June 16, 2023

Hold Your Book Loosely: Lessons From the Author of Eat, Pray, Love


Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

One of the hardest lessons that authors have to learn in the publishing process is to hold their ideas and expectations for their book loosely. This happens in small and big ways throughout the journey. Usually it begins as little compromises—adjusting the focus of a chapter based on some feedback you received, or widening your audience a little bit. As you move through the process, the changes often become bigger. Not the title you dreamed of, but a title you can live with. The cover isn’t quite what you imagined—or maybe it’s drastically different from what you wanted. 

Much of the time, these changes are negotiated and bartered between you and your publisher. After all, their job is to help make the book successful, and you might have different opinions on how best to do that.

But sometimes these changes come from forces WAY outside your control. That’s what happened to Elizabeth Gilbert this week.

Liz, as she’s affectionately known by her fans, is a genre maverick, the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love (memoir), Big Magic (prescriptive nonfiction), City of Girls (fiction), and several other great books. She’s been working on a new novel titled The Snow Forest, about a Russian family living in Siberia and their efforts to resist the Soviet Union during the 20th century. The book was set to be published in February 2024. 

After the cover was revealed last week on Good Morning America, however, Liz received a flood of responses from her Ukrainian readers, dismayed and outraged that she would release a book set in Russia, considering present-day Russia’s war on Ukraine. In particular, the book was a victim of “review bombing” on Goodreads, a cyberbullying tactic where books are targeted with an onslaught of 1-star reviews to hurt their rankings in protest of the content. Since then, the book has been removed from Elizabeth Gilbert’s author page on Goodreads.

On June 12th—just six days after the cover was revealed—Liz announced in an Instagram post that the book’s publication is being delayed and she’s turning her attention to other projects. She also noted that those who preordered the book would be refunded.

Let’s look at the situation and Liz’s response positively first. There’s so much here that we can learn from and admire in Liz Gilbert’s actions.

First, it shows that she’s deeply in touch with her readers.

For years, Liz has proven to have a strong relationship with her fans. She’s active on social media, she’s often in conversation with others online, and she is vulnerable in public. She’s earned her readers’ trust, and this “course correction” feels very aligned with the values and respect she’s cultivated in her online community.

Second, she didn’t make excuses.

We can read between the lines and make some assumptions about this book. She and her publisher probably viewed it as an act of support for Ukraine, even a public embarrassment for Russia as it exposed the sins of the Soviet Union and praised the efforts of the rebels within Russia to resist communism. This has obvious parallels to the current war on Ukraine, which many brave Russians have been fighting against from within. 

It’s also likely that Liz might have felt victimized, as hundreds of readers who had never even read the book, left 1-star reviews and disparaging comments on what, I’m sure, was a beautiful story. I certainly would have.

But Liz Gilbert didn’t say any of this. She let it rest, unspoken. She didn’t try to defend herself in the least. She simply said: I’m listening. I hear you. I respect your opinion. I’m going to change. From a public relations standpoint, there is SO MUCH that we can all learn from this prompt, forthright, and respectful response.

Third, she took ownership of the decision.

I can imagine the debates that happened behind closed doors between her and her publishing team to come to this decision. This is a massive loss for everyone. The delay of any book has a real, tangible monetary consequence for publishers—but the delay of a book that was almost guaranteed to be a bestseller is an especially crippling blow. I guarantee you that her publisher, Riverhead, is scrambling now to find and elevate other books in their pipeline to try to make up the difference of all of that lost revenue. The fact that the cover was revealed on Good Morning America shows you just how much marketing power they were willing to put behind this book. 

It’s heady and enticing and really, really hard to turn down that kind of institutional support for your book. Not very many authors receive that level of promotion from their publishers. And you might think, “Sure, but this is Liz Gilbert we’re talking about.” You’re right, but also—publishers are scrimping and saving right now. Riverhead is an imprint of Penguin Random House, and they’ve been hurting after they lost their trial against the DOJ last year to acquire Simon & Schuster. Signings are down this year. Everyone, especially PRH, is being really picky about where they put their money. So, on one hand, we can view this as a brave, self-sacrificing decision on everyone’s part. 

Not that everyone agrees with it. On the “cons” side of the aisle, Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, a literacy advocacy non-profit, issued the following statement on Monday:

“It is regrettable that Elizabeth Gilbert felt it necessary to delay the publication of a novel set in Russia. Ukrainians have suffered immeasurably, and Gilbert’s decision in the face of online outcry from her Ukrainian readers is well-intended. But the idea that, in wartime, creativity and artistic expression should be preemptively shut down to avoid somehow compounding harms caused by military aggression is wrongheaded.”

Regardless of topic or political situation, our belief in the first amendment and our devotion to the idea of artistic freedom should prompt us to defend all authors’ right to publish what they want. Further, it sets a dangerous precedent when authors submit to cyberbullying tactics. That kind of behavior should never be rewarded. Liz’s swift capitulation could even be seen as cowardly or bowing to corrupt forces.

As an aspiring author yourself, I ask you to consider: What would you have done in Liz’s shoes?

These situations are never easy. There were a few times in my career as an acquisitions editor when I had to make some tough decisions for books—times when I thought a book or author was being unfairly treated, times when I had to end contracts or turn down proposals that I really wanted to keep. 

As in all things, we do the best we can with the information we have at the time. We can take some important lessons away from this situation as we all seek our path towards authorhood:

  • Holding your plans for your book loosely. They will change.
  • There is a right timing for books, and now might not be the right time.
  • You will be called upon to make hard choices for your book. Staying deeply in touch with your values and your readers will help you navigate those hard choices.
  • Ultimately, YOU are responsible for your book.