My Book Deal Ruined My Life
Taxes, weight gain, depression, loneliness—book advances are
like lottery payoffs
by Gillian Reagan Published: June 5, 2007
Tags: Arts & Culture, James Frey, Nathan Englander, Rachel Sklar
This article was published in the June 10, 2007, edition of The New York Observer.
For those who think they have a book inside them just waiting to be written—and,
really, isn't that pretty much everyone?—landing a book contract would be like
winning the lottery. Dreams would come true; doors would open. Anything could
"You hear about these big contracts coming in, and it whets your appetite," said
Leah McLaren, a columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail, who landed a book
contract with HarperCollins Canada in 2003 for her chick-lit novel, The Continuity
Girl. "You start to think, 'This is my lottery ticket …. It could be optioned for a
movie or become a huge best-seller!'
Indeed, securing a deal with one of the many esteemed editors at publishing
houses like Knopf or Doubleday or FSG seems like fulfilling a kind of New York–
specific American dream. Visions of six-figure contracts, KGB readings and TV
appearances dance through writers' heads. Even better: no more office, no more
"But then, it could completely disappear and sell five copies," added Ms. McLaren
whose own book was published to little fanfare as a paperback original in the
States this spring. "And you'll never be heard from again. You'll disappear. And
that's the real risk of writing a book."
My Book Deal
Ruined My Life
But just think for a minute, by way of comparison, if a book contract is a lottery
ticket …. Evelyn Adams, who won $5.4 million in the New Jersey lottery in 1985
and 1986, now lives in a trailer. William (Bud) Post won $16.2 million in the
Pennsylvania lottery in 1988, but now survives on food stamps and his Social
Security check. Suzanne Mullins, a $4.2 million Virginia lottery winner, is now
deeply in debt to a company that lent her money using the winnings as collateral.
Could such doom await lucky-seeming, envy-enspiring book writers?
Look at Jessica Cutler, a.k.a. Washingtonienne, the D.C. sex blogger who was paid
a six-figure advance for her novel, based on the experiences she chronicled on her
blog. Suffering under the weight of a lawsuit from an ex-boyfriend, who claims to
have been humiliated by her writing, she has now filed for bankruptcy. She can't
even pay her Am-Ex bill.
Then there are the truly epic downfalls of authors like James Frey, whose
fabricated memoir caused his life (and his seven-figure two-book deal with
Riverhead) to shatter into a million little pieces. Now he's writing two novels
without a contract and posting on the blog and message boards on his Web site,
bigjimindustries.com—the literary equivalent of living in a trailer park.
And even before the potential post-publication humiliation, there's deadline
pressure; crippling self-doubt; diets of Entenmann's pastries and black coffee; self-
made cubicles structured with piles of books, papers and unpaid bills; night-owl
tendencies; failed relationships; unanswered phone calls; weight gain; poverty;
and, of course, exhaustion.
So forget the American dream! Getting a book deal seems more like a nightmare.
In 2002, Daniel Smith, a former Atlantic Monthly staff editor, received the news that he'd gotten a book contract for Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the
History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination in a sweltering phone
booth at the MacDowell Colony, an artists' retreat in woodsy New Hampshire.
"There was no cell-phone reception at the time, so you had to get into these poorly
ventilated—meaning there was no ventilation—phone booths. You sweat like a pig
in there, and that's how I got the news. And it was extremely exciting," Mr. Smith
told The Observer.
Mr. Smith's book was inspired by the experiences of his father, an attorney who
was ashamed that he heard voices in his head. He passed away in 1998. "I basically
signed up to think about my father and his most painful secret every day for the
next three years. I basically could sign myself up for mourning every day for three
years, which is really not a fun way to spend someone's life," Mr. Smith said.
"Thinking about insanity every day for many years also is very uncomfortable,
because it's like thinking about death—it's one of our two greatest fears."
At one point, said Mr. Smith, the writing was so miserable, "I thought about getting
into painting houses or digging ditches, doing anything other than writing—
making watches or something like that."
Mr. Smith faced the problem that many authors struggle with: being stuck with
their subjects for one, three, even 10 years at a time.
"I want this woman out of my life so much it's ridiculous," said Michael Anderson,
55, who has been researching and writing a book about the playwright Lorraine
Hansberry for HarperCollins since 1998. "It has been, in essence, 10 years, and
sometimes it seems like, 'My God, why isn't this thing done yet?' But at times I
think, 'My God, it's only been 10 years.' I never understood why biographies took
so much time; now I'm in awe that any of them get finished."
When he received his contract, Mr. Anderson was working full-time as an editor at
The New York Times Book Review, a job he had for 17 years. He figured he would
try to take four years to finish the book and publish it by his 50th birthday. "But
that was just naïve," Mr. Anderson said.
He left The New York Times in 2005, sequestering himself in his Washington
Heights apartment to devote himself to the book.
For months, each night, he would be startled from his slumber at 3:30 in the
morning in the midst of a thought about Hansberry. "She's a nice woman, but I
don't want to be with her all the time," Mr Anderson said.
Nathan Englander spent close to a decade on his second novel, The Ministry of
Special Cases, released this April. "I was getting upset about all the articles—you
know, 'After a decade of silence … ,'" Mr. Englander, 37, said in an ominous tone
during a phone interview.
"Now I look around and wonder—it's hard to remember who I was all those years,"
Mr. Englander added. "I don't care about anything when I'm in the work; nothing
else matters at all …. People I lost touch with, I'm trying to get back to. I'll write
them, 'Thank you for your letter in 1999. Here's what's been going on.' You work
your way through to get familiar with normal life."
Aside from losing touch with friends, Mr. Englander also struggled with everyday
life.“I look down and see that I’m only wearing one shoe,” Mr. Englander said in a
recent interview with the blog Bookslut. “Recognizing it, I think, How can I walk
around like this? Why would I walk around with only one shoe? … Why isn’t that
shelf organized, or why didn’t I write that person back or … I can’t understand
why the person that is me didn’t do these things. And to that question my mother
responds, ‘Because you were like a tortured madman working on this book,’ and I
remember and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s why.’”
“Spouses get very jealous of the biographer’s subject, because it really is what you’
re thinking about all the time,” Mr. Anderson explained. “I’ve often thought that if
I were married, my wife would’ve sued for divorce.”
The freedom of setting one’s own schedule, of course, is another gift of the book
contract—for some, it’s the very motivation to pitch a book in the first place. Work
for a few hours, go to yoga, work a little more, eat a sandwich …. It’s a fantasy of
independence, without daily or weekly deadlines imposed from above, without
being picked at by your nosy co-worker. But then…You miss the co-worker: the
ruminations on last night’s Sopranos at the coffee machine, the bitching about
deadlines over lunch. You even long for their Z100 sing-alongs and screeching
renditions of “Since U Been Gone.”
“I found, when I quit The Times, that the biggest problem is loneliness,” Mr.
“Basically, I was giving myself panic attacks in the beginning,” said Ms. McLaren,
who took a leave of absence from her column-writing job to move to an isolated
farmhouse outside Toronto and write her novel in solitude. “As a newspaper
writer, people were always walking over to your desk and being like, ‘Where is it?
How’s it coming?’ All that was taken away—there’s no deadline.”
And then there’s the self-loathing.
“You’re not letting people read it as you write it. Nobody has ever read what you’
re doing. It could be terrible. It could be brilliant. And you start to think, ‘Oh God, this is a complete piece of shit that couldn’t be published—nobody is going to read it.’ But then you have a sandwich and go, ‘I am a genius and I’m going to win the Booker Prize.’”
Rachel Sklar, 34, the media and special-projects editor for the Huffington Post,
barricaded herself her in Lower East Side apartment to work on her book, Jew-ish:
Who We Are, How We Got Here, and All the Ish in Between, a humorous
“guidebook on being a contemporary Jew,” according to Ms. Sklar. “It’s not like
you can pack all that into a pamphlet if you’re going to do it right. You can’t just
wing a chapter on the Talmud.” (Originally due in mid-February, the book’s
deadline has since been pushed twice—once to May and now to mid-September.)
Ms. Sklar took six weeks off from her blogging job to uniform herself in fuzzy
sweatpants, tie her hair into a bun, surround herself in books from the library and
Amazon.com, guzzle Diet Coke and immerse herself in Jewry.
“The stack of books kept me where I was. I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t shopping ….
I berated myself and may have had a few meltdowns. Well, I definitely had a few
meltdowns. But you know, a friend of mine came over at 1:30 [after] a movie
premiere with a six-pack of Diet Coke and a box of cupcakes, and it was the
greatest pick-me-up ever.”
“The interesting thing is that it’s kind of freeing when you have a real good excuse
to tell people no,” said Anna Holmes, 33, the current managing editor of Jezebel, a
Gawker-sponsored female-centric blog, and editor of Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s
Letters from the End of the Affair. “But there was also that fear that the more I said no, at the end of the whole thing I wouldn’t have any friends left.”
Ms. Holmes stayed bundled in her apartment for about a year between 2001 and
2002, leaving her job as a writer at Glamour to cobble together the book.
“If you have an office job, at least it’s walking to and from the subway every day.
When you sit in your house, you seriously gain weight,” Ms. Holmes said in a
phone interview from her Long Island City apartment. “I’m eating my Greek
yogurt and steamed vegetables—I’m trying to be good about what I’m eating. But I’
m still like, ‘I’m getting really soft.’ My idea before the book came out was that I
was going to diet, because I had gotten flabby, so that I’d look better to promote it. But that didn’t happen. I was quote unquote dieting for I think two weeks, but I
just couldn’t do it.”
After all the months of writing, editing and wrangling permissions to reprint
letters, Caroll & Graf released the book in August 2002. But the last thing Ms.
Holmes wanted to do was celebrate the publication.
“I was really tired. I wasn’t so much physically tired, I was mentally tired. At the
exact moment I was supposed to be promoting it, the last thing I wanted to do was
talk about it. I had to get all excited about this thing that I had just given birth to. It was like postpartum depression…
“I had a hard time getting myself back into my quote-unquote normal life, because
I actually started enjoying my [own] company so much and the solitude of it all. I
didn’t even want to go out,” Ms. Holmes continued. “I still tend to kind of want to
be at home and read and, you know, [become] a cat lady, with my cats.”
And what about that holy grail—the advance? Even the smallest advance can be
justified to death as the ticket out of your office job or bartending gig. But is the money that publishers pay most writers enough to make the suffering worth it?
That money, of course, isn’t just for rent and ham sandwiches and Oreos.
It’s also for the sky-high freelance taxes (about 37 percent of any untaxed income
will be commandeered by Uncle Sam), agent’s fees, fax and copy tabs at the library,
travel for research trips and any other number of things. Think about it: $100,000 is actually more like $65,000 after taxes—not bad. But then there’s the 15 percent
agent’s cut (another $15,000), leaving you about $50,000. For a year, that’s a livable salary. But once other book expenses are taken into account—like permissions, travel, copies and the like—you’re looking at a modest pile rather than a mountain. There’s really not much left to enjoy—especially if your work stretches on for years.
“When I hear a book deal, I think, ‘Oh, that person made a 100 grand.’ When I have
a low-five-figure advance, I call it, like, a small gift, I suppose,” said Ms. Holmes. She also learned that her publisher wouldn’t pay for the rights to print the breakup letters she wanted to include in the collection. “The advance I got was not money that I could live on; it was money that had to be used to pay permissions for the book,” she said.
Although Mr. Smith said he was able to survive on his advance, he admits that
those six-figure deals can quickly dwindle away over the three or four years it
takes to write a book. “You’re basically making 30 or 40 grand a year, and that’s
not that great of a salary …. It’s really not as much as it seems. These numbers can
be very deceptive.”
Yet, still, the dreamers dream. Brendan Sullivan, 25, moved to New York after
studying creative writing at Kenyon College in Ohio. He hasn’t landed a book deal for his novel, but is determined to find a publisher.
“Writing has ruined my life and cost me many, many girlfriends,” he wrote in an e-
mail. “I have thrown away several careers and one college degree to spend my
time working in bars, D.J.’ing in bars and drinking my rejection letters away. I
wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I’ve made many of them since I started
…. I also abandoned my agent with words harsher than those I’ve saved for lost
Mr. Sullivan has held 27 jobs to support his writing career, from selling chapstick
on the street to being a night guard in an art gallery (“That was my favorite job
ever, because I just sat in a chair and read novels all day,” Mr. Sullivan added.)
He is currently working on his second novel. His first one, well, “There are eight
drafts of it—they’re in my basement right now,” he said in a phone interview from
his Fort Greene apartment. He trashed the novel after he got into a public fight
with his first agent and decided to start anew. “You have to learn how to suppress
your gag reflex in order to get anything out. Like in love, you make a lot of
mistakes and you learn from them.”
Indeed, despite the heartbreak, the loneliness, the trashed drafts, the rejected
proposals, writers will continue to reach for the golden ticket, the fulfillment of
their American dream.
“In terms of the most joyous life to have in the world, in terms of pleasure
receptors, it might be like being a heroin addict: It’s the most pleasurable thing that you could choose, if you have that constant access,” said Mr. Englander, before
hanging up to head to the coffee shop and write. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, it almost
killed me,’ but I’m saying that in the most positive way, because it’s all I want to