What NOT to Expect as a Debut Author

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.”


Revisions and Edits and Facts, Oh My!

As my debut novel, So Shelly, enters the final stages before actually going to press, one of the most pleasant surprises for me has been how much I’ve enjoyed the revision process. Each occasion on which the manuscript has passed from my hands to my editors’ and back to my own has afforded me the opportunity to do just that: re-envision the story through fresh eyes. With each new look, the settings, characters, plots, and themes have been tweaked and refined to such an extent that, today, the novel is a much different and much improved text from the one I pitched to agents a year ago. I’ve shared many times that if Random House would let me, I would probably continue to re-vision this one novel for the entirety of my career.

I can’t say, however, that I have acquired an equal enthusiasm for the art of copyediting/proofreading. Both of these processes, which entail the meticulous examination of the text for errors in usage, grammar, plausibility, consistency of tense and mood, and an exhaustive checking of facts, among many other things, are painstaking and, for me, stressful. Last night, for example, I woke in a panic when I realized that there was a small factual error in the “first pass pages” that I’d just returned to my publisher. Few readers would have noticed the error and it would have had no bearing on the story; however, I knew it was there and it would have remained a perpetual “small spot of bother” if it was left uncorrected. Upon the realization of my error, I rushed downstairs and spent nearly two hours researching to verify that, in fact, I had made a mistake; rewriting the paragraph in which it occurred; and finally composing an email to my editors notifying them of the needed changes. The thing is, I had read that paragraph, literally hundreds of times already, yet I had missed it until, for some reason, it rose to my consciousness. Now, I’m paranoid with the fear that other inaccuracies have been left uncorrected. No wonder I suffer from growing insomnia.

With that fear and stress acknowledged, however, it’s these “unsexy stages” of the publishing process that more than any other can elevate a good novel to the level of a great one or, at least, prevent a good novel from being tainted by amateurish errors. The editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders are, without question, the most underappreciated artists in the entire process. It is precisely due to their absence that a large number of self-published texts appear amateurish in comparison to those thoroughly vetted during the traditional road to publication.

Now, just over six months to publication date, I simultaneously yearn for and dread the day that the story is permanently set in type and printed. On that day there will be no more “do-overs” or opportunities to edit the manuscript. However, with absolute faith in my editors, with the knowledge of my own exhaustive efforts, and with no claim on perfection, I am completely confident that So Shelly will pass any and all tests of its entertainment value and legitimacy.

The Doldrums

The Doldrums is a region of the Atlantic Ocean near the equator that experiences frequent bouts of such calm and light winds that, prior to the advent of mechanical engines, a sailing vessel might find itself, in the words of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “a painted ship upon a painted ocean.” I reference this geographical anomaly to describe my mental state as I reach the almost halfway point between last fall’s signing with my agent and my debut novel’s pub date next February. The whirlwind excitement of those first months has given way to anxious anticipation; however, I at this juncture, both of those bookends seem a million years distant.

I don’t mean to whine; I know the waiting is a reality in the glacial pace of mainstream publishing. Throughout the editing, cover design, and typesetting processes, I have even come to understand the reasons and wisdom for the deliberateness. This understanding, however, provides little relief for my childlike impatience. I find myself wishing away months; although, I’ve reached an age where months are measured in smaller and smaller spoons, and I should know better than to wish away a moment –much less months. Nor do I for a second under-appreciate the good fortune I have experienced to be allowed this “suffering,” and I am fully aware that many would (many have) given everything to be in my predicament.

By way of update, I’m waiting on a final cover and for the manuscript of SO SHELLY to be set into pages. My editor is insanely busy (as editors always are) with the many other titles she is currently handling whose publication dates precede my own and, understandably, has little time to babysit me, nor do I expect her to do so. Regardless, I’m left feeling as if I and Shelly are getting nowhere fast.

So, in search of an antidote, I’ll throw myself once more into the penning of novel number two and remain on ever-vigilant watch for fairer winds to blow.