The Publishing Lottery

Last month, I was surprised when Amazon decided to offer my nine-year-old literary mystery The German Money for a special promotion on Kindle. Within hours, a book that had been lingering in Outer Mongolia was sitting in a sidewalk Paris care having a cognac, enjoying a view with no yaks.

I was delighted by the unexpected news when my publisher told me it would happen, for many reasons. It’s long been my favorite book of the twenty-four I’ve published. The story of children of a Holocaust survivor arguing on the Upper West Side about her will, it took me twenty years, on and off, to write. No joke. I went through endless drafts that were dead ends, never fixing on the tone, the characters, the voice.  I was thrilled when I finally found the right mix of setting and point of view, and after it was published, I toured with it in the U.S., England, and Germany. Audiences loved it at every stop, but what a struggle to get the damned book published!

The rejections piled up, and none of them were helpful. I came achingly close at Scribner where an editor was absolutely nuts about the book. But she just could not convince the board that it would sell 50,000 copies, which was what they were then demanding every novel brought to them should be able to sell. Reasonable? I don’t think so. But then I’m just an author.

Her letter to my agent was heartbreaking and a little angry at her bosses. Of course, she would move on to other projects, many other projects. Me, I was crushed. I eventually left that agent who was chatty and companionable but never moved my career forward an inch. I did extensive research on small presses printing novels “like” mine and picked a wonderful boutique press in Massachusetts, Leapfrog, then run by Ira Wood and Marge Piercy. They did a superb job of editing, production, and publicity, and The German Money was a BookSense Pick. That was my first, and I felt I’d won a lottery.

All was not peachy keen, though. One world-famous author who had promised to do a blurb suddenly went incommunicado, and that hurt the book’s sales because we were counting on her. And then, the early reviews were mixed. They still rankled when I got a once-in-a-lifetime rave from The Washington Post. Here’s what it said:

“What a gift for a writer to be able to sustain unflagging, sweaty-palm suspense in a novel almost through character alone. This is what the prodigious Lev Raphael pulls off in The German Money, a mystery whose shocking denouement is so organic to the whole thing that it feels as if a boiling volcano has finally let loose. Best known for his fiction and nonfiction about Holocaust survivors’ children, Raphael has also written five witty mysteries. The German Money combines his multiple talents with his understanding of Holocaust survivors and their families to produce one of the most powerful suspense novels in years, a kind of Kafka meets Philip Roth meets le Carré–a beautifully modulated narrative.”

Okay, not only is it beautiful written and deeply appreciative in a small space, but being compared to three of my favorite authors in one sentence absolutely blew my mind. I was sure a review like that guaranteed the novel would be a Washington Post Notable Book of the Year (as were reviewer and author friends), but that year, for no apparent reason, mysteries weren’t included. I was devastated.

So I did what writers learn to do with defeat and disappointment: I moved on to another book. And another. And another after that. Some did well, some didn’t. And that’s the business of publishing, where authors often feel like the Samuel Beckett lines from The Unnamed: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Nine years on, The German Money, which I dearly loved, is like some wonderful vacation you had many years ago, one where the food was great and the sightseeing terrific, the company even better, but it rained too much and too often, your wallet was stolen, and you had a case of food poisoning…. The best of times, the worst of times.

P.S.: As of this writing, the book is inside the Kindle Top Ten in three different categories.  Who knew?

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6 Responses

  1. The German Money is a terrific book–I read it only a couple of weeks ago. I hope Kindle sales give it the boost it deserves!

  2. What a wonderful story about persistence and luck in publishing. It takes both, I think, but the only part we can control is the persistence. 🙂

  3. Yes, I agree Susan. Despite all the cards and sayings, we can’t really make our own luck. If we could, it wouldn’t be luck. 🙂

  4. Sadly true!

    • It’s a part of the American myth that we can be and do anything, but decade ago the psychologist Karen Horney wrote about American neurosis partly being caused by our wild expectations meeting cold hard reality.

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