If you’re a writer, you know that awesome feeling you get when you see your name published for the first time. For me, it was an online magazine called Real South Magazine. They published a story of mine called “Glennville,” about a couple of down and out guys in Southern Georgia. It’s been a long time since that day, but I still get a kick out of knowing my work is out there, and I get that kick every time something of mine gets published—especially when it’s fiction (my true love).
My novel, THE LOSSES, was published by Midtown in November, 2016. I had a book launch at the great Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, and was psyched to see that it was standing room only. I knew a few people would be there, so I had a few cocktails at Monty’s Raw Bar, Coconut Grove, with some stone crabs to celebrate (and to ease my nerves). While I’d been in the agency world for years, presenting PowerPoints and presentations on website development projects and other marketing initiatives, I’d previously only stood before an audience at a bookstore for a short story I wrote, probably twenty years earlier. I read the story, but if I recall correctly, I had to have friends push me towards the stage. Reading an excerpt from my novel was different, not only in terms of my confidence, but in terms of my ignorance to what would happen afterwards.
Writing a book is a tough endeavor, no matter who you are. It requires writing, rewriting, killing your darlings, understanding the elements of fiction—structure, dialogue, scene, setting, description, etc. etc. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of alone time. Once that’s done, you have to put it out into the world for others to critique so you can rewrite and, hopefully, have someone publish your work. If you’re lucky enough for that to happen, you’re in the minority of writers to succeed in the goal you’d set out to accomplish (unless you’re self-publishing or using a vanity press, which ensures you’ll get published).
Anyway, after my novel was published and I had my first reading in public and sold some books, I guess I thought everything was just going to handle itself. People would read the books, post glowing comments on Goodreads and Amazon and Barnes & Noble, word of mouth would get more readers to buy my novel, maybe I’d do a radio interview, talk to some book reviewers who would also publish glowing reviews of my book, and maybe, maybe, I’d get invited to some small time television show that wanted to talk to me about where I got my idea for the novel, found my inspiration, and all that other nonsense non-writers typically ask writers during interviews, and I’d see enough books to be able to not work and just focus on writing my next book. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, that’s not what happened. At all.
Published writers, the ones I know (and I know a lot), understand that most of the magical dream of being published that I’ve just written about in the above paragraph is myth. It’s best-case scenario, and for most of us, that best-case scenario never materializes. While authors like Brad Meltzer and Stephen King, Colleen Hoover and Barbara Kingsolver and James Patterson sell millions of books, most respectably-selling writers don’t sell more than a few thousand. The rest never earn out their advance (meaning the money publishers pay a writer to complete the book until it’s ready to be published). If they do earn out their advance, they’ll begin to receive royalties, but again, a certain number of books have to be sold first in order for that to happen. According to Jane Friedman, a publishing expert, 70 percent of authors don't earn out their advance.
So, what does that mean? Well, it means that while you’ve gotten your book published and are now an officially published author, that’s about all you should expect. You shouldn’t expect lines around the block waiting for you to sign someone’s book. It means that while there’ll be a brief period of time where you’ll feel like you’re on cloud nine, with people reading your book and posting images of it on Facebook next to their smiling faces, and perhaps writing five-star recommendations for you, don’t expect that high to last too long. It’s depressing, I know, but it’s also part of being a writer.
During my MFA program and while attending independent writing workshops, I had the opportunity to meet some famous writers. Not always, but sometimes, I asked them questions I wanted answers to. Some were about their books; others were about their experience as published writers. Often, and without my asking, they admitted that they’d had book signings where no one showed up. Not one single person. One author told me he just sat there at a table with a stack of books chatting with the book staff over coffee until it was clear the reading was a bust. It’s part of the game, he said. Don’t take it personal.
Here's what I learned about being a published author, from my own experience, but also having spoken with a great many writers over the years:
1. No one cares. What I mean is, all the hard work you’ve put into your novel, into your collection of stories, into your nonfiction book, means nothing to anyone but yourself. And maybe your mother. Obviously that’s a blanket statement, and there are exceptions. But generally, once someone reads your book, they put it down and forget about it—even if they enjoyed it. And that someone is probably not sitting on pins and needles waiting for your next book. Even as a writer and knowing how tough the writing profession is, I’m guilty of not giving a shit either. Sorry, that’s just the truth. Life takes over. Other books come into my life. In short, we move on.
2. If you want your books to sell, you’ll be the one putting in most of the work to make that happen. The majority of publishing houses don’t put much money, if any, into marketing your book. They may prepare promotional materials like press kits, bookmarks, help with signing events, and so on, and do some internet marketing, promotions, and publicity, but the chances of you getting full-page ads in the New York Times are slim. It’s not impossible, but it’s more likely that that money will go to marketing the well-known authors that are the sure bet in terms of bringing in the dollars. Remember, most authors don’t earn out their advances, which publishers know. So unless there’s some hype around your book for some reason, expect to put in the work yourself if you want to see your book sell.
3. Keep writing. That may seem like an obvious one, but it’s easy to get discouraged when your book doesn’t sell, or the fairy tale picture you had in your mind of the fame and fortune and acclaim you were expecting fails to materialize after the publication of your book. Authors write. Some authors never sell more than a few hundred books. Some became bestsellers and household names after their third or fourth or fifth book. Some on their first try. There’s no formula for becoming a bestseller (irrespective of the ads you see online). Your job as a writer is to write. You do it because you have to. You do it because you can’t not write. If any acclaim comes your way afterwards, congrats! You’ve achieved more than most published authors. According to WordsRated, somewhere around 4 million books are published each year, including self-published books.
Traditionally published books account for 500,000 to 1,000,000 of those books. That’s a pretty large number to think you’ll break through to become the anomaly that sells like hot cakes. But that’s not why I write. And it’s probably not why you write. So if you do get published, just enjoy the high while it lasts. It’ll be short, but it doesn’t matter. Your goal is just to keep on truckin’.
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