I’ve worked like a dog the last two weeks on EPIC copy edits so today, I’m running short on inspired creative thinking and tall on advice. It’s January, after all, and isn’t that when we’d all like a little advice, a little pep in our step to help us take on the new year? I know I do, so here we are with some of the most important things I’ve learned as a published writer (regardless of the publishing path you choose to take). WARNING: some of it isn’t pretty.
Professional Behavior is Paramount
Though professional behavior should go without saying in your field of work–in this case, publishing–you’d be surprised just how damned infrequent it is. It’s important to remember, people perceive who you are as a person as well as who you are as a writer by your behavior. Like it or not, them’s the breaks. Here are a few tips:
- Make your deadlines. When a production schedule must be adjusted, it affects many other projects in the publishing line up, and it really ticks the publisher off (as well as other authors whose release dates are being juggled like lemons and sometimes dropped because of you). If you absolutely cannot make the date because something has happened in your personal life, give your agent plenty of notice so she/he can request more time from your editor. They will be a lot more flexible the more up front you are, and as always, the sooner the better.
- Reply to important emails and other requests. If you’re a freelancer of some sort or replying to booksellers, book clubs, or other events (also to other writers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!), a week is a reasonable amount of time to reply to emails. Inversely, this means, you should hold your horses and allow up to a week for people to respond to your messages. There’s nothing more irritating than having someone send another email when it’s been only two or three days, or worse, bombard you from multiple social media platforms. Gah! It’s true that we’ve all grown very impatient these days with our cell phones and instant gratification, but we aren’t robots with unlimited time. Respect both your personal workday hours as well as those of others. Boundaries are what keep us sane in a difficult business that often feels very intrusive and also like a rat race.
- If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all. Do not bash your fellow writers, don’t give them poor book reviews, and do not show your envy of their successes—in public. Recently, I’ve seen a handful of Twitter shitstorms from very big authors and it blew my mind. How would they have felt if the tables were turned on them? Sure, we’re all human and need to blow off steam sometimes, but that’s what your critique partners and writer friends are for, to help you wade through the negative feelings that crop up from time to time and to keep you grounded and focused on what matters—the writing.
- Always respond to blurb or event requests with grace. Ignoring them is not an option. You would be surprised how often this happens, EVEN FROM FRIENDS AND ACQUAINTANCES. Seriously, I’ve been there a few times, and when you’re hopeful and waiting on them and they don’t reply, it’s not fun. Even worse, is when an author you admire makes some rude comment. Don’t be that person. We all have long memories when it comes to a slight, or what feels like one. If you don’t think the work is for you or you are simply too busy to spend the time on it, tell them you’d like to help but simply can’t this time around and wish them luck. Simple, short, polite. Always respond.
Writing what you want versus writing what will sell
Most writers have at least one idea—well, let’s be honest, we likely have many ideas—that aren’t all that viable for the marketplace for a variety of reasons. The reality is, a working writer who becomes a part of the “publishing machine” very often must limit their scope to the brand they are establishing. Narrowing our scope isn’t something we like to do as creatives, but it’s an essential part of reaching your developing fan base. This is what publishers are concerned with. If we reach our fan base with a reliable brand, we all make money. If you want to go outside of that brand and you’re anything less than bestselling, opt for a pen name.
The other thing worth mentioning is that publishers have loads of data at their disposal and usually can gauge how well a particular topic will sell, at least within a reasonable guesstimate. When they believe they have a product (I know, cringe, but yes, books are products) that can sell quite well, they put all of their marketing power behind it. This, however, is becoming rarer by the minute, these days. Which leads me to my next topic.
Stomaching the realities of Marketing & Publicity
Budgets are being slashed across the board. It’s a sad fact, but it is what it is and the sooner the writer understands this, the sooner they can adjust and find creative ways to make the most of their platforms and their budgets. A few words of wisdom:
- High Turn-over Rates: In publishing, there is an enormously high turn-over rate, in particular in the areas of publicity and marketing. It’s a difficult and demanding job and can often prove to be unrewarding. They’re harassed by constant emails and phone calls, and have a tremendous amount of work for editors, agents, and authors to juggle. Because there’s a high turn-over rate, it may also mean you’ll get a brand new publicist who doesn’t have a lot experience or connections assigned to your book. This can be quite disheartening. Your best bet is to split the work with your publicist and try to be as flexible as possible. Also, be a polite pit bull. Persistence and follow up are key, but keep it brief and professional—and don’t overdo it. Do your best to keep your emotions out of things. That never helps.
- Set Aside Money in Advance: You have to spend money to make money. This is the most basic marketing manifesto. It’s also the truest. If you aren’t willing to shell out some dough to give your book a push, chances are it won’t go anywhere. If you’re one of the lucky lotto winners at your publishing house, more power to you, but there are so few of these—even for many big, established authors. It’s best to look at your market placement realistically so you can give your book its best chance in the saturated reader-sphere.
- Devise a Plan: What will you need all that money for? Ads in papers, magazines, bookish websites, and also Instagram tours, Facebook ads, and/or in-person tours. You may seek out a professional to help you with this. There are some very knowledgeable and reputable organizations that help promote writers. (BUT BE CAREFUL. Do your research. Ask for final numbers, click-throughs, impressions, and also take a look at their client lists. There are loads of Mickey Mouse operations out there robbing authors of funds.) Also as a side note, in-person tours can be very expensive, are rarely covered by your publisher, and hardly ever sell enough books to make it worthwhile. Plus it can be truly humiliating sitting there all afternoon with a stack of books, only to have people walk by you all day and avoid your gaze. I say this with five books under my belt worth of experience. It can be worth it, but you have to really know what you’re doing and that takes loads of time and research.
- Hiring Personal Publicists, yay or nay: If you can pull out at least one major hook—and I don’t mean a cliffhanger style pitch, and I don’t necessarily mean the themes in your book—but one major idea that will resonate strongly with media outlets, it may be worthwhile to hire a publicist. Then again, you may be better off just buying up ad space to advertise the book. Most seasoned authors I know swear by the ads-only approach. That said, most of them have also tried working with publicists. The difficulty is, neither of these options can truly be measured. Publicity, in particular, is difficult to gauge. Publicists spend a lot of time researching and pitching articles, interviews, and other projects, and then they have to follow up and “wait and see” if the book they’re working with will be chosen by the media outlets. It’s a BIG FAT “maybe”, in other words. But hey, all of publishing is a risky business. On this point, I think trial and error and going with your gut are the way to go. I have two books that wouldn’t have benefited from a publicist, necessarily, and two that could have. It just depends. Like everything in publishing, it depends.
You will change agents or editors, or both, at one point This is a sad inevitably of the business, but one we must embrace if we want to get our books out there. Publishers merge or close, or begin (!). Editors retire or change jobs to a new publishing house. The same goes for agents. Sometimes, you aren’t being treated particularly well by an agent or editor, and it’s time to take matters into your own hands and make a move. One or both of these things have happened to 98% of all authors I’ve ever met, me included. Embrace the inevitability. It allows you to keep your focus where it should be—on the writing.
The Post-Partum Blues
Launch day arrives to lots of fanfare, and you’re excited as hell! You check yours stats obsessively and bask in the great reviews and publicity, the sheer joy of having your story join the canon that is our great big world out there. It’s truly wonderful. But there’s an aspect few discuss in book publishing, and one worth mentioning both for debut novelists and for anyone, really, who is extremely invested in how those of us with several under our belts. It’s the post-partum blues.
The excitement of a new book launch wears off in a few days, or a few weeks and suddenly, there’s nothing but:
That’s when the blues set in. The ol’ crash after the high. All of the bustle and excitement felt overblown and silly, and you have to remember what all of the hopes and dreams, the stress and the anxiety were for. You wonder if you can put yourself through the rat race of writing and editing for years, the months of promotion and stress, just to have your book release to crickets.
We feel so utterly changed by our works that when the world continues on in the same way it always has, it’s a letdown. But days go by and you get drawn into your next story, relish your writing routine, and something miraculous happens. You realize something you knew before you signed with your agent, or sold a book, or went into a frenzy over which font to use on your promotional bookmarks.
YOU LOVE TO WRITE. And that is most important. Which brings me to my next point.
It must ALWAYS be about the writing. Really, it must. If it’s about anything else, walk away now.
Words are beautiful and gritty and life-changing. They paint pictures, build empires, and ignite love stories that destroy us and make us. For all of the songs and slogans that say actions speak louder than words, IT JUST ISN’T TRUE. Words eternalize those actions. And you—this one little drop of water in this great big ocean of novelists, have added story to the fabric of human history and they’re beautiful—to you—and THAT is what matters. And if they impart hours of entertainment, joy, inspiration to even one reader, you have done what you set out to do, and that is enough. And by God, you want to do it all over again.
And finally, a few thoughts to live by:
- Establish balance in your life. Obsession, possession, anxiety are lethal.
- Keep fighting the good fight. Keep putting those stories on paper.
- Remember you’re already living the dream. You’re doing what you love. Many don’t have the courage to.
- Discover what it means to be successful to YOU, no one else, just you. Believe in it.
What’s one of the most important things you’ve learned during your time in publishing?