This week we are talking about the differences between expectations and reality when it comes to traditionally publishing. I’ve compiled a run-down of my top three surprises regarding the process but if I had to sum up my debut publishing experience in one word it would be this: intense. The doctor in me feels compelled to point out that my limbic system took a beating this year, whirling around in an exhausting vortex of worry and exhilaration and shame and relief. Both the positive and negative experiences seemed to be an 21 on a scale of 10, but that’s partly because I am excitable by nature. Which leads me to number one on my list…
One thing I’ve figured out about myself is I’m motivated by the shame I feel if I don’t meet my goals. This kind of self-inflicted pressure is positive because it spurs me to achieve a lot, but it is also negative because I stress myself mightily in the process. A few months before publication, my delight in having written a book began to erode into a low-level nervousness that in turn gave way to a persistent, throbbing anxiety. I couldn’t relax. I spent every free moment working on it—answering interview questions or contacting bloggers or designing graphics or ramping up my social media. I had so little control over what was happening (and what was not happening), especially in the area of sales, where there’s a big disconnect between authors and the people actually pitching the story to booksellers. I hate feeling helpless.
Let’s be honest. It’s nearly impossible to hit the trifecta of publishing: professional praise, media saturation, and stratospheric sales. No matter what you wrote, the odds of achieving all three of these goals are dismal unless your book is a lead title at your publisher and /or you have phenomenal luck. Rightly or wrongly, I can’t shake the feeling that my book didn’t live up to people’s expectations in various ways and that sometimes keeps me up at night.
Paradoxically, as I was condemning myself as a failure for not having sold a bazillion books I also began to feel like an extreme narcissist. In the immediate aftermath of publishing I did a lot of interviews, to the point where I became thoroughly sick of myself. I’m not going to apologize for doing them though, because I’m grateful to live in a world where people still care about books. And I won’t pretend that I wasn’t delighted; it was thrilling that anyone had an interest in me or my novel.
It’s weird to emerge from a cave of obscurity into a spotlight, no matter how small. When you offer something creative to the world, it ceases to be yours and becomes everybody’s. And you cease to be private and become this disembodied concept onto which people project their opinions and reactions. It’s intense: a crowd of strangers vomiting judgement all over you. All of which leads me to my next topic…
Even though it’s embarrassing, I am going to admit my biggest misconception about being a published author: I did not foresee that people would hate my book.
Even more painful, I did not foresee that people would want me to know they hate my book.
I like my book. For the longest time no one but me cared about this novel, which granted me the confidence to craft a book I’d enjoy reading if I’d stumbled across it on the shelves. I knew not everyone would like the story but I bumbled into publishing with such an abundance of clueless optimism it never occurred to me anyone would passionately loathe it. Stupid, I know. I am wiser now, but I miss the naiveté of the old me.
You’re supposed to hate social media but I like it. I don’t want to avoid it. But again: intense. Every day since the book’s been released, people have tagged me in their review posts. (Or they skip the middleman and email me directly.) The vast majority of the time this is lovely but sometimes these communications are a hate bomb disguised as a gift. They’re entitled to their reaction, but why is it important to some people to seek an author’s awareness of their contempt for a book?* Or even their mild criticism of a book? Half the time, I read these things and I fizzle into a pathetic heap. Like every other author in the history of publishing, I have a passionate wish to go online and digitally bellow at these people to write their own damn book, and if they manage to do that, to let me review it. For such moments I keep a giant pair of mittens in my desk drawer, which I wear until my sanity returns.
Travel & Global Friendships
I don’t think it’s necessary to travel to promote a book, but I loved doing it. That being said, I’d never have guessed how much time and energy I’d spend on it.** My in-house publicists at Penguin set up some book-signing events for me in various cities, and I sought out and arranged others on my own. Since the book has been published, I’ve also had a surprising number of offers to participate in various public-speaking forums: conferences, lectures, panels, book fairs, leading courses on writing, etc. It’s becoming a nice little side career but I’m not a naturally gifted speaker so I have to work hard on what to say and how I say it.
One of the unexpected upsides of book promotion—both in person and online— is forging friendships with people you’d otherwise never meet. Because we live in a digital age, writing gives you a voice to reach people outside your own circles. This is magical. I’m now friends with male dental students in Albania, an expectant mother in Amsterdam, and a charming book blogger in Austria who were all early champions of my novel, along with a slew of other wonderful people all across the globe. (Especially India. Thank you, India!!) I’ve met other authors—some of my idols—in person. I’ve spoken with more book clubs than I can count and they blow me away with their analysis and insight and straight-up hilarity. For a people person like me, this has far and away been my favorite thing about publishing.
This has also led to an incredibly cool series of photos. I asked my friends and readers to take pictures of my gorgeous book cover wherever they live and travel and the results are stunning: I literally have images from all seven continents. (A sampling below.) Travel is one of my passions so I’m jealous of my book… I flick through these photos and imagine that someday I will visit these places too.
And, of course, when I do, I will write about it.
*For some reason, the harshest criticism often seems to come from the people who received the book for free, so there’s not even the benefit of a sale in these cases. Bleh.
**Side note: authors can incur monumental expenses related to promoting a book. This stacks the deck against anyone who can’t afford to fork over ridiculous sums of money for travel, website and graphic design, advertising, outside publicists, memberships in various literary organizations, etc etc. Unlike many authors, I could set aside a hunk of my advance to devote to this because I’m at a point in my life where I’m financially stable. Most authors can’t live on what they’re paid, let alone go gallivanting around on self-funded book-promotion. I’m fortunate I could supplement what my publisher offered.