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I'm #9! I'm #9! (On becoming a bestselling author)

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

For writers, googling yourself is not a vanity project.

I’m not saying I have never googled my name on a Friday night just to feel better about myself. Just thankfully, that’s not usually how it happens.

Besides, lacking the communication skills of a pre-teen, my online presence is not that dynamic to warrant more than a quarterly search.

When I need to find out who I am on Google, for the most part, it’s purposeful.

Right before my website went live, I googled my name to see whether my website would show up among the top searches on the first page, at least before the one that offers all my private info to anyone willing to fork over $50.

I found what I was looking for right smack in the middle of the first page.

Googling is like going to Target, I suppose. You may have found what you’ve come here for, but there’s no harm browsing through the other aisles.

And there it was, on the second page, a strange entry I hadn’t seen before. “Eric C. Wat – Bestsellers – Los Angeles Times.”

My first reaction was suspicion, not glee. I didn’t do a Tom-Cruise-sized jumping celebration. I didn’t even click on it right away. Instead, I treated it with the same wariness as when you find a mysterious hyperlink in your email from a Russian sender. Clicking on it could result in fireworks of porn exploding on your screen. Even people who love porn don’t like unwelcome porn. This entry, I felt initially, was like that kind of virus. If I could delete it permanently from the Google page, I probably would.

I’m not a person with a negative outlook. But you have to understand:

My novel SWIM was published in late August 2019 (more than a year and a half before) by a small press, with little fanfare, except for a few events I had organized in those first months. I didn’t have a big publicity machine of a major publisher behind me. Without pedigree, the novel wasn’t announced like most books are in Publishers Weekly. It was kind of a bastard child. The only bookstore in LA that carried SWIM was the venerable Vroman’s in Pasadena. Why would I expect to find my name on any bestsellers list? I don’t even bother looking at my book’s ranking on Amazon. There is enough cause for depression during the pandemic already.

I got up from the couch and walked around the living room, like I had just gotten a ransom note.

Finally, I sat down and read the entry again, nestling between a presentation I did at a behavioral health conference a couple of years ago and an online bookstore selling a used copy of my first book, basically the bargain book bin on the Internet. The entry between them had the LA Times link. Nothing Russian about it.

I finally clicked on it.

LA Times masthead. My name. A date: December 8, 2019

It couldn’t be a prank. It looked too real and sophisticated a prank for someone of my stature.

I clicked on the date. The bestseller list showed up for that week.

The first name I saw on the fiction side was Elizabeth Strout. I love Elizabeth Strout. She was #2.

Lee Child was #3. I never read any of his books, but I knew Jack Reacher.

Jeff Kinney was #4. An installation of his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

John Grisham and Michael Connelly right below that, #5 and #6, respectively.

These people have written more bestsellers than Trump wrote unconstitutional decrees.

I kept scrolling down.

#7 was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Water Dancer.

This list is legit! I whispered to myself and prepared to launch myself from the seat.

My heart was racing. Another two spots and I found SWIM and my name. I’m #9. I’m two spots below Ta-Nehisi fuckin' Coates. For one week in December 2019, I sold almost as many books in Los Angeles as Coates.

I’m #9, I kept repeating in my head

How the fuck did this happen?

I never expected to be an overnight sensation. Books, I’m resolved, age better from movies or music. How many of us are reading books that were published months or even years ago?

I also know that writing and publishing are two different things. With a third book coming out in the fall, I don’t feel much like an impostor anymore. I write with intentions. I know craft. I’m not afraid of being edited. But the publishing side, the business side, is still as opaque to me as the day I sent out my first query letter 20 years ago. The business side of things didn’t help SWIM hop onto the bestsellers list because I didn’t have that game.

The question of how it happened was surprising, but the answer was crystal clear.

It could only have happened for one reason – the network of friends, colleagues, supporters that I had built for decades, not only as a writer, but also as an activist in LA. I campaigned hard - using the literary organizing skills that I learned in my 20s, and my network heeded my call. Over 150 of them showed up at the book launch in August 2019. I sold about 100 books that day and those didn’t even count towards the bestseller list. (I split the profits with the Armory Center for the Arts who hosted the event for free.) My network didn’t just buy my book. They also promoted it on social media, hooked me up with reviewers, assigned it in their classes, and helped me organize readings in LA and other cities.

Something else was also becoming evident: I need more help. How did I not find out about the bestseller list until a year and a half later? (The antidote is not googling myself more.) My network was mighty and I owed it everything, but I also need to grow it. The website is one step in that direction. I also need allies who know the industry. There is still so much to learn about publishing.

At least for now, I can call myself an LA Times bestselling author.

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