Friday, May 16, 2008

Reflections of a 5.5 - year career

November 2002 marked the anniversary of my first ever publication, a romance novel called Perils of the Heart published by Leisure Books. I was on top of the world, and at the same time terrified. I thought I knew so much, but when the first book hit the shelves, I realized I knew so little.

I thought I'd share some of what I've learned since then, listed in no particular order:

1. Getting a book published is only a step. If you want to make a career of writing, you have to make plans, work hard, lose sleep, get indigestion, and keep going.

2. Authors have little or no control over the following:

  • Covers
  • Type size and layout inside the book
  • Back blurbs
  • Book size (hardback, trade, or mass market)
  • Print runs
  • Bookseller orders
  • Bookstore placement
  • Book reorders and restocking
  • Reviews
  • Sales

3. What made some of my books sell well:

  • Good cover
  • Catchy title
  • Catchy premise
  • Part of a series
  • Books published close together
  • Publisher marketing to booksellers
  • Popularity of previous books

4. What had little to do with book sales:

  • Reviews (good or bad)
  • Online rankings (Amazon; B&N)
  • Some of my own marketing efforts

5. It's hard to believe you can get published when NY just isn't buying, when bookstores report declining sales, when everyone around you says it can't be done unless you sleep with two agents, an editor, and a sales director. THEY'RE WRONG. Keep trying.

6. What's in your heart and what publishers are buying may not be the same thing. The trick is to combine the two. (If what's in your heart is what's selling, then you've saved a step.)

7. Bad reviews don't mean bad sales. What drove the reviewer nuts might be the exact element that readers glom like there's no tomorrow.

8. Good reviews and nice awards don't necessarily mean good sales, either.

9. Patience is a must!! Things will not always happen to your time-table. Keep a relative time-table, but learn to be flexible.

10. You're not always in the spotlight. When you are, enjoy it, bow graciously, move back to the wings, and plan your next foray into the spotlight.

11. An agent is essential to moving beyond small press. You can get into a few NY houses without one, but you need one to move beyond their midlist.

12. Agents do much more than sell your book to a publisher. They do a bazillion things you never thought of to keep you happily published, paid, and have a chance at that spotlight.

13. Writers can make gobs of money or they can make next to nothing. Just a year can make a big difference either way.

14. The key to success is persistence and consistency. Keep writing, keep submitting, keep writing, keep submitting.

15. The publishing world is "not fair." Other authors will get the things you want (more publicity, a better contract, more money--or they'll get published and you won't). Likewise, you will get things that other authors want. New authors can explode into bestsellerdom while authors who have worked patiently for ten years still haven't reached it. That is the way of things.

16. Other authors will become some of the best friends you will ever have.

17. You will pick up strange enemies who think that if they can shoot you down, you'll fail and they'll step into your shoes. Ha ha ha ha ha. It doesn't work that way. (See the "not fair" point).

18. Making a bestseller list is more about mathematics than about the book itself. You not only need a great book but 1. large print run; 2. terrific distribution; 3. quickly filled orders and re-orders; and 4. good placement in the stores (this is paid for by the publishers). If you have a great book and not the other four, it will not hit a bestseller list. (This does not mean that it will not sell well, because word of mouth is very powerful.)

19. Publishing is the most illogical, old-fashioned, uncontrollable business you can ever get into. Don't expect it to make sense.

20. Some of your books will sell better than others (or some will be published, and some won't). Learn to enjoy the surprise of a good seller, let go of those that disappoint you.

21. Pick your battles. You won't and can't win them all. Go for the most important ones and let the little things go. On the other hand, don't let too many little things add up into one big nightmare.

22. Be courteous to everyone, not just the people you think will make you rich and famous. Treat everyone like they might make you rich and famous. You never know! (And it's just good manners.)

23. If you hate what's selling like hotcakes, don't force yourself to write it. The trend won't last forever, and you'll be miserable. Remember that after you sell the first book, your editor will expect your next one to be in the same vein. Keep an eye on the market, but don't be a slave to it.

24. Don't wait for "permission" to write. Explore, enjoy, learn, hone your skills, revel in the art, write what you want to.

25. Enjoy writing!! Why on earth should you be an author if you hate it? I still love to write. I just came off of heavy deadline stress and had free time (wow). What did I do? Wrote! I still do it for my own entertainment--I've just found a way to make money at it.

Please feel free to add to this list! What have you learned since starting to write with an eye toward publication?


Alexis said...

Another great topic, Jennifer.
This post is something every aspiring writer should read. I'm not published yet, but it helps to remember that it is soooooo subjective and that persistence is a key. What I have found, is that it helps to like as much of the process as possible. I love the joy of writing, creating characters, throwing troubles at them and figuring out how they can get to their HEA. But I also like the revising and editing because it draws on other creative skills (it's a mind puzzle) and then the polishing when my brain power is low makes me feel like I'm still accomplishing something even if it's 1:45am. Last, I love the marketing, the research for the book and researching the industry. I think getting published is the exploration of a complex world and creating a career in that world is your journey. Thanks so much for this great blog!

Carol Burge said...

Wow, great post! As a brand new almost published author (my first book will be out in September) this info definitely comes in handy.

Thanks for sharing!

Gillian Layne said...

As always, this is excellent. Thanks for taking the time to share with us!

Bonnie Vanak said...

Great post. Very insightful, thanks for sharing. I'd also add that just because you get published, doesn't mean you will not get rejected. I just gave a workshop this weekend on Rejection and Revision and Rejoicing, and talked about this.

Rejection sucks and it hurts, but the point I made in the workshop was that you have to give yourself time to get over it, and then look at it professionally and see if revising the project will get it sold.

Another thing that I've learned is that the money does matter. Many pre-pubs say they just want to get published and they don't care about the money. Well, you do care when you start spending money to promote your books so you can sell more books so you can get more contracts. I always cringe when I hear an aspiring author say, "I'd do anything to get my book in print, and I don't care what they pay me." Ouch!

Colleen Thompson said...

Outstanding post, Jenn. I've been published for nine years now, and this really sums it up.

Especially #25.

Great blog!

Jennifer Ashley/ Allyson James / Ashley Gardner said...

Thanks for all the comments! Bonnie: I do agree with you about money being important. You said: "I always cringe when I hear an aspiring author say, "I'd do anything to get my book in print, and I don't care what they pay me."

I felt this way before I was published, but you quickly learn that small advances can mean small support from your publisher. Without support from your publisher, it's hard to move up to gain higher advances. And, yes, your own promotions can become expensive, even if you keep it simple (e.g., pens, bookmarks, and one conference can run you into a couple grand.)

It's easy to start in the midlist--difficult to move out of it.

Angie Fox said...

Great post, Jennifer. I'm printing this out and posting it on the wall next to my computer. And I think I'm going to highlight #19!