10 Things I Learned About Publishing from My Debut Series
Tomorrow marks the paperback launch of my second book, Shiny Broken Pieces, and the wrap of the Tiny Pretty Things series. It’s been three years now since I officially became an published author. And in those three years, I’ve learned a lot. So herewith, for those of you anticipating debuts of your own, the good, the bad and the truly heinous.
Everything changes. Damn straight it does. I mean, you’re published now. You’ve seen your dream fulfilled. People can (hopefully) walk into a bookstore and find a real book with real pages with words that you wrote inside and your name on the cover. Or at least find you on Amazon, right? Anyway, this is a true accomplishment. Something to celebrate. (More on that later.)
Nothing changes. Yes, you have a book out there, on shelves and in the world, with your name on it. But in most cases, you could stand right next to said book in the bookstore, grinning like an idiot in a t-shirt that matches your cover, and no one would care. No one would know you wrote it, or that you’re an author. Unless you shout it out to everyone in your path, or you have a seven-year-old who goes around announcing your authorliness to strangers. (True story.) Here’s the thing: there are a lot of books and there are a lot of authors. You may have put your heart and soul into that sucker, but unless you’re willing to do the work of stumping on its behalf, very few people will know that it (or you) exists.
Marketing is everything. To cut through all the noise, honestly, you need some real publisher power behind you. They should be the ones pimping your book (and your author persona, too). They should be the ones spending the money on ads and sending the book to media, putting you on tour and setting up signings at school, library and bookseller events. In an ideal scenario, they would. But let’s be real: most debut deals are far from the ideal scenario, where a publisher buys a book from the author for decent cash and then puts actual marketing muscle behind it to make it stand out in an exhaustingly busy marketplace. In fact – that scenario is rare for most multi-published authors too. What happens far more frequently: your debut is greeted with warmth – from your friends and families. And a resounding silence from everyone else. Note: if this happens, don’t panic. It’s perfectly normal. It hurts, but the pain will subside.
You can only do so much. These days, publishers are relying more than ever on authors to make their own marketing – through swag, social media, an accessible author persona, all of the bells and whistles that make modern-day publishing so exhausting. But keep in mind what I said above: there are a lot of authors and there are a lot of books. It’s a dizzyingly busy marketplace. Unless you come with a built in audience and already robust platform, little old you would be hard-pressed to really move the needle on your book’s presence without publisher power behind you. Which is not to say you shouldn’t try – put yourself and your book out there, and do what you’re able. But remember: this is not all on you. And it shouldn’t have to be.
Meet your public. I will say this, though. One of the best things that my writing and business partner Dhonielle Clayton and I did over the course of our debut series’ launch was to be present. We said yes to a lot of invitations. And if we weren’t invited, we reached out and tried to get invited. Meeting readers is one way to get an under-promoted book on people’s radars. If readers remember meeting you fondly, they’re that much more likely to buy (and perhaps more importantly, share!) your book. And perhaps critically, stick with you for the long haul. Because that’s what you’re doing with each book: building a foundation for a longer career. Our presence at book festivals, conferences and events, large and small, made us more familiar names to YA readers, which kept the book on people’s radars. Now, if you can’t travel (admittedly, Dhonielle and I had enough privilege to put some of our advance back into marketing our books), then social media is another arena in which to explore this. But as I said above: you can’t do everything. Do what you like, skip what you loathe. (Hello, Snapchat, my grand nemesis.) Interact in ways you feel comfortable.
Be reachable. Again, no need to be everywhere. But you never know what kind of amazing emails and offers might come your way if you never check said email. Keeping an eye on things – or having an agent or someone else who can do so for you – is important. You’re in a communications-related field. You’re a professional. Be reachable. Answer important emails in a timely fashion.
Know when to tune out. As I found out the hard way, burn out is excruciatingly real. (More on that another time.) This stuff is exhausting, and will wear you out emotionally, mentally and physically. Figure out what you need for self-care, and don’t forget to indulge. As Dhonielle frequently reminds me: we work really hard. We deserve breaks and chai and perhaps the occasional Japanese barbeque outing. We deserve, too, to be able to unplug and focus on crafting a new story we love, or taking a nap, or strolling on the beach with family for a day or two. The world won’t end if you don’t check your email constantly for a day or a week or even longer. Just be professional about it: have someone people can reach out to in your absence, or set up an away message at least.
You are not your book. People conflate you as a person with the success or failure of your book, and it’s super-hard to disengage from that. Because it’s true, as writers, we invest a lot of ourselves in our work. Repeat after me: you are a person, and the book is a product. Again: You are a person, and the book is a product. Not one in the same. And in most cases, for the readers of this site, the book will be a work of fiction. Not you. Not about you. As much as you might see yourself in your work. Fiction. Readers might not get that. Even publishers might not get that. But you have to remind yourself of it: you are a person, and the book is a product. A beautiful, meaningful, fun, perhaps delicious product. But a product, nonetheless. You are a person.
This too shall pass. They say success is fleeting. It’s probably true. So celebrate when you can -- celebrate even the smallest joys. Getting those contracts. Seeing your cover for the first time. Seeing your book on shelves. Getting an email from a reader who loved your work -- or perhaps got to see themselves reflected for the first time. Celebrate. But remember that this is also true: what feels like failure – the low points – that will pass, too. Whether your book is a resounding success or barely makes a peep, this is just one moment in what’s hopefully a long career. Publishing is a rough ride overall, and there will be some bumps and perhaps a few accidents or wrong turns. (Yep, really milked that metaphor.) But keep moving forward, inch by inch, book by book, and remember, this is just a moment.
Keep on writing. Once you get into the thick of the business part of publishing – contracts, edits, marketing, promoting your book and yourself, the endless cycle of it, it can be hard to focus on the writing. I’m not one of those write-every-day people – in fact, I’ve gone whole months without writing anything substantial. But if you are in this for the long haul, then keep on writing. Someone once told me that every manuscript is like another little soldier you’re putting into your army, off to battle on your behalf. More plainly, if you’re in publishing for a long-term career, then you need more product. But also: very few of us start writing because we think publishing will be a long term career. It can be. If you keep at. But in the meantime, channel the you that had something to say, a story to tell. That’s why you started in the first place.