How Jessica Knoll is changing what it means to be a successful author
Jessica Knoll knows how to sell a book. She knows how to write a book, too, as her legions of fans will reiterate. They’ll tell you that Luckiest Girl Alive shook them to their core. They’ll tell you it was the ultimate page-turner, that it was dark and deliciously twisted. They’ll tell you that the big reveal made for one of their favorite crimes.
But really, she knows how to sell a book.
Luckiest Girl Alive sold more than 450,000 copies. It spent four months on the New York Times‘ best-seller list. It printed in dozens and dozens of countries. Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights. It was the most successful debut of 2015.
And unlike what may be the norm in the publishing industry — and, well, the world — she’s not afraid to tell you about that success. At the end of April, Knoll wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that went viral, thanks in part to its eye-catching headline, “I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry.” In it, she wrote about her childhood dream to become both successful and financially independent (one conjurs the image of a tiny Jessica Knoll dressing up in pantsuits, holding pretend meetings, instead of the stereotypical fake-wedding-dress scenario), of her current-day desire for gasp-worthy advances and royalty checks that settle the nervous mind, of how she admires her fictional characters for their drive for money and power in a way normally reserved for men.
The article drew the author even more fans, both of the anonymous Internet variety and the famous actress variety. Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham shouted her praise. Reese Witherspoon chimed in with, “It’s okay to be an ambitious woman. It’s actually more than okay…it’s goals.”
The public’s hunger for female bravado is something that surprised even Knoll herself.
“I never thought it would strike a nerve the way it did,” Knoll tells EW. “I was really galvanized by the response and just so surprised by the number of women who are saying they feel the same way.
“It’s crazy because you go around thinking things like this but you never really vocalize them,” she continues. “You think there’s something wrong with you because no one talks about it, and then as soon as you put it out there you just realize how many millions of people share your dreams and aspirations. There’s something really comforting in that.”
All of this buzz isn’t happening in a vacuum, of course — Knoll is far too adept for that. The author is on the precipice of her highly-anticipated sophomore novel, The Favorite Sister, which she hopes will have the same commercial and anecdotal success as her debut novel. The tome follows on the suspenseful lead of Luckiest Girl Alive — it opens on the scene of a tell-all interview, in which the star of an all-female reality show (Goal Diggers) is addressing the scandalous death of her sister and fellow costar. It then jumps back in time to weave the tales of several (fictional) reality stars together before we finally arrive at the highly-unexpected twist ending.
The Favorite Sister, which hits bookstores on May 15, also comes at a time when female creators the world over are taking charge of their own destinies. This wave has been slow to hit the publishing industry, a place where male creative egos have long dominated the conversation, far more than they have the actual bookshelves. For decades, the most famous novelists have been men, and the authors who were given permission to boast about their contributions were men. Knoll has noticed. She’s noticed how male authors don’t hesitate to talk about their record-breaking sales, how every novel they write is The Next Great Novel.
“In some ways, I wasn’t even angry at them for being like that,” she muses. “I was angry at myself that I couldn’t be more like that.”
Knoll has also noticed that her books, written by a woman and about women, are considered only women’s books; whereas books by men and about men are considered…just books.
“It’s a legitimate question, why books by men swing both ways whereas if it’s a book about a woman’s life it’s going to be marketed almost entirely to women,” says Knoll. “Part of me is like, well the way we did it worked, and women are the consumer. More women read than men and more women go to movies than men. I still think that there is this really archaic notion that women’s everyday lives aren’t interesting to anyone but other women and it’s just not true.”
This perspective — and the sheer number of people hanging on her every word — puts Knoll in a unique position to shift the power dynamics in the industry. The way she came into her success is not only unique but presents fascinating guidance for the next crop of authors. She knew she wanted to be a writer at a very young age (as she puts it, “I wanted to have my name attached to a major work in some way”), but instead of writing a book straight out of college she set off to pay her dues.
She did stints at magazines, including serving as the books editor at Cosmopolitan. She had bylines, she had established a clear writing voice, she had contacts in publishing and people who were willing to support her novel — all of which she says gave her a distinct advantage and went a long way in nabbing her the book deal. Her time at Cosmo also inspired her to take the success of Luckiest Girl Alive.
“I saw the sheer number of books that landed on my desk every single day and they just kind of disappeared,” she says. “It is so much work to write a book and I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than putting that amount of effort and labor into a project, just to have it come out and not catch fire.”
She explains that her drive to get the book in front of as many people as possible was motivated partly out of fear. She sent Luckiest Girl Alive to every influential person she knew and credits the buzz created by social media for moving the needle in terms of book sales — she realized that people were using Instagram to talk about books and, more importantly, to find and buy books. All of that perseverance led to her New York Times tenure, to the adaptation, to her fame. Or, at least, what some people would call fame.
“I’m not famous and I would never call myself famous,” she cautions. “But I’m definitely more exposed than I was several years ago, and it’s an adjustment.”
An adjustment that, thanks to Knoll’s fearlessness, many more female authors will be making in the future.