Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why Debut Authors Need Hogwarts: The Top 5 Publishing Secrets No One Tells You

by Amy Franklin-Willis



When the unknown writer crosses into the promised land of publication, she feels victory. Validation. Joy. Astonishment. Revenge. Lucky. Grateful. Psyched.  Exhausted.  All at the same time.  And so the publishing roller coaster begins.

In March 2010 my novel The Lost Saints of Tennessee sold to Grove/Atlantic. Two months ago it was published.  Throughout I have found myself wishing there was a writing conference or a retreat or, perhaps most of all, a school to attend that could prepare me for the most challenging and thrilling stage of my writing life.  

A school where your publishing contract gains you admission and the campus is located in a castle outside of Manhatttan, maybe in Poughkeepsie or Fishkill.  The school uniform consists of skinny jeans and rumpled turtlenecks.  With compulsory crest-emblazoned berets. And everybody smokes but no one gets cancer.

This Hogwarts of Debut Authors features a faculty of esteemed, successful authors of all stripes, genres and sales records.  My dream team would be, in no particular order, J K Rowling, Zadie Smith, John Grisham, Nora Roberts (or NFR as her friends call her), Carl Hiaasen, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, John Gardner (who is deceased but we’re dreaming here), Chris Bohjalian, Lauren Myracle, Mary Oliver, Michael Chabon, Dorothy Allison, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison.  Can’t you just see them all lined up at the head table for the opening dinner? 

And we learn to play Quidditch.  Just because. 

But since the school is still in the early concept stage, I’d like to share my top five publishing secrets no one tells debut authors.  And we’ll go in reverse order because it works for David Letterman.
·     

    SECRET #5The legend of the “Publication Date.”   

      As your book makes its way through the editing stages, your publisher sets a date for its official publication. You mark it on the calendar. You shout it on Facebook.  You tweet it. You post a photo of the mark on the calendar. 

Don’t.  It’s a big old lie.  Your book is no more likely to show up in one synchronized wave of instant placement in bookstores on its publication day than a woman is likely to give birth on her “due date.”   How many babies are born on their due date?  Less than five percent. 

Here’s what you can expect.  Your reviews, if you are lucky enough to get them, will be timed to come out either right before or right after your pub. date—this helps the magazines and newspapers organize their review workload and gives you a healthy promotional rocket booster launch out of the gate. 


Three weeks before your “pub. date” your great aunt Beth in Cedar Rapids will leave you a message saying, “Amy, I just saw your book in the store down the street!  Isn’t that great?  But didn’t you tell me it wasn’t coming out until next month?” 

You panic. The giant levers of publishing are off kilter.  Your book is premature.  PREMATURE.  Premature anything is bad, right?   

Worry not.  Your book is simply making its way towards “full distribution.”  Friends in New York will rejoice because they got the book “early” and friends in New Orleans will complain about the friends in New York because it’s not in their bookstore yet so they had to go listen to music and get drunk instead on Bourbon Street.  The official moment when all of your books are supposed to find their way to their temporary bookstore homes is your pub. date. 

This subject is confusing because we hear about the Harry Potter and Hunger Games midnight book release parties where thousands of readers line up outside their favorite bookstores.  Most authors think that someday, people will be doing this for our books too and when they do, the publisher will then “embargo” our latest book when it ships to the stores with tiny little bombs implanted in the cartons of books set to go off if the bookstore breaks the seal before the official pub. date. 

Until then, dear debut author, we must make do with a sprinkling approach to our books arriving in stores. 

·     SECRET #4:  There is not a “best” time to publish a new author.    

      There are better times.  Unless one is getting a huge push from his publishing house, avoiding the fall publishing season as a debut author seems favorable. Fall is when all the big author books get pushed out in advance of the December holiday season.

So let’s say you and your publisher determine Winter or Summer is the perfect season. You pray that your publication month will be a “quiet” one where your debut book shines like the North Star to potential readers.  No.  Scratch that.  Your first book will function as a solar eclipse amongst the other books foolish enough to schedule publication during your month.

And, inevitably, no fewer than three best-selling authors will have their new books out the same month as yours. Those selfish one percenter author bastards will suck all the air out of the publicity you know was destined for your masterpiece.  You know this as surely as the Flat Earth Society knows the idea of the Earth being round is political propaganda.

·     SECRET #3:  Social Media Will Consume Your Life.    

      At a minimum, your publisher will expect you to:  develop a Facebook presence, either on your own personal page or, more frequently, on an author fan page; tweet snappy, interesting things via Twitter that talk about other things besides your book but occasionally mention your book; have an engaging, easy to navigate website. 

This obligation surprised me the most. I work a full-time job, am raising three kids, and attempting to be a novelist. I now spend more time on Facebook than my teenager.  You will too. 

The social media piece is a HUGE time commitment. Your family will make snarky comments like, "Oh, look, Mom's going to tweet about how sorry she is for running over that poor squirrel because she thinks people will 'favorite' it." They will try to wrest your i-Phone from your hands just as you are uploading to Facebook the cutest picture of your book at the local bookstore.


But the modern reader loves to connect with her authors. She wants to tell you via Facebook or Twitter that she is on page 176 and loving it. And you better be there to thank her for buying your book.

On the web page front, I initially budgeted $1500. My web designer fell through and I ran out of money so I ended up doing it myself through a company called Squarespace. They charge $22/month to host a site and though I pulled several all-nighters to set it up initially, it ended up being the most effective and economical approach. I love my site and can easily add new event dates, reviews, videos and pictures.

·    Secret #2:  The Great Mystery of Sales Data.   

      For five years I worked for UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business as a fundraiser.  I met lots of Silicon Valley CEOs and learned something about business via osmosis during my tenure.  One of the basic expectations of business is tracking sales.  That information is then shared down the food chain from the executives to the sales force to the product developers. 

Not so in my limited publishing experience. Fuzzy ideas about your sales numbers exist at places like "Author Central" on Amazon's web site where you can tap in to Bookscan data (Bookscan is the industry's primary sales tracking method for print books but it contains only 40%-80% of actual sales--yes, you read that right, there's a 40% spread on the accuracy) and get your Kindle e-book rank but not the actual number of e-books sold.

Sales information seems to be guarded by publishers as if the release of the bare figures to you, the author, might be tantamount to giving Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blueprints to our nuclear facilities.  


The one place I've found thus far where I can get hard numbers easily is from my independent booksellers. They happily tell me how sales are going in their stores.

·      And the #1 SECRET is:  Having Your First Book Published Will Be More And Less Than You Ever Dreamed.  

      Here is the bad news. You will not be able to retire on the first royalty check you receive, providing you are in the fortunate group who earns back their advance and makes it into royalty territory.  Odds are against your book making it to the New York Times Bestseller list, though there are always a few debut books each year that do.   

      Most people you meet will never have heard of you or your book. And at least one person, probably more, will write a review either in print or on the web that says your book is “predictable” and that she likes the dog in your book better than the main character. 
  

      But there will be moments, I promise, when the miracle of publication causes your breath to catch. Someone throws you a book party, invites your closest friends and family, you buy a new outfit and feel, for a few hours, as if you are a literary princess or prince and the only person on the planet to have accomplished publication. 

      The first time you see your book in an actual bookstore. Facing out. On the front table. 

      A reader sends you a message that tells you your book--those words you wrote in the dark night while your children slept nearby--caused him to think differently about his relationship with his own family. 

      At a bookstore event, a stranger approaches you shyly with your book in her hands and says that it was wonderful. This same person will ask  your daughters--to whom the book is dedicated--to sign their names on the dedication page. 

      A reviewer will quote one of your favorite lines from the book as evidence of your writing talent and you will feel as if someone is listening. 

      As if your words have gone from that secret place where we conjure them, to the page, to the world.        

37 comments:

  1. This is a beautiful, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing it. - Wiley

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    1. Thanks anonymous, Wiley :) Hope you are hanging tough in week #1 :)

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  2. I love it--so much humor AND wisdom here. Especially about Bookscan, I have to tell you that they say I've sold 20 percent of how many books I've actually sold. Grrrrr.
    But on a higher level thanks for the lovely post.

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    1. Thanks so much, Nancy. One must laugh about this or go crazy, right? And wouldn't it be nice if someone had told US this stuff ahead of time? So we're paying it forward here. Lucky bastards. :)

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  3. I learned five new things I didn't know. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

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    1. Thanks, Brenda! My posting this finally gave me a moment to look around all the other great posts on our blog and I loved yours about gratitude. I commented on it :)

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  4. Amy, this is a wonderful post! Thank you so much for the insights!

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    1. Your welcome! I had way too much fun writing this thing. :)

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  5. Thank you for this funny peek at the insides of a debut novel experience-- your insights are wonderful! And congrats! You're on your way!

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer! It's a wild wacky publishing world out there. But as long as one breathes deeply and whispers, "I am lucky, I am lucky, I am lucky" frequently, I think you do okay :) Minus a minor breakdown or two for good measure.

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  6. Thanks for a wonderful tutorial, Amy. My debut just sold and these are just the kinds of things I've wanted to know. Thank you.

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    1. Hi Lori,
      Congratulations on selling your debut! You must be celebrating to the hilt. As you should. My agent always says you have to celebrate every step of the way and she's so wise about this because the "business" can make you crazy and you can easily forget how wonderful it is to be making your way, at all, into the land of the published author.

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  7. Outstanding, moving post full of humor and truth. Best to you!

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    1. Thanks, Erika :) Can't wait for Hemingway's Girl! You'll be writing your own version of this shortly!

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  8. Can I play Quidditch? *madly waving her contract* I've wanted to play since I first read about it!

    Amy, this is a wonderful post. I too, have stumbled into the barren purgatory between the warm bosom of the unpublished to the exalted halls of NYT.

    Good to know I may survive it!
    Thanks for this.

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    1. You betcha can play Quidditch. We just need to get ourselves some of those Nimbus 3000s....Congrats on selling your debut book! Party :)

      And I hope my experience and those experiences of my fellow Book Pregnanters help illuminates this next yellow brick road stage for you!

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    1. Your welcome! Without you, I wouldn't even be part of the Book Pregnant community so THANK YOU :)

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  10. This is fantastic Amy! Thank you so much for writing it! Not only am I going to share it on social media, but I'm going to share it with my family so they'll get a glimpse into why I'm so crazy lately. You rock!!

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    1. Thanks, Ellen. I hope it helps you gain some respect from the family :) It is such a strange but wonderful world we've stumbled in to...

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  11. This post is wonderful. The truth--told diplomatically. Funny, I thought there should be a conference for writers before pub day on what to expect. I'm doing a talk on this at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference in September. It's even called "What To Expect When You're Expecting (A Book)." I'm going to link to this article if you don't mind.

    best,
    Alma

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    1. Hi Alma,
      I love the title of your talk for the Hampton Roads conference. That's great! And hey, won't the movie version of What to Expect be out then? You'll have a movie tie-in and you can say Jennifer Lopez is playing you in the film. :)

      Please link away! My fellow Book Pregnant authors and me welcome it. Thanks so much for reading & commenting.

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  12. Wonderful and totally true. Having just gone through the same highs and lows with a Jan nonfiction release, I match each point for point. Especially about the contact with readers...the best, especially through Goodreads and other regular people reviewing books they like simply because they're avid readers sites. In a time when publishers are in tatters and Amazon is a mean monster, this is the best thing about the present time for writers.

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    1. Hi Mills-connection Victoria!
      I completely agree with you that the author's ability to connect directly with readers-whether it's on-line or in person at stores and in the community--is the best possible thing we have going for us at the moment in the current shape-shifting publishing environment.

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  13. I absolutely love this. It's all so true-- I have yet to get the release party, but signings at conferences have offered that same feeling. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    Now, it's Thursday, so I'm off to AuthorCentral to look for my imaginary sales figures...

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    2. Hi Rebecca,
      Thanks for reading & for commenting. Congrats on joining the debut party! And please, avoid AuthorCentral when your time comes as much as you can. You will look, as we all do, but the figures there are EVEN MORE INACCURATE than the figures my agent pulls off of Bookscan directly. Best of luck as you journey towards publication!

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  14. Thanks for your wonderful, funny, and insightful post. (Also, totally unrelated to said excellent post, it makes me very happy that you sat next to cardboard Elvis in your top picture up there. I have the same cardboard Elvis in my attic - my girlfriend won't let me put him up in our living room, unfortunately.)

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  15. Your welcome! And that Elvis is a near to the real thing as you can get because that photo was taken in Tupelo, MS at Reed's Gumtree Books. Elvis's birthplace :) (not the bookstore but the town!) I think you should just sneak your Elvis in the middle of the night into the living room and put a hat on it and your girlfriend will never really notice....

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  16. Thanks for this! I had no idea about the publication date roll out. So much to learn... good thing I'm making it up as I go along. :)

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  17. Great post! Thanks so much for sharing your insights!

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  18. Wonderful post, Amy. This is valuable info!

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  19. Okay, so I cried at the end. I wonder if any reader will ask my beloved teenage delinquent to sign the dedication page.

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    1. Thank you, Barbara :) Writing this was such good therapy! And God bless the teenage delinquents of the world.

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  20. Thanks Amy! This is so right---especially the part about networking and how to do all that jazz. And the fact that the publication doesn't really change your life! Great piece! Thanks! This is Anne B....

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