Fall always puts me in a reflective mood, and this week I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned since I joined publishing four years ago. This is an incredible time in the industry and what an adventure it has been! Here are a few of my top tips for writers.
1) Publishing success is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve all heard the stories of authors who struck gold—winning an agent, a major publishing deal, and solid commercial success with their very first novel. It does happen. Heck, I’ve worked with a few of those authors. But a far more common scenario goes like this: author writes first novel, hates it, shelves it; writes three more manuscripts, uses them for firewood; submits fifth novel to dozens of agents, finally gets a bite; newly found agent submits manuscripts to publishers; pubs turn it down but agree to look at future work; author gets a modest deal for next three books; agent coaches author through several years of ramen noodles; author writes bestseller and finally “makes it;” several years go by and author hits creative wall, uses new novel for firewood. . . Each variation of this scenario calls for the same advice: dream of overnight success but don’t stake your career on it! If you’re serious about making a life and career out of your writing, be ready for the same ups and downs you’d see in any profession, and throw your hat in the ring for the long haul.
2) Make peace with the unknown. When I began working in publishing in 2010, there was no such thing as a Kindle Fire or a Nook Color (I thought I was darn cool with my spankin’ new Kindle Keyboard). People in the know were saying things like, “we’re about to see e-books really take off.” (Snort!) Self-publishing and vanity publishing were still considered synonymous, and few “serious” authors would consider going indie except as a last resort. Looking back, the pace of change is mind-blowing. To be successful, authors, agents, and everyone else in the industry will have to stay flexible and embrace the changes; what we can’t afford to do is hunker down and hope the tide will change and carry us back to a simpler time. I admit to serious nostalgia for the days of Borders, and I worry about our remaining bookstores. But it’s also one of the most exciting times in the history of publishing—a time to explore new opportunities and look forward to the unforeseeable future.
3) Treat writing like a business, but not at the sake of craft. It’s vital, in this age of limitless distractions, to stay focused on the most important part of your career—the writing. It seems obvious, but too often writers get so caught up in the pressure to market and be on every existing social media outlet, that their craft suffers. It’s in every writer’s best interest to stay current and build good business skills, but all the marketing savvy in the world is useless without a stand-out manuscript—or a finished one, for that matter. Similarly, a stand-out author platform will earn you points in a query letter, but only after you’ve won over the agent with your premise and impeccable writing. Don’t let peripheral work crowd out your priority: getting your best work on the page.
4) A big advance doesn’t (necessarily) mean take your day job and shove it. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with or meeting a number of authors who made serious waves with their book deals (hats off to their amazing agents!). When that happens, it calls for a major celebration. But a good agent will also throw in a dash of realism—a big advance isn’t an automatic ticket to super-stardom, and it means you’ll have to work even harder, as the bar has been raised. If your book fizzles, that large sum of unearned royalties can be a major turn-off to your publisher when it comes time for your next book deal. For most authors, success will ebb and flow (see #1). There are too many stories of authors who left themselves with no cushion when their book sales fell short. I’ll never tell anyone not to follow their dream—just be sure that when you do quit that pesky day job, you have a decent Plan B to ensure you don’t have to go back.
5) Writer’s block can strike at any point in your career—roll with it and don’t panic. We’ve all heard about the dreaded “sophomore novel”—the one where you’re writing for a real (no longer hypothetical) agent/editor/audience, and you’ve got that blessed advance to earn out. It’s enough to give anyone stage fright! But what I found surprising was meeting highly successful authors with a string of bestsellers and accolades suffering the same problem. Whether it’s from mounting pressure or creative fatigue, even the most prolific writers have to face this stumbling block at some point in their career. This is where you find out if your support team (agent, editor, critique group, writing coach, etc.) is worth its salt. Those who are will stick with you through the rough patches, show some tough love, and help get you writing smoothly again. And oh yes, you will!