What it’s really like to publish your first book

It’s weird. Let me start there. It’s very weird.

The thing is, I’ve dreamed of publishing a novel since I was a little kid. It was the quintessential pie in the sky. My first attempts at making the dream a reality began in my early twenties. The rejection (from agents and publishers alike) made me want the damn thing even more (this may be related to my last post about how writers are crazy masochists). And now, in my mid-thirties, it finally happened.

I thought it would be life changing. But it’s not. Or, at least, not in the ways I imagined. There have been pleasant surprises. But there are realities of publishing that I didn’t know before (and wish someone had explained to me so I was more prepared).

A writer friend of mine sent me this essay by Jade Sharma entitled “The Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day I Woke Up As a Debut Author.” An excerpt:

My best friend calls.

–Dude, I finished your book in one sitting. It’s so good. I’m really proud of you, she says.

–I’m glad you liked it.

–This must be a big day for you.

–I don’t know. I’m scared.

–What are you scared of? she asks.

–I’m scared that this is the part of the movie where the credits roll.

It’s true that I don’t feel as bad as last week. Not as useless. Jenefer Shute told me, Everyone’s first book is an act of desperation. But I still feel desperate. What do I need—money? Is it attention? Hey, everybody, look at what I can do. I’m super good at making up people and their stories. And then I write it alone in a room and then people go home and read it alone in a room. It’s so fucking weird. Is this a big deal? Is this not a big deal?

See, I’m not the only one who thinks the whole thing is WEIRD. Here are 12 things I’d say to a debut author:

1. You have very little control. People ask me if I designed the cover and I find that hilarious. Not just because I’m a terrible artist, but because big publishers have specific people dedicated to covers and the author just comes in at the last moment to say, “OK, looks good.” I love my cover, but I had nothing to do with it. In general, there is so much going on in the background at the publishing house to determine how your book will be positioned in the marketplace that, ultimately, is out of your hands. People ask me why my book is in some stores and not others. I don’t have an answer, except to say, “That’s what was decided.” Certain books have a ton of marketing dollars behind them, others don’t. It’s not up to the author. Usually, the bigger the advance, the more marketing dollars (because the publisher is trying to sell as many copies as possible to rationalize the amount of the advance).

2. Launch day will be surreal. It will feel like you’re in a dream when you see your book in a store, or when you start getting reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. You won’t be able to grasp it or put words to it (which is weird for you because you’re a writer).

3. Avoid reading reviews. Someone gave me this advice and I did not take it. I’ve gotten mostly positive reviews, and I’ve received nice Tweets and Facebook messages from readers as far away as Australia. Those make my day, but I pay more attention to the negative feedback. I’m drawn to the mean reviews like flies to shit (there’s that masochism again). You have to take it with a grain of salt (and a shot of tequila). People have their opinions for their own reasons. Whatever you do, do not respond to the mean reviews. I actually tried once and Goodreads had a canned message that popped up and said something like, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Good call, Goodreads.

4. Don’t worry about the money. Because, honestly, there isn’t much money in it (unless you get extremely lucky). I’ve heard of the huge advances. I know they’re out there. But most writers don’t get them. And, frankly, getting a big advance has very little to do with the pure quality of the book and more to do with current market trends and connections (which brings me back to #1). The original idea of an advance was to give the author enough cash to focus on writing. Now, most advances could pay a few months’ worth of living expenses. People say, “But you earn money on every book, right?” No. You have to “pay back” your advance first. So, if each book costs $20, you get $2 of that (10% is standard for a hard cover). But it goes toward your advance. So, if your advance was $20,000, you’d have to sell 10,000 books to “pay back the advance” before earning royalties (and when you do earn royalties, it’s $2/book). There are books that take off and sell millions of copies (Girl on the Train, for example), but most don’t. All this is to say that my co-workers should stop asking when I’m quitting my day job.

5. Don’t worry about sales. It’s unlikely you’ll have any idea how sales are doing anyway. I wish I had a t-shirt that said, “No, I don’t know how sales are doing,” because this is the first thing anyone asks me if they haven’t seen me in a few weeks. I have no idea. I’ve been told that Amazon posts some numbers, but those aren’t very accurate. I wouldn’t advise looking at those. The publisher will send me statements of how many copies are sold, but they are on a 3-month delay, so I will get back to you in November. I could probably beg my agent or editor for sales figures, but I think they would be annoyed and I don’t know what good it would do to know.

6. The book probably won’t become a movie, sorry. When I explain #4 to people, they say, “But it could become a movie!” This is the dream, right? Well, it’s not that easy or common. It’s possible that an interested party will option your book (which pays $1,000-$3,000 on average and allows them a certain amount of time to try to secure a studio for production). If they find a studio (and that’s a big IF), that’s when some money rolls in, but we’re still talking high five figures (low six figures if you’re lucky). And even if a studio is behind it, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily get made. Lots of uncertainty with this movie thing.

7. Don’t worry about future book deals. I always assumed that one book would open the door to several others–a lifetime of published novels! Not necessarily. Because of the state of the book industry, publishers are very particular about what they buy these days. Your first book has to do pretty well to get a second deal from the same publisher. At the very least, it has to “earn out” the advance. And if your first book does well, they will want your second book to be very similar to that. You have to not worry about all that and just write what you want to write. Not every book you write may be published, but chances are you will get a second deal eventually. It may be with a different publisher or a different book. The need for persistence does not stop just because you get one book published. There is no resting on laurels unless you are Stephen King.


8. You will feel like you need an assistant. There is a lot of publicity an author can do, especially on the local level, to get the book out there. But it’s very time consuming. I find this work much harder than writing. You want to network with other writers, reach out to bookstores and libraries, set up interviews, etcetera. If you’re a writer, these things probably aren’t in your nature. I hate self-promotion, and I hate the necessity for it even more. But, often, you have to do it because nobody else is going to do it for you.

9. Professional publicity may be a wise (and expensive) investment. The publisher will have someone in house to help with publicity, but the rumors are that person is usually also working on multiple other books. That’s where an outside publicist comes in. They can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per month. I put all of my advance toward publicity. Interestingly, my biggest review, in the Wall Street Journal, was organic. For whatever reason, the WSJ writer picked my book out of a stack on her desk and reviewed it. Still, I’d say you should risk the investment in publicity because if your debut doesn’t do well, that can close a lot of doors.

10. There’s a lot of waiting around. Publishing moves very slow. The time between sending the book out and getting a deal is long (if a deal even happens). The time between getting a deal and the launch of the book is at least 18 months. Things don’t turn around in days, or even weeks. It takes months. It’s good to remember this with advance payouts, too. You get a third of the advance upon signing a contract, a third after the book is done (which could be months later), and a third when the book launches (which could be a year later). So, even if someone gets a big six-figure advance, that money is doled out over many months (or years).

11. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Will this writing thing be a career? Can you make a living? There are success stories of this happening for debut authors, but most writers put in many years (and many books) before they are somewhat secure. People forget that Gillian Flynn wrote other books before Gone Girl (and Gone Girl took a while to take off, too). Overnight sensations are not the norm (and, if you are an overnight sensation, I’m assuming that comes with its own pressures and issues).

12. Enjoy the moment. It’s easy to get discouraged and disillusioned with the realities of the industry. Publishing is a business, after all. It’s not as romantic as it seems. But, getting a book on the shelves is a big deal. That’s part of you, out there in the world, forever. No matter what your advance was or what your future is, enjoy the moment. Enjoy the enthusiasm of your friends and family. Enjoy your launch events. Enjoy those messages from readers who loved your book. I started a scrapbook, with everything from my signed contract with St. Martin’s to the email from my editor with the book cover to photos of my readings to newspaper clippings. You’ll want to remember this. It’s all a blur, so find a way to record it so you can savor it later.

3 thoughts on “What it’s really like to publish your first book

  1. Hi Kim,

    I did leave a response to your note on Goodreads. First, you seem like a generally self-deprecating person. Your website shares but doesn’t overshare. Keeping some things
    private is acceptable and elegant. We seem to live in a culture where everyone believes they can write a book; it is something I do not believe is true. As a writer who’s been writing since I was young I try to remind myself there is a reason it comes easy; I was meant to do it regardless of what anyone else (including friends/family) thinks. Some people have a glass of wine, or run everyday to center themselves; I write and it calms me right down.

    I particularly loved the part in your acknowledgements in People Who Knew Me about the rejections and the people who were nice about it. It’s true. Rejection is part of the writing process but it is never the end game.

    Please do savor this moment of having your book on the shelf because it does matter!

    Be well, Lisa

  2. Hi Kim
    Thank you for spilling out the secrets of the publishing world. I have been considering getting my poetry collection published, but now I know that it’s gonna be tough. But, I’m prepared for it. I just randomly reached your blog somehow and your post is an eye-opener. I’m running my own small-time literary magazine, anoshoflife.com, and would like to invite you for an interview there. As you mentioned, networking is difficult and time consuming, so here am I. I would like to introduce you to a blogging community who welcomes people like you.
    And “payback royalties first”? That came as a big shocker to me, honestly!
    I wish I had some more ways to promote you book, but the least I can do is interview you as a featured author and review your book. Would you like that?
    Let me know.
    And don’t be disheartened or discouraged. We all find our way.
    All the best 🙂

    1. Hi! Sorry for the late reply. Yes, I would love an interview. Thank you for the interest. Please email me and we’ll set up something (kimhooperwrites@gmail.com). Thanks!

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