Happily, another agent did find me after I met one of her authors at BEA who offered to read my book and pass it on to her agent if she liked it. I signed with her last month. So now I’m on the market again, waiting for that editor who will see this book’s potential. Nearly all of the rejections so far say the same thing: Love the writing, love the story, I’m just not sure how to market this -- not sure it has mainstream breakout potential.
In other words: It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the genres we already know how to deal with, so it’s scary. Come back when you're famous or decide to write about vampires, Jesus, or dieting.
As we all know, publishing has become increasingly conservative in these tenuous economic times, and the vital, experimental midlist has been steadily shrinking. There’s little hope these days of being nurtured through your first couple of marginal novels by a supportive house that sees your potential until you hit your masterpiece. New authors with untested ideas are increasingly on their own.
I’m incredibly grateful that self-publishing offers an inexpensive avenue to reach readers worldwide. But I spent nearly all my energy in the last half of 2011 marketing the bejeezus out of my book, and while 1,700 sales is nothing to sneeze at, it’s nowhere near my goal of a mainstream breakout that might have an effect on American public opinion. (And making less than $10,000 for four years of work is, shall we say, humbling. Truth be told, I keep waiting for the modest $100,000 that I could have earned as, say, a waitress instead during the hours I worked on this book over four years. Surely working my heart out for so long should be worth something. At least an honorary degree? Heh.)
Then again, should I really gauge my success by the numbers? I wrote a book that I’m proud of, that I’ll show my children some day, that took me around the world to speak at venues ranging from an activist news agency outside Bethlehem to the History Corner at Stanford. Strangers on Amazon and Goodreads consistently give it glowing reviews. It’s available worldwide for anyone to stumble across.
And who knows what individual might read it, be changed by it, and impact the world in ways I could never anticipate?
Aside from that, I’ve grown immeasurably through the process of learning the ropes of the publishing world, learning how to write a book, writing down transformative experiences that I never want to forget... and learning to let them go and move on to new adventures, whatever they may be. Perhaps writing another book now that I have all this experience under my belt, as painful and humbling and years-consuming as it was.
In any case, I had no choice. I had to write this book. It was an impulse that I knew would never let me rest until it was satisfied. Now that it’s done, I feel a strange emptiness. But at least it’s an emptiness that knows nearly 2,000 people have read it, and anyone else can read it if they like, and it still has the potential to break out one of these days, instead of the emptiness of knowing it’s in a drawer somewhere, never to be seen.