the things I’ve learned about publishing (so far)

by Toni McGee Causey

You all know the feeling… you survive junior high school and finally you’re a freshman, and you’re going to put all that knowledge you accumulated about how to survive school to good use. That first day of high school, you have the jitters. Sure, maybe you’re the star basketball player or you’re on the dance team, or quite a few of your friends are going to be there and you already know you’re sharing fourth and sixth hour with them, so you’ve got a handle on this experience. You know how to navigate the hallways, you’re aware there’s going to be political crap you have to deal with (who likes whom, who’s destructive, who’s dangerous, manipulative), but on the whole, you can handle it. Even if you’re introverted and awkward, at least it won’t be as hard as the previous years, because you’ve been through hell (I defy anyone to tell me junior high is not hell). You’ve traversed it, lived to tell about it, and nothing could be that hard.

‘Til you get there. And the experience is both what you expected and so much more. You realize, then, how very low on the totem pole you really are, experience-wise. Those damned seniors? Man, they rule the school, they know all of the teachers, the quirks, which gangs are running what, how to avoid detention, how to suck up to which teacher to skip out on homeroom, exactly who forges the… uh, okay, moving on. And not only do those seniors know crap, but they’re usually driving the coolest cars or hanging out in the best spots.

By the time you’re a senior, you think, damn, I know how to do this. And when you move on from there to become a freshman in college, you usually bring that maybe-confident, maybe-cocky attitude with you, because damn, you’ve learned stuff and surely it’s not going to be all that different. You’re going to segue into college with the same panache and there won’t be that awful awkward period where it’s clear you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Only by the time you’re a sophomore or a junior, you look back at that pitiful freshman who thought they were so worldly and chuckle. Oh, to be so innocent.

There are a couple of analogies, of course, to publishing that I’d like to emphasize. One, you never know as much as you think you know, and there’s always someone who knows more. Pay attention to them–they’ll help you survive. Two, you will very likely survive it, if you don’t shoot yourself, so try hard not to do that.

When I was first writing, my focus was on screenwriting (that was my focus for my MFA), and the first major writing conference I attended was the Austin Film Festival. I probably learned more in that one weekend from other writers than I had the previous couple of years in school. There’s just not much else which substitutes for real world experience, and there are a tremendous number of incredibly generous writers out there who constantly make the effort to pass along what they’ve learned. They remember being freshmen. They probably had mentors of their own who helped them get through the rough spots, people who said, "yes, that’s how it’s done," or "no, be careful of that, it’ll kill you." They have the most important thing any freshman needs: information.

There is no crying in publishing. It’s a tough business because you are selling something that is unique (one hopes) and personal (you created it) and hope that it appeals to a wide audience. It is not a business where you can hide, really–your name is there on the book. Or your pseudonym. But it’s you, it’s your work, and that’s a bit scary. It’s more than just walking into that big long hallway the first day of school. It’s the first game of the season, and you have to perform, you’re in front of the crowd, and if you flub up, everyone’s going to notice. [I was on the dance team for four years, and by my junior year, was choreographing some of the dances. I got it into my head once to do this extravagantly difficult dance with a set of ripples–where everyone was moving one beat behind the person in front of them–and it was a fantastic sequence. Brilliant, in fact. We rehearsed the hell out of it. I was a little worried about a couple of people pulling it off, and they were nervous about remembering each step, because since it was a giant set of sequential moves, one wrong move by one person would ruin the effect. And I was in front of the group, seeing how I choreographed the whole damned thing. Whereupon I promptly went completely blank in the middle of the most difficult sequence and could not remember what came next, and so jumped to another move. The entire line behind me followed. Incorrectly. One half of the team kept going, the other half stood frozen, behind me, waiting for the cue as to what to do next, because they all realized in that moment that we’d screwed up.] [So yeah, public embarrassment. Not much phases me now.]

There are things I’ve learned in publishing–people have kept me from being that lone idiot out on the field, doing the wrong move in front of an entire stadium. Maybe some of this will be of help. None of it is new, ground-breaking, and I am hoping others chime in via the comments and add their own experiences.

1) There is an incredible euphoria when you first sell. Enjoy it. Embrace it. You deserve the thrill, and the joy.

2) Keep in mind you are not the first person who has sold a book. I know, it’ll feel like it, but there may be a couple of others out there.

3) You cannot do absolutely everything you hear about, marketing-wise. Nor should you try. There are going to be things which will work for you, and things you shouldn’t even bother trying, either because you don’t have the time or the money. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

4) Do put up a website. Do ask people to give you honest feedback. My first website had a background that was bright orange. I did not know it was that bright because for whatever reason, on my monitor, it looked more like a dark rust. In fact, it didn’t really look bright enough. It had been up for several months before I saw it on someone else’s monitor and after I QUIT BEING BLIND, I immediately sought to replace it. I think a couple of people may have mentioned that it "sure was orange," but I didn’t really listen to what they were trying to say. So, set your ego aside, ask, and listen. [That is probably the number one rule in anything, really.]

5) Do put up links from an image of your book’s cover to a place where it can be purchased online. I highly recommend finding a local indie who will be happy to ship autographed copies for you. [Or an indie you’ve visited elsewhere–treasure those booksellers.] If you guest blog somewhere, make sure that your full name is there, a link to your book and your book’s cover. I have purchased many books after reading guest blogs.

6) Book tours work for some, they don’t work for others, and it’s really going to be about trial-and-error to see what works for you. Unless you’re an extreme introvert who cannot speak to anyone whatsoever, drop in and sign stock where possible.

7) This is probably where the hard stuff goes. Publishing has an almost built-in self-fulfilling prophecy mentality at work. Hitting a best-selling list requires volume + velocity in some arcane voodoo spell that no one seems to know. You, by yourself, even with your efforts on the internet, cannot reach the nation. You can help boost your sales to some degree. For all of the marketing access we now have–blog ads, book trailers, websites, blurbs, success (if we call sales the measure of success) is determined by two separate things, which can sometimes join forces.

a) print run — if there is a large enough print run by your publisher to get your book into enough stores, then your book has a shot of doing well. More specifically, the larger the print run, the more likely your publisher will be willing to offer co-op dollars to the book stores (money / incentives) to get your book on a table or an end cap or in some sort of special that has a chance of catching a reader’s attention

b) word-of-mouth — this is where the book sellers and librarians can affect the writer’s career significantly, because if they like something and they hand-sell it to their customers / patrons, word can spread. Readers, however, are the tipping point. Book clubs which pick the book for discussion often recommend the book to other book clubs; readers tell other readers, or loan the book out. Word-of-mouth can mitigate a modest print-run because when it builds–if it builds–more and more readers will ask for the book, which means re-orders in book stores, which can lead to additional print runs, which can lead to the publisher noticing they have a sleeper hit on their hands, which leads to more marketing dollars spent, more effort on their part… etc.

8) You cannot manufacture word-of-mouth (the work has to do that on its own), and you cannot control the print run. Try not to make yourself crazy if the first book isn’t a runaway success.

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