Death Doesn’t Sell…Or Does It?
November 1, 2022 § 3 Comments
Publishing’s disconnect between “the market” and actual readers.
E.B. Bartels and Karen Fine met last summer and realized they have a lot in common: both drive bumper-sticker-covered Subarus, both published with nautical-themed imprints––and both faced obstacles getting their death-heavy books into the world.
Karen Fine: When I was querying The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality, I had many literary agents request material and come back with “too much death.” Eventually, I worked with an editor (Allison K Williams, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor!) who helped me reorganize the manuscript and trim some sad parts that didn’t add to the overall narrative. An agent who had asked me to revise and resubmit loved the changes and offered representation. What obstacles did you encounter when you were trying to place your book?
E. B. Bartels: I also had the “too much death” problem––which was hard when the book is about death. When I was querying agents and later editors, the feedback I got was: “If people love animals, why would they want to read about animals dying?” Meanwhile, when I talked to friends, family, random people I met, about what I was writing, people got excited. They told me how much they wished they had a book like this when their pets died, and then would tell me about every pet they’d ever had and how that pet died. It was a confusing disconnect between what publishing thought the market was and what the market actually was.
KF: I wrote my book in part because I felt that people could benefit from knowing more about a veterinarian’s experiences with the loss of both my patients and my own animals. Did you feel a similar need to write about this taboo topic, to help people gain a greater understanding of death and grief?
EB: Definitely. I wrote Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter because I wanted to have a greater understanding of death and grief, and I feel like a lot of people are also hungry to have that understanding. Whenever I brought the subject up, people really wanted to talk about it. I was giving them the okay to share all these feelings they’d had no outlet for before. After so many of the interviews I did for my book––even the really hard ones with a lot of tears––people would say, “I am so glad I got to talk about this.” I think American culture is closed off from talking about grief and death in general, and even more so about disenfranchised types of grief, like the death of a pet or a miscarriage.
KF: Your book was such an enjoyable read; I feel as though the title says it all – grief can be pure and loving. How did you come up with your title?
EB: I was inspired by one of the most famous human-pet relationships in pop culture––Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I also liked the exasperated tone because it mirrors the frustration around pets: good grief why do we keep doing this to ourselves if they’re only going to die in the end? No one forces us to fall in love with these adorable, loving, kind creatures only to have them die on us, ten to fifteen years later. But having pets is such a good thing it makes the grief worth it––thus Good Grief.
KF: What kind of feedback have you been getting from readers?
EB: I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have thanked me for this book––saying it brought them closure and comfort thinking about pet deaths that happened decades ago. People have also been excited to share their own pet memories and stories, so much so that I started an Instagram account for the book to post them all. I like to think of it as a virtual pet cemetery.
KF: Your book has an interesting structure which worked so well for the subject matter – as a new writer, it’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. How did you decide how to organize the book?
EB: Each chapter starts with one of my own personal pet stories, and then I move into reporting on a specific element of pet death. I wanted to blend the personal with the researched because that’s my favorite kind of nonfiction to read (like Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui or On Immunity by Eula Biss), but also because I found when doing interviews, people were faster to open up when I shared my own experiences first. Talking about your feelings about pet death is scary, and it’s easier to do when you know you’re talking to someone who gets it. I like to think of my pet death stories as an offering to the reader––a way of saying I’ve been there too, you’re not alone.
KF: You’re ahead of me in the publishing journey; my book’s release is March 14, 2023. What advice do you have for me?
EB: As I am currently battling a miserable cold after doing book events nonstop for three months, my advice is to take care of yourself! Get sleep, spend time doing non-book-promo-related things, drink lots of fluids, and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially for books like ours about evergreen topics. Don’t buy into the hype that you have your three weeks and then the publishing cycle moves on. People are always going to have pets, and those pets are, unfortunately, always going to die.
E.B. Bartels holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast, and The Butter, among others. She is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter (Mariner). E.B. lives in Massachusetts, with her husband, Richie, and their many, many pets. Find her at www.ebbartels.com, on Twitter @eb_bartels, or on Instagram @goodgriefpetsbook.
Dr. Karen Fine is a holistic veterinarian who writes about the human-animal bond, holistic veterinary medicine, pet loss, grief, and narrative medicine. Her memoir, The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality (Anchor/Penguin Random House) will be published in March 2023. She co-edits Reflections, a digital journal on Veterinary Narrative Medicine, and has written for Bark Magazine and Inside Your Cat’s Mind. Find her at www.karenfinedvm.com.