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From ‘Bluebird’ to ‘F*ck Happiness’: A Publishing Story

F*ck Happiness: How Women Are Ditching the Cult of Positivity and Choosing Radical Joy - Pyragraph
Designed by Lindsey Cleworth, the new in-your-face image for Ariel Gore’s book on happiness is instantly iconic. Image courtesy of Ariel Gore.

Originally posted online by Joe Biel, founder and mastermind behind indie publisher Microcosm, who kindly gave us permission to share this kickass tale. We love this story of a bootstrap publisher who saw how a major house squandered their chance with a promising book and helped the writer take back control and release it on her own terms.

I ran into Ariel Gore at a party across the street from my house in 2005 and we talked at length about the book she was working on at the time, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. I loved it, thought she was so cool and talented, and figured that we’d never get the chance to work with her professionally. When Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness was published ten years ago, I felt that it was her best work yet. The quality of writing and research and how groundbreaking the thinking was all really blew me away. So when we went to reorder it in 2017 and were told that the book was out of print and never going to paperback, I got a glint in my eye and dropped her a line, thinking this might be our chance! To this day, it’s still my favorite book that she’s done!

F*ck Happiness - Pyragraph
Photo courtesy of Ariel Gore (Facebook).

So we dropped her a line and her agency wrestled the rights to the book back from the original publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG). Ten years later, the paperback will finally be published in the author’s original vision. You see, when you work with a Big Five publisher (FSG is owned by multi-billion dollar global media conglomerate Macmillan) there is a lot of staff changeover and struggles to stick to a coherent plan. Competent people get promoted. Stagnant people tend to hold out in administrative and associate positions. Ten-year plans disrupt books that the publisher has paid substantial advances for. Editors get replaced by people who do not understand the books that were acquired or why they are appealing to a certain demographic readership. That’s life in corporate America. But I digress.

In the case of Bluebird, the acquiring editor who believed in the book and brought Ariel on board moved on before work on the book began. You can feel the conflict between the replacement editor and the author as you read the book. Mind you, this book was published before the Gretchen Rubin industrial complex, when Brené Brown had not yet begun commanding women to rise up and take a good, hard look at what forms their self-esteem. This makes Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness an even more confusing, non-descriptive title. What is this book actually about?

We are hoping that we can recover these fumbles and reach a new generation of women.

Fortunately, this is not a difficult question to answer. The true premise of the book is about how studies of happiness have been relegated to cis men, while studies of depression and mental illness are relegated to women. And perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how that affects each of us in our everyday lives and how we measure our own satisfaction and expectations. So our marketing department revised the vague Women and the New Psychology of Happiness to How Women Are Ditching the Cult of Positivity and Choosing Radical Joy.

I was nervous that “Cult of Positivity” would be read as a proper noun so I reduced the size of the word “cult” on the cover at the suggest of Baker & Taylor Vice President Mark Suchomel.

Another central premise and theme to the book is that women’s happiness is forever contingent on others and perceptions of them. For example, being told to smile and feign that happiness for the benefit of the community. To acknowledge this, we hired Lindsey Cleworth to design the cover. She created the iconic image of the woman pushing up her smile with her two extended middle fingers. Cleworth was a cover designer for Chicago Review Press, among others, so I knew that she could perfectly summarize this book to a non-redundant image to show respectability to a stuffy bunch. It sends a very different message than the gauzy, twee, pastel toy bird on the original cover.

Old cover vs. new cover – what a difference. Images courtesy of Ariel Gore.

And lastly, there’s that awkward Bluebird. The original title was a reference to a story Ariel Gore tells in the preface to the book. But it’s meaningless until you’ve read the book because you don’t understand the weight of the reference. So we made the switch to extreme literalism with our title: Fuck Happiness!

The original book received numerous glowing reviews and tremendous publicity but didn’t sell very well, especially considering the size of the publisher and the weight behind it. We are hoping that we can recover these fumbles and reach a new generation of women. For this reason, we also took the time to modernize language and thinking about gender within the book, to include nonbinary and transgender people.

We hope that Fuck Happiness makes you as happy as it has us!

F*ck Happiness is available directly from Microcosm Publishing now, and in stores in May 2020.

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