The Fug Girls on the book publishing industry and maintaining a small business online
For authors, there may be no greater pressure than the few months, weeks, and final days leading up to a book launch. Preorders are crucial to the success of a book release, as it gives both publishers and booksellers an idea of who is going to buy the book and how many copies it might sell, which in turn fuels how much both parties want to continue to sink into a marketing push.
On sale July 7, The Heir Affair, by fashion journalists and business partners Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, has already been named one of this summer’s most anticipated reads by a variety of publications. The Los Angeles–based pair recently spoke with Fortune about what goes into the book publishing process…And what it’s like to do it all over again when a novel is successful and readers want (or even demand) a sequel.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: There have been countless think pieces claiming that the romantic comedy has been dead on the silver screen for the past several years, but in the literary world, rom-coms seem hotter than ever. Why do you think this might be?
Cocks: I truly don’t know, but I wonder if it has to do with there being better representation in romance and rom-com novels in general. Publishing as an industry still has a long way to go, obviously, in terms of diversity. But even so, it still seems like it’s doing better on that front than Hollywood. The mainstream movie industry hasn’t taken rom-coms seriously in a long, long time, and too often when it makes a cursory effort to do so, it’s with a stale gendered perception of romances being “chick flicks” and how they can twist them to get traditionally male butts in seats. Whereas publishing at least seems to respect and understand the power of a loyal audience that values a laugh and a love story, and that said audience is much bigger than how Hollywood defines it and deserves smart content.
Morgan: Yeah, as we noted, publishing is obviously deeply imperfect; publishers in general need to be publishing more books by Black authors and other authors of color, and paying them, and marketing them, much, much better than they do. But they do seem to have made more of a place for the rom-com as a reliable moneymaker than Hollywood has. The tradition of the beach read is something that has a lot of room in it for books that are romantic comedies. That is a specific space for readers that is already baked in as a reliable source of sales in that business.
For the uninitiated to the publishing industry, could you explain a bit about the book-pitching process? How long did it take to complete your previous book, The Royal We, from start to finish?
Cocks: The publishing process varies from author to author and project to project, which I know is an annoyingly vague answer, and so I will get more specific, but that is also part of it. I would be negligent if I didn’t note that we are two white women, which means our experience will have been unjustly easier than that of Black authors, or other authors of color. Our personal road to publishing is somewhat unusual: We had Go Fug Yourself, a public platform on which our voice and our writing (and occasionally our made-up dialogues) were on regular display, and we had a fair amount of published freelance columns that went beyond what we did on GFY. So we were considered a known quantity and were therefore able to sell our YA books and The Royal We based on a detailed outline and several sample chapters. Unpublished or debut authors—though there are exceptions to this—generally need a completed draft of the book for their agent to submit. So, there’s that amount of time to consider before the process even begins.
We started writing sample chapters for The Royal We in the summer of 2013 and then turned that in with an outline, and sold it in September of that year and started writing around Thanksgiving, with a research trip to the U.K. in early 2014. Most of the earnest work was done in the ensuing six months of 2014. And then the next six months involved one very large trim pass—it was over 800 pages in [Microsoft] Word—and then proper editorial notes, and then the final phases of production before the advance reader copies [ARCs] came out in, I think, January 2015. The hardback came out in late April of that year, and that is considered a tight turnaround from ARC to pub date. So for us, it was almost two years from conception to birth, as it were, but there were some periods of waiting and negotiating in between bursts of work.
Morgan: There is also a lot of hurry up and wait when your book is out on submission to publishers, which can really vary. I know authors whose books have taken months to sell, and which went on to be successful. Nothing about this is a marker of future success, and others who have sold in mere days. It’s an incredibly unpredictable path, even from book to book. This is one of the reasons why, if you choose to be traditionally published, having an agent you trust, with whom you have good communication, is important.
Loosely based on the British royal family circa 2010, The Royal We was published in 2015. Its sequel, The Heir Affair, is coming out this week. That seems like a large time gap these days as many readers have become accustomed to popular reads getting a sequel within a year or two. Was there already a plan in place for a sequel? Do you feel more pressure from publishers or readers in getting the second book right?
Cocks: I feel pressure from myself about it! I was terrified. Still am. People are so nice about The Royal We, and have really taken it into their hearts, and I have had massive anxiety for almost two years now about whether we will let them down. There was never a plan for a sequel. We always refer to the ending of The Royal We as the Cutting Edge ending, after the ice skating movie, where you don’t necessarily need to know exactly how all the threads tie up, because the most important thing is that they’re in it together and that is cemented. But readers seemed increasingly open to it, as did our publisher.
Around the time of [Prince] Harry’s engagement, we toyed with the idea of doing a Kindle single about Freddie [one of the main characters in the first book] meeting someone after the events of The Royal We, and when we sent it to our agent, she was like, “I mean, now that you’re back in this world…what about a full sequel?” And I guess even The Cutting Edge got some sort of sequel, so we’re in good company again.
Morgan: Our publisher never pressured us, though. Our agent didn’t really either, although I have to think that the delay in us writing something new was making her very antsy. One of the reasons that this book took so long was because it was very difficult for us to come up with a story that felt like it was new ground for these characters. I guess it’s TBD whether we accomplished this.
But also, to be honest, Heather and I are very slow plotters. I have such huge huge respect for authors who can publish on a yearly (or tighter) schedule; that takes massive talent and skill to be so prolific. We are not really slow writers, but the creative process to get to the point where you sit down and write takes us some time. And to be honest, this book was a tough one. We missed some deadlines. We restructured it a lot on the fly, and there were some plot points we didn’t really figure out until we were halfway through. So one of the reasons The Heir Affair took so long was just that we had a lot of work to do to it.
Cocks: And the characters did need to live a little, also. We ended The Royal We pretty much in present-day—the month and year that it was published—so they needed a little time and space for life to happen.
Many authors who had books slotted to be published from March onward have had to reckon with the fact that promotional events and book tours—which are scheduled months in advance and are critical to publishing revenue—were going to be canceled. Some authors pushed onward, but others have postponed their releases until late 2020 or even 2021. The Heir Affair was already scheduled to be released in July, but things aren’t back to normal like they were in February or even the first week of March. How has all of this factored into the marketing strategy for this book? Have you had to make any adjustments?
Cocks: Grand Central [Publishing] never suggested canceling, honestly. At least not to us. I wonder how much of that is because our release date, July, felt far enough out from the beginning of the pandemic that they were optimistic about being able to print and sell it. I don’t know; we weren’t part of those conversations, and that’s probably for the best, as we would have no idea what we were talking about.
If anything, I kind of wished we could have released it earlier for all the people who were tearing through all their reading material back when we were still adjusting to isolation. But it’s hard to do that when you can’t get physical copies into their hands, and we and GCP also both wanted independent bookstores to be involved here. So the release date stayed put, and now I think that’s a good thing, because people are still grappling with how much is safe to do outside, but indie bookstores are able to do fulfillment. We’ve definitely had to cancel all our plans for in-person bookstore appearances, though. It’s a bummer—we love meeting people—but we do not want to be super-spreaders. Having Go Fug Yourself on which to promote it mitigates a bit of that, at least.
Morgan: Yeah, I think we’re all learning on the fly here. It’s sort of ironic, because before the pandemic, all the authors I knew were desperate to get their books out as far away from the election as possible, just because we all know that it’s going to (correctly!) take up so much media space. And now people are pushing back closer to that date to be able to hopefully go out and do some promotion. There is no easy answer here.
I think people are just doing their best. I do think that the uptick in virtual promotions is going to be beneficial going forward, though. A lot of readers live somewhere that is remote or in a city that doesn’t get a lot of love from traditional book tours, and they can actually attend virtual events, and they’re excited about that. I hope in the future that it will be possible for bookstores to do a combination in-person/virtual event to include those people going forward, like streaming in-person events on their Facebook or Instagram, which I know that some do already.
Your daily bread-and-butter comes from your fashion website, Go Fug Yourself. Before the pandemic, many of your posts and slideshows covered red carpet events from indie film festivals to the Oscars. But with everything canceled since mid-March, you’ve gone in a new direction with content. Some critics might argue that entertainment isn’t a priority right now, but your site is still a small business. What has your experience working during the shutdown been like? And what is there to be said about entertainment providing some much-needed levity for some readers?
Morgan: It’s certainly been an adjustment for us, as I think it has been for literally every business in these, as they say, unprecedented times. In addition to not having any current content, ad sales have tanked, and that’s the prime way that we (and every online site) monetize our work. We need ad sales money to pay for hosting, photos, and our salaries, as well as stuff like legal fees, our accountant, our web developer, and the rest of the back-end costs that go into a business like ours. So it’s certainly been somewhat more stressful than usual.
But, ultimately, this is a job that we are fortunate enough to be able to do from home. We are not frontline workers, or working in a career that requires a lot of contact with the public. So while it’s definitely been stressful—I think everyone is stressed!—we are very lucky in many ways.
Cocks: Basically, we have to hope nobody gets tired of being reminded of how we all used to dress in the ’90s and early aughts, because we’re in for a very long haul of that. Interestingly, the idea of “That’s not important right now” has been kicking around for a long time, particularly after November 2016. There were any number of news cycles where people tsk-tsked the idea of talking about fashion when the world was burning—and I completely get it. But also, the human mind is capable of caring about multiple things at once, and everyone needs a break from screaming into the void, even if it’s just for 30 seconds of screaming about January Jones’ pants or something. Fashion can be brilliantly subversive and it’s art and it does matter, but yes, in the scheme of the world, there will always be bigger things happening than what people are wearing. But self-care and stress relief are real, and that’s theoretically where sites like ours come in.
Morgan: We’ve always said that our job is to provide procrastination material for people whose jobs are more stressful and more important than ours are. So we’re still just trying to do that as best we can.
More must-read lifestyle coverage from Fortune:
- The founder of Vice Ventures on addressing diversity and inclusion among VC investors and portfolio brands
- The Coven’s founders on helping protesters, pivoting after the pandemic, and surviving the reckoning for coworking offices
- Why your next bottle of rosé probably won’t be French
- The founder of paint supply startup Clare on how to use your brand as a social platform
- Social distancing in the skies, temperature checks on the ground: Welcome to the new era of air travel
Source: Business – Fortune