A New Author’s Guide to Surviving Publishing

by Kim on December 4, 2017 · 12 comments

My memoir, “The Yellow Envelope,” came out eight months ago. Publishing has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, filled with dashed hopes and unexpected thrills. There are plenty of things I didn’t know about this process when I started. So, I thought I’d share the things I’ve learned- and the things I wish I’d known- before this wild ride began.

Me, right before my book launch

1. I hate to be a buzz kill here but I’m going to start with a bit of advice that would have saved me lots of time and energy. Try not to get excited. Your publicist will almost get you on Dateline and a producer from Fox Searchlight will be interested in turning your book into a movie. Your agent will mention in passing that dozens of obscure countries are considering buying the foreign rights to your story and you will spend the next week using the powers of your mind to manifest those things into reality. But here’s the thing: 9.9 times out of 10 it leads to nothing and you’ll have wasted hours of your one wild and precious life obsessively checking your email and wondering what dress you’ll wear to the Oscars. Take it from me, the healthiest thing to do is to disengage or, at the very least, take every single piece of news with a massive grain of salt. 

2. Don’t read the reviews of your book. Let me say that again, just to make sure you heard me. DON’T READ YOUR REVIEWS. Don’t read them from Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus. Don’t read the reviews on Amazon. Whatever you do for the love of God do not read the reviews on Goodreads. Nothing good can come of it, friends. I guarantee that you will promptly forget the 100 glowing reviews you’ve received and obsess over the one or two terrible ones. The one or two terrible ones will make you feel like the scum of the earth. They will ruin your day and keep you up all night. It’s abuse to read your reviews. Every author I know, including myself, can recite word-for-word the worst review they’ve ever received. Our lives are not better for this. 

3. You read the reviews, didn’t you? Okay, there is one thing you can do to save yourself from the black hole of devastation you just jumped in. Right now, at this very minute, go to Amazon and read all of the 1-star reviews of your favorite book. I promise this will make you feel better. When you see how many people there are out there that actually hate your favorite book you will realize that there is a 0% chance of pleasing everybody. BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO READ THE REVIEWS.

4. No one in your regular life will understand publishing and this is why you need writer friends. Your publishing contract will take so long to arrive in your mailbox that your mom will be convinced the whole thing is a scam. Your friends will automatically assume your book will be a New York Times Bestseller and start vying for an invitation to your movie premiere. Your writer friends are the only ones that truly understand that mixture of horror and elation that comes from an impending book launch. They’ll listen without judgment as you gripe about the glacially slow pace of publishing, answer all of the questions you’re too embarrassed to ask your editor and leave an Amazon review without you even asking.

5. About two weeks after your book is released, everyone and their neighbor will begin asking you how many copies of the book you have sold. They will do this with the best of intentions, without realizing that it is a rude and loaded question that will make you feel defensive and judged. Because what they’re really asking you is: Are you succeeding or failing? How much money are you making? And you would never sit down and ask your best friend’s neighbor who you met once but just briefly if her co-workers really think that she is an indispensable member of the team and, by the way, how much do you make? I give you permission to shrug your shoulders in response and say, “It’s too early to tell,” or, even better, “Why do you ask?”

6. It is too early to tell. And it will be too early to tell for a very, very long time. Because let me talk to you about royalty reports. These are the reports provided to you by your publisher that tell you how many books you have sold. You will wait and wait and wait for your first report, obsessively checking the mail, and when it arrives (IF it arrives, mine hasn’t yet) you will discover something that you were not anticipating: 1) The report is impossible to read. Numbers everywhere. None of them seem to have anything to do with each other. 2) Your report covers the first six months of the year, not the first six months of your book’s life. Since your book didn’t come out until April that report shows you only three months of sales. 3) Some of those sales could be returned by booksellers if your book languishes on the shelf. Conclusion: The report for which you have waited (im)patiently tells you nothing.

7. In fact, here is a complete list of the things you actually know about the success of your book: 1) Your book is not a New York Times Bestseller 2) Oprah has not picked it for her book club 3) Reese is not making it into a movie.

8. Here is a complete list of the things you don’t know about the success of your book: Everything else.

9. OMG OMG OMG it kills me to say this but you aren’t going to make any money. I hope you do, though. If you figure it out let me know, okay?

10. As a friend and author said to me, you only get to be a debut author once. So as much as you want to crawl under the covers and hide from the world or as panicky as your book launch makes you, try to enjoy the moment. (I know this is like telling new parents to enjoy the newborn stage because it goes so fast and you probably want to punch me in the nose right now but really you should try to enjoy it).

11. They say that having a new book to work on takes some of the pressure off of the book that is coming out, and I agree. If you can stand it, start a new project—something just for fun, and let yourself get lost in it.

12. A friend of mine, another author, told me that the best publishing advice she received was to find a new hobby. I TOTALLY GET THIS. For most of us, writing used to be our hobby- the thing we did for fun, to escape, to unwind. And now? Well, now there’s so much more tied up in it. Maybe start knitting or fostering kittens or teach yourself to juggle. Find something you love that is completely unrelated to writing. Me? I’ve become obsessed with homesteading. This is a perfect hobby because TOMATOES DON’T READ BOOKS.

13. So much of your book’s success is out of your control. Also, a large part of your book’s success comes down to marketing. It’s likely that your publisher will do a little work to market your book, but the majority of the work will be left up to you. One can go insane working all of the time to get the word out about one’s book. But spending months hunched over your computer screaming into the black abyss of the Internet to the 100 lovely people that either A) know you personally or B) still follow your long-neglected blog, will not translate to Emma Watson handing out copies of your book on the subway or land you a seat on the Today show (Update: after that Matt Lauer news, screw Today. You don’t need them anyway).

14. As much as you try to uncover it, you will eventually learn that there is no secret formula for getting Emma Watson to hand out copies of your book on the subway. A book has a life of its own. Maybe it is your book’s destiny to end up on Emma Watson’s nightstand. Probably it isn’t. Either way, there’s not much you can do about it. (Unless you know Emma Watson personally in which case, can you email me? I have a favor to ask).

15. No one loves libraries more than you, right? This is why it is so painful when, after publication, you begin to realize that you kinda hate libraries. This is because some of your friends, the friends you were absolutely certain would buy your book because this is how you make your living and ohmygod your kid is going to go to college someday and how will you paaayyyyy??? All of those friends are suddenly texting you pictures of your book that THEY PICKED UP FROM THE LIBRARY. And that is when you realize that hundreds (thousands!) of people are reading your book for free and you aren’t seeing a dime except for the few dimes you will make because the library purchased that single copy of your book. And in the future when you go to the library to pick up your favorite books you will feel a deep pit of guilt because you, too, are now getting the work of your favorite authors for free. And from that day forward a tiny bit of joy will be stolen out of every book you read. I am so, so sorry to have to break this news to you.

16. The good news is that you will still love librarians, now more than ever. Librarians will champion your book. They will hand patrons a copy of your book while saying, “Read this.” They will ask you to come talk at their libraries and they will be so kind to you and you will know that all of the problems on planet earth would be solved if librarians ran the world.

17. Somewhere out there someone who you are not related to and do not even know a little bit will read your book. A STRANGER WILL READ YOUR BOOK! And that stranger will email you to let you know that your book moved and inspired them. This little note, arriving in your inbox just when you need it, will remind you of the miracle of human connection. You will think, this is why I write. And all of the hard moments that have come before it, and all of the hard moments after, will feel worth it.

18. Get used to being uncomfortable. TV and radio interviews are uncomfortable, book fairs are uncomfortable. Driving to Omaha to do a book reading for five people is uncomfortable. Pretty much this entire process is uncomfortable. I try to remember that nothing much good comes from being comfortable all of the time.

Me, doing uncomfortable book stuff

19. Unless we’re talking about comfortable pants in which case, wear those as much as possible, ideally while reclining on the couch eating ice cream and watching House Hunters. What I’m trying to say is, give yourself a break sometimes. Allow yourself to disengage every once in a while. Publishing is hard. As Anne Lamott said recently in her TED Talk, “Creative successes are something you have to recover from. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine,” and yet, because “All truth is a paradox… creative success is also amazing. It is a miracle to get your work published.”

20. Anne is right (isn’t she always?). It’s a miracle to get your work published. So no matter what happens during the day, at night I try to say a few words of gratitude for that.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonnie E. December 4, 2017 at 8:39 am

I needed this today. I agree with all this advice.

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:36 am

Are you somewhere on the publishing road?

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Joanne Morton Joseph December 4, 2017 at 9:01 am

Kim, I remain a huge fan of your writing and have followed you since your Camino days. I was thrilled with the publication on your book and still wish you much success with it. My blog will quite possibly be the only thing I ever publish, but I reserve the right to correct that someday 🤓. And if I do, I can assure you that I will read any and all reviews, even after being warned. I’m betting even J.K. Rowling read hers in the early days…
Joanne Morton Joseph recently posted..Thanksgiving in Illinois

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:36 am

Haha, I knew you would!! Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. (I read all of mine too, in the beginning, but I don’t read them anymore and I’m happier for it.)

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Patrice La Vigne December 4, 2017 at 9:02 am

I love your wisdom, Kim. And while I still haven’t found anyone to love my manuscript as much as I do, this post is so valuable and appreciated. As unappealing as the process sounds, I wonder why I still want it so bad! I definitely think you hit the nail on the head with comparing it to parenthood—people can tell you how it’s going to be a million times, but it’s not until you experience it yourself that those points sink in.

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:38 am

Well, because it’s a dream to find your book on the shelves and to get it into the hands of readers! I’d do it again and again if I could– and I hope to! But the process is complicated (to say the least) and a true roller coaster. That’s why I wrote this post. Then again, it’s probably good that I went through the process with some naivety.

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Tia December 4, 2017 at 2:02 pm

In defense of libraries, a librarian friend told me that a) libraries pay more than the list price for a book, and b) the average book can be checked out 20 times before they have to be retired and a new copy purchased. So in the long run, it might be the same amount of income for an author.

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:39 am

I still love libraries and I still use them (frequently). It’s just a different perspective that I have now after publishing a book.

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:15 am

Gee, Kim, it sounds like this was a terrible experience for you. I hope it wasn’t all bad. If you know what you know now, would you do it again? Good luck with the homesteading!

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Kim December 5, 2017 at 7:41 am

Oh, I hope it doesn’t sound like it was THAT terrible. It wasn’t terrible at all just… complicated. Lots of emotion involved. That’s why I wrote this post. I think it is good to have realistic expectations and I think most people have no clue what the publishing process is like (I know I didn’t.) But, yes, I’d do it again and I hope to.

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Ali December 7, 2017 at 1:03 am

I think I wanted to write a novel for about a week. Oddly enough, it may have been right after reading your “what lights your fire” ebook. (Sorry if I got the name wrong there.) But I realized I didn’t have it in me, couldn’t muster the energy to get past the first few pages. I’m sure fiction (what I was trying to write) is a completely different animal from a writing perspective, but very similar as far as the process and stress you’ve described. Anyway, the way you wrote this post made me laugh and also reminded me that there is no way I’d ever want to write a book. Sometimes I don’t even want to write a blog post! I think you have to really want it, really have that burning desire to write and write and write and get it all out there for people to read. It’s clearly not my calling, but I’m so glad it’s yours because your writing is beautiful, and I so enjoyed the Yellow Envelope!
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Michelle Sevigny December 8, 2017 at 8:37 pm

This post cracked me UP! I launched my self-published book one year ago, and although you were published traditionally, there’s definitely overlap.

” #7. In fact, here is a complete list of the things you actually know about the success of your book: 1) Your book is not a New York Times Bestseller 2) Oprah has not picked it for her book club 3) Reese is not making it into a movie. ”
HAHAHA. Okay, guilty! Yep. I sorta had a secret wish (read: delusional expectation :)) that 1, 2 or 3 would happen.

“12. A friend of mine, another author, told me that the best publishing advice she received was to find a new hobby. ”
YEP! For me, it’s adventure motorbiking. While I’m still writing my next book, this creates an inner smile that keeps me going. :):)

I appreciate this blog post, and your vulnerability to write it, SO MUCH.
Cheers,

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