BITCH MAGAZINE

Absolutely Capitalist:
Adventures in Mainstream Publishing

by Ophira Edut
(writing as Evelyn Summerstein)

 
 


I never intended to write a book. Not a "real" book, anyway. Not, like, the bestselling kind that would land me a guest therapist spot on Jenny Jones and a national book-signing tour at Barnes and Noble Cafes. After all, I don't know any serial killers or celebrities. I've never had any good jury duty gigs. I'm not a Spice Girl.

Nay, my beginnings are much humbler, and go a little somethin' like this: Daughter of a Jewish landscaper. Grew up in the Midwest. Publish a multicultural feminist zine in my basement. Acquired large interest payments on various college and personal loans. Juggled six freelance and temp jobs to pay my bills. High moral standards. High monthly living expenses. High from the caffeine required to maintain this act.

When I found myself in the posh Manahattan office of Linda Goodman,* Real Live New York Literary Agent, six-figure visions danced in my head. I had more baggage than a fleet of Greyhound buses—financially speaking, anyway—and I was ready to make a drop-off.

My plan was simple. I would exchange service industry livin' for full-on media whoredom, complete with paid assignments and the salary of a white-collar escort. TV appearances, infomercials -- you name it and I was ready to perform the act. In no time, I'd be stackin' enough Benjamins to pay off my debts. Yet, it was in Midtown Manhattan, the literary Hollywood Boulevard of the East, that I damn near pimped out my soul by mistake.

Before I paint myself as some greedy, soulless faux feminist, let me explain. The book I intended to write was a modern feminist guide-slash-manifesto, which I planned to call Generation XX: Women Here and Now, or something along those lines. Intelligent and articulate, my book would explore a new generation's approach to sisterhood, relationships, media, activism, politics, multiculturalism, and feminism. It would include the perspectives of women from a range of ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions and identities. I even hoped to invite some cool celebrity and "underground" role models to write guest introductions to each chapter.

My deepest motive was to convey a healing message to young women. So much of the media being churned out by the mainstream sucked. It spoke to women's insecurities rather than to our intelligence. It tried to sell us the same old 6'10" 52-lb. hetero Barbie doll prescription. Frankly, that shit was tired. Through my zine, I hoped to in some small way counterbalance the wack messages, while still delivering a dose of pop culture and entertainment.

After all, I was no stranger to the deadly effects mainstream publishing can have on a girl's self-esteem. I grew up with my hungry snout buried in the feedbag of Seventeen and Sweet Valley High. Like so many young women, I bought into the bullshit, believing that my ethnic features were a curse, and that my index finger had been separated from my throat at birth, only to be reunited in a secret adolescent binge-and-purge rite of passage. After a painful college era spent recovering my self-esteem, I wanted to help other young women see that we had choices beyond self-hatred. I wanted to create a platform for young women to share real, honest stories that would inspire and support other women and lead us back to our long-forgotten power.

The way I saw it, healing was real work, and I deserved to be paid for it. Why not? Women who work in healing professions are always undervalued. People assume that nurturing others is so intrinsic for women that it hardly takes a toll on us. In truth, it's incredibly draining. It requires us to remove the focus from ourselves and offer our vital energies and support to an outside source, instead of investing it back into our own energy banks. If I was gonna give this project my soul, then at least my bills could get paid, right?

My arrival in the world of mainstream publishing happened like this: Last year, a friend and fellow young zine publisher called me, excited. She'd just landed a $100,000 book deal with a major publishing house. Her agent Linda Goodman, a hotshot on the New York literary scene, heard my friend on a radio show and called to solicit a proposal. The rest was six-figure history.

"And guess what?" my friend said. "Linda asked if I knew any other young women writers! Since my proposal went over so well, she thinks there's a really big market for us. I'm giving you her phone number now."

I took one look at the stack of unpaid bills gathering dust on my desk -- credit cards, car payments, phone bills, student loans, rent -- and decided my ship had come in.

At that precise moment, something new and unfamiliar, something green and depositable into a commercial bank, gave my inspiration a swift kick-start. If my friend could make that kind of money just for being herself, so could I! Best of all, my friend's zine was highly intelligent, pro-woman, "alternative" in every way. Her book would be based on her zine, which meant she'd get paid by "the man" without having to sell her soul to him.

Again I asked, Why not me, too? If my zine never became profitable, at least I'd be able to eat while I continued publishing. Besides, a book that was marketed by a major publishing tour de force would help spread my positive, pro-woman message to the masses. Feminism and pop culture would unite at long last into something cool and financially viable.

I spent six weeks drafting my first proposal, and sent it off to Linda in October 1996. It was a hodge-podge of chapters covering what I thought were important third-wave feminist topics -- body image, race, dating, education and careers, general identity politics.

Admittedly, I felt vague about the whole book-writing thing, since my publishing experience was limited to magazines. Hell, I was only 23. Linda offered no guidance throughout the proposal process, but she did give me a copy of my friend's book proposal to use as a roadmap. In fact, she seemed annoyed when I called with questions. "You're not done yet?" she'd sigh with great exasperation.

The pressure, coupled with my inexperience, elicited a curt, typed reply on Linda's letterhead:

Your proposal seems to fall flat for a variety of reasons. The tone seems too bitter and defensive, and you spend too much energy on body image -- The Beauty Myth was published about five years ago and this takes away from the freshness of what you should be writing. Obviously, we'll be open to looking at a rewrite.

Kind regards,

Linda

 

Ever the optimist, I moped around for a few hours, then decided to step back up to bat. What did I have to lose? I knew I could add a lot more flavor and personality to the proposal. I called Linda again, hoping she'd actually offer some concrete advice this time.

"Make it fresh!" she screamed, in full-on New Yahwk character. "Just (SIGH)...I don't know (ANNOYED SIGH)...You're the young woman! What's Courteney Love talking about? What's Alanis doing? What do the Spice Girls have to say? (EXTREMELY ANNOYED, DRAWN-OUT SIGH) Look, you're wasting my time. JUST. Make. It. Fresh." And with that, she slammed down the phone.

Mmm-kay. I was tempted to call back and ask Linda whether she wanted a second proposal or a new, turbo-powered douche. She was definitely giving me a not-so-fresh feeling. I imagined her age-defying cheeks, pulled taut by the hand of New York's most gifted plastic surgeons, cracking like a relief map of parched soil. Somehow, this soothed me. I was on a mission to get this deal, so I swallowed my tongue, focused on my mission, and resumed my flow.

I decided not to let Linda press me for time, and spent four months writing my new proposal. As promised, it was springtime-fresh and packed hella irreverence. I even outlined a strong-woman's dating chapter called "Finding Your Inner Pimp." Per Linda's request, I included a photo of myself with the neatly-packaged proposal, so potential buyers could judge whether I was "television-worthy."

Something was a little different this time, though. I began to think less like a writer, and more like a marketing associate. There were times that I could hardly express myself for fear I'd be "too serious" or "not fresh enough," and thus would lose the deal. Will this sell? a voice kept nagging, and light-'n-airy phrases stumbled from my word processor by way of this consideration. My new proposal was sassy, no doubt, but steeped in its own shocking irreverence (and the ensuing controversy that would stir), and less focused on making women feel soothed and supported. Linda and her associates loved the writing and sent the proposal to about 20 big publishers. She was certain we'd get crazy offers. I rode on a premature high, psyched that I could attach my name to a flavorful, feminist book that would also pay my bills.

Then...shock. Instead of fielding offers, Linda got a pile of rejection letters. One after another, the naysayers filed in, all with the same basic excuse: We love the writing, but...there's just not a large enough mainstream market for this.

Linda was as disappointed as I was, mostly for economic reasons. Again, she was unable to articulate instructions, should I decide to take a third go-round at a book proposal. Instead, she faxed me a stream of rejection letters so I could see for myself. Excerpts follow:

Thanks for letting me see Evelyn Summerstein's proposal, which I'll be passing on the opportunity to publish. Ms. Summerstein's voice is fun, spunky, and smart. Unfortunately, we didn't see a large mainstream audience for this book.

What Evelyn Summerstein has accomplished in her magazine is most impressive—smart, sunny, fresh, timely, and engaging—but I'm sorry to say that her book proposal struck those of us who read it simply as more of the same.

Ms. Summerstein is sassy, young, and edgy. Unfortunately, this book seems more geared to teenage girls, rather than post-feminist young women.

Evelyn Summerstein is entertaining and full of energy, but not enough to make me want to go out on a limb. Thanks so much for the look. She's a firecracker.

I like Evelyn Summerstein's feisty style and her sense of humor. However, I don't feel that the material is focused enough to attract a large audience. If she was Ricki Lake or Queen Latifah, then this could sell. Forgive my cynicism, but it's my feeling that readers only care about the opinions of the famous.

I spent the rest of the day in bed, crying. Maybe I did suck. I didn't have what it took to be a best-seller. I wasn't even worthy of a modest print run. On and on went the self-deprecation, and my bills loomed larger than ever.

Then Linda called one last time. "A few of the young editors we solicited want to meet with you, and try to come up with some ideas together. They really like your writing," she told me. "You have to come out to New York right away, though. If you don't grab this while it's hot, they'll lose interest tomorrow!"

Apparently, there was still one more born-again sucker bone in me. I jumped in my car five days later, less than 24 hours after returning from a conference in New Mexico. I made the normally twelve-hour road trip to New York City in just under nine-and-a-half. Sprung for a hotel room and prayed I'd "earn it back" if I got the deal.

The next two days, Linda toted me around to four super-huge publishing houses (which shall remain nameless). At each, I met with a group of surprisingly cool women who were mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. They threw around the term "feminist" liberally, seemed to have more than a clue, and were very excited about my zine. It wasn't at all what I expected, and I felt hope renewed once again.

With the exception of one publishing house, where a 29-year-old editor decided that I was "too young to write a book," editors at three houses offered to work one-on-one with me. I narrowed it down to one, and made plans to work with a hip, young editor named Pam*.

Long story short, Pam and I went back and forth for a couple more months, crafting a new proposal that we hoped would sway the skeptics in the upper echelons. She was really excited about working with me, and bent over backwards to help. At one point, we exchanged faxes every day, and clocked considerable long-distance minutes.

Nevertheless, Pam was still what Naomi Wolf might call a "power feminist" -- if one could call her a feminist at all. She was living the dream that has been handed to young women today by our mothers' struggles: an impressive corporate position, a female boss, a closet full of self-purchased business suits from an impressive array of designers. Yet, the more I worked with Pam, the more I realized how much a part of the "establishment" she really was. She still had to answer to the big boys and girls in Marketing -- which meant that she, too, was a part of that whole Linda Goodman douche conspiracy -- trapped in the neverending quest for an unnatural sense of freshness.

Pam believed that she could help me "balance" my proposal enough to get it approved. I had to spell out my theme in ABC's and 123's for the publisher, effectively draining all the spunk and flavor out of it. Pam beat the thing into mainstream-ready submission, dividing my ideas into chapters like "Go For It, But Keep It In Check" and "Let's Get Real." Somehow, I ended up with a proposal for a how-to book on building a multicultural feminist movement, onto which Pam attached a kumbaya title. Although I suppose I could have written this joyless book, the outline was safe, oversimplified, and dangerously close to falling off the tightrope into an abyss of mainstream cheese.

And there was still one obstacle. Pam had to get the proposal past the hardcover and trade paperback publishers, and the marketing team. They were gonna be the toughest sell. In the end, the hardcover woman said she'd do it only if the paperback woman did, too. The paperback woman sold me out. Market research based on recent titles geared toward young, multicultural women were dismal (at least, in her eyes). Her conclusion? There was "no real market" for a book targeting this audience.

It was June. I had spent nine months (significant?) on this project, and hadn't brought in a dime from it. My roommates were sick of watching my moods swing back and forth every time I got jerked around by what they now called "the Massengil Gang." I was so emotionally disoriented, I wasn't even sure what the hell I stood for anymore.

Fortunately, it didn't take me too long to remember. The episode turned into a big-time reality check. Linda and I parted ways, mutually. I faced the existential question of a broke-ass 24-year-old attempting to juggle ideology with a need to pay the bills: How far was I willing to bend -- for money and for my beliefs?

From all this, I realized that part of being a feminist, for me at least, means having a soul. It means caring about the impact of my words, and speaking what my spirit tells me. My mistake was buying into the naive misconception that in 1997, feminism and patriarchal America can share crayons and color a happy world together.

Cliche as it sounds, telling the truth is a shield. If someone hates me for telling it like it is, I'm okay with that. My views may be more "radical" than what commercial publishing is ready to risk, and that's just how it is for now. I can only hope it will change in the next decade. Meanwhile, I came dangerously close to printing words that I felt no passion for, and stamping my name on them to boot. I could have been the proverbial Spice Girl of the literary world -- Sellout Spice, perhaps. They would have used me and my "girl power" to make as much money as they could, then dropped me as soon as the next craze came along. Frankly, I'm glad I didn't qualify.

I believe that a pop culture feminism can exist, but only if it grows organically. Ambitious young feminists need to dole our goods out carefully. We need to do our thing no matter what, and let the mainstream types come to us. Then we can decide if we want to be bothered with them.

After this fiasco, I decided I wanted to write a book, anyway, even if I had to publish it myself. Even if I never made a dime off of it. I wanted to write because I had something to say. I put together a proposal that truly reflected my beliefs and sent it on my own to a couple feminist publishers. They responded with total support.

I'm now working on a book with a cool independent/feminist publishing house. Sure, they care about money, but their first priority is to print books that have a progressive message. I won't be raking in the cheddar that a Linda Goodman deal would have brought (the publisher pays only royalties), but I'm over it. I have a contract and supportive editors who share my beliefs.

Seeing how I feel satisfied with that proves that the dangers of selling out are underrated. When I was working with the mainstream publishers, I could hardly express myself for fear that I'd lose the deal. And there was so much more at stake. If my first book wasn't a bestseller, I knew they'd dump me with a quickness -- which would undoubtedly jeopardize my chance for a long-term writing career.

I offered the cream of my soul to mainstream publishing, only to be informed that everything on their shelves was freshness-dated. So I concluded that there's no price tag on my spirit. As for all those greedy folk who rejected me from the ranks of media whoredom? Well, I guess they can kiss my bottom line.

Evelyn Summerstein now knows that commercial douches upset the natural balance of those sensitive feminine areas.

(Appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Bitch magazine)