“I have an idea for a blog post,” my editor said to me. “Maybe you can write about being a debut novelist during Fall’s Big Books.” This would have been some time around August 2009, when the buzz over Barbara Kingsolver, EL Doctorow, AS Byatt, Jeanette Walls, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and anyone else who was anyone and publishing a book was starting to gather steam.

The idea was this: yes, we were and are in a recession and books are among the many casualties to suffer from a lack of spending dollars. But so many famous writers putting new titles out at once ought to be helpful in getting shoppers into stores, and this, in turn, might help a debut novelist like me.

I said I’d think about it. I knew, of course, that PR was important even though I had already decided not to spend $10,000 on an independent publicist. I’d read all about how readings don’t really help sell books (not true) and that I should not be surprised if the four people to show up at my reading in Seattle included a couple of homeless men there for the free coffee. I was feeling apprehensive, but basically positive. I had some fantastic blurbs. I loved my cover. There were a few people who’d read my book and liked it and I had a kind of blind faith that this support would count for something.

I guess I had my first inkling of what would happen when a freelance book reviewer posted on her Facebook page that she did not want to hear any more about any books with “Picking, Bones and Ash” in their titles.

For my book launch party, my publicist called around independent bookstores in New York City where we could host an event. I’d have a lot of friends present—books would definitely sell. No one was interested.

McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in Soho, did, however, invite me for a reading. But about two weeks later, they uninvited me. I think this is funny now, though my agent and others attest they have never, ever heard of a bookstore doing such a thing. Bizarrely, Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center put my book in their window. Nothing was going as I had expected.

A print review for a regional paper, which had been all but guaranteed, was suddenly killed; review space was at a premium and priority had to go to the “big names.” And suddenly, I understood all too clearly what it meant to be part of “Fall’s Big Books.” All October and November I chased the leftovers to Barbara Kingsolver and Jeanette Walls’ audiences. The point was driven home when I went out to lunch with a few debut novelists who told me that their houses had deliberately delayed their pub dates until the spring in other to avoid an overly crowded space.

Not long ago, Nielsen announced that Kirkus, one of four trade reviewers of books (which charged a fee, mind you), was closing. Ron Charles, the Washington Post Fiction editor, lamented via his Twitter feed: “Everytime we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors’ parents/ friends clogging blogs w praise.” Well, yes, that’s right. That is what will happen—and it is what is happening. It is, in fact, what has helped me with my book—the collection of readers and mothers and writers who are looking for something new. As far as I’m concerned, the bloggy-internet-online-bookclub-nightmare of publishers and editors can’t happen fast enough. As a reader, I don’t need to read reviews of the same writers over and over and over again. Yes, I understand that there is a hierarchy, that Margaret Atwood has been at this much longer than I have, and that she deserves my deference. I don’t believe, however, that I’m not supposed to have a career at all. New writers, after all, are the lifeblood of this profession that we are supposed to care about so much. I say we level the playing field sooner, rather than later.

What’s more, creative people are supposed to be creative. We—and I mean all of us: writers, editors, publishers, agents and publicists—aren’t supposed to cling to outmoded and elitist systems. We are supposed to like what is fresh and new and challenging. Instead of standing around, befuddled and sneering at the new world, we ought to be contributing to the solution. You think that blogs seem inhabited by amateurs and you consider yourself “an expert”? Do something about it. And what’s wrong with a book blog anyway? Did you really think you lived in a world where you controlled public consumption and taste and that word of mouth wasn’t spreading anyway? The difference is, now you can see it. This ought to be a good thing. Now you can identify people who, amateur or not, like to read. Now you can determine where a book starts to take off, or which book stores are instrumental in bringing a book to the public’s attention. I’m reminded of the ending to season 3 of Mad Men when Don Draper, concerned about the sale of the company to which he has devoted so many hours and ideas, earnestly looks at his colleagues and says: “I want to work.” Don’t you want to work?

Over the past three months, I contacted editors and publicists at publishing houses who are friends, and asked for advice. “What,” I wanted to know, “do you wish your authors would do to help themselves?” They were brutally honest, and I tried to do pretty much everything they suggested. I asked for my press kit so I could hand it out myself. I visited bookstores and discovered that booksellers liked meeting authors. I developed lectures and workshops to go along with my novel. I wrote book club questions and delivered them to book club organizers. I wrote off the page pieces and published them. I decided that the pitch for my novel was not working (does the world need another multi-generational Asian women’s book?) and reframed it in my interviews so it was closer to what I had really intended to write about—fairy tales, girl power and ghosts. And I learned that many other debut novelists before me have quietly trod this path—and are working to help out their fellow writers. Yes, writing is a competitive field. But you will find many more allies who want to help you than you might have expected. It’s now my turn soon to share what I have learned.

An independent bookseller in the Bay Area saw what I was doing, and understood it. “Every little bit is going to make a difference,” she said. “You’ll see.” Even though I couldn’t get a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco, I hosted a lecture on Japanese fairy tales—a theme in my novel—at an arts club. Over fifty people showed up. Half now have my book. The bookseller who sold my novel to the audience told me she would not return the excess stock: “I know I can sell this,” she said.

In the process of trying to learn how to take charge of my own PR I discovered something; it’s healthy for writers to understand and be in control of their careers. This is true of virtually every other profession; why shouldn’t it also be true for writers? Do you really want to live in a world where other people control your life for you? I don’t know about you, but I like solving my own problems. Much of writing and editing, after all, have to do with decisions that you as a writer must make on your own.

So, to the freelance book reviewer who writes for a print journal who did not want to have to hear about my book (and why, by the way, do you feel this way when I never actually did anything to you and you don’t even know me?): you got your wish. I was not in your paper. And at this point, I don’t care if I ever am. Because your world is falling apart. I am ready for the changes. Are you?

MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT was born in Carmel, California to a Japanese mother and American father, who met in Vienna, Austria as music students.  Because German was the only language her parents shared in common, Marie grew up speaking Japanese with her mother, and German with both her parents, only learning English once she started school. Marie graduated from Columbia University with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. In her thesis, "Shamanism in Japan," she explored the powerful role that women have played in developing Japan's indigenous religion of Shinto. Her work often focuses on the intersection between spirituality and modernity, and the manner in which Japan and America, the world's two richest countries, have responded to unprecedented materialism and success. Her essay, Letter from a Japanese Crematorium, originally published in Agni 65, was cited as notable in the 2008 Best American Essays and published in Creative Nonfiction 3, edited by Lee Gutkind. Picking Bones from Ash, published by Graywolf, is her debut novel. The LA Times said of Picking Bones from Ash: "Some fiction makes the world a little smaller; illuminates the dark corners, puts the taste of, say, breakfast in a small mountain village of Japan in the mouth of the reader." Publishers Weekly praised the novel, stating Marie "succeeds where many others fail: making the reader care." Marie has also been a regular contributor to the Japanese news and culture site, Japundit.com. Visit her at MarieMockett.com, where she maintains her blog, MarieMockett.blogspot.com.

22 responses to “When I was Uninvited to Read in 
New York”

  1. Brad Listi says:

    Should be required reading for all new authors.

    “Don’t you want to work?”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing this with us all…

  3. Greg Olear says:

    [standing and applauding]

    Well done, Marie. Well done.

    And brave of you. I’m always hesitant to write about this topic, for fear of…well, I don’t know what, since I’m not being paid attention to anyway.

    My debut novel came out a month after yours did. Same time as the new Dan Brown (must we waste ink revealing that “The Lost Symbol” sucks?). And right after the demise of Kirkus. The biggest surprise of the whole process was how difficult it was to get reviewed anywhere at all. The only newspaper review I got was also the one attack/slam, by one of those too-cute-for-school hacks who was clearly absent the day they learned about unreliable narrators in junior high. (I can handle a bad review [sort of]; I can’t handle a stupid one).

    My book is set in New York, a place I lived for ten years, where I have a lot of friends. New York is a major deal in my book. Needless to say, it was routinely ignored by any and all presses there (other than TONY, who listed my launch party as something cool to do, but did not review the book). And I was snubbed by the indie bookstores, just like you were, although I easily could have brought fifty people to their place of business on a sleepy Tuesday night. Didn’t even respond to my emails. And one of those stores, which shall remain nameless, but which rhymes with “turd,” did the same thing to me that they did to you: screwed me over at almost the last minute. The best thing I did, as a writer, was get the hell out of New York. There’s no home field advantage there.

    And I couldn’t agree more about the big names hogging the lion’s share of the press. I know he’s gone now, but the guy who epitomized that to me was John Updike. The man had not written anything relevant in decades. Does anyone under the age of 60 read Updike? But he wrote a novel about a terrorist, so we have to pay attention. Ugh.

    God bless the book bloggers, God bless friends and family, and God bless the awesome, supportive community at TNB.

    If you want to start a support group, I’m in.


  4. Judy says:

    Marie, your book sounds like something I’d want to read. I’m so sorry this happened to you but also applaud you for taking the high road and working on your own promotion. I’m an author but also a sometimes film reviewer and a publicist, so I’m very well informed on this subject. First of all, as someone who covers other people’s work, I don’t indulge in trashing things I don’t like. I’ll ignore that film and write about something else. I am also in the midst of promoting my own debut and independently published novel. I just wrote a blog post with some similar themes that you might want to check out: http://jsmedia.wordpress.com/2010/02/13/profiles-in-publishing-1-why-on-earth-would-i-want-a-book-contract/
    Thanks for sharing your story, and I wish you the best.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    I used to get really angry in creative writing classes a million years ago with people who claimed that writing was some grandiose, esoteric profession that was open to some mystically-chosen few (of course, they ususally numbered themselves among them). Sure, it’s a creative profession. But it’s a profession if you’re trying to make a career out of it. Just like plumbing. And, just like plumbing, work needs to be done.

    If the medium is changing – which it most certainly is – the basic tenets remain the same. It’s just a different avenue of expression; and one that seems more democratic (while online publicity may not have the depth of traditional publicity, it more than makes up for it in width).

    I’m sorry you were uninvited, Marie, but very pleased to hear you did something about the whole situation.

  6. I got invited to read an essay at a conference in NY but I’m in Korea so I can’t go. Also, I hate speaking in front of more than, say, five people. Anyway, I found someone to go on my behalf, and read my essay.

    The weird thing is that I thought, “Yeah, that’d be cool… never seen New York before.” But I told my parents and they freaked out. I guess to them (and many others) NY is the centre of the publishing world and to even say a few words in front of another writer there is the definition of success.

  7. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh, man. It’s such a tough world out there. And talent has so little relationship to success.

    These aren’t quite analogous situations, but… I’ve been trying to land a permanent position for months now. And you can have great clips and great experience but never go anywhere because you’re constantly lost in the shuffle of resumes and friends-of-friends.

    I for one can’t get enough of books with ash and bone in the titles. Especially if they’re written by you.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    Interesting piece. I love how you decided to take the publicity into your own hands rather than accept the hand you were dealt. I wish I had done that.

    The publishing world is evolving rapidly. My first novel was published in 2004, and I didn’t know shit about the marketing of novels. I’d spent so much time working to get published that I figured, once you’re in, you’re in. I really have no excuse since my day job is in marketing. But when I asked my publicist if I could set up my own signings, etc., she told me not to. She said it would “look bad” if a Random House author was doing his own legwork.

    In retrospect, I can see that she was young and I was clueless, and together we were both greener than we should have been. And the industry was evolving. I couldn’t understand why a publisher would pay money for my book and not market it. Now I understand much better, and when book #3 comes out, any marketing I receive from the publisher will be a bonus in my eyes.

    In fact I will bookmark this piece for ideas. Thank you for posting it.

    P.S. Kirkus will always have a special place in my heart. After my first book, published in hardback, didn’t sell that well, the publisher decided to issue my second as a trade (even though I was contracted for two hardbacks). This practice was just taking hold at the time and I was heartbroken. Kirkus wrote me a pretty good review for that second book, however, and the final line was my favorite: “Laughably not clothbound.” My editor said it was the first time he’d ever seen a reviewer poke fun at the publishing house for something like that. Ha.

  9. I thought I knew what to expect when my first novel sold. After all — even though the word debut was tossed around like I was a twenty-something ingenue — the truth of the matter was that I had been writing for a living for a while doing anything and everything to get something into print. I had visited the cliff of “almost” several times– was told a deal was imminent when in reality a series of events of comic proportions forced me from the ledge and back to the desk to start all over again.

    So the book deal– the real deal– sure I was thrilled but I was also pragmatic. I harbored no illusions of a Times Review or even “celebrity” outfits like People or EW — media that seemed to propel books to the top of the best seller lists regardless of merit. I knew I would have to make it work on my own– but I had no idea how difficult that was going to be.

    People were so generous with their counsel– emerging novelists, established novelists, my agent, my editor, the authors who were gracious enough to blurb me– an unknown– all were supportive and all were adamant: establish a web presence.

    So off I went to buy my domain “name” and make a site ( thank god for my teenage daughter’s talented friend). And then Jessica Anya Blau suggested I contact Brad at TNB and I did– and much to my surprise I found even more people who had experienced the same thing and were more than willing to offer real advice and support (Greg Olear, I’m talking about you here).

    I’ve found myself in situations I never imagined — I’ve pushed myself to get out there and by virtue the book is out there as well and I’ve visited book groups and schools and basically talk to anyone that would listen. I’ve flexed my non-fiction muscle at TNB. I’ve e-mailed long shots and pursued opportunities with no expectation and have been pleasantly surprised by the responses. As a person who is comfortable with anonymous– I am now naked in a bookstore near you– and surprisingly– getting more and more comfortable under the glare of some very unforgiving lighting. So Marie, I applaud you– this is a great piece– a necessary piece– about the realities of publishing. About what happens after. Birthing that book you hold in your hands is only the first step. Anyone who understands that the book is not the end product but the baby you nurture in the new world of book publishing is ready for what comes next.

  10. Marie says:

    Thanks, everyone for reading and commenting! I love that this little blog post got such literate responses–speaks to the folks reading and participating in TNB.

    And I think that, like most of you, I thought I was fairly well prepared to publish a book. I’d been reading (mostly online) about the experience and thought I had a fairly clear idea of what the challenges would be. Only-it was all even more challenging than I thought. And like you wrote, Greg, even just getting to the point of *having* a book took so much work and energy, I couldn’t believe that there was now an entirely new set of hurdles. And yet here we are.

    Anyway, I’m glad this has been helpful to some out there. I’ve really been stunned by the response I’ve received from writing what was essentially just a personal rant. It goes to show-you never know how what you write might impact readers.

  11. Marie, I’m printing this out as I speak. I’m seriously planning to share it with, like, every newish writer I know.
    My second book is coming out in late spring, but both it and my debut novel have been indie-press-published, and my first publisher treated the concept of “marketing” like a dirty, bourgeoise word. My second publisher is gung-ho and hungry, but the press is small, with a volunteer staff like so many indies–like the one I run myself, Other Voices Books, so I know that and how it goes. A lot of heart has to make up for the utter lack of funds.
    When my first novel, My Sister’s Continent, came out, I was 9 months pregnant. I couldn’t tour: I was home nursing.
    This time around, I am going anywhere that will have me. I mean, I have 3 kids and work at 2 universities and run a book press, so I guess I’m not exactly going to turn into Stephen Elliott anytime soon, reading in living rooms across America for months on end of crashing on strangers’ couches . . . but guerilla marketing like that inspires me. It’s my conceptual role model, even if my real life cannot permit its literal replica.
    Your work is fabulous, and I’m not surprised that it was initially being marketed in a commonplace, reductive kind of way that maybe made it sound less subversive than it really is. I’m glad you re-spun that on your own!
    Thanks for this very informative piece.

    • Marie says:

      Gina-I was pregnant too! I did my last event about 12 days before I gave birth (unexpectedly and a month early). I was also exhausted and having difficulty focusing (I was late to an event). I do wonder if the stress I put myself under didn’t contribute to the fact that my son was born 4 weeks early. We’ll never know. But I understood that I had a very small window to make an impact.

      And it’s interesting you bring up Steve Elliott. His book was out at the same time as mine, and I kept thinking: no matter how hard I work, no one works harder than Steve Elliott.

      But I do think there are things we can do as writers to be more creative about how we market. And I certainly feel that even getting to participate here at TNB is a great start.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I know all about Other Voices-I appreciate your praise. Thank all of you again. You have also prompted me to do some more book buying to check out your work!

      On a selfish note-does the LA Book Festival even do a panel on marketing? It seems like a good time/place to have the discussion. (And I’d be happy to offer my services and escape the dreary winter here in NYC. 😉

  12. jonathan evison says:

    . . . good on you, marie, for controlling your destiny . . . in the 21st century, writers will starve in their ivory towers . . . i had a couple of near misses with big houses in the decade before ‘all about lulu’ was published which were heartbreaking at the time . . . but now i see it as a blessing i didn’t break through back then– because i wouldn’t have known how to help myself . . .

  13. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Missed this the first time around, and I’m glad it circulated into “Inside TNB”. I’m not a career writer, but some of the facts you mention are still quite sobering. I also agree strongly with your conclusions. Writers need to control not just their own careers, but their own markets. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Art has no divine right to everyone’s instant consciousness. An artist should not expect the job to be complete once they put down the pen or brush or chisel. I think that’s one of the core concepts of TNB. Writers doing for self. And more power to all that indeed.

  14. Joe Daly says:

    Wow. Thanks for publishing this. As I embark on my debut novel, this is the kind of practical information that is critical to tailoring my expectations appropriately (and hence creating a better experience for me overall).

    I’m reminded of the music industry, which has seen profits plummet as fans have reclaimed the essence of music through the internet (both exchanging and promoting music), and perhaps more critically through home recording software that now allows anyone with a mic to record and release an album from their bedroom.

    Like the literature community, there is the whining of the pool of talent being diluted. This misses the mark in spectacular fashion- the glut of new contributions to any creative community should only serve to inspire the creative types to new heights and to advance the entire industry in a new direction.

    Thank you for this fantastic piece.

  15. lance reynald says:


    I’ve been trying to sort all of this out myself for the past year.

    glad someone finally found it.

    thanks for putting hammer to head.


  16. Tom Hansen says:

    Great post. We have chosen a brutally hard course. It’s just the way it is, and sometimes I think it’s the way it should be. There are major disappointments which for sensitive people can be crushing. Here’s a story: When I first found an agent, she basically guaranteed me that she could get a fortune for my memoir ‘American Junkie’ in NY. She’d been an agent for almost thirty years and I had no reason to doubt her. She sent it out summer 08, and advised me that it might take a few weeks for houses to get back to us as it was summer and they were on vacation. Within five days, five houses got back to us and told my agent not to sell it anywhere else and they were gonna show it around the house and come back with a world rights offer. Long story short, nothing happened. The editors were crazy for it but could not get the green light. Summer 2008 was probably the worst time in the last fifty years to try and sell a book.

    I was crushed. But then something strange happened. I dusted myself off and found a small house to publish it. Of course there’s no money in it, but I’ve gotten used to that too. I’m not even sure I would call writing a ‘career’ at this point. The majority of us will never earn a ‘living’ from it. For me it’s more like a passion, maybe even an addiction or obsession. But it allows me to be creative with no compromise of my artistic integrity and in the grand scheme of things that is what is important to me.

  17. Bon in Bama says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences–and thanks to Kathy Rodgers (“The Final Salute: We Live On”) for recommending your blog.

    I wish you much success! You’ve worked for it and deserve it.

  18. Elizabeth Beckwith says:

    Great work! I think that elements of this true for many of us! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  19. Elizabeth Beckwith says:

    “ring true for many of us” — sorry. That’s what I meant to say! You get the idea!

  20. J.E. Fishman says:

    You’ve done all the right things, Marie. Most creative people are bound to face disappointment most of the time in a winner-take-all society. Having been editor and agent and writer, I’ve learned that persistence wins the game more often than talent. So you’re on the right track by shrugging off the disappointment.

    And now a word from Cormac McCarthy:
    “In talking to older people who’ve had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, ‘The most significant thing in my life is that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.’ And when you hear that you know you’re hearing the truth. It doesn’t diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.”

    Don’t allow for the prospect of failure. Persist.

  21. […] MARIE MUTSUKI MOCKETT is eighty-sixed from her own reading. […]

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