photo by h.koppdelaney

When I hear that someone’s first novel has been picked up for publication, I have a knee-jerk desire to both congratulate and warn. I reign myself in and only congratulate but here’s my warning.

Everyone in the moment when the book has found a home — maybe it was even an exciting auction with a rising tide of bidding and foreign offers in the offing — is jacked — your agent, your new editor, those who’ve supported you at all levels of anxiety for the years leading up to this… and rightly so.

Maybe you’re excited too — though, if you’re like me, you’re also simply flooded with relief and mindful of the slow dawning that publishing a book might simply be an invitation to a more public form of failure than you’d grown accustomed to.

(If you’re a writer not accustomed to failure by the time you’ve published your first book, I would like to collect you as a rarity and pin you like a Nabokovian butterfly to a cork board.)

The warning is this: If at all possible, as soon as those final edits are in, divorce yourself from your book. You are not your book. Your friends and family — even if used as the basis for some of the characters — are not your characters. You have made art or perhaps entertainment — or a mix of the two — but it is now turning into a commodity. It will take up shelf-space. It will sell wildly or it will sell poorly or, likely, somewhere in between. Remember, there are poorly written books that sell wildly, and beautiful, important books that sell poorly. There are also beautiful, important books that sell wildly and poorly written books that sell poorly. The selling part is bat-shit crazy. It’s a crap shoot.

If at all possible, as soon as those final edits are in, divorce yourself from your book. You are not your book.

Listen, if you were selling this book twelve years ago, you’d be warned by an editor, most likely, that sales are very hard to predict. In fact, a hit book could just as easily be decided by a bunch of drunk frat boys playing darts.

But, today, you’re going to be told that sales are in your control. You might be given an author portal filled with info on what you can do to build an audience, connect with readers, blog, tweet, post. Because of the burgeoning ways in which writers and readers can now connect, you’ll be convinced that if you do them all, your book will sell.

No. The vast majority of authors sprint in all of these ways nowadays. The effect has plateaued — if there was ever much of an effect to be had.

And even if you have the might and power of a great marketing department, it’s still unknowable why some books take off and others don’t.

How your commodity — which used to be your art/your entertainment/a piece of your soul — does in the marketplace is still a crap shoot.

If your book doesn’t sell well, you could be blamed for it. Don’t accept the blame. It’s bullshit born from the anxiety of the publishing industry.

If your book does sell well, there’s a good chance that an editor might say, “We just don’t understand why we couldn’t sell 20% more.” 

Everyone wants about 20% more. (There’s data on this human desire for 20% more.)

Sometimes there’s a walkaway grand slam. If this happens to you, don’t take it personally either. Accept it. Be joyful about it. But don’t let it take up residence. You have more books to write. Write.

This is my warning’s bottom line, in fact.

Publishing, marketing, being a commodity salesman — all of these things that just became part of your job interfere and sometimes interfere deeply with the creative process. And if you equate your self worth with your sales figures, you are screwed — even if those sales are good.

[I]f you equate your self worth with your sales figures, you are screwed — even if those sales are good.

Protect your relationship with the page, at all costs, because no matter how the publishing industry defines your role, there’s one place you’re always a writer. The desk. Your long-term relationships is with words on a page. It’s where you first started out and it’s where you need to be. The publishing industry doesn’t need me as a writer. It’s got plenty. But the one thing that doesn’t change is this — I need to write.

Congratulations! And now you have been fairly warned.

Novelists, do you have any advice to share in comments? The floor is yours.

About Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the author of of eighteen books, including Pure, a New York Times Notable Book of 2012; the sequel, Fuse, will be published in February. She writes under her own name and under pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode -- most notably, National Bestseller Girl Talk, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies Trilogy and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, Best Creative Nonfiction, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now.