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Published Authors Share Wisdom from their Debut Journeys

[1]Publishing a book is the scariest, most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. It’s hard to believe that my debut novel, The Kindest Lie, will enter the world in less than a month. One of the best parts of this journey has been sharing it with Julie Carrick Dalton [2] and Sarah Penner [3], writers who are also debuting this year. Three different publishing imprints. Three very different books. Yet one shared obsession when we meet every Sunday afternoon on Zoom: Will my book be successful? Have I done enough to give my novel the best shot at success? What is success?

I turned to a few authors I admire (many who debuted in 2020) to hear what they’ve learned along the way. These writers, like most, were incredibly generous with their wisdom. Whether you have a book coming out this year or someday (and you will), save these nuggets of insight and pull them out when you need them.

What I wish I had known…

“I wish I’d known how overwhelming marketing and promotion can be, immediately after your book is released. Readings, panel discussions, interviews, book clubs, social media posts—all of these take up an amazing amount of time, and it’s important to keep your writing going. So, the best piece of advice I can give is to set aside at least an hour a day to devote to your next project. You won’t be sorry!”
-David Heska Wanbli Weiden, author of Winter Counts 

“I had such a great debut year and learned so much as a result. What I wish I’d known going into my debut year is to not be ashamed to ask for help. As Black women, we’re so used to carrying everything on our shoulders. This mind frame bleeds into everything we do. With publishing, you have a whole team behind you with years of experience in navigating the difficult terrain of editing, marketing, publicity, etc. That doesn’t mean you won’t have an opportunity to educate them on how to improve upon this in our evolving landscape between publishing and social justice; it does mean you can use their assistance to grow your platform and give voice to you and your art.”
-Catherine Adel West, author of Saving Ruby King

“As a decades-long career coach to lawyers, I pretty much “coached” the heck out of myself as my debut month approached. But the one thing that most surprised me was how quickly the satisfaction, for me, of a good review dissipated compared to the malingering of a bad one. For every author affected by bad reviews, there is one for whom negative criticism remains instructive and constructive. Sadly, I am not that author! So, having a handle on how criticism would resonate with me, and how to handle or even avoid it, was one thing I wish I’d known.”
-Natalie Jenner, international bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society

“I wish I had known how kind, generous and compassionate readers are. I have received many letters since the publication of The Mountains Sing and I count them among my precious gifts. I also wish I had known how busy the year could be. I have done more than 100 virtual events during the last nine months since my novel’s publication, many of them have been with bookshops, libraries, festivals, and book clubs. It was challenging to manage the time difference since I live in Asia and sometimes I had to do events at 2 or 3 a.m. my time, but I loved every single event in which I have taken part. I am just so grateful for the support my novel has received.”
-Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, PhD, bestselling author of The Mountains Sing

“I wish I had known how strong the temptation would be to compare my publishing path, and the success of my book, to others. From the moment you sell your book to the end of the year your book is published and beyond, there are countless ways you can compare your book to others: marketing budgets, pre-pub tours, galley print numbers, Bookstagram attention, industry reviews, most anticipated lists, best of the year lists, press reviews, best seller lists, the list goes on and on. It really is true that comparison is the thief of joy. When you compare your publishing path to others, you rob yourself of the experience of your dream coming true!”
-Louise Miller, author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living and The Late Bloomers’ Club

The best advice I’d give debut authors…

“Remember that booksellers are your friends. Imagine walking into a party where you don’t know a soul, only to find out once you get there that you’re the life of the party. That’s what it’s like to be a novelist walking into a bookstore. When my publishers were eager to push my first novel, of course I was pleased and grateful, but I had awful stage fright.  Talking to a bunch of strangers, all eyes turned toward me? No thank you. “But you don’t understand,” my team at HarperCollins explained. “Booksellers aren’t strangers. Booksellers are your people.

They weren’t lying. The first time I was about to be introduced to somebody I didn’t know from Adam, she looked at me, gasped and said, “It’s you!”  I hadn’t said a mumbling word yet. I didn’t have to. All she had to do was look at me and that was enough to fill her heart with joy. “This,” I thought, “must be what it’s like to be prom queen.” It’s what Dorothy Parker was talking about when she said she preferred having written books to writing them. Trust me, it makes all the suffering that goes into grinding away at your desk worthwhile.”
Julia Claiborne Johnson, bestselling author of Better Luck Next Time

“I think the best thing a debut author can do is to set up a free Talkwalker Alert for the title of their book and then commit to not obsessively searching for news online. In my experience, Talkwalker catches every mention, and knowing you will receive a daily (or even better weekly) update on who is saying nice things about your book will save you from the compulsion to read every single “most anticipated” list, etc., and keep you off the cortisol-raising rollercoaster of thrills and disappointments.

I would say preserve your creative time. It can be very easy to confuse book business with actual writing, but it isn’t. Tweeting out reviews, booking events, writing thank you cards, making adorable images of your book for IG, researching festivals, applying to awards, checking your sales numbers are what I call authoring. It isn’t writing. It’s business, not art. Both are important! Both are necessary! But be sure to preserve time just for writing every week. It will ground you in what is important—your love of writing.”
-Louise Miller, author of The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living and The Late Bloomers’ Club

“The best piece of advice I can give you is one that was given to me by my former boss in publishing. Remember that you are your best advocate. No one loves and understands your work more than you. So, while it is amazing to have a team that you trust to push your marketing and publicity, never forget that it’s your book. Sometimes you have to push a little harder and help them to see the vision you have for your career. Work as hard as a traditionally published author as you would as a self-published author.”
-Sadeqa Johnson, award-winning author of four novels, including the upcoming Yellow Wife

“My advice to you: celebrate your book with your readers. Celebrate the work of other writers, too, because we all need to make meaningful contributions to the literary community.”
-Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, PhD, bestselling author of The Mountains Sing

Please share your thoughts on what resonates most from what these authors had to say. What is the best advice you ever gave or received about publishing your first book?

About Nancy Johnson [4]

Nancy Johnson [5] (she/her) is the debut author of THE KINDEST LIE, forthcoming February 2 from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her novel has been named a most anticipated book of 2021 by Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, Refinery29, Woman's Day, and PopSugar. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nancy lives in downtown Chicago. Find her online at https://nancyjohnson.net/ [5].