Occasionally when my red “smart” phone trembles in my palm, signaling the arrival of book news--perhaps welcome, perhaps not--I think of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella Morpho Eugenia.
Adapted into a fine film called Angels and Insects that ramped up its more-decadent plotline, Morpho Eugenia is at its core a mid-Victorian love story between an impoverished naturalist named William Adamson and a repressed governess named Matty Compton (wonderfully inhabited by Kristin Scott Thomas). Long before their feelings are made known to each other, when William can do nothing but admire Matty’s vigorous wrists, they hatch a plan to earn much-needed money: write books about insects. William’s is about ant colonies on the grounds of an aristocratic mansion where they are both ensnared; Matty’s is a fairy tale featuring same bugs.
The two of them get busy researching and writing. And I know what you must be thinking: How could decadent plotlines exist in such a novella? But this is the sublime A.S. Byatt, and yes, it gets kinky, including a passage about a family card game that spells out a sexual act not legal even now in any of the United States. To my point—William and Matty mail off their respective manuscripts to London. And more than a year later: results. William receives a letter saying, “We are very happy you have chosen our house as publisher and hope we may come to a happy arrangement for what will, I am quite sure, be a most fruitful partnership.” Moreover, Matty tells him she has quietly sold her insect fairy tale book and now has in hand a sizeable bank draft. With that money, they run away from the mansion in the middle of the night, heading straight for the Amazon, determined to study much larger insects for a number of years.
Since the mid-Victorian age, there’ve been some changes in publishing.
About six months ago--which would be a year after I’d sold my historical thriller The Crown to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster--someone savvy about these things told me to put a Google alert on my name. This was the best way to keep up with news on the book. I did so, and for several weeks was kept informed about the dessert recipes created and then published by a distant relative in Michigan and the high-school-quarterback achievements of an even more distant cousin. I was intrigued by an alert that led to news of someone with my last name being arrested and charged with robbing a Dollar Store in Kentucky. I pondered under what circumstances this would have seemed a profitable plan.
My Google moment came when I sat at the bar at our local Thai restaurant, sipping a club soda while waiting for my take-out order. It was Friday night, there wasn’t much food in the house, and I wanted to surprise the kids with Pad Thai and their favorite duck with crispy noodles dish. My phone whirred, and I glanced at my Gmail account: “‘Publishers Weekly’ review of Nancy Bilyeau’s ‘The Crown.’ ” I clicked on the link, excited. My first review! And then a cold and sour panic took hold in my stomach as I read the sentences once, twice, three times. It wasn’t a good review. There was no Pad Thai for me that night, and not much sleep either.
Since that autumn evening, I’ve been reviewed in national magazines like O: The Oprah Magazine and Entertainment Weekly, in trades such as Kirkus Reviews and BookList, in daily newspapers and on more than a dozen blogs. The reviews of The Crown have been mostly positive. Oprah said, “The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” It’s wonderful to read a sentence like that. Yet nothing can quite erase the dismay and disappointment I felt when I read my very first review in a Thai restaurant, with no warning from agent, editor or friend.
I considered removing the Google alert the next day. But I decided, “No, put on your big girl pants—you have to be able to handle this.” And so when the Google alert trembled the next time, I clicked open my Gmail. I had roughly the same defensive stance as a boxer who’s suffered a powerful right hook, trying to ward off the knockout. This alert wasn’t even about me. That Michigan relative had produced an amazing apple crisp, and I burst out laughing.
The next time Google came for me it was just after breakfast on Saturday morning—a giveaway of advance copies of The Crown just commenced on goodreads. I had no idea this was planned. But before lunch, I’d fired off emails to friends and relatives. My goal was to hustle 50 requests. It was absolutely thrilling to watch the number of people who requested The Crown soar to just over 1,000 in a week.
More and more, the Google alerts were for me and not the chef or the football player: book reviews; an announcement that the first two chapters were posted on scribd; a news brief in Time Out New York about my upcoming reading and signing at a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. After my book was published on January 10, the alerts came faster and faster. Yet more reviews—Devourer of Books just named The Crown her pick for the month of January. Yay! A piracy website with a skull & crossbones as its emblem offered my book for free, a novel that took five years to write. Boo!
Google knows no borders, and now that my novel is on sale in the United Kingdom I get alerts on reviews popping up across the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong. Coming out with a first book is exciting. But there is much about publishing a book that is baffling too—and at times harrowing. Several times I’ve considered removing the Google alert that sends news updates hurtling into my world. Wouldn’t it be nice to search through the Amazon for unusual insects with William and Matty, oblivious of the latest news in book publishing?
But in the end I always accept that knowledge is power. It was Sir Francis Bacon who said it first, in Religious Meditations Of Heresies in 1597, proving that for me all roads lead back to the 16th century.
I feel confident that if Sir Francis were here right now, he would tell me there is no going back. Information must flow, and I must be ready for it, and never fail to respond when the news comes, which is more often than not through that sudden whirring jolt in a small red phone.