by Zoje Stage
Launch Day for my debut novel BABY TEETH was amazing. My agent Sarah was in town and we spent the day together, and then we joined dozens of friends and family members at the bookstore that was hosting my launch. I’ve never had a proper graduation, or a prom, or a wedding, or any other large celebratory event and in every way this felt like My Day. It was a victorious culmination of decades of writing, years of querying, and sixteen months of slowly marching from the day we sold the book to the day it would be available on bookshelves.
Within forty-eight hours of Launch Day I knew I was depressed.
But worse than that, I also felt strangely removed from what was happening around me. Thirty-six hours later I started to feel kind of weird. A bit spacey. A bit lost.
Within days, my confidence plummeted, as did my sense of victory, and the sense of not feeling present only worsened.
In short, I felt insane. I think I was having a nervous breakdown.
And I had no idea why. Everything that happened with BABY TEETH was a miracle, for which I was so grateful! Why had I come unhinged, and so quickly?
Needing to know if I was being freakishly over-sensitive, I contacted a writer-friend who’d debuted a few weeks before me. She confirmed that she was experiencing the same things, and we swapped notes and commiserating messages. I’d intuited, from cryptic Tweets and whatnot, that some of my other writer-friends were also having a challenge in the weeks and months after their books were published. And then, not even three weeks after another writer-friend debuted she reached out to me, a subdued “How’s it going?”—from which I guessed that she might be wondering if she was being freakishly over-sensitive. I just jumped right in and told her:
I lost my mind in the days after my book launched, and it took weeks to get it back.
After I started swapping stories with other writers I realized I needed to write about this. It would have helped me tremendously if I’d been forewarned about the quick onset of the Post-Publication Blues, so I’m sharing this in the hopes that other writers will find it, and maybe agents and publicists can even start giving their debut authors the heads-up that this happens… a lot.
The Post-Publication Blues
The Post-Publication Blues comes with a particular “trap” that makes admitting to it even more difficult than acknowledging other types of depression. We newly-published authors are well aware that we’ve beaten the odds, and that dozens—hundreds, thousands—of writers are trying to follow in our footsteps. It feels wrong to suddenly accomplish your dreams and then feel like complete shit—who in the world is going to sympathize with that? We certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful or unappreciative, and that just compounds the confusion and self-punishment.
In the days after my launch I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, and chalked it up to all sorts of things (and all may have contributed):
- I’d been working too hard for too long, given the nature of my health problems.
- To a certain degree I’d anticipated an anticlimax, but maybe I’d vastly underestimated the twelve-month build-up, where everything is exciting, and then suddenly after Launch Day the whole publication machine seems to come to a grinding stop.
- My agent suggested I was experiencing Imposter Syndrome because of how I kept saying I didn’t feel like myself, and I felt so removed from my life. (In fact, in spite of the name, this isn’t quite the definition of Imposter Syndrome.)
- I was engaged in another round of revisions for Book 2 during all of this, and I don’t know if my lack of confidence/freakout was making Book 2 seem more stressful than it should have, or if it was the other way around and Book 2 was too much for that moment in time.
- My friend Maud suggested “The past few months were overwhelming in every sense, [culminating] in the launch of your book.” Which was stressful, even if it was good stress. She went on, “[What you’re feeling now is] your body, brain, and emotions dealing with the helter-skelter by dampening every trigger that enters, as there are too many to deal with at the moment. It’s no wonder that there is a safety net somewhere in your brain that suppresses [everything] for the moment, until it has calmed down a bit.”
Maud’s words were tremendously helpful in my understanding of what I was experiencing. I was overwhelmed in every sense—physical, emotional, creative… Fortunately, I didn’t have too many publicity events on my schedule in the weeks after Pub Day, but I felt I’d “blown” the ones I had. I kept reporting to friends “My brain isn’t working!”—which is an extremely alarming thing to feel, and kills your confidence when you’re trying to pass yourself off for the first time as an articulate, professional writer. I knew I needed to do something to try and resolve this situation—it felt career-killing to me. All of a sudden I no longer thought I could handle being a professional writer—either the public aspects, or the writing.
So what did I do?
First, within days of starting to feel “off” I let both my agent and publicist know. I’m sure I sounded bonkers, but I knew something was tipping me over the edge and the last thing I wanted was to be inundated with career responsibilities when I didn’t feel like myself. There was only so much they could do, but at least they understood why I couldn’t book more appearances or take on interviews. I made it emphatically clear that I needed time off. Right. The fuck. Now. And they were understanding and accommodating; I stopped committing to things for a few weeks.
Next, I took days off when I could—didn’t leave the apartment, limited the amount I was online—and in between there were things I had to attend to, like Book 2 stuff, already-scheduled interviews, etc. But I also got very disciplined about not working when I didn’t actually need to. I gave myself permission to take every other day off. I slept in. I took naps. I tried to eat a bit better.
I made my life as stimulus-free as possible.
I laid low. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to do that, but it was also a necessity. And my sister helped me find a therapist, because I was in no mood to slog through another thing.
What can you learn from this?
If you are in your debut year as an author I’d encourage you to have as little on your schedule as possible in the weeks immediately following your launch. If you are an agent or publicist, I would encourage you to tell your debut authors that this could happen to them. If it does, they might not feel so crazy if they have an inkling ahead of time that this is normal. And if they don’t experience it then great, they’ll feel confident to add things to their schedule once they can gauge how well they’ve ridden the anticlimax of post-publication.
For writers who are currently experiencing this (and for those who already have), I’ve noticed some similarities in what we found anxiety-triggering or disappointing:
- The anticlimax in general. How do I write that noise of a balloon deflating…pffffftthht.
- Worries about the next book—whether it’s a deadline issue, a writing issue, a revisions issue, or some combination.
- A cessation of the constant emails from your team (yeah, it feels weird when that happens).
- Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Let me address numbers…
Within days of BABY TEETH being published I was certain it wasn’t selling to expectation. This is ridiculous on so many levels…! First of all, I had no previous expectations of how many copies BABY TEETH would sell, and no idea of what is “normal,” and absolutely no one had ever even implied that there was a numbers “goal.” This is some weird shit that manifested in my own head!
Part of it was likely a result of “outside influences”—the friends, family, supporters who kept expressing that my book would be on the New York Times Bestseller list any moment. The people who ask—still every few days—if I have a movie deal. The fame-admirers who openly wondered what TV shows I’d be asked to appear on. Personally, I have exactly ZERO interest in being on TV—I’m a behind-the-scenes person! I felt such pressure about some of this that I discussed it with my agent ahead of publication, and she made me understand how unlikely it is for a book—any book—to ever make it on the NY Times list. And then I actively began working on lowering other people’s expectations.
Look, we all understand why our friends and family have big ideas for us: they support us and want us to do well, and for many of them the only standard they understand for “how a book does in the real world” is via the New York Times or a movie or TV show. What they may not realize is that many—most?—writers dream in those directions, but reality rarely takes you there. And if it does, it usually requires years of being a published author, not days or weeks.
I think it’s been true for many of us that when we hear how many copies our books have sold—in a week, or a month—it sounds… low. But when you factor in that to get on the NY Times list you need to sell about 7,000 (?) copies in a single week, and that most books never accomplish that, it should become more evident that it is hard as shit to sell thousands of books. So one unfortunate consequence of this is the authors are left feeling a little discouraged, and meanwhile our team feels like everything is right on track! Because they know how this business works.
If you are in your debut year as an author try to anticipate the anticlimax, and not set crazy goals for yourself or your book, and try to tune out the specifics of your friends/family buzz. And anticipate needing some time to decompress and regroup after Launch Day. And if you’re an author who went through the Post-Pub Blues alone, know that you are not alone—and there’s nothing wrong about what you felt.
It took more than a month before I felt like myself again, and I will do things differently now. For one thing, I will pace myself better in general. I’ll be more aware of when I really need to take a day off or lay low. The pre-Launch year is full of so many “firsts”—which is exciting, but also stressful. Holy crap have I learned a lot in the last year and a half! I like to think I’m better prepared now. I guess time will tell… In the meanwhile, I’m fine. BABY TEETH is fine. I’m taking what I’ve learned and moving ahead.
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An author of dark and suspenseful novels, Zoje Stage lives in Pittsburgh, PA. BABY TEETH is her first novel.
This essay is reprinted with permission from Zoje Stage.