Ten lessons new authors learn (usually the hard way)

Novels in a Polish bookstore
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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?

8 thoughts on “Ten lessons new authors learn (usually the hard way)

  1. Jackie Cangro

    I would also add: Expect the Unexpected. A few months after I’d signed the contract for my book The Subway Chronicles, I learned that the imprint was closing. Luckily it found a home with another very capable editor at the house, but other authors weren’t so lucky and their books were outright canceled. (They got to keep the advance, but that’s little consolation when they worked so hard and really want to get their book out into the world.)

  2. On working with editors: ‘It’s the most bizarre thing, like an intellectual blind date’. How true that is!

    A great piece of advice I heard from eminent Australian writer David Malouf was ‘allow yourself the opportunity to take the wrong steps, because ultimately they’re the right steps’. I like that – a lot – because I’m fond of taking wrong steps with this whole writing thing.

    Oh, and I like your advice above about being prepared to be lonely. It’s very true, in a number of ways. Perhaps it deserves a post of its own?

  3. Elisa Nuckle

    This is interesting. As a fiction writer who wants to self publish first before dipping my toes into the traditional sphere (because I think self publishing might be easier to yank my toes out of if I find it’s scalding hot or freezing cold), I’m definitely keeping this in mind should I choose to work with a publisher — which I probably will. No sense in pigeonholing myself into one type of publishing or the other. Thanks for this!

    1. As you no doubt know, self-publishing has its own challenges, the greatest of which (to my mind) is hiring (and paying) a really good freelance editor to review your material for tone, style, content, pacing….all the things that editors are paid (from a traditional advance) to do. Self-published authors are getting a really bad rap in some circles because (no offense to you personally) of exactly this issue — the fear of being edited. They think it’s better (certainly easier and faster) to just hand their work out into the public sphere on their own.

      It is no fun at all to be told that your book, many thousands of words, is deemed unready for publication, and some signed authors have had to return their advances when their manuscripts were simply refused. But that’s the cost of admission to that other world, and anyone who pretends otherwise is not being honest.

      1. Elisa Nuckle

        It makes sense, and I’m not deluding myself when it comes to publishing. I want to put my best possible product out there, but I guess I avoid traditional because I keep hearing a lot of horror stories about it. Bad advances, crappy editors, crappy agents, long publishing time, etc. It’s intimidating, to put it mildly, and I hesitate to entrust my work to people who, from what I’ve heard lately, don’t really care about anything other than how much money they can eke out of me. It might sound really ignorant of me to say all of that, but really, when I research, that’s the majority of what I hear around the internet these days. And it makes me nervous.

  4. The only thing scarier than selling my books has been meeting my editor…in both instances women 30 years (!) my junior. No pressure. It is somewhat counter-intuitive to place your career in the hands of someone who wasn’t born when you began your writing professionally…

    I think being lonely is perhaps worth a post…I suspect it’s why blogging is a nice happy medium…we’re still alone when writing but can enjoy, sometimes, instant feedback and camaraderie.

  5. Elisa, a few thoughts…

    The most important (to me, anyway) is not listening to people on the Internet (motives? experience?) but directly hearing from peers (i.e. at my skill level) who write **and sell** the sort of books I do; ideas books on national themes.Not YA or romance or self-help or…Books are sold in specific ways to specific editors at specific houses (which I assume you know.) So the doom and gloom may not even apply to you, of your genre or your skill level or this year…it is a constantly changing industry.

    What’s a “bad” advance? And — again with all due respect — if you have never yet proven that your writing has a paying audience for it, why would anyone offer you (or anyone) a boatload of cash? Makes no sense from a business perspective and, yes, publishing is VERY much a business, no matter how unpleasant that may be for some people. It also means — as it has for me — that my material will be reviewed, edited, copy-edited and marketed/sold by really smart people (not all, of course) who earn a living doing this. I sure don’t have the time or energy to do it all! I don’t want to. I want to WRITE.

    The typical first advance is usually $10-25,000 at most. No, it’s not much. But it’s a start and that’s what new, unknown and unproven authors do….they start.

    There are some “crappy” agents — who do not fit your needs or style. Some are lazy and incompetent. Some are stellar and (as two have done for me so far) fight for months to get my material sold; both my books faced 25 rejections before major NYC houses acquire them.

    It’s easy to focus only on others’ horror stories about the negatives, and never try commercial publishing. (Or choose to leave it.) I want my books reviewed by major media and sold in stores. So for now I am staying in that world.

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