Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Debut Author Experience

Two years ago today (February 14) we announced that the world English rights to The Troubles of Johnny Cannon were acquired by David Gale at Simon & Schuster.

Obviously, this was a HUGE event for me. Not only was it a dream come true, but it also transitioned me (suddenly, I might add) from the "Aspiring Author" category to the "Debut Novelist" category. It was a very long path from selling the rights to the date of publication (February 14, 2013 to October 14, 2014), and many times along that journey (and, even more so in the months AFTER publication) I felt incredibly lost and unsure of what was happening (and this was WITH the ever present guidance from my amazing agent, editor, editors assistants, and many author friends online).

So I decided to help other authors who might be entering the same journey by giving you some observations I made about the process. And, since this is a bloggity blog, I'll do it in list form with awesome animated GIFs.

1. There is no normal debut author experience.
I have a few friends who were debut authors alongside of me, and I can attest from observation that none of us had the exact same journey. In fact, our journeys were barely even similar. 
Debut authors are the least identical twins ever.
Just picking from the litter, in the same year that The Troubles of Johnny Cannon debuted, so did these books:
Five authors, five books. And every single one of them had a different experience than I did. A couple of them were on shortlists for the Newbery Award. Some of them received rave reviews. The sales numbers varied widely. Every one of them was different. So, when you start your debut author journey, try as hard as you can to vow not to compare your journey with others. It will only cause you to self destruct. Seriously. (Trust me on this)

2. Your Publisher is as good at publishing as you are at writing. Probably better.
If you peruse a lot of the writing blogs online, you begin to get a general consensus that publishers are backwards thinking, archaic, clueless, and completely out of touch. If they actually understood the world today, they'd do X or Y, and authors can do a better job going on their own.
Tom Cruise didn't make it on his own. Think about that.
Are there examples where people found incredible success? Sure, but we all know those are the exceptions and not the rule. The reality is, having a publisher handling the publishing side of things really lets you know just how much you don't understand about sales or marketing, editing or design, and even how to set deadlines or how to deal with your own fragile ego. And the crazy thing is, you almost never hear publishing professionals talking about how they could make it on their own without authors. They get it. We don't.

3. You will be disappointed.
No, no, no, I'm not saying the entire experience will be a disappointment. (Although I suppose it could be. Like I said, everyone has their own experience) But what I am saying is that, at some point in the journey, something will happen that falls short of your unrealistic expectations. Because, trust me, you have VERY UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS.
Trust me, if you're expecting Zooey Deschanel, you have unrealistic expectations.
Maybe you expected to get really chummy with your editor. Maybe you expected to be flown out for big conferences. Maybe you expected to have phone meetings with the marketing team.Maybe you expected to have more input on the cover design. Whatever it might be, you're probably not going to get everything you expected. And that's not just from the publisher, either. Here's a list of some of my (I now realize very unrealistic) expectations for Troubles:
  • I expected hundreds of people to pre-order the book. (I mean, I know a lot of people. Surely they all love me, right? Turns out love has nothing to do with it)
  • I expected at least one starred review. (This one stung a lot, not so much any more. Fact is, you can't please everybody, and your first novel especially will have trouble, because of the unfamiliarity between the author and the critics/reviewers)
  • I expected to be mentioned in awards talks. (Thankfully, I let that one go after I saw the reviews were starless)
  • I expected my first week POS sales [actual transactions at bookstores] to be at least 1,000 copies. (This was mainly because I had NO IDEA how the market works, especially for debut, non-celebrity authors)
  • I expected my book would fizzle out after the first three or four weeks. (In actuality, it wasn't until after a month or so that I finally started seeing some real action and buzz) (I'm actually glad this expectation wasn't met)
So, here's the deal, you have to focus on what you can control in the process. That's the only way you won't be disappointed too much. You have no control over the publishing process, or over sales, or over reviews. But you do have control over how you present yourself, and what you write next, and how you work to network. So put your time and energy into that.

4. Success isn't what you think it is.
This goes along with the previous point, but it's worth emphasizing. You think you know what it means to be considered successful. You're wrong.
Or you just live at peace, Harvey. What about that?
See, when you're dreaming about becoming a published author, you look at the "success stories" and put your name into them. That could be you on the NY Times Best Sellers List. That could be you that they call at 4:15 am for the Printz award. You could be the one who headlines at BEA. You could be the one that they talk about in those year end articles about standout new authors of the year.

But that stuff isn't success. Oh sure, it's awesome. And nobody is going  to say no to having those things happen to them. But those things are popularity and accolades, neither of which are necessarily part of being a successful published author.

So what does it mean to be a success? It's simple, really. You already are one. If you've sold the publishing rights to your book, you succeeded. That thing you wrote got published. Now, try to succeed again and get the next thing you write published. And the next. And the next.

So listen to your publisher and do what you can to make sure THEY succeed at selling your book to the public.

And, more than anything else, remember who you are.
It's always time for a Mufasa gif.
You're a writer. So write, whatever you can, whenever you can. Just so long as you keep getting better at it, and keep writing better and better things, you'll make it past your debut experience.

I hope. (All signs point to yes)


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