From publicist to bestseller list – Jane Heller
By Jane Heller
After I graduated from college in the 1970s, I answered an ad for the assistant to the publicity director at a small publishing house in Midtown Manhattan. I got the job – the start of what became a decade in book publishing. ♥
During those ten years, I moved from company to company and rose from publicity assistant to vice president of publicity, advertising and promotion. I wrote press releases, created PR campaigns, courted reviewers, pitched producers at talk shows, arranged multi-city media tours and book signings – all in the service of my authors, who included Stephen King, Erica Jong, Judy Blume, Danielle Steel and many others.
I loved getting media coverage for authors, ensuring that their books received the widest possible coverage. I especially enjoyed escorting them to the national morning shows like the Today show, sitting with them in the so-called “green room” before they went on the air, and encouraging them to be confident, to make eye contact with the host, and to make sure to mention the title of their book three times.
It was during my stint as a VP that I began to feel restless. I was sitting in boardrooms being bored instead of working in the trenches being creative. One day I walked into the CEO’s office and quit. He was stunned and said, “But you could have run this company in a few years. What will you do now?” I said, “I have no idea, but I need a change.”
I went home, contemplated my future, and came up empty – until one night I got the idea for a story. It was that simple. The story was a romantic comedy about a rich suburban woman who loses all her money, is dumped by her husband, is about to be evicted from her McMansion and, desperate to earn some money but with no marketable skill other than that she’s a neat freak, goes to work as a maid. What wasn’t simple was whether I could actually write.
Without telling any of my friends in publishing what I was up to (I was a marketer of books, not a writer of them, and I was embarrassed that I was even attempting such a feat), I began with a sentence, which led to a page, which led to a chapter, which led to many chapters. Before I knew it, I’d written 200 pages of “this thing” and realized I was writing a novel.
I knew enough about the publishing business that I should show my pages to a literary agent, but what if she didn’t like the story? What if she thought I had some nerve trying to join the ranks of the very authors I’d promoted? Fear is a paralyzing emotion, and I was tempted to give in to it, but I grew a spine and sent her the manuscript. To my great relief, she thought it was hilarious and sent the book to publishers. To my even greater relief, I got a three-book contract!
Was the transition from publicist to author as smooth as I’ve just made it sound? Not a chance. That first novel, Clean Sweep, landed me on the Today show. But instead of being the calm-and-collected pro I used to be when taking my authors there as their publicist, I panicked; it was suddenly my turn in front of the camera and, once again, I was paralyzed with fear. Would I faint on live TV? Throw up? Forget how to talk? It’s one thing to be the behind-the-scenes person promoting others. It’s quite another to have to promote yourself. Still, I couldn’t pass up the chance for national TV exposure for my first book, so I went to a doctor who gave me a prescription for Xanax. She said to take one pill before I went on the air.
I got to the studio and was immediately told by the producer that my blue dress was going to clash with that of co-host Katie Couric. I reached into my bag and popped a Xanax. In the makeup room, the makeup person had to leave for an emergency having completed only one half of my face. I reached into my bag for another Xanax. By the time I was on set with Katie Couric, I was feeling no pain, having never taken a Xanax before.
“So, Jane,” she began. “How does it feel going from promoting authors to being one?”
I felt my eyes roll back in my head and I said, “I don’t know. I’m heavily sedated.”
True story. Somehow, I pulled myself together enough to finish the interview and I’ve gotten very comfortable on TV, having done many interviews since. After that first novel came out, I published a new novel every year for 13 years, making the New York Times bestseller list, selling to foreign countries around the world, and getting my novels optioned for movies. Next came two nonfiction books. And now my latest novel is just out. It’s called Three Blonde Mice and it features the three best friends from one of my earlier novels, Princess Charming. It’s got my usual blend of romance, comedy, and suspense – the three women take a “haycation” on a farm and enroll in cooking classes with a famous chef, only to find out that one of their classmates intends to kill the chef.
I just finished shooting a video to promote Three Blonde Mice and look forward to sharing it on social media. It turns out that despite my disastrous first appearance on the Today show, I’m a ham at heart. I overcame my fear of stepping out in front of the camera. Now I love being the star!
But we writers have to deal with fear on a daily basis without national television. We worry that what we’re writing isn’t good enough. We worry about meeting our deadlines. We worry that publishers will dismiss our manuscripts. We worry about negative reviews and diminishing sales and constant rejection.
But after interacting with the authors I promoted – Stephen King and Danielle Steel, for example, have written zillions of books and even they have “author worries” – I accept that fear is just part of the job. And I remind myself of the emails I get from readers who tell me my books make them laugh and help them escape their problems. Those letters are better than Xanax any day.
After nearly a decade of promoting writers for New York publishing houses, Jane Heller launched her own career as a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She has written thirteen sharp-eyed, wildly entertaining novels of romantic comedy and suspense, nine of them optioned for film and television, along with two books of nonfiction: a humorous memoir about her passion for a sports team and a survival guide to caring for a loved one with an illness. The first in her planned Three Blonde Mice series, Three Blonde Mice, is available now.