What It Feels Like When Your Book Goes to #1
You’re in Los Angeles. You’re on book tour. You’re in a cab – you just got off the flight from Houston. It’s hot, though not as hot as Houston was. Your cab driver is from Ghana. His name is Willie. He used to be on their Olympic track team, now he’s moonlighting as an actor in LA. He was on The X-Files. He gives you his card.
(Later you look him up on IMDB. He was in season 4, “Teliko.”)
You check your phone. You missed a call from your publisher. You put your phone back in your bag.
It’s Wednesday, two in the afternoon pacific time, which is a special time of the week in the books industry. Civilians see the New York Times bestseller list on the weekend, but the Times privately circulates the list to the book industry on Wednesday afternoons at five o’clock Eastern time (in other words, now). At that moment, once a week, all authors and editors everywhere quietly bow their heads and mutter a prayer to the Retail Gods and wait for whatever judgement has been placed upon them.
You’re waiting too, because your book just got published last week. But you’re pretending to yourself that you’re not waiting. You’re so cool you’re not even checking your voicemail.
Now you stop narrating in the second person.
I had pretty good reasons to think that I’d be somewhere on the list. The Magicians and The Magician King both “hit the list,” as they say in the parlance. And believe me when I say that I was over the moon when that happened. Up till that point I had never been anywhere near the Times list, and not for lack of trying. I’ve been at this a while. So I remember the moments when I got those calls: once in LA, once in St. Louis. There’s a ritual: the whole team at Viking gathers around a speakerphone — my publicist (Lindsay), my editor (Allison), my editor’s boss (Clare).
Those times I wasn’t at the top of the list. More towards the middle part. Middle-to-lower. But still, a lot changed for me when that happened.
That was three years ago. I don’t dwell on sales numbers too much — I cash the checks, but I don’t do the math, because that way madness lies (and also unlike most of my characters I’m not that good at math). Trilogies — anecdotally speaking — tend to either fade away or gather momentum as they go. I had reason to hope, just based on the volume of fan mail I get, that the Magicians books have been building, so based on that I figured I might hit #5. If I had to guess — and I couldn’t stop myself from guessing — that’s what I would have guessed.
But really: I was good with whatever. I was in my little internal Zen garden. Making the list was a dream come true, and the rest was just a popularity contest, and I was over that. That was junior high stuff.
The phone rang again. I let it go. I could catch up with that stuff later. Willie and I were talking about the Magicians TV show. But after a while we ran out of things to talk about. There was a pause. So I checked my voice mail. Here was the message:
“Lev it’s Allison and Clare and Lindsay YOU’RE NUMBER ONE!!! YOU’RE NOT PICKING UP YOUR PHONE WHICH IS REALLY ANNOYING!!! YOU’RE NUMBER ONE NUMBER ONE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER NUMBER ONE … !!!”
I didn’t listen to the rest. Just then a text message arrived:
Lev!!!!! It’s allison! Check your voicemail! You are #1!!!!!!!!!! #! New York Times Bestseller !!!!!!!!!!!!! Congratulations !!!!!!!!!!!
Was I zen about it? I was not zen. Not even a little. I may have punched the air. I may have cried a little bit. I think maybe Willie cried a bit. Fuck yes it was a popularity contest, and I was queen of the God damned prom.
This didn’t happen overnight: I started writing fiction freshman year of college, but when The Magicians was published? I was 40. I am now 45. I’ve been at this every day, just trying to be myself on the page as honestly as I can, for a quarter of a century. When I got that message I felt like Julia when she finally does her first magic spell, after being shut out of Brakebills and wandering in the wilderness for years. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I waved my hands and said the words and it worked.
It wasn’t just me. It was you too. There is no medium in the world as collaborative as writing is. You don’t get anywhere as a writer without having great readers, who put time and money and thought and tears into making your words mean things. Maybe it’s a polllyanna-ish thing to say but it is also the stone cold truth. Any writer will tell you the same.
I put my head in my hands. I looked out the window for a while. I didn’t want to share the news quite yet – I wanted it to myself for a second. Then I looked at my phone: the New York Times had tweeted it, and social media was starting to blow up. E-mails started packing into my in-box. I looked out the window a bit more. People will tell you that they love LA, or they hate LA, and they may or may not mean it, but let me tell you: at that moment, I fucking loved LA.
The cab arrived. I paid Willie. We hugged it out. I was at the Paramount lot, where I was about to sit in on auditions for the Magicians TV show, which is another completely incredible story which I’ll write about at some point. Paramount security had no idea who I was, so I had to stand around in the parking lot waiting to be rescued by a production assistant, but I didn’t care, not in the slightest. My phone was at 3%, so I just had time to call my wife and tell her the news before it died. I didn’t care about that either.
Soon time would pass, everything would die down, life would go on, everything would go back to normal. Little things would start to bug me again. I would have seasonal affective disorder. I would doubt myself, and others, and the world. The usual.
But not for a while.