You made it!
The first miracle is you finished your book. Go, you! The second is a publisher made you an offer: Your book is being published. Wow!
Now, once your adrenaline settles back down, you’re over your hangover, and you’ve stopped singing (if that’s the verb) Queen’s We are the Champions in your underwear, you need to take a deep breath and prepare yourself. These are no kiddies’ wading pools, my friend. These are deep, mysterious waters. Some of them have sharks.
The first thing to realise is nothing, I mean nothing, is the way you expected. Now don’t try to kid me that you weren’t expecting anything, really. I know you had visions of a huge party, the town erecting a marquee with your name in lights, the three-book deal and the enormous advance, your loved ones suddenly treating you with the respect you deserve. Money, fame, adulation… you had it all sussed. Don’t kid a kidder. I know how your mind works.
It’s the way my mind works.
My first slight splash of cold water was the acceptance letter from my publisher. It wasn’t a formal letter embossed with gold delivered by a liveried footman. There was no litany of praise for my immortal prose. Instead I got a business-like e-mail saying, “Looks good. Let’s aim to put it on the autumn release list…”
Wait… Was that an acceptance?
Lesson number one: Your publisher isn’t your pal.
Don’t get me wrong, I like my publisher and I think we have a good working relationship. He keeps me informed, makes good on his promises, and pays my royalties on time. I don’t need to sit in a scented garden and have him braid my hair. (Actually, that would be kinda creepy.) We’re business partners, not chums. And you know what, it’s better that way. I need him to be honest with me, not pander to my ego, or hide harsh truths from me.
Next came the contract. No advance; this is a very small, indie publisher. Royalties are at the lowest end of the scale. No book tour, no TV appearances, no full-page ads in The Times. Those waters I mentioned can be pretty chilly. On the other hand, I have a say in every step of the publishing process. I had input into my book’s cover design. And when I did arrange publicity on my own, my publisher was supportive.
“Publication is a marathon, not a sprint. Writing the book is only the start.” — Jo Linsdell
Lesson number two: Everything’s a trade-off.
I can only speak to my own experience, of course, but I suspect there are trade-offs in every type of publishing, self, indie or traditional. Of course, you really only get to choose between self- or not. You might decide ahead of time that you will accept publication in one of the Big Five publishing companies and nothing else will do. (Pause here while I laugh hysterically. No, just go make a cup of tea or something. I’ll be all right in a minute…)
Still with me? No, I’m fine, thanks. Where was I? Oh yes, your choices re submissions.
Of course, you can submit to only those big publishers, or insist your agent do so. I wish you luck. I mean, they do accept submissions from new authors and why shouldn’t your manuscript be one of them?
I started on that route myself. The traditional agent-first approach, I mean. The good news was all the agents who read my sample chapters loved them. They said I wrote very well and wished me luck. This was encouraging. They also said they didn’t think there was a wide-enough market for a new Sherlock Holmes story, which was not. The defining moment was when one ‘expert’ told me Sherlock Holmes stories weren’t being published any more.
I suppose she hadn’t seen my bookcase.
At that point, I decided to investigate what publishers were producing Holmes books. The name that came up most often was MX. So, they’re not Penguin or Hatchett. They’re comparatively new and have a small stable of writers. This wasn’t the route I’d planned, but in hindsight I’m really happy it worked out this way. I have direct access to my publisher, a say in how my book is published and marketed, and far more control than the ‘Big Five’ would give me. It’s all good.
Lesson Number Three: The day will come when you hate your work.
My contract said I was responsible for revisions. Your contract will too.
In my foolishness — ah, was I ever so naive? — I thought an editor would tidy up my prose and I’d just have to approve a few tiny changes.
That did happen. Sort of. There was an editor and she did make suggestions, but I hadn’t realised just how many there would be. So I revised. And revised. And revised.
You won’t believe how sick you’ll get of your own work. This week, I’ve been approving the formatting and final text of my new novel (Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman due out November 4th, in case you’d forgotten.)
The novel is perfect. I think.
I spent months writing it and even longer revising it. I’ve proof-read it six times now. My volunteer readers, bless them, have also read it three times. And guess what, in my second-last review I still found a few uh-ohs. Two of them major howlers . In one case I completely changed the name of a character. In the second I dropped a letter making the sense of word completely daft. I am convinced some sort of prose-imps invade my work the minute I close the document.
I know they say there’s no such thing as a perfect manuscript, but I really wanted this new book to be as nearly-perfect as I can make it. When the time came to hit the send e-mail approving that final, final copy, it was with some trepidation. And by now I am completely sick of the wretched thing. Don’t worry though, the love will return as soon as I have my author’s copies in my sweaty little hand.
You’ll come to hate your book too. By the time you’ve re-read it for the ninth or tenth time, you’ll be able to recite great chunks of it by heart. You’ll start to wonder why anyone would read this drivel. You question your sanity, your talent, and your publisher’s taste.
Don’t worry. You’ll get over it.
Lesson number four: People’s reactions will astonish you.
You think you know people. I mean, you’re a writer, so analysing others is something of your stock in trade, right? Boy, are you ever wrong!
I knew my friends would be thrilled, that was a given. And so they were. But there were other people, family members and neighbours, who were, at best, indifferent. They sniffed and said, “Oh, that’s nice,” when I told them the book I’d been writing for years was finally being published.
‘Nice’ is just a flame away from hell.
Someone that I really expected to be thrilled for me turned out to be one of the ‘Nice’ people. I later learned she had decided to self-publish her own book around the same time I signed my contract. I can only assume she felt I’d stolen her thunder. I’m guessing because she hasn’t spoken to me since.
But most people were genuinely thrilled. I was hugged more in the week the book was released than in the previous three years put together. I got cards and letters of congratulations. I got flowers.
Expect to be surprised at people’s responses. Expect joy, wonder, disbelief, resentment and fury because you’ll encounter all of them.
Expect people to look you over and and ask, in slightly mocking tones, where your limo is and if you know Stephen King. ‘Cos, hey, that’s what an author is, right?
And expect people to ask you how much money you’re making. If you can spare a few hundred to tide them over. Followed by a sceptical, “I thought you said you had a book out?” when you tell them you’re still skint.
My professional, published-author analysis: Folks is weird.
Lesson number five: Don’t expect to retire on your royalties
I read recently that most royalty cheques for first books are a mere three figures. And two of them are after the decimal point. That proved to be an exaggeration in my case.
A slight exaggeration.
Obviously, some people do make a fortune from their books, even their first ones. No reason you can’t be the one lightning strikes. Just don’t put a down-payment on a London penthouse just yet. Unless you’re already, you know, rich.
Lesson number six: The three-book contract comes with a price
Because my first novel was published by a small, independent company I knew it wouldn’t make a fortune. I also knew I would have to sell a certain number of copies if the option for my second book was to be picked up. Fortunately, my book did well. It was number one on Amazon’s Sherlock Holmes Mystery best sellers’ list on and off for several weeks. Even before the book was released, it sat on top of the pending-release charts for a long time. It got great reviews. I was very, very lucky. But not everyone is.
It helped that my publisher got the book read by Sherlock Holmes fans, bloggers, and writers. It helped that they liked the book and said so. It helped that I have friends in a lot of different countries and they read my book and recommended it to others. Mostly it helped that I worked hard to get the word out there: Hey, world, I have a book coming out!
It’s not in me to be… I was going to say obnoxious, but that’s in the eye of the offended beholder, you know? Let’s say pushy. I’m not pushy. I tweeted about my book, mentioned it on the message boards where I frequent, and wrote about it here on my blog. I didn’t tweet about it once an hour. I’ve seen other writers doing that and it drives me nuts. Nor did I refer back to it daily on various boards. Just now and then if the subject came up.
But if I had to identify one thing I did that helped my book sell it is this:
I wrote a good book.
I can say it now. It took me some time to be able to admit it, don’t ask me why. But the truth is both plain and simple: If you write a good book, people will enjoy reading it and will recommend it to others.
Then again, badly written books can be hugely successful. Write a thinly-veiled piece of fan-fiction with an S-and-M overlay and you’ll outsell the bible.
“Apparently, my hopes, dreams and aspirations were no match against my poor spelling, punctuation and grammar.” — Red Red Rover
Lesson number seven: When people can’t get your book
This happened to me in a variety of ways, alas. Firstly, my (UK and US-based publisher) doesn’t have a standing in Ireland. As a result, the country’s biggest bookseller, Easons, wasn’t waiting with baited breath to fill their shelves with my little novel. Repeated e-mails from the publisher and from me went essentially ignored. However, at some point they got the message and the book showed up on their website.
They still haven’t answered the e-mails though. (I’ve been a loyal Easons supporter for decades so I was and am disappointed. All I can say is, Easons, wassup?)
The other thing that happened was demand for my book exceeded my publisher’s expectations. In the big picture this is a very good thing. It meant a lot of people wanted to read my novel.
On the downside, though, it meant there was a delay in getting enough copies onto Amazon, and some would-be readers had to wait a couple of weeks for their orders to be filled. I spent a lot of time replying to e-mails and posts from people who were disappointed at having to wait. I made sure to let my publisher know what was going on and they corrected the problem promptly.
Before my book was published, I never really gave any thought as to how bookshops select merchandise or how Amazon manages stock. I think about it now, though.
I’ve learned to take responsibility for making sure that anyone who wants to read my book can do so. I tell you this so you’ll be prepared. Don’t just check the shelves and websites yourself; have your friends in different cities or countries do so too. Where possible, make friends with bookshop owners and ask them in person to stock your book. The worst that happens is they say no.
Lesson Number Eight: Marketing is your job
I had visions of a book tour. Preferably one that would take me to France, Italy, Greece. I’d sip Chardonnay as I sat overlooking the Mediterranean, hoards of fans cheering from the streets below. I wasn’t expecting much. I knew Russia and China were probably a long shot.
What actually happened, though, was the publisher sent out a press release. (It showed up on my Google Alerts first.) I posted it on my blog and social media sites, and I sent copies to media people. As a result, I was interviewed in a regional newspaper and did a radio interview.
I arranged my own book signings, all of them local. And since my publisher isn’t based in Ireland, I was pretty much on my own here. But I made contacts. I got my feet wet. Next time around I’ll have a better idea what to expect. Bet there’ll still be some surprises, though.
Lesson Number Nine: It’s still better than you imagine
You might think from all this that I’m a bit disillusioned about publishing. Nothing could be further from the truth. I loved the entire experience. There’s nothing like the rush that comes when your book has been accepted, and every milestone along the way is a fat, flawless diamond.
Even when things didn’t go quite as I’d planned, I knew I had the support of my publisher and my not-‘Nice’ friends. And so what if something didn’t go 100% right. My book was being published!
Even with lessons learned, I know there will be more challenges and triumphs with the next book.
My experience is limited to being published by a small, independent company. I haven’t self-published or worked with a big traditional house, so I can only tell you how it was for me.
If you have different or broader experience, I’d love to hear from you.