Sounds of Silence
A couple of days ago, after an exhausting afternoon that contained a meltdown by my First-Year-of College Teen over something completely avoidable, a bunch of county government mishigas, and some existential dread about my writing career, the universe decided I needed a mackerel.1
Because the universe has a sense of humor, I was in the shower at the time. My husband had gotten the mail and came upstairs with an envelope in his hands, just as I stepped out. “You need to open this right now,” he said. “It’s from Lin-Manuel Miranda.”
Because I am a lady2, I couldn’t open mail from someone famous while naked and damp. Husband had to wait until I was dry and clothed. To be honest, I assumed the card was nothing but a form letter. I’ve given to LMM’s charity and figured it was time to re-up my pledge.
Reader: It wasn’t that.
You may now be asking yourself, “exactly how did the multi-award-winning Hamilton guy wind up with a copy of your book about running for office?” Easy answer. I sent it to him.
I’ve had three books published. Publishing contracts usually include “author’s copies,” which are pretty much what you’d expect. A box (or two or three) of your book shows up on your doorstep shortly before being released to the wider world. You can do whatever you want with them.3 After I’ve sent a copy to nearly everyone who put up with my bullshit while I was writing and/or was interviewed inside, I generally have a few left over. That’s where the fun starts.
After years in this business4, perhaps the one lesson I’ve internalized is that hearing “no” isn’t that awful. “No” means that the person you’re trying to talk to has at least engaged with the idea on some level. This is true of all of no’s cousins, like “I can’t right now,” “this isn’t for me,” or “this is terrible.” In decades of reporting and writing and selling said writing, I almost never hear no.
The worst you can hear isn’t “no,” it’s no response at all — and is what usually happens. You send an email. You make a phone call. You send actual mail. Most of the time, the only response is absolute silence. Once you can make peace with that, this whole publishing dance5 gets about a billion times easier.
Knowing that, what I do with my leftover copies is this: I send them to the people whose work got me through writing the book itself. Most public (and public-ish) people have addresses on their official websites. You can find them relatively easily — and this has only gotten easier. I stick a handwritten card in each envelope that explains why I sent it. I usually don’t sign the books so that they can be resold if they choose.6
Ninety-nine times out of 100, these copies go out into the void never to be heard from again. That’s totally cool and expected. They are gifts and what happens to them once I’ve given them is not my concern. But that one time? The result can be pretty cool, like, say, a note from Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose most recent musical carried my tired ass up First Avenue during the New York City Marathon and, later, made me fully comprehend how America is a worthy experiment.
In all, with Someone’s Gotta Do It, I sent maybe ten or 12 copies out a year ago. I can’t give you a list of names because I don’t keep track when I sent what and to whom. So far, LMM’s is the only response I’ve received7 and is more than I’d expected. I suspect that’s only because he has some time to sort through his mail right now, what with Broadway being dark. That’s just a guess, tho.
Here’s my point: Don’t be afraid of no. Expect nothing to happen. Lean into that silence. You just never know when it will be broken.8
What are you not doing because you fear the answer will be no?
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Long story short: a writer friend described navigating by an old-school GPS unit that made a reassuring tone whenever you made the correct turn as “getting a mackerel.” You know? Like when a seal does the thing the trainer wants him to do?
True story. With Sweater Quest, I lined ‘em up like dominos then recorded myself knocking them down. The video, sadly, is lost to time.
and writing for newspapers before this
I suspect this holds true for fields beyond publishing. This is just the one I know.
This is mostly to protect my own ego. I’ve stumbled across my own signed books in used bookstores and don’t think I could handle it if I found a copy I sent to someone I admire.
Yes, yes. I did get a letter from Hillary Clinton (and am still in a state of shock about it) but that whole thing was handled by a publicity person at the publisher, who had a friend-of-a-friend who put a copy in her hands.
Usually, this newsletter is about a book, TV, podcast, etc, I’m into. This week is different because it’s my newsletter and I do what I want. BUT. Here’s what I’m into right now, just in case you need a distraction: the Iditarod. The race looks a little bit different this year (what doesn’t?) but the idea is the same. Fourteen good dogs and their mushers race through Alaska. Someone will get to the finish first but it’s not about that. I’m following Toni Reitter’s tweets and blog for updates as well as listening to the Iditapod. And for an extra dose of wonder about sled dogs, this post from Judith Tarr conveys the true partnership between human and canine.