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:
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.