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Five Things I've Learned About Being a Pre-Published Debut
This is the year my dream comes true! My debut novel comes out in exactly 85 days. *slightly hysterical laughter* I have longed for October 10, 2017 even before I knew it would have any lasting significance on my life.
Young Julie wished fiercely on stars, birthday candles, and alarm clocks every time 11:11 came around, and held her breath for luck while driving through tunnels and over bridges. She looked at getting published through the rosiest of rose-colored glasses. But what Older, Tiny-Bit-Wiser Julie is learning, is that a fulfilled wish comes with hard lessons and necessary adjustments.
When something has the potential to change your life, you have to roll with everything that comes your way: both the good and the bad, the smooth and the sticky. A dream come true is not only wonderful, but it can also come with a lot of unexpected baggage.
Not many people talk about this part of the debut experience, so I thought I'd share five things I've learned since announcing my book deal last September:
(1) People will make assumptions about you.
One of the many assumptions they will make is that your debut is your first book written.
I see reviews for other books all the time that say "I was surprised! This book is pretty good for a debut!" or "I actually liked the writing style, considering it's the author's first novel!" That always makes me chuckle. I'm sure some folks are lucky enough to get published with their first book ever written, but I'm equally sure that most debuts are actually the author's second, third, fourth, or fifth novel written. (FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is my sixth, btw!)
A friend who debuted a few years back told me about visiting her book during release week. She saw someone take it off the shelf, but then their friend put it back. "Don't read it," the friend advised, "it's a debut and first-time authors aren't good." That book, by the way, was my friend's fifth manuscript and she also writes for a day job!
People will also make conjectures about your life and your identity. I once saw a Twitter convo in which other Asians freely speculated about why I chose an Imperial Chinese-inspired setting for my book instead of a Vietnamese one to match my exact heritage (she's ashamed! She's social-climbing! She's a racist!). You can't control this. For marginalized authors, microscope-level scrutiny is unfortunately part of the package, often from inside your own community. But you can hope your book will speak for itself, and that readers who enjoy it will generate positive word of mouth.
(2) Do not obsess over numbers you can't control, especially star ratings and book rankings.
Most authors already know not to check Goodreads reviews. Goodreads is not for the author; it is for readers. Also, note that Goodreads is a social media platform and not a retail site, so reviews can sometimes be less about the book and more about what the reviewer might gain (i.e. popularity/notoriety in the form of likes and follows).
I've found that it's really tough to write with readers' voices echoing in my head, even if they loved my work, and it's been difficult to switch up the way I use that site. I still keep track of my reading there, but I now only rate and review books for which I can give glowing recommendations and I avoid my own book's page.
Like Goodreads, Amazon rankings are for customers and they turn on a dime. I've seen my book skyrocket to the upper 10,000s and then plummet to the 200,000s the next day. Trust me, being an unpublished debut is enough of a rollercoaster that you don't need to jump on the Amazon one too!
(3) All the care in the world still won't produce a "perfect" book.
A book goes through many rounds of edits. Between the author, agent, editor, copyeditor, critique partners, beta readers, etc., a finished copy has had dozens of pairs of eyes on it multiple times. Guess what? Little grammar and spelling mistakes still slip through. I am a lifelong perfectionist, telling you perfection is impossible. A finished copy should be the best possible version of the story, but that doesn't mean there won't be any errors because, well, we're human.
Also, authors can take every precaution: hiring sensitivity readers, learning from members of communities represented in our work, and reading books written by members of those communities. But this doesn't absolve us from mistakes. We can still hurt readers inadvertently. I heard JJ give this great analogy in a podcast once: if you accidentally step on someone's foot and break it without meaning to... you still broke their foot. You still need to apologize and you still have things to learn.
That said, it's impossible to please everyone. We are each only one person, with one lens and experience, and we cannot write to suit the exact perspective of every other human being in the world. No community is a monolith, so people within the same groups can have vastly differing life experiences. This can blur the line between "This is truly problematic" and "This is different from what I know." I've seen books furiously called out for "incorrectly" portraying an experience I know the author themselves had, but would rather not share publicly.
Just be prepared, because people online aren't shy about letting you know what they think, and some won't be tactful about it either.
I can't tell you how many other Asian-American writers reached out after a young Chinese author harassed me on Twitter for writing outside of my exact ethnicity and started a vicious smear campaign accusing me of racism and appropriation, without reading a single word of my book. (This was before my advance copies had even been printed.) Everyone confessed how scared they were to write their stories because of what happened to me. "What can I do?" they pleaded. "I don't want to get called out. I don't want people coming after me for being who I am and have my book ripped apart before it's even published."
What I tell them: you and your stories are important. This industry is already hard enough for marginalized writers, without jealous, toxic people trying to keep us down. All we can do is show the utmost care and respect, do our research, and recognize when we have more to learn. Write your book, be true to yourself, and get the proper eyes on it. Do the work. But also remember: no one can meet everyone's standard of perfection or make everyone happy, especially if they decide - for whatever reason - that they don't want to be happy with you. It is unfair to lay this expectation on yourself. No one can write a "perfect" book.
(4) The way you use social media will have to change.
I was a member of the writing community for eight years before I got my book deal. I had a well-known blog where I documented my triumphs and failures, and I was active on Twitter and Facebook. I considered everyone a friend and pretty much followed everyone back.
That has had to change with the increasing attention on me. I've dealt with some extremely stressful situations this year, so suffice it to say, you'll need to start choosing who you interact with more cautiously. I've noticed that relationships move a lot faster on the Internet. You need to set boundaries to protect yourself from those who feel entitled to your time and attention. Follow back at your own risk, know that you do NOT have to respond to every message, and learn to distinguish between people who are truly your friends and people you are merely friendly with. In fact, you can and should start doing this at any time.
Everyone uses social media in a different way, some much more intensely than others. Protect yourself, your time, and your mental health, and unfollow/block anyone who makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable in the slightest. No justification necessary, even when they demand one from you or try to "punish" you for doing what you need to do. (Tip: if sticky stuff happens, like a personal attack, notify your agent and editor immediately and keep screenshots of everything.)
I've seen people on Twitter gripe about authors unfollowing them when they get a book deal, and I too have been privately annoyed about the same thing. But believe me, it's not always "I'm too famous and important for you now." When you're on this side of the fence, you will understand the need to tighten your circle and keep yourself safe.
(5) Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees.
Man, this post is such a downer! But listen... these are only things I wish I'd known before. I would have managed my anxiety better, instead of plummeting into one stress quagmire after another. I'm sharing all of this because I want you to know what to expect, and I want you to know that even with the low points, there are so many more high points to your dream coming true.
There will be readers who fall in love with your book, take gorgeous pictures, write glowing reviews, and shout about it from the rooftops.
There will be people who recognize you in person and tell you how your journey inspired them to keep going.
There will be emails from teens who tell you how much it means to see themselves, at last, as the hero of a book.
And there will be moments when you hug your agent and laugh with your editor and hold your book - YOUR BOOK - in your hands, and you cannot imagine wanting to be anyone else in the world.
There was a moment last month when a Really Big Author announced my release date as their release date, and I let myself worry and feel very sad about it. Talk about peak First World Problems, the Publishing Version. Talk about a big ol' tree when there's a whole forest ahead of me (and I'm just now realizing this metaphor sounds disgustingly cutesy because y'know, my book's about a forest).
But seriously, do not spend so much time staring at the trees - those trees I've told you about in this post - and forget that you are in the damn forest. YOU GOT THERE. YOU DID THE THING. This post is to let you know that the trees are there, so you are aware of them and don't crash head-first into them. And perhaps, if you are very lucky, you may never come across those particular trees at all.
In the end, remember that you are doing what you love. Remember that not everyone gets to do that with their lives. Remember that it will be amazing!