I've wanted to be a novelist since the 3rd grade. Everyone has dream job, right? My fourth grader wants to design video games, my seventh grader wants to write comics. Novels were my thing.
So, after a twelve-year detour to Wall Street, I did. My first novel found an agent and sold to Penguin. That book was Julia's Child. It got great trade reviews and then died a fiery death at the bookstore.
Publishers Weekly had called the book "a witty, well-plotted fiction debut." And yet I was miserable, because I wanted a career, damn it. And my publisher didn't want to touch another book from me.
I decided that Julia's Child was too commercial--too easy to dismiss. So I went to work on a Big, Important Book. I spent three years on an historical novel with a groovy hook and daring writing. My agent loved it to death. She still does. And we got this close to selling it to a couple of really fancy imprints, like Algonquin. (I've been rejected by the best, baby!) But no sale.
So now I was really depressed! I'd written a clever, important book my very picky agent loved. I knew it was solid. And nobody cared. One ugly day I got 8 rejections before noon.
Next I started noodling around with another entry for the women's fiction market. That book required a sex scene and I didn't know how to write one. So I downloaded a contemporary romance that had hit bestsellers lists. It was a snowy January day. I read it in a couple of hours.
That book was just shameless, and I don't mean the sex. It was just pure entertainment. Pure story. It wasn't clever. It wasn't trying to change anyone's life. It wasn't trying to outsmart the acquisitions team at Algonquin.
I thought: "I could do this." And a few weeks later I did. I wrote my first romance without telling a soul. It embarrassed me to write genre fiction. I thought I was meant to do something more with my expensive education.
But hell it was fun.
Still embarrassed, I submitted it to four publishers in the slush pile without my agent's help. (Authors, don't do this. My agent was nice about it but it was a stupid move.) Harlequin snapped it up and handed me a 3-book deal. They didn't care a fig that Julia's Child bombed. They didn't care because their readers don't care. Their readers are voracious, and only care about the story.
That book came out in 2014, and today I have a dozen published romances. I make an actual living now, because romance readers are ravenous. They read books the way some people eat Cheetos. It's the single largest segment of the book market.
So here I am with...Cheetos. But they're more fulfilling than I'd expected. I do have days when I think: "If I produced gourmet cuisine instead, then my work wouldn't be sort of a secret."
But the bottom line is this: when I stopped trying to be laudably wise and clever, I started producing book after book that reviewers call wise and clever. I learned that when you write a really witty line of dialogue, or when that theme you brought on in chapter 2 reappears as a tableau in the epilogue, it feels amazing no matter what. Well-written is well-written, whether it's in the New Yorker or has beefcake on the cover.
Romance readers write the best fan mail, too. They're not in it for the bragging rights, either. They're not afraid to tell you when you've written something moving. They gush in their reviews. My favorite Amazon review actually says: "I wish my friends and I could move right into this book. We would be so happy!"
Then there are the moving letters. The same thing happened to me as happened to Bella in your book. Thank you for telling this story. Or, I had to set the book aside a couple of times because I was crying too much on the bus.
Those never get old.
I've also figured out that authors of genre fiction have a lot more control over their own work. The market for book club fiction has consolidated to the point where there are very few gatekeepers. And I don't mean publishing houses. There's one buyer at Barnes and Noble. One at Hudson News. One at Costco and one at Target. If you're going to break out in a market still dominated by print, you'd better impress three out of those four people. And your cover art had better appeal to all of them.
Genre fiction is an ebook market and therefore democratized. My best selling titles are the ones I publish myself. I still do battle with Amazon's algorithms and the merchandizing team at iBooks. I'm running a small business from my kitchen. It's perilous but it's all mine.
So I'm going to keep this up for as long as it's working. The ideas I have for more literary works will probably wither on the vine. With so many people reading me these days, I just don't feel sad about it. And if the tears should strike I'll just do what Jennifer Weiner famously advises: I'll weep into my royalty check.