There are few moments more exciting than finally selling your first book. I still remember the shock and awe, in 2002, the day I knew I was going to finally become An Author, after a scary meeting in a boardroom at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Simon & Schuster. I had walked down a long, narrow hallway whose both walls were covered with framed covers of their best-sellers, thinking I am not worthy…
Could I join them?
Having published two non-fiction books, so far, and hoping to write many more, here are some lessons I and many fellow authors have learned along the way:
Finding an agent is sort of like dating, but without the flirting and cocktails. Before you can sell your book, you need an agent to read, edit and prepare your proposal before sending it around to the selected editors s/he knows. But making that match isn’t easy. You may love them and want to seal the deal, but they’re too big or too busy or only handle YA material. The best way to find a good fit is to ask your author friends about their agents.
After working with your agent, you may have to fire them. The process of selling a book, or multiple books, (let alone TV and movie deals, first serial rights and other details), is emotionally trying enough. After spending a few years working together, you may never want to deal with this person again, or they with you. It happens.
Your first advance payment is going to take weeks, if not several months to arrive. Decide how you’ll handle this: savings? Freelance income? A grant or fellowship? Teaching? Or maybe you’ll wait til it’s in your bank account to get started. Just don’t expect to start living on it right away.
Your advance is going to be slivered into a long, drawn-out process that means you’ll need many other sources of income. You’ll be lucky to get 1/3 up front, more likely one-quarter. The final payment can come as long as a year after publication!
You’ll be working closely with an editor you know very little about. It’s the most bizarre thing, like an intellectual blind date. Have a long lunch or two, if possible to get to know them and let them get a feel for who you are.
You’ll probably need to hire an assistant and researchers — and pay them from your advance. Few of us can do it all. On my first book, about American women and guns, I used four researchers, (all, thank heaven, volunteer), without whom I could not have gathered the material I needed on time. On my second book, a memoir of working retail, I worked with two others, neither of whom I ever met, both of whom came to me through writer friends’ recommendations.
Managing your researchers will take time and energy. Most writers are used to doing it all, all the time. Deciding what help you need and managing others efficiently is a new skill you’ll be learning — on a deadline and your dime.
Plan for illness, family drama and other interruptions. Once you’ve signed that contract, having promised 100,000 words within 12 months, life may well interrupt. Build a few extra weeks or months into your research, writing and revision schedule to allow for the inevitable and unpredictable.
You’ll need breaks! Writing a book is my favorite thing to do, but it’s tiring. Like any other form of work, you’ll need breaks, maybe even a vacation, if only a few hours each week far away from the computer or library.
Be prepared to be lonely. Writing is not a shared, communal activity. It means withdrawing, physically, emotionally and intellectually, from your friends and family for a prolonged period. You may need to travel to do research, or simply bury yourself in documents, books and interviews for many months — and that’s before you even start writing. No matter much you’d rather play Wii with your kids or cuddle with your sweetie, that book isn’t going to write itself…
Anything you’ve learned you want to add?