There are many ways to make yourself Twitter’s main character for a day, but faking your death might be the most reliable. As remote-work types struggled to awake from their holiday season hibernation last week, we were jolted by a particularly juicy tidbit: Susan Meachen, a prolific self-published romance novelist whose suicide — ostensibly a reaction to low book sales and bullying by fellow authors — had been announced two years ago, returned to the internet, very much alive. “Let the fun begin,” she concluded a social media post announcing her resurrection.
The fun did begin, though on a much larger scale than she likely expected. She had announced her return to the 700 or so fans and fellow writers who still followed her Facebook page, but the news spread fast. Within a day, millions more had read about her; BookTok was overtaken with videos of creators recapping the events or setting their disbelief to song. Suddenly, scores of people who, like me, didn’t know the difference between an H.E.A. and an H.F.N. ending — “happily ever after” versus “happy for now” — were immersing themselves in the internal drama of a tiny group of indie romance writers.
Few topics are less funny than suicide, and Ms. Meachen caused genuine pain to people who cared about her. There’s also a question of actual fraud, since her “relatives” allegedly crowdsourced money for her “funeral.” But the deeper reporters and amateur sleuths dived down the rabbit hole, the more bizarre — and, yes, amusing — the details. She appears to have created a fake account to resume running her Facebook group, The Ward, after her purported death. She or a relative convinced other writers to edit her “last” book for free in time to present it as a posthumous wedding present to Ms. Meachen’s daughter.
Her novels, with their stock cover images and generic titles like “Stolen Moments”and “My Crush,” are filled with “dark secrets” and untimely deaths. On multiple occasions over the two years Ms. Meachen was believed to be dead, her “daughter” or “assistant” threatened to remove her books from Amazon because not enough people were buying them. One post from Ms. Meachen’s Facebook account, written from the perspective of her daughter, included the sentence “Dead people don’t post on social media.” If none of this makes you giggle, you’re a stronger person than I am.
The story seemed to strike a particular chord with those in and around the more established — and more prestigious — corners of the publishing industry. “While Meachen and the other writers who befriended her virtually refer to their community as ‘the book world,’ what they’re talking about has little to do,” wrote the book critic Laura Miller in Slate, a trace of condescension creeping in, with “the mainstream publishing industry, the professionals who work in it, and the authors whose books fill your local bookstore.” Rather, she said, “Meachen’s ‘book world’ is the community of self-published romance and erotica writers who sell low-cost e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks.”
All the talk of the book world — and how Ms. Meachen’s death had, as a former friend said, ripped it “in half” — did seem a bit overblown. But it also doesn’t seem quite accurate to argue that the rarefied realm of Manhattan-based Big Five publishers is any more “real” than the comparatively lowbrow one of self-published romances.
The vast majority of books are self-published. For Ms. Meachen, the choice to go that route may not have been much of a choice at all: Her creative use of capitalization and punctuation would have made her an unlikely prospect for Knopf. But there are plenty of very talented Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, queer, disabled or trans authors who have looked at the industry’s long record of discrimination and concluded that self publishing was the only outlet open to them. Colleen Hoover, currently the most popular author in the world by a massive margin, attracted publishing houses’ attention only after her self-published novels became best-sellers. And the “legitimate” book world has had plenty of its own dumb drama in the past few years, from a 2019 Naomi Wolf book that was yanked from shelves because a central element of the historical research was wrong to a 2021 scandal in which a memoirist called people out for rating her book a mere four out of five stars on Goodreads and then compared the resulting outrage to “rape culture.”
For people in mainstream book publishing, the Meachen saga may also have provided a welcome distraction from their own problems. After a healthy bump in sales during the pandemic, disappointing 2022 numbers combined with a looming recession have led to hiring slowdowns and layoffs. The Justice Department and a federal judge blocked Penguin Random House from buying Simon & Schuster on antitrust grounds, so now S. & S. may well be acquired by a private equity firm, which rarely bodes well for creative-class companies. At HarperCollins — where I am under contract for my first book — about 250 New York-based unionized employees have been on strike for two months. The core issue is that the union wants to raise entry-level salaries by $5,000, to $50,000. The increase would cost HarperCollins, whose annual revenue is over $2 billion, less than $1 million a year; editors have told heart-wrenching stories about being unable to afford rent and food, taking on second jobs, leaving the industry altogether because, in one of the world’s most expensive cities, $45,000 is not enough to live on.
Yet the union says the company’s senior leaders have informed members that they will not return to the bargaining table. In the meantime, HarperCollins has begun hiring scab workers. The publishing industry’s work force remains far, far whiter than it should be, which has obvious ramifications for what books we get to read, yet executives seem to have no interest in making the industry more accessible to brilliant young minds who don’t come from generational wealth.
On the surface, a HarperCollins editor striking in front of a Financial District skyscraper might seem to operate on another planet from a hobbyist writer posting from the grave begging people to kick in a couple of bucks for a romance novel. But what haunts me about the Meachen story is the kernel of universality behind her desperation for book world legitimacy. What author, self-published or traditional, can’t relate to indulging in a little self-pity when her sales aren’t where she hoped? What industry hasn’t seen bullying allegations and its share of unstable characters? Who in the book world writ large doesn’t feel like she’s fighting for crumbs? As in any good romance novel, the drama in the Meachen scandal was dialed up far past the point of relatability, but the feelings behind the drama were familiar to us all.
Megan Greenwell is a journalist based in New York. She is writing a book about how private equity affects workers.
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