because none of us is fucking up like we think we are, is what i'm trying to say

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

That time I met with Penguin (!)

Back in October, I got an email from the Commissioning Editor of non-fiction at Penguin. 





The man in charge of buying manuscripts in the Michael Joseph imprint of the Publishing House Of My Dreams said he’d seen the website I’d set up to impress them, and was interested. Liked the extract, he said, had watched the YouTube video; seen the effort I’d gone to in order to say HEY, UNIVERSE. I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK AND NOW SOMEBODY IMPORTANT SHOULD PUBLISH IT.

He was that somebody important.

He told me I deserved to be read, and to send over what I’d got. I said I’d buy him lunch, if he liked. He told me to come to the Penguin offices for a coffee. I threw up in the loo at work and then took three days to reply to the email because I needed everyone in my life to check the punctuation in my response, lest he suddenly change his mind because I’d mis-typed ‘Great- looking forward to it’ or similar.

It was a real exercise in growing the balls needed for a self-declared balls to the motherfucking wall phase. I was shitting myself.

I flew to New York, and then he was on annual leave. Then there a last-minute schedule clash, and before I knew it a month had passed between his first message to me and the moment where I slid into Penguin HQ last week and announced to the receptionist, “Laura Jane Williams here to see One Of The Most Powerful People In Publishing, please.”

I can’t even begin to tell you the thoughts I’ve had in that month.

What if I’m not ready? What if this isn’t the right choice for me? What if he’s calling me into his office to tell me to stop making a mockery of the publishing industry with my shitty attempt at a book? What if he offers me a million pounds? What if it’s a mistake, and he thought he was actually emailing the other girl with a website?


What it all boiled down to though, what all the dreamers around me kept reassuring me with, was the simple fact that he’d read me, liked me, and wanted to meet me. Simple.

Imagine my confusion, then, when on the day of our meeting I emailed to confirm the appointment and he replied, “Yeah, see you at 4 p.m. I should probably tell you now though, the book isn’t something for me…”

Ah. Right.

But. Meeting an editor who doesn’t want to buy your book is like going on a date with a man you’ve already slept with: the forgone conclusion means anything goes, because there’s nothing to lose. The end result has already been decided.

(Unless you disclose questionable sexual health status. Or are rude to the waitress. OR SAY YOU DON’T THINK ASTROLOGY IS SCIENCE.)

For a full hour I was given the opportunity to sit opposite Mr Commissioning Editor with my legs crossed, sleeves rolled up to bare tattoos that inevitably he asked about, making notes in the back of a copy of The Firestarter Sessions with a blunt pencil. I’d forgotten my notebook.

I got to ask him all the questions I would’ve been too afraid to ask had I been trying to impress him into commissioning me. He told me I’m a good writer (THE COMMISSIONING EDITOR AT PENGUIN SAID I WAS A GOOD WRITER!) but that what I’d written wasn’t sexy enough to be erotica, even though it is largely about sex. Even though it’s humorous, it’s not out-and-out comedy. I might be female, but I hadn’t written chick-lit. I’d have to figure out where I was pitching and edit my words accordingly, he essentially told me.

I told him I didn’t want to do that. I might have said the words ‘creative integrity.’ I absolutely talked about ‘the new digital landscape of literature’. I might have mentioned ‘vagina’. Twice.

I told him I’m pretty determined to do it my way. Soz I’m not sorry.

I’m not trying to sell 100,000 books to get onto a bestseller list- read, forgotten, temporary. I want to communicate with the people who already care about the story I have to say, and in return will tell me about theirs.

The other women, or men, out there who thought heartbreak might finish them, and have ended up becoming more than they ever thought they could be because they realised they had nothing to lose and so went balls to the motherfucking wall with me. Before me. Because of me. With me.

My words are for them, and that doesn’t need a genre, or 100,000 copies. That’s what I told the man at Penguin. Maybe I’m an idiot. He seemed to understand- he was really very kind to me.

I think the man at Penguin could tell I was pretty serious about my game. Knew I had that precarious mix of naivety and absolute determination to figure it out my own way. That’s pretty dangerous. It made me think of what my friend Chelsea said recently:

I find solace in the fact that I am insignificant. One of seven BILLION, in one solar system of billions, in one galaxy of billions, in an entirely endless universe of amazing and unimaginable possibilities. I could ruin my life and do nothing, but in the scale of things, nothing really matters. If I mess up, it makes no difference. And in a backwards way, I love it. It means I have nothing to lose.

The man at Penguin wished me luck. I don't think I'll need it. I thanked him anyway. He was cute.

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