We’re starting to get applications for the five spots we’ll soon vacate here on the Ball, so this seemed an appropriate time for a cautionary tale or two for our successors, and anyone else on the cusp of their debut novel year. The five of us largely blundered our way through this experience like drunkards in the dark, relying on internet forums and obsessive Googling to figure out how this publishing thing works, so maybe we can —
Oh screw it. We could probably write a book about publishing a book at this point; there’s so much to know and to tell. But this is a 750-word blog post. So instead, I think I’ll offer some very general suggestions on how to navigate the process with grace and as much sanity as possible.
Rule One: Remember the Golden Rule
This is probably the single most important advice I can give a debut author, because the literary world is small. The publishing industry has always been cult-like in its insularity, but now the internet has cut the six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon rule in half even for writers. If you’re active on social media, you already know somebody who knows somebody who knows Jonathan Franzen. Being part of such an interconnected community carries with it certain civic obligations. We’re all dependent on self-promotion to support our books, so being a good literary citizen means retweeting other authors’ reviews, events, and news, showing up at their readings if they’re local, and congratulating them on their successes. As a new author, you’ll also find yourself in a position to share advice with people a couple of steps behind you, whether it’s as a beta reader or explaining the querying process over coffee. Extend that hand as often as you can. Not only will doing these kindnesses redound to you in the form of grateful writers promoting your book when your time comes, but it turns out your mother was right all along: doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is just the right thing to do.
Rule Two: Say Thank You, A Lot
This is the other side of Rule One. Along the road to publication, many people are going to do nice things for you. Your friends are going to pre-order your book. People you haven’t seen since high school will arm-twist their book clubs into reading it. Strangers will retweet your post about that great review you just got. Other authors will give generously of their scarce time to read your book and write something nice for your cover. All these people deserve your copious and immediate thanks, as do the people who work at your publishing house. Buying your book may have been a business decision made by an editorial board, but it’s the folks in the trenches — the publicist, the marketer, your editor, your editor’s assistant, the art department, the list goes on — who get up every day and go to work for your book, usually for not much money. Your agent, too, who has your back and works much harder than the 15% she’s going to make on your sales would seem to justify. Thank them all the time. When the book publishes, send them a gift and thank them again.
Rule Three: Take Nothing for Granted
The fact that you have a book deal is nothing short of a miracle. Yes, you finished a novel, which is something only 4% of those who start novels actually manage to do. It’s apparently pretty good, because you found an agent and then a publisher. But for every good book that makes it to the bookshelf, there are a thousand good books that, for whatever vagaries of market and timing and luck, don’t get that far. And honestly, a lot of those unpublished books are probably better than yours. Don’t ever let yourself feel anything but fortunate — Powerball-winning levels of fortunate — to be where you are. You do deserve it. But you also owe a lot to luck.
Rule Four: Don’t Take Yourself, or Your Book, Too Seriously
This is something of a corollary of the above. Just because you have a publishing deal, don’t go thinking you’re some literary badass and your book is the next TO THE LIGHTHOUSE. You and your book are not those things. You have written a 350-page piece of entertainment that people will read for ten hours of their lives. Hopefully it will make them laugh and cry, and care about what happens to your characters. Hopefully it will linger for a while, and make them think about life or love or family or war or whatever you’re writing about in a different way after they’ve read it. But please, don’t fool yourself into thinking you are going to set the world on fire with your novel. That way lies madness — madness that takes the form of belaboring every word and exhausting your editor with endless discussions about how, yes, you know the plot is confusing, but you’re trying to challenge the reader! Write the very best book you can, but understand that you are not the second coming of James Joyce. Unless, of course, you are. In which case, be humble about it.
Rule Five: Have Fun
Finally: strap on your seatbelt and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be challenging, exhilarating, joyous, fraught, and perilous. Bad things await you, from getting a cover design you loathe to getting panned by Kirkus. Great things await you, too, like that fabulous review you’ll get in Publisher’s Weekly that will make you forget about Kirkus, and the buzz your book will get in certain corners of the internet that will make you grin like an idiot. Then, at the end of it all, a box will land on your porch, and inside will be a bunch of copies of the book you wrote, all bound and crisp and smelling like paper, and even the cover you loathed will look beautiful.
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