Before I got my book deal, I spent a lot of time reading author blogs so I could be Prepared-with-a-Capital-P if I ever sold a book. I listened as writers waxed poetic over their agents, praised their editors’ wisdom, and wept with joy as they held their ARCs for the first time and saw their books on shelves. And when my turn came to do those things, I was 100% ready for how awesome they were going to be.
All those authors were right. Those experiences were pretty much the best. I have done my fair share of poetic waxing and joyful weeping. But I’ve also done my fair share of looking bewildered and wondering what on earth was happening, because there are a lot of things about the publishing industry that I was not prepared for at all.
Here are nine things I wish someone had told me before my book landed on shelves:
1) Selling a book does not necessarily make it easier to sell more books in the future.
RED’s submission process took five weeks, and at the time, that felt like an eternity. I didn’t do much eating or sleeping. I developed a Pavlovian panic response to the email alert sound on my phone. When the book “finally” sold, I remember thinking how glad I was that I’d never have to go through such a harrowing process again—now that I had been deemed “legitimate,” it would be much easier to sell everything else I wrote in the future, right?
Wrong. Since then, I’ve been through an eight-month submission process that was ultimately unsuccessful. Every book is different, has different problems, and will be difficult to sell for different reasons, regardless of what you’ve accomplished so far. I mean, unless you’re J.K. Rowling. Then pretty much anything goes.
2) Book launch week is fantastic, but the month leading up to it is not.
As you approach your publication day, nearly everyone you know will call/email/text you to say, “OH MY GOD, YOUR BOOK COMES OUT SO SOON! Are you SO EXCITED?” And you WILL be excited… but you will also be terrified. You’ll likely spend a lot of time wondering whether people will like your work and musing about how it won’t really belong to you anymore. Your trade reviews will start coming in, and they won’t all be stellar. You will have a miles-long to-do list that never gets shorter, and you will probably feel more overwhelmed than excited. This is normal. I don’t know anyone who had a pleasant month leading up to launch day. Four weeks before RED’s pub day, I ran into Rebecca Stead at an event and got to chat with her for a few minutes. When I told her my book was coming out soon, she said, “Oh, so this is Nausea Month.” Rebecca Stead feels it too, you guys, and she’s freaking Rebecca Stead.
3) As ridiculous as it sounds, postpartum book launch depression is real.
My book launch week was so insanely fun that I kind of expected to ride the adrenaline wave for months, bouncing off the walls with joy and churning out new writing like a machine. Instead, the adrenaline lasted until the following Tuesday, when it was suddenly someone else’s turn to celebrate a new release and my book was no longer the super-special birthday girl. You spend so much time preparing for your book release that it’s extremely weird to see everyone else moving on with their lives afterward like nothing happened. It’s also disconcerting to find that your own life doesn’t change that much, after the initial publicity push is done. I spent a good two weeks after my launch lying on my couch in a stupor, mainlining Netflix and stuffing my face with cookies, unable to motivate myself to do anything. All my writer friends experienced this postpartum period a little differently, but it was hard for everyone.
4) Once you’re published, people will constantly ask you about your finances without even realizing they’re doing it.
Pretty much every friend I’ve talked to since my pub day has asked, “So, how’s the book selling?” Nobody seems to realize they’re basically asking how much money I’m making, something they’d never ask me about a salaried nine-to-five job. Fortunately, I have absolutely no idea how my book is selling, and that’s what I tell them. But even when I do know, I will probably continue to say I don’t, since that’s a lot easier than saying, “You know that’s kind of rude, right?”
5) You don’t get your whole advance at once.
Every contract is different, and I’m not sure I’m allowed to discuss the details of mine, even if I wanted to. But advance payments always come in parts, and if you have a multi-book deal, you almost definitely won’t see some of that money for two to three years after signing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did come as a surprise to me.
6) If you get a two-book deal, your publisher is not obligated to publish the second thing you write. They’re just obligated to publish something else you write.
I know several people who have turned in their second contracted books only to have their editors say, “No thanks, write me something else.” Those rejected manuscripts might very well be published by different houses someday, but contractually, those authors can’t submit elsewhere until they’ve delivered second books their editors do like. This didn’t exactly happen to me—my second book has the same setup and main characters as the first draft I turned in. But I did have to rewrite all but the first ten thousand words from scratch, as I discussed in this post. Sadly, a contract does not make the specific book you’re writing a sure thing.
7) It is very easy to lose perspective on the quality of your work, especially when you’re writing under deadline, and the actual writing process never gets easier.
That second book I just mentioned? I have absolutely no idea if it’s any good. My editor and my agent are pleased with it, and my critique partners reacted well. But what do I think? Not a clue. A first draft usually takes me about six months to write, but because of my deadline, I had to rewrite that one in ten weeks, and there just wasn’t any time to step away and mull before it flew into copyedits. I’ve probably read the entire book twenty times, but it has lost all meaning for me. Next month, when I’ll review my first pass pages, will be the first time I’ve looked at it since July, and I’m hoping it’ll be a totally different experience.
Counting the books that will never see the light of day, I’m working on my fifth novel now, and writing hasn’t gotten any less terrifying than it was when I first started writing books in 2007. Every day is scary. Actually, it feels significantly scarier now, since I have all kinds of expectations for myself that I didn’t have six years ago. Yesterday I was listening to an episode of Sara Zarr’s “This Creative Life” in which she interviewed Sarah Dessen, a New York Times-bestselling author with eleven published books, and she voiced the exact same concerns. It seems like this should be discouraging, but instead, I found it very comforting. I know Sarah Dessen’s not doing this whole “being a writer” thing wrong, so if she feels just like I do, it’s possible I’m not doing it wrong, either.
8) Even if you are reasonably successful, you will feel jealous a lot of the time.
I’m not just talking about being jealous of super-successful authors of books you hate—that will happen, but you’ll also be jealous of authors you think genuinely deserve their accolades. You’ll be jealous of your friends. You’ll be jealous of that guy you met at a party once whose adult science fiction is selling really well, even though you write contemporary middle grade. You’ll be jealous of people who end up on awards lists for which you’re not even eligible. Before you get a book deal, the dream is to get a book deal. But once you’ve done that, the dream grows and expands, and it’s very hard to be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. Something is always just out of reach, and anyone who manages to get their hands on it before you do will probably piss you off a little.
9) The writing community is way, way more supportive than you think, and that makes everything bearable.
Writers are often stereotyped as being hermetic, unpleasant, competitive people, and those are the kinds of people I thought I’d find when I tentatively joined the young adult community. I could not possibly have been more wrong. Veteran authors immediately reached out and held my hand through my submission process. Fellow debut writers turned into incredibly close friends, some of whom I now talk to every day. During tough times, total strangers wrote me long, supportive emails, detailing their personal experiences and letting me know they’d suffered similar disappointments and come out the other side. Sure, it’s still a competitive industry, and I don’t get along with everyone. But overall, I have never met a kinder group of people, and I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through everything I wrote about above without talking each step through with them. The publishing industry has made me feel a lot of things, but because of my fellow writers, it has never once made me feel alone.
Melani Grube says
Thank you for posting this heads up. The information is so valuable, but even more impressive were your candor and humanity.
Allison McMillan says
This was both comforting and a good dose of reality to read. I've been finished my YA manuscript for a year now including re-writes and edits and I'm still terrified to release it to the world, er, I mean, beg for an agent. I've gotten lots of good feeback from people and writers in the industry and I'm still terrified. Thank you for posting this.
Cat Winters says
Yes to all of this!!! I especially wish I'd known about the postpartum book depression before it hit me. I had no idea what was wrong with me the Tuesday after my book released.
Thanks for summarizing everything in a wonderful, entertaining post!
MRS N says
Wow, this is so insightful and I thank you for being so honest! I am in the process of querying agents/publishers and I know that the publishing world is full of ups and downs. Excellent advice too! 🙂
Jana Oliver says
Love this. However, #6 can be avoided if you have *very* tight language in your contract that if they turn down the next book, you're out of there, free to do as you choose. Which is, as you point out, start the process all over again. 😉
Elizabeth Wein says
So, so true. And the reason you *don't* hear about these things is because it's very bad form for an author to whine about them online, even in a general sense. That is NOT an accusation – you have articulated these issues very gracefully! So many times I have wanted to complain, flag problems, point fingers, grumble, but have kept my various issues to myself because even the vaguest of complaints could look like specific accusations when you're in the middle of a contract battle or your books have been remaindered or whatever. I am sitting here feeling bad that I *haven't* shared my post-publication experience with new authors more generously! THANK YOU for "outing" these industry secrets with such good humor and diplomacy.
cheers, Elizabeth Wein
Jenn Baker (@jbakernyc) says
Fantastic post. I've heard some of these things from friends who recently pubbed this year and authors I've worked with who will admit (in hushed tones) the reality on the other side. And for us non-pubbed people there's that realization that not everything is "golden" once you do get a book deal and then published. Things change and the process becomes part of a business as well. So, I hope you still get joy from your writing and that many people get joy from YOUR writing as well. Thanks for sharing this!
Thank you for writing this. Fwiw, I broke out into a smile as I read #9.
Synithia W says
Funny, as I was reading this article somone asked me how my book is doing. Everything on this list is so true!
This is so great, so honest, so far -very true to my experience. Thank you for sharing!
Diana Peterfreund says
Great post! All this stuff is very, very true and I hope people pay attention to it.
I'm wondering now which blogs you read though, or what kind of filtering system may have been unconsciously in place. For nearly ten years, I've been blogging about many of these issues, and what I've discovered is that people either ignore that stuff (flowcharts and calendars about how advances are doled out or even announcements of "here's how many rejections I've gotten on ideas from my editor") or they even give you a hard time about it.
A year ago, I saw a post from a debut author who I actually knew really well, in real life, who I'd counseled and critiqued with before she even got an agent, who I met with in real life on a monthly basis, who claimed that no one ever told her XYZ about the biz before she was published. And I knew it wasn't true. I knew I had told her. But I really think sometimes it's hard to hear that stuff, even if you're listening, and it's easy to forget/overlook/ignore… or even think that's not going to be YOUR story.
E.C. Myers says
Great list, and so true. Now whenever my co-workers ask me, "So, how's the book selling?" my answer is, "Well, I'm still here."
Saundra Mitchell says
Holly Black once said that if you stay in publishing long enough, every bad thing that can possibly happen to an author will happen to you. It makes me feel better to repeat that when things go wrong, because it makes me feel less alone. It also makes it easier to keep the good things in perspective!
Lawrence Watt-Evans says
I used to call #3 "post-auctorial depression." For me, it comes in two stages — one when I've finished the novel and sent it off and it's too late to change it but I come to the horrible realization (usually not true) that it sucks, that I've just wasted months writing the turkey that's going to kill my career.
That fades over time, but then the second stage is when the book's published, as you describe.
As for other authors being supportive, that never surprised me. Other authors aren't your competition — reading a good book makes you that much more likely to buy more books. It's not like buying a washing machine, where buying Brand A means you won't buy Brand B or C; if you liked Author A, why wouldn't you try Author B or Author C, when they're there on the same shelf?
And other authors understand what you're doing, which 90% of the population really doesn't. So yeah, we support each other.
But #2 — I never got that, not really. Different personalities, I guess.
And on #7, while I agree it's easy to lose perspective, for me the actual writing did get easier.
Like, after fifteen or twenty years of writing full-time.
So hang in there!
Kell Andrews says
Love this one —> "You’ll be jealous of people who end up on awards lists for which you’re not even eligible."
There is just NO COMPARISON between books or careers, and my being irrationally jealous of Booker or RITA winners reminds me that it's just as irrational to be jealous of other writers in my genre.
Natalia Sylvester says
Thanks so much for writing this, Alison. I just realized my book is 6 months away exactly from its pub date, and though I've learned some of these things along the way, others like #3 and #6 are things I hadn't really considered.
But I couldn't agree more about the writing community. This industry can feel insane sometimes, but the support of other writers is what keeps me calm and in the moment, ready to enjoy every step of the way.
I. W. Gregorio says
Oh, thank you for this blog post, Alison. I'm going to bookmark it and read it every week in the next two years and spread it as gospel among the other Fearless Fifteeners!
Now I feel a little more Prepared-with-a-Capital-P myself! Thanks for the heads up. I'll be thinking of you as I go through #3 and my own Netflix marathon next June. *grin*
This is great, thank you so much! I'm working on my first book and I love realistic glimpses into my possible future.
Elizabeth Wein says
oh, and point No. 10. No matter how wildly successful your book is, NOT EVERYONE IS GOING TO LOVE IT. People have different reading tastes. Do not take negative reviews to heart unless there is something constructive there which you can apply to your future writing. Seriously – SOME PEOPLE WON'T LIKE WHAT YOU WRITE. You have to accept this and not let it bother you.
Point No. 9 is the BEST PART OF THE TRADE!
Alison Cherry says
Thank you all so much for your comments! You make some excellent points. I'm lucky to have such wise and astute readers! 🙂
Deborah Holt Williams says
Fabulous article! I can relate to always wanting something out of reach. Years ago, it was my dream to have my writing appear in Highlights magazines. Now I should be thrilled and totally satisfied that I recently sold them my 11th piece and they're considering a 12th, but I so want a picture book published! Glad to hear this is a common phenomenon.
Jennifer M. Hartsock says
This post is very insightful — even if it's disappointing to hear as an aspiring author who is SO excited about marketing my novel and having discussions about it. But, I believe that, although this is a business, writing should first be a passion that is powerful and fulfilling independent of attention or big sales. If you really enjoyed the process of writing, and believe in what it can teach other people, then you have done your work successfully.
Sandra Block says
This is great. I'm still giggling at "you know that's kind of rude, right?"
Vicky Lorencen says
Thank you for being so transparent.
Shari Green says
Excellent post. 🙂
Shoshanna Evers says
What a great post!
It took me ten years from the time I finished writing my first novel to get published (in 2010, with a different novel, natch). After ten years of my big dream only being to "get published," once it happened the dreams started getting bigger, and bigger.
Each time I hit a new milestone I find myself wanting something else that's just out of reach… I hit my goal of being able to be a full-time writer, but now I want to hit a list. I can't even *imagine* what I'll strive for after that happens, but I'm sure I'll see one of my author friends doing something amazing and I'll think, "Gosh, if I could just be like her…"
It never ends, LOL! Thank God the publishing community is so amazing and supportive! 🙂 Thanks for writing this.
Absolutely yes to every one of these! I'm fifty books into my career and the yeses on this list never change.
Elizabeth Foster says
Thanks so much. Your article was really helpful in managing expectations for the road ahead.
Jen Malone says
I'm so glad you decided to post all of this- you found the perfect way to hit on these truths and I think you've just helped a TON of authors out. As a lucky CP who read both the scrapped and the new version of FOR REAL, I predict you are going to be grinning like a fool when you read those first pass pages next month. It rocks!
Jen Doktorski says
Thank you for this post, Allison! I wish I'd read something like this before I published. It's so candid and spot-on. A writer friend and I were just discussing that authors aren't always completely honest about their experiences. It's similar to getting other parents to open up about what parenthood is REALLY like. So thank you! This is so refreshing.
Lana Button says
Great post! I could see myself many times!
Chris Cannon says
Great article. I'm anxiously awaiting my first round of edits and all that comes after. Good to know that other authors go through all the same stress.
Bish Denham says
I was on a wonderful writer's retreat with Jane Yolen as our teacher. Even she still gets rejections.
Gregory Van Acker says
THANK YOU FOR THIS.
Phoebe Fox says
What a great post–thank you, Alison! My first book is due to drop in June, and I can't tell you how grateful I was to read this, if only to feel more prepared for the emotional side effects, not just the nuts and bolts concretes that I'm concentrating on now. Thanks especially for #9. I do hear some writers talk about the competitiveness of other authors, and I've never agreed–I also think the writing community is largely so supportive. A rising tide lifts all boats. Love this post and will share it.
Carey Corp says
Thank you Cherry for such an insightful, humorous, and candid post.
I would add point No. 11: Now that you are a published author, you are not allowed to make punctuation or grammatical errors or typos ever again. Tumblrs, Facebook posters and Twitter tweeters beware! Any transgression becomes an indictment against your published work and professional credibility. (And yes BTDubs, I'm on the 16th draft of this comment.)
You should totally follow this post with THINGS I KNEW BETTER THAN TO DO BUT DID ANYWAY: like checking Goodreads 1-star reviews or physically going store by store on release day to verify my book on shelf. Or the multitude of quasi-needy, apologetic emails (reminiscent of Mike and Nikki's phone relationship in SWINGERS) you leave for your editor after turning in your rushed second manuscript. 🙂
Saundra – I love that saying from Holly Black. I heard Nora Roberts say a very similar thing. It's very comforting to know others are going through the same struggles.
I love point No. 9. The YA community is especially wonderful and supportive. It's a blessing to have such great allies in the trenches of this insane industry!
Liz Coley says
This post should become a classic. Brilliant and oh so true.
Here's another candidate for number ten: Your first line of fans may not come through in the way you had hoped. Many of your best friends and avid supporters and even relatives, who anxiously awaited your release, may take months to get around to buying and reading your book. Some will tell you how many of their friends they lent it to because they loved it so much. Some will even check it out of the library and tell you so with great glee. While we all love our libraries and believe in sharing books, once you become a content producer, you can't help but hear the loss of a potential sale (which sounds kind of like molars grinding) in their congratulations. This isn't because we are money grubbers, but because we want numbers that will please our publishers.
CD Coffelt says
Holy Talking Cats! This is so true. Every point. Especially #3, postpartum book launch. So unreal.
Author of Wilder Mage at Spirit Called
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Nicola Morgan says
VERY true in every respect!
Victoria Montes says
I enjoyed you blog a lot and love your voice in the piece.
Claire M. Caterer says
Alison, Alison, Alison … thank God I am not alone. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me how my book is selling. And how much I experienced everything on your list. I agree with Elizabeth Wein–we're all on different paths, but oh, how hard it is to internalize that! (And geez, Elizabeth, WHO didn't like your books? Let me pound them. Hard.) Thank you, Alison, for making us all feel a bit less like freaks.
Gail Gallant says
So it's not just me? Thank goodness! Just published my debut YA novel three months ago and this is the first time I've read a candid first-hand account of the emotional rollercoaster. How I long for some kind of 'zen' state of mind to see me through it, but so far, no such luck.
Ali Elle Morris says
Excellent post, thanks so much for sharing your experiences and advice, this is a great comfort to me 🙂
Allison McMillan says
All aspiring new authors should read this! Excellent advice and insight. Thank you!