The Chinese Wall
by Kate Whouley

“I wish I were a dentist.”

That’s what I said when a book-business colleague asked me how I felt about publishing my first memoir.  It was 2004, and I had no desire to look into the mouths of strangers or slog my way through dental school. It’s just that a dentist wouldn’t know. She would be so proud to be published, filled to the brim with expectation. She wouldn’t tell anyone in her office, but she would likely harbor a secret belief that her book was so good and so compelling, that soon enough she would be answering questions like, “Now that you are a bestselling author, will you keep your dental practice open?”

She wouldn’t know, as I did—and do—just how many books are published each year, or how miraculous it is when any single, worthy book is noticed. She wouldn’t know that a last name that begins with a W is a significant handicap to sales in bookstores, where the alphabet rules. She wouldn’t know that some places on the bestseller lists are actually purchased—usually by authors who are not writers: think celebrities, politicians—who buy huge quantities of their own book upon publication.

I am a book industry consultant, a designer and renovator of bookstores, an advisor to bookstore owners. In 2004, I had been in business for sixteen years—and had worked in bookstores for eight more. I’d written plenty—columns and features for book industry magazines, several instructional and professional books. But I knew my earlier work would count for nothing with members of the bookselling tribe—never mind members of the actual, general public, whom I hoped might, one day, read me.

This was my debut, but I was an aging, weary debutante.

I wished for the innocence of dentistry. 

Then, I realized that a dentist wouldn’t know a hundred or so independent bookstore owners on a first-name basis.

My publisher—a well-regarded regional press—produced beautifully packaged galleys. I signed them all, and I tucked handwritten notes inside—because I knew that booksellers are buried in advance reading copies, and it’s pretty tough to get their attention.  “It’s not Manual On Bookselling,” I wrote—invoking the 807-page tome I’d edited in the mid-1990’s, “but I hope you’ll give this one a try.”

My editor was head-of-house, and he was also spearheading the bookseller outreach.  He sent a follow-up e-mail, asking for bookseller comments. “Why do you suppose I haven’t heard from anyone?” he asked me.

“Booksellers assume most books aren’t worth their reading time. Plus, they are worried about what they’ll say if they run into me. If they don’t read it, they won’t have to pretend they thought it was good.”

“But it is good!”

“I think you need to call the bookstore owners you know, and personally assure them that the book does not suck.”

“You were right,” he told me, after he’d made a handful of calls.  “So I asked them to read just the first two pages. Anyone who reads that opening will want to read the whole book.”

Then, it was my turn to worry about what I’d say when I ran into the booksellers—my clients, and my colleagues, who—if they did read past page two—would learn things about me that I would never, ever have told them in the course of our doing business together.

“I always thought you were a private person,” said one long-time client who had become a friend. She was surprised that I would reveal myself in memoir.

She’s right: I am a private person.  But I am also a writer.  And I believe that a writer’s job is to seek and speak the truth.  I didn’t write that first book to invite comment, speculation and advice about my love life. For me, Cottage for Sale was an adventure story filled with a cast of characters I couldn’t leave unwritten.  The year that I wrote about was a year—perhaps more than any other—when I wished for romance, for partnership, even for marriage. In the room that is the writer’s room, I was compelled to admit this truth.

Outside that room—in the larger world, where books are published and sold, I was horrified by my lack of discretion. Again, I wished I were a dentist.  Or someone far, far outside this small-world business of books.

I should have known that publishing my book would require the same kind of detachment that I had exercised in writing it. I maintain a Chinese wall between my writing work and my consulting work.   Keenly aware of great books—and filled with backroom knowledge of not-so-great books that are published and pushed to bestsellerdom—I am rendered wordless. To write, I must depart that known world. I retreat to a physical space that is separate from my office, where I conduct book business—and also to a magical place apart.

That’s where I wrote my second book. By the time that one was published, I no longer wished I were a dentist.  No, by then—I was thinking: ballerina.


Originally published in the writers' blog, Beyond the Margins
Copyright 2012 by Kate Whouley