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This Side of Paradise

May 20, 2011
by

I got a call a couple of weeks ago from my agent delivering some news that no author wants to hear, and, as a first time author, I didn’t realize was a possibility.  Basically, she told me that my book sales are so low that my publisher probably will not consider a project from me again, and because other publishers can look at my numbers THEY are unlikely to consider any books from me either.  It’s also most likely that my books will go out of print.  The path of this conversation was so dire, I almost half expected my agent to finish it with, “Oh yeah, and I just got off the phone with your vet and your cat has some disease contracted by your book sales, so he is TERMINAL TOO.”

I got off the phone, my mouth hanging open, and did what any self-respecting person facing THE DEATH OF A DREAM would do: I LOST MY SHIT. I spent the next few days flipping between emotional channels of devastation, rage, optimism, resolve, and back again.  I felt like I had been fired from a job that wasn’t perfect, but that mattered to me, and I thought I’d be with for the long haul.  Not so.  Graham gave me all the pep talks that you get when you are fired: this is an opportunity, not a death sentence, etc. Sometimes I was receptive, sometimes I resembled a sarcastic drunk, slinging bitter observations and laughing too loud at my own jokes.  Then the channel would switch again and I would be optimistic all over again, commanding my insides like some army taking over a small country.  It was exhausting. Finally, I decided I needed some space to think things over.

Since I was 9 years old, drawing in my little homemade bound books, I had the dream of publishing my own book.  I wanted to make children’s books, and then I wanted to make my own comics, and then I wanted to write short stories and novels.  I never thought about making a self-help book until I got the idea for The Artist in the Office, but in life’s odd Rubic’s Cube puzzle, that’s the book I ended up publishing.

I remember the evening after I got the call that it had been sold, I walked to meet Graham and my friend Jose, feeling like there were light rays bouncing off of me.  At last, I had broken through that thick wall that had always divided me from where I had always dreamed of being.  I was meeting the end of my years of loss and yearning.  I had MADE IT! Then, like so many, this bride soon realized that her whole life she’d been dreaming of THE WEDDING, only to find herself MARRIED–which is a LIFETIME longer than that one attractive day you wore a dress and ate cake.  Every how-to author says this, but none of us would-be authors believe it for a second.  We just want what they have–or at least the visible attractive parts of what they have.  I used to think: just GET ME IN THERE, I’ll be fine!  I didn’t realize that selling a book would take away some of that itchy pain I’d hoped to heal, only by replacing it with other different forms of itchy pain.

Last week, while switched to the optimistic channel, I started to think about my books and what making them has meant to me personally.  As it happens, a lot.  They taught me not only HOW to put pictures and ideas together, but they taught me that I COULD.  They pushed my visual work to new heights and gave me confidence in both my abilities and my ideas.  Sure it was nice to get paid to do the work I loved to do.  It was nice to have editors that I loved to work with and who told me I wasn’t just pretty, but smart (ladies, that goes double for you!).  But that stuff really won’t be the stuff that stays with me in the long haul–in the years to come, when I do or don’t have relationships with other publishers, or when I am staring at the blank page again and again.  What will stay with me is how far I have come creatively with the making of these two books.  They brought me here (maybe even to YOU, dear reader!).  They brought me far from the person and hopeful artist that I was in 2007 when I made that first zine. I will always be grateful for that.

Someone asked me recently what my relationship was to confidence and I wanted to start slinging sarcastic jokes left and right, the way I do when I am put on the spot and I really want to run for the door.  Confidence isn’t something I’ve long been acquainted with–it’s been a lot of tippy toes and inching towards to get a GLIMPSE of confidence, only to see her slip out the back.  But then I thought about self-trust, something that I have been actively working with, and that’s when I realized that’s all confidence is–self-trust.  Making my books helped me with that too, but honestly, publishing those books sometimes SCREWED with that and the phone call from my agent was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. At least for a few days.  When I could hear myself again, I realized this really was an opportunity–an opportunity to embrace the inner voices inside me that have said, I am tired of trying to help the self self-help.  I am tired of the business of creativity–I just want to be creative.  I just want to keep going where I am supposed to go, not where I think I should go.  I don’t want to be inspiring, I want to be instructive.  I might never publish a book again (oh the horror!), but I might be doing the work that is true and that matters to me–wherever that might take me. Maybe my books will go out of print, but that isn’t what my son will care about, or even what will matter to ME when I cross the finish line.

We never hear about the quietly great life.  We only hear about the larger than life and the larger than life failures.  I used to think that my life mattered only in those two categories, but really I just want the great life–quiet or large, big city or small town, whatever it is, as long as it’s mine.  I think, in all honesty, I see how this is possible perhaps for the very first time.

To those of you who have bought my books, thank you a million times over.  Maybe you got it just to support me, maybe you got it as a gift or for a gift.  Maybe you got it because the message spoke to you and your life.  However the case, the gesture cannot be added up in numbers for me.  It means more than the sale.  It means my work did its job and found itself a home in the world.  It means, I made it–to you.  Thank you.

32 Comments
  1. May 20, 2011 8:57 am

    Dear one,
    The Artist in the Office is one of my all-time favourite books (and I have read A LOT of books!). I’ve bought it for two friends and at least two others have bought it on my recommendation… and I recommend it left, right and centre.
    You have made something very very special that speaks straight to the heart of a small but significant number of people all over the world.
    Keeping on keeping on, my friend. The world is a richer place for having you and your work in it.
    Kat x

  2. Anna permalink
    May 20, 2011 12:57 pm

    This is beautiful. It makes me treasure Artist in the Office all the more. Thanks for sharing so bravely.

    My favorite bit: “really I just want the great life–quiet or large, big city or small town, whatever it is, as long as it’s mine. “

  3. firstsmilesandtears permalink
    May 20, 2011 1:12 pm

    Summer,

    I am so sorry to read this. I can’t offer anything that I’m sure Graham hasn’t shared, but maybe add to the thoughts that our fair Lynda Barry has many books that are out of print and she’s making it happen in her own way. There are a number of places that offer independent printing, too. Colin is looking into them, but I know that it’s a huge process to even prepare, as he enters year number three of just getting art ready.

    But I digress. Fair lady, you’ve had three books published and there will be many more. It will be different, and this is a huge taste of disappointment. It blows. But you made it, and when it happens again, you’ll have made it anew.

    xo,
    Marlena

  4. May 20, 2011 1:28 pm

    Wonderful post. I know that heartbreak well, having spent nearly three years on a novel that my agent was unable to sell because “the market for fiction is so terrible,” while I saw writer acquaintances sell their books left and right. (At least it felt that way.) Ironically, it was when I finally moved on from my grief over that dream denied, and started thinking about other ways to approach writing and alternative methods of publication that things really took off for my career. (And I did find a small, co-op publisher that did want to put out my novel.)

    So, while it hurts — God it hurts — you’re right that ultimately it is an opportunity. There are still times when I feel pained / jealous / etc. that things didn’t go the way I wanted. On the other hand, I’m a lot happier than when I pinned my hopes on one particular version of success.

    On another note, I’m immediately going to buy your books!

  5. Brian permalink
    May 20, 2011 1:40 pm

    I’m sure this is nothing you don’t already know, but it is still worth saying: while the publishers have some influence on the sales process, they should have very little influence on your creative process. With so many more distribution options available (Amazon is selling more e-books the physical copies) the world is ready for self publishing, if that is still something you want to do! The publishers are just looking for lottery tickets, and so what if you didn’t make it to Oprah with you first book, you still accomplished a dream and got your work into the hands of many many people who greatly enjoyed it (myself included)!

    In the last year of reading your blog, it seems that you have really found a voice with your illustrations. They have become much more focused and really sing with your voice! You are the captain of your ship, sail away!

  6. May 20, 2011 2:20 pm

    The Artist In The Office has been a huge influence and resource for me. It’s also how I found your lovely blog, which has since served a similar purpose and become a much looked forward to daily read. So I just wanted to thank you for your honesty and continued commitment to actively seek out the things that matter to you in life, and for sharing it all, both the good and bad, right here. Thank you!

  7. May 20, 2011 2:38 pm

    I have never heard it put better. You are a strong, brave, talented, SMART and creative lady. And resilient as all get out. I kept thinking to myself , wow, I would be too embarassed to share something like this, and, look how honest she’s being. And how it makes me like reading her blog even more. That in itself was an important lesson for me.

    And then you turned it all into something brilliant. Here’s wishing you a great life (as you already seem to have, btw), large or small, quiet or loud. You are making a difference just by living it.

  8. May 20, 2011 2:45 pm

    Hi Summer,
    I became acquainted with your work via your offer to send your Artist in the Office ZINE a few years ago through another blog….52 Projects I think. Since then have bought calendars (which I would totally buy for friends every year if you were still making them!) and yes, your book. So, would I have come across your book otherwise? Maybe. Maybe not. I think publishing is changing so that there is more opportunity for author /artist distribution of wonderful content. Makes it a little harder for both the creator and the reader perhaps, but maybe sometimes the rewards are sometimes better? More connected and personal anyway. And you are already good at this.

  9. BarbS permalink
    May 20, 2011 2:46 pm

    Summer,

    This is such a beautiful, honest post. Thank you so much for sharing this experience with us.

    I cannot tell you how much I can relate to the realization of “Wait! I don’t want to do this anymore.” I remember the day vividly and I remember feeling like a fake and a failure. It wasn’t until my friend, Ann, said to me, “I’m sure you’d want to keep doing it if it were the right thing NOW, but it isn’t, so it’s time to move on.” Giving ourselves permission to CHANGE ON A DIME is well within our rights. Just because you did something in the past, and perhaps were really good at it, doesn’t mean you have to do it the rest of your life. Like you said, you learned so much from your Artist in the Office experience and I’m sure it will become the platform from which you launch your next journey. And I, for one, can’t wait to watch the next installment of the Summer Pierre Show! Go, go, go!

  10. May 20, 2011 2:59 pm

    Anyone who is about to embark on a creative career needs to read this. Thank you so much for your honesty.

    “We never hear about the quietly great life.” ~ I love that.

  11. May 20, 2011 3:14 pm

    Dear Summer, do you have any idea how much confidence you project? I hope that it seeps into the very core of your being.

    As for your books, I trust that there will be more — if you want there to be more. For one thing, though I do not believe that printed books are going to vanish, the old model of publishing is certainly coming to an end.

    Best wishes to you. And I thank you a million times over for The Artist in the Office! I’m so glad I happened to hear the Brian Lehrer Show on that day way back when!

    xox

  12. May 20, 2011 3:45 pm

    Oh Summer thank you for your words once again. They chime into my own life like a little bird hearing secrets and pecking at worms.

  13. May 20, 2011 4:20 pm

    You inspire me, as always.

  14. Mark permalink
    May 20, 2011 4:51 pm

    Hi, you don’t know me but I picked up a copy of your excellent book ‘The Artist in the Office’ about a year ago when I was out shopping with my daughther in central London and it’s a book that I have returned to again and again. I’ve also recommended it to other ‘creative’ types. You have a great way of presenting information in a practical way and I love your illustrations. You should definitely keep on doing what you do and if publishers don’t get it (I work in publishing so I can relate to that) at the moment it’s their loss.

    Finally, thanks for introducing me to the work of David Sedaris – I am a big fan of his books now too.

  15. Mare Freeborn permalink
    May 20, 2011 4:51 pm

    Dearest Summer,

    All I can say is – Bummer, this really bites. However, I have complete confidence that you will come through this even stronger. Just look at all the little nuggets of wisdom you are putting out there in just this post! I have said many times before and will say again and again that you both inspire and instruct me. As you know, I found your blog when I was going through a particularly dark and difficult time in my life, both personally and creatively. Your words helped to bring me out of my funk and get my head on straight again. I love your blog and I love your books. In fact, in the next few weeks I will be purchasing a couple copies of each book so that I can gift them to my sisters. I know you will find your path again. I truly do look forward to reading your words each and every day. Please keep ’em comin’!!!! And know that I will be a faithful reader of every post or book or ‘zine or ANYTHING that you put out. Thank you, Summer, for once again showing me how to step over all the shit that is laid on my path daily and continue with my journey. I can’t wait to see what you have in store next. Take care – and remember, you still married a hottie and you have one of the most beautiful little boys I have ever seen – so life’s not that bad right!?

    All my best always,

    Mare Freeborn 😉

  16. May 20, 2011 9:17 pm

    Oh my Summer, Summer, Summer. Firstly, I learned something long time ago. Your agent [even though she is part of a larger firm] is JUST ONE PERSON. While she has some factual evidence, thats all it is, for this particular set of books. I know you well enough to know there will be more published projects- maybe books, maybe movies, cd’s, radio, whatever. One wise mentor of mine told me to enter every room like a pirate, and no matter what I heard in theat room- good or bad, say to myself, “WHO SAYS?”- in other words, take the facts before you and make your own opinion.

    I also can relate to your comments about just wanting to be creative, and walking away – or standing away from- the idea of selling, selling, selling. I have been caught up [as you know as my confdant] in selling my memoir, and while I’ve had a rejection, I keep going. But I was giving the outcome too much power – my creativity felt zapped, until I realized I was stuck, stuck waiting for some publisher to make up his mind week after week, and then it would start all over again. So I am creating odd little projects on my own, and I’m asking myself, “Who might publish this? ” or…this will never sell with photos or puppets, maybe I should do blah blah blah. While I need money, I had to take my own power back. No publisher[s] can have power over who I am and what I have accomplished- they don’t even know me. Most have never whispered in a donkey ear, why should I care, as far as my creative urges go anyway.

    You’ll soar again, my friend. xo

  17. simone permalink
    May 20, 2011 9:48 pm

    Well all I can say is feh on the traditional book publishing industry! I think you’re awesome! I’m really happy and excited about my current list project (inspired by you!) and I would buy whatever zine, self-published book or project you decide on next. Rock on sister.

  18. Sivi Ruder permalink
    May 20, 2011 11:49 pm

    I just got the cookbook poster, and it’s stunning. Thank you so much.

    A dear friend of mine writes books and makes a living at it. It was and is a dream of his. He is happy doing it, although he is always on the verge of insanity (truly) because of a deadline and, here’s what I really saw and see with him–always on the verge of facing his sameness, to the rest of us. He is so busy trying not to be mediocre, so terrified that he’ll lose his uniqueness (as if it can be lost) that no grass grows under his feet. None. With each book he is pressured to create a bigger and better book.

    Whatever grass grows under your feet will embolden and make more vital your art. Self-publishing or a sexier-in-the-eyes-of-the-publishing industry project or simply another agent or publisher–or not, creativity will live through you.

    And there’s nothing mediocre about a rich life with green grass between your toes. Nothing mediocre at all.

  19. Kai permalink
    May 21, 2011 10:09 am

    PESERVERE
    You are amazing and smart. Keep doing what you do and we will all be the wiser and happier for it.
    Love,
    Kai

  20. Kim permalink
    May 21, 2011 3:42 pm

    I don’t have the office book because I haven’t worked in an office for over twenty years, but I do have Great Gals and it is very inspiring.

    Best case scenario if your books do go out of print: you will go on to do some other amazing something and people who have been unaware of your previous work will start to look for your old stuff. And then used book sellers will be scrambling to acquire copies of your “cult classics.” Which means I should probably order copies of your zines RIGHT NOW!

    Seriously, there will always be people who are not moved by what big name publishers or stores have to offer, so you will always have a market. It may not be a mass following, but it will be loyal. You still have a lot to say and you will say it – in spite of your agent’s dire prediction.

  21. May 21, 2011 5:42 pm

    Summer!
    I just want to thank you for sharing your ideas through The Artist in the Office. It opened up a whole new way of thinking for me – that my cube doesn’t define me, it just provides me the income to enjoy other aspects of life. Your book was the original place I received inspiration to lead a creative and positive life (while living in a cube), and I will continue to follow you here to learn what exciting things come next, as you ALWAYS provide me with honest food for thought! I look forward to hearing about your next adventures!

    Cheers!
    Tracey in MN

  22. 1decision permalink
    May 22, 2011 6:03 pm

    The trouble is measuring what you do in “sales”. Reading your books (and knowing you) has made my life better.

    Sending high fives and love.

  23. May 22, 2011 9:42 pm

    Hi Summer,
    Thanks for sharing this. Wish you were nearer-by and we could sip a cup of tea and chat. Lots of overlap with what I am grappling with as the shape of my book-dreams has been shifting… this post talks about some of it: http://map.audreybethstein.com/2011/03/whats-present-for-me-now.html and I am just beginning the “privating” process I talk about with my novel. Definitely an emotional journey.
    Happy Sunday,
    Audrey

  24. May 23, 2011 1:07 am

    Beautifully put!

    (I’d like to leave it there, since that’s really all that needs to be said, but as a refugee from the dungeons of the Aussie branch of your publisher, I can’t help but add there is SO much traditional publishers don’t/can’t/won’t see about the future of words and publishing – it’s their days that are numbered, Summer, not yours – with your attitude and constant ability to embrace What’s Next as well as What’s Really Important, you’re putting yourself in a place where you can thrive in a different form. That’s something that’s beyond many publishers, bless them. The troglodytes shall trudge, while you soar… x)

  25. Cindy permalink
    May 23, 2011 2:10 pm

    Summer, I absolutely loved your books – I have “The Artist in the Office” and “The Girl’s Guide to a Kick-Ass Life”. They inspired me to take my writing seriously and to not feel like a failure because I still have to work a “day job” in order to pursue my creative dreams. You are extremely talented, and no matter what publishers/agents say, you will always have an audience for your work. Your illustrations are fantastic – I save them and use them as screensavers when I need a little motivation. Thank you for being honest, and sharing your story of growth and triumph (yes triumph because you have already achieved what many people hope to achieve – you were published and your books reached an audience). Keep creating and inspiring others – it is what you do best.

  26. Cecile permalink
    May 23, 2011 8:16 pm

    Summer!

    The Artist in the Office saved me, got me to draw again, and I love the Great Gals book with tips like “For one day, hand-deliver all your emails” & “Eat ice cream for breakfast.”

    And if only it made you realize you’re done with Self Help Books, that’s great, isn’t it? I think Natalie Goldberg realized she didn’t want to bake muffins for the people who came to her café to write: she wanted to BE the person who wrote & ate muffins.

    I always have the Artist in the Office nearby, and I am glad you wrote it. Also I am sure you will go on to great and wonderful things. Alternatively, as a friend of mine said: “What’s wrong with being a really nice person?” (when I moaned about wanting to be a famous author.)

    So thank you for the words and the drawings and the inspirations and all the rest of it, and follow your own Resolution Revolution and say “Screw It!”

    On to bigger and better things, or things smaller and tastier and infinitely wonderful.

    Warm greetingz from Europe!
    Cecile

  27. May 24, 2011 1:08 am

    I just got my first job since graduating from college. Well, I had a “career” before I went back to school, as a retail manager, which I found to be overwhelmingly soul-sucking, so this is just my first “job I got with my college degree”. I work alone in an office…and when I say “alone”, I mean it. I’m the only one there, beyond maybe a few random people stopping by. I brought your book with me to work today, since I’ve been waiting to read it and I thought it would be the best book to have with me today. And I was so totally right! Your book inspired me in so many different ways. I highlighted a ton of passages that really spoke to me and discussed it on the phone to my boyfriend on the way home. I’m going to show it to him later because so much of it applies to us and the weird transition we’re going through, trying to figure out how to survive in the working world when we really don’t seem made for it.

    I was stunned to read this post, though. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t heard of you before I bought your book. I bought it purely because it looked interesting. I’m sorry your publishers couldn’t see beyond the black and white numbers. You have an amazing talent, so don’t give up, no matter what!

  28. Ann permalink
    May 24, 2011 2:08 am

    I bought the book “The Artist in the Office” because it scratched an unknown itch I had (I don’t hold an office job ). I came to the website because of the book. And just last week I finally started trying to gather my “cool friends” for a get together so I could just plain enjoy goofing off and being creative again. Which kicked off a storm of other events.

    Keep writing. Screw traditional publishing – it’s dying. You have a vibrant site and if you were to self-publish an e-book, you could reach a larger audience through cheaper prices AND you’d make more because you weren’t handing off a cut to agent, publisher, etc. AND it’s better for the environment because you’re not using paper.

    The worst things that happen to ANYONE are always, eventually, what completely change your direction or attitude into the thing that pays off in ways you never could have planned, because the Worst Thing “screwed everything up” in your previous scenario.

    Go forth and kick. You know, after a good cry, comforting food and a lovely glass of something pleasant.
    ~AMK

  29. Jenny permalink
    May 24, 2011 2:27 am

    Oh Summer…I love you for this one. Your vulnerability speaks out to mine and everything makes more sense. You won and you lost and you are better for it. To live doing what you really love is to live well. Keep doing what you love and are good at. I love you,

  30. May 24, 2011 2:27 am

    I checked your book out of the library and put a post-it note on practically every page. I begged the librarian to let me have one extra week so I could buy the book and transfer my notes. Excellent work.

  31. May 24, 2011 11:39 am

    SP, I had wanted to leave a comment on this post as soon as I read it, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to express what I wanted to say. Unfortunately, I still don’t think I do… but I was laying in bed this morning just thinking about how much ‘The Artist’ helped me out as a person and how dramatically my attitude changed about working a full time office job while at the same time working on my art, my photography and yes, my actual photography JOBS. I had people notice and verbalize the change they saw in me (which I was ecstatic to fill them in on the details).

    That book was one of the most meaningful gifts I had ever been given, and I told all of my friends about it, I recommended to them (many of them women my age who were in a very similar place as I was) and they recommended it to the friends they knew… (talk about “pay-it-forward”). I think one of my friends bought at least three or four copies.

    The ‘quietly great life’ is something I learned to enjoy intensely every day BECAUSE OF YOU! Thank you for your openness, vulnerability and honesty.

  32. May 27, 2011 4:37 pm

    I haven’t been online lately so I missed out on this post when it first came out. I just thought I’d send you my love because I do love you even if I don’t know you personally. You are such an inspiration. When I first came across your blog late last year, I spent many nights reading back to your very first entries. I found your openness and dedication to your art truly inspiring. This is why I don’t think you should stop writing and aiming to publish your books. Apart from being a wonderful artist and writer, you are a generous soul. A lot of people could learn from you. Books like yours have a way of making their way into people’s lives just when these people need them the most, and I know for certain that your books will stay in circulation for a long, long time.

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