Now that my novel, SO SHELLY, has been on shelves for over six months, it’s time to look back at the past half year and share what I’ve learned about being a debut novelist with a major publisher. I doubt that my actual experiences will match the high expectations that most have. For example, I’m constantly referred to by others as the “famous author” (I wish, then maybe I wouldn’t still be doing my own laundry, cleaning my own bathrooms, mowing my own lawn, etc.), and people often ask how my life has changed? (Answer: Not much.) The reality is that very little of the past six months has matched my idealistic hopes, dreams, and expectations of life after publication. I do believe, however, that my experience is the norm; although, I’m sure there are those lucky few whose first novels skyrocket them to fortune and fame. All I know for sure is that from the high of being chosen by the American Booksellers Association as one of 2011’s top “New Voices” to the low of having not a single person show up for a library reading, I wouldn’t trade a step of the journey.
Below, in bold, are ten experiences regarding which many debut novelists often have mistaken notions. After each is the reality as I have experienced it and my advice for future novices in the world of publishing.
Reviews in national magazines or USA Today: Be thrilled if you are reviewed in trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Scrivener and to be featured in any blog, hometown newspaper, alumni magazine etc. that is willing to give you the space. If they don’t come to you, seek them out. Sell your publishing success story to them. Those types of publications are proud to report the “local boy does good” story.
A large windfall of income: Don’t quit your day job, especially if your health benefits and retirement savings are tied to that job. After expenditures, I will have spent more money on my writing career this year than I will have earned.
A free editorial pass on your second book or for the writing of it to come easier: It is much more difficult with your second effort to earn an editor’s approval. She knows that for the good of your career, your sophomore effort must be much better than your first, for an underselling second book can be the kiss-of-death for an author’s career. Remember: very few writers are ever given a single opportunity at the publishing plate, and ach swing-and-miss greatly reduces the probability of getting an additional turn at-bat.
To be recognized everywhere you go. If you’re writing for the correct reasons, relative anonymity is what you should hope for. Remember: it’s about the book, not the author. The title of “author-celebrity” should be an oxymoron. I know of very few authors who are comfortable in the celebrity role, and those who are typically pump out trite, formulaic work of transitory value.
Copies of your book in the majority of bookstores nationwide. Bookstores can be very fickle and independent regarding the books they choose to stock. It’s actually very hit-and-miss as to whether or not a bookstore will stock your book, and oftentimes, a single copy is all they have. Be grateful for any and all of the valuable shelf real estate your book may occupy.
Book tours. My in-house publicist all-but-discouraged a book tour – even one of my own arranging and at my own expense. In fact, you must be your own publicist regarding the vast majority of personal promotion. I’ve arranged all of my own book signings, readings, lectures, and book fair appearances, and I’ve purchased the bookmarks and post cards to advertise my novel.
To grace bestseller lists. Anymore, I’m thrilled when my book climbs into Amazon’s top 100,000, even for an hour or two.
Your agent to be at your beckoning call: The fact is that you are, most likely, one among her diverse array of clients, many of whom are at more critical junctures in the publishing process than you, now that your book is out and on shelves. Expect to be in communication with her on an “as needed” basis.
Constant kudos from your editor/publisher: Similar to your agent, your editor has a stable of authors she represents. They are the most overworked and underappreciated cogs in the publishing machine. Don’t expect frequent updates on sales of your book or a steady stream of congratulatory notes. My advice is always to let your editor make first contact. Like your agent again, she will share any news to which you need to be privy. Trust me, she is not keeping secrets.
That’s one writer’s experience. I suggest you file it under “For What It’s Worth.”