There’s nothing like publishing a novel to knock your ego around. This year I lived the dream of publishing a novel. It was released to solid reviews and quickly picked up by the Book of the Month Club. I’ve been invited to read at some amazing places. I’ve confronted and mostly overcome my fear of public speaking. My friends all believe that since I achieved the dream, I am happy.
Truthfully, it’s been a rough and tumultuous year.
Many things went smoothly. Some did not. As a debut novelist, you really are feeling your way in the dark.
Your guides are the agent and the staff at the publishing house, and any book is just one of several projects in the pipeline. Sometimes communication was off, and I was unaware of important aspects of production and marketing. Authors tell the happy stories and keep quiet about the difficult part of the journey. This is America, right? We want our fair share of happy endings. We want to know that hard work pays off, that there is a certain fairness in this industry. I am able to celebrate the success I’ve had, but the purpose of this blog is to take a look behind the scenes and shine light on the realities of publishing a debut.
In retrospect, I realize that much of my frustration was a result of naïve expectations. I believed every book had an equal shot at success. Now I see that publishing houses vary widely in terms of marketing budgets, industry clout, and how they approach business relationships.
If I had it to do over I would take an honest look at my expectations and make a comprehensive list. How many books did I expect in the first edition? How many marketing dollars did I expect to be spent? The only way to deal with expectations is to look at them objectively and attempt to align them with reality. Have an honest discussion with your agent or editor, and educate yourself as to what is possible and what is realistic.
I had great mentors. Through my attendance at several conferences, I made friends with several widely published authors. None of them had an experience exactly like mine, but several had really tough disappointments that they don’t share in public. But over a drink and in a private conversation, you’ll hear some heartbreaking stories. From those stories, I’ve learned just how crucial perseverance is to achieve even the smallest amount of publishing success.
A writer will rarely talk openly about a bad publishing experience. None of us want to look like failures. No one sits alone writing year after year in isolation to finally get a book out into the world only to have it fail. It takes years to get over that. And the process of getting published is intimidating. It’s impossible to describe how vulnerable it feels to walk around Manhattan wearing your heart on your sleeve and rubbing elbows with people who see art as a commodity.
How can you be better prepared? Go back to understanding your expectations. Get out a pen and paper, and write them down! Be honest with yourself. Expectations can be a strength, but left unexamined they are a weakness.
If you have a clear idea of your expectations for you book and career, you will have a better advantage when making difficult choices. For instance, do you need a team that is open and communicating, or would you rather be left out of the process and updated as needed? Do you believe your book has a chance at hitting a best-seller list, or is it nonfiction with a small target audience? Do you see the book as a hardcover, or is it better suited as a paperback? Does the agent have the right connections to publishers with the means to market its potential as a best-seller? If not, then before you sign that contract, you’ll have the insight to have a sit-down with yourself and come to terms with reality.
You need to find an agent with enough publishing experience to read your manuscript and be forthright in estimating a reasonable amount of copies you can expect to sell. Yes, some books are home-runs, but ninety-nine percent are not. Authors who sell, who have a history of moderately successful books, only make about ten thousand dollars a year. Add to that the fact that most books don’t earn out their advance. Again, knowing your own private expectations will go a long way to keeping an even keel.
Finding the right agent is the first key in the process and definitely the hardest part for new writers. Reputation and word of mouth are sometimes the only resources available. Even if you meet with an agent, get a good vibe and hit it off, do the research. Scour online sites and look through forums. Join Authors Guild and ask for references. Pay attention to any and all red flags. An agent who promises you the world and a wealth of resources, who doesn’t challenge or help you set realistic expectations, will be the agent who loses interest in your work when the next shiny thing floats into his orbit. But, by then, that will be okay. By then, you will be far more aware of the business and far more informed about putting your art into the world.
Gale Massey lives in St. Petersburg, FL. Her stories have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Walking the Edge, Sabal, Seven Hills Press, and other journals. She has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships at The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Writers in Paradise, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Girl From Blind River is her debut novel.
Read earlier installments from THE SET-UP, right here.