Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don’t Turn Being Published Into a Fairy-Tale

by Sophie Perinot

“And they all lived happily ever after.”  How many times have we heard or read those words since childhood?  There is a lively debate about whether traditional fairy-tales are good for kids (and particularly for girls who get demoted to rescuee in many of them), but what about writers, particularly unpublished ones?

It seems to me—and I know A LOT of writers—that many writers walking the trail towards their first book deal (aka the “death march”) idealize being published.  They view the writer who has snagged a contract with a Major House and whose books sit on shelves at Barnes & Noble’s nationwide as Cinderella after the wedding.  No more nasty stepsisters, no more cleaning up after everybody—publication is the tiara, the ball gown, the bright lights, the always-agreeable handsome royal husband.  Talk about a recipe for disappointment.

There is a reason fairy-tales end where they do (as Stephen Sondheim so cleverly illustrated in his musical Into the Woods with an eye-opening second act that begins just after ‘happily ever after”).  Our ideal is just somebody else’s everyday reality with all the work, worry success and failure that entails.  This is true in any profession—no matter how satisfying—and certainly in publishing.  My first novel has been out for seven months.  I am not going to lie, being published is better than not being published and also marks a significant personal goal reached.  BUT my life post-publication has more in common with my life pre-publication than the as-yet-unpublished might like to think; only it is far more hectic.

If you are as yet unrepresented and/or unpublished you are writing a book, polishing it and spit-shining your pitch.  And you are waiting—on tenterhooks—to hear the opinion of agents in the query process (or, if you are repped, your own personal agent in the review process) and/or *gulp* publishers (if you are out on submission).  Well guess what, I am writing a new book and polishing it.  There is no guarantee it will be acceptable to my agent and/or publisher.  Even authors with multi-book deals have to please the gate-keepers again and again.  A second (or third, or fifth) time author doesn’t get to just turn in whatever he/she wants and say “this is my book”—unless he/she has the market power of say JK Rowling.  And on top of getting “what’s next” ready to submit (doubtless to be followed by rounds of edits with both agent and editor in turn) I am promoting book one, putting miles on my car and taking years off my life (hey, those promotion hours have to come from somewhere don’t they).

I am NOT complaining—nobody likes “poor me” especially from the published.  What I am saying is it is a damn good thing I had a realistic view of what publication would and wouldn’t mean in the big picture of my writing career and my life.  If I’d thought I’d wake up as Cinderella post ball I would probably be deeply depressed right now.

Here’s my advice for those who want to face the morning after the ball feeling content and hopeful rather than suicidal:

1) Start your publishing journey with an education and a realistic view—this is a career path not the yellow-brick road.  There is no Emerald City of publishing and if there was the wizard would probably be some shyster from the state fair.  Success in this business is personal and it is a moving target.  If you want hit it you’d better be smart.

So many writers seem to focus their reading and fact gathering nearly exclusively on the step just in front of them (e.g. querying).  But it is important to look ahead, educating yourself about the nuts and bolts of your corner of the industry as they apply to career writers not just newbies.  What kind of print runs are common in your genre? What are the bench marks that need to be met if you want to continue to be published (e.g. 60% sell through is a common one across a number of genres)? What type of money should you personally expect to spend on marketing your work, and what are current authors doing to market themselves successful?  If you don’t know what work is expected of a published author with a book to promote and deadlines to meet on a next book, you will find yourself at the starting line of a marathon (your publishing career) with no training or conditioning. Not good.

If you’ve done your homework then you can set realistic goals and meet them.  Just make sure you never let yourself be fooled into thinking that any one goal means you are done and you’ve “made it.”  Enjoy the journey because the journey is 99% of any career including being a published author.

2) Think of your agent as your partner not your savior.  That’s really how all those heroines should think of the handsome prince if they want their marriages to survive right?  You’ve wanted an agent for so long, and she/he makes you feel so talented (and you are), but after that first burst of post-signing excitement you have to be able to edit together and navigate the mine-field that is the submission process.

So don’t idealize your agent.  Allow her/him to tell you tough truths and be prepared to speak truth back.  Don’t have unrealistic expectations either.  Your agent is not your fairy-godmother because (repeat after me) this is not a fairy-tale.  She believes your book will sell but it might not (a full 50% of agented manuscripts from debut authors don’t).  If it doesn’t, don’t be too quick to blame your agent, bad mouth her, or fire her without some good, hard, rational thought first.  Finally, you do need to be prepared, should the necessity arise, to admit your non-fairy-tale marriage has gone sour.

3) Celebrate getting to the ball in grand style, but recognized the clock will strike midnight.  Whether you’ve just signed with an agent or penned your name on your first publishing contract, cheer, shout, have dinner out, buy yourself something nice.  But remember this is not the end of your journey—there is another act to come and you are going to face new hurdles.  When the clock strikes twelve and you have to take off the gown, put the work clothes back on and get down to business you don’t want to fall to pieces.

Bottomline:  view the publication of your first (or seventh) book as a plot point NOT “the end.”  You may be writing fiction, but your personal story will be anything but a fairy-tale and that’s a good thing.  After all, most fairy-tales have one-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists.  In real life, as in good writing, we should strive for more depth.

Sophie Perinot's debut novel, THE SISTER QUEENS, tells the story of two 13th century sisters who became the queens of England and France, but it is no fairy-tale.  You can find Sophie at home here, or on Facebook at her author page or the page for her novel.  She is also active on twitter.


JennaQuentin said...

Thanks for this encouragement and warning. Sometimes I feel that learning more about publishing means I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. But I know that knowledge will be good for later. Loved the fairy-tale twist to this ;)

Jessica Brockmole said...

It *is* so easy to think of the road to publication as a fairy tale. I especially liked #2 and #3. There's absolutely a lot of work after the clock strikes midnight, but keeping in mind #2, that you have partners in this venture now and don't have to go it alone, that helps tremendously.

Mary Tod said...

Sophie .. your post is a much-needed prompt for me as an unpublished author suffering the death march. Thank you. I have some thinking to do.

Anonymous said...

This was good advice and one that i will bear in mind as another one on that journey. It has given me something to research as I do know of other authors whom my style of writing I suppose would sit alongside on a shelf in a bookshop if published. its that I have to view - would i still be accepted now. I believe i would as i have looked at the market. But you ave given me much pause for thought.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Sophie! I especially like this line... Success in this business is personal and it is a moving target. Perfect!! :)

Victoria Lamb said...

I agree in general, but it's perhaps not quite as grim as you've made out. Or it doesn't have to be. I would be very much put off writing if I read this as an unpublished author.

It is tough, but forging a *good* working relationship with an agent can help massively to get you through the mid-list bumps. My best advice for writers in this position would be, stay flexible and perhaps develop dual careers, i.e. either two genres, very possibly with different names, or two types of writing, i.e. novels and journalism. This means lots of hard work, yes, but if it's your dream, you will do it. So if one genre or type of writing flags, you have another to fall back on. This will make you less desperate to make sure every word you write succeeds.

I've been writing since 1995 and have had plenty of career changes and very lean times. I'm still going, but I'm under no illusions that I'll still be doing exactly what I'm doing now in five years' time. Indeed, if I was in the same place in five years' time, I'd be very disappointed.

Onward and upward! (Or sideways!)

Sophie Perinot said...

Oh Victoria I agree, LOVE my agent. Such a career builder. I am not seeking to discourage anyone from the profession and I love writing myself, but as someone who moderates at a website full of folks focused on "getting an agent" and then "getting published" as if those were the Holy Grail (or the Power Ball lottery) I think it is important not to view publication as your "knight in shining armor" leading to bliss without work. Surely after so many years as a published author and interacting with those trying to break-in you have seen the type. Like marriage--publishing is best entered eyes open as a partnership and with the knowledge that the hard work doesn't end when you say "I do."

Erin Cashman said...

Wonderful post, Sophie! I was one of those authors who was thrilled to sell my book and did not do my research about publishing. I have learned a lot, needless to say! It is not an easy career path, and riddled with highs and lows. Luckily, I found a wonderful community of authors to help guide me through it. This is great advice!

Leigh said...

This is great, Sophie! I'm forcing my husband to read it. He honestly believes that once I "make it" everything will be okay and my career will be set. I love him, and I love that he believes in me so much, but sometimes his optimism is frustrating.

Jean Oram said...

Love the analogy, Sophie!