The First Five Years: What I’ve learned, what I have yet to learn, and where I screwed up.
Five years ago today, my first published book went live. Ten minutes after that, I started screwing things up. No, really, I swear. The day 12.21.12 released, (yes, on 12.21.10, I know that’s a bit chintzy), I had the flu. Thinking a good author should try to pimp her new release, I went on to the Kindle Boards (now called KBoards) to post about my book, while drowsy/dizzy/on medication, and wrote a post with a few typos in it. As you might know, the people on KB are not always forgiving, and immediately, I was lambasted. How good could my book be, they said, if I couldn’t even spell all the worlds in a four line post correctly?
Lesson learned: don’t market medicated.
Five years wasn’t all that long ago, and yet, the publishing world was so different then. Kindle Direct Publishing was around, but it wasn’t yet the behemoth player in the marketplace. There were still two major national bookstore chains. Print was still the thing, and ebooks were only beginning to emerge as any sort of viable market. The ebook of my first book wasn’t even available on Amazon until several months later. Now Borders is but a memory, and Barnes & Nobles struggles. Back then, if you were a published author, that was still a true and rare thing. It would still be a few months after 12.21.12 published that the first self-published success story, Amanda Hocking, earned a name for herself. If you self-published, the general presumption was that you only did so because your work wasn’t good enough for a “real” publisher.
Boy, that sure changed, didn’t it?
Five years and a few months ago, I pulled together my guts in a ziplock bag, slung them over my shoulder, and started knocking on the doors of publishers and agents. Metaphorically, of course. I mean, we all understand that right? I wasn’t literally carting around lungs and gizzards. When Hemingway said the key to writing was bleeding all over your typewriter, that’s not what he meant. At the start, I sent out one query letter to one publisher. A week later, I had a signed contract in hand. While I was thrilled then, I’ve learned a lot of lessons since that have told me why that was ultimately such a bad thing to happen. Firstly, of course, because it gave me unrealistic expectations of how easy the path in front of me seemed. Moreso because it inflated my ego, since (in the words of my 2010 self) I obviously was a lot more talented than authors who labored for years with nothing to show. I was a shoe-in.
See, here’s the thing about sticking your nose so high in the air. It makes it so much easier for the universe to bop you on it.
Of course, it would take time, frustration, pain, and a little bit of hope to learn that and the other things I’ve learned so far. Among the other lessons I’ve taken from the first five years are these:
When you’re trying to be a professional writer, try to act professionally.
This, by far, has been the hardest, and I’m still not anywhere near to mastering the skill. I’ve gotten better though. In the early years, and still now but with lessening occurrence, I assumed friendship where I only should have practiced courtesy. While there are exceptions, the following people are not your friends: your publisher, your agent, your PR assistant, your editor, your cover designer, your lawyer, your readers, other authors, the general public. Can people from this list become friends? Yes, of course, but it is not a de facto position. Too many times, I made the assumption that I had a personal relationship with people because I had a good professional relationship with them. Consequently, when I had a problem or dilemma, be it personal or professional, I unloaded to people either not equipped or not in a position to help me, and burdened them with the baggage of my emotion. I’ve lost too many relationships this way, both professional and personal.
Self-publishing is both the greatest thing that has ever happened, and the worst thing that has ever happened to publishing.
I’m sure this one is debatable, and that some of you will disagree with me. But, if I’m to look as a writer at the current state of the publishing industry, I have to rely on good, old Chuck Dickens, and his immortal words that open A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There are so many successful writers today whose work never would have seen the light of day if they hadn’t self-published, and there are so many good writers who can’t get a hold in the marketplace because of the ease with which it’s entered upon. Understand where I stand. I’m a firm believer in market economy; I think the readers should be the one who determines what books are successful, and not necessarily a diminishing number of gatekeepers and marketing agents. However, I think that self-publishing has also been a detriment of some writers, who in a more traditional system would have benefited professionally from rejection. I would put myself into this group. I’ve put out several books that would have benefited with some firm criticism and growing pains before they were published. No one likes rejection, I know, but we all have to admit that sometimes it does us some good in the long run. If we’re always right, we can never be wrong. If we’re never wrong, then how does reflection, growth, and developing our craft become an obligation to one’s self?
I have no talent when it comes to predicting trends or whose work will go far.
This one isn’t really a critical lesson, but I find it entertaining. Through the first five years, I have twice been part of an author collective (both of which have dissolved since). Collectives are wonderful for new authors, because they give you, in theory, a safe place to bitch, moan, get advice, and support and be supported by other writers. In the first one which I was in right after my first book came out until right after my second book came out, I remember making the comment that none of us should be worried about media relations, since it was unlikely any of us were going to be huge successes the first time out or become NYT bestsellers. The group included, among others, Alice Clayton, Helena Hunting, Nina Bocci, Laura Kaye, JM Darhower, and Debra Anastasia – all of whom went on to hit a variety of best seller’s lists. Oh, yeah, there was one more author who was in that group whose career is still struggling (#sarcasm): EL James.
There’s a flip side to this too, of course. There are also writers I’ve read whose work is among the best I’ve ever encountered, yet who still linger in the margins of the industry. (See Grave Refrain for example.) The stellar writing of such work leaves me feeling sure they’ll go on to great success. At the same time, I feel like I have a great secret that hardly anyone knows.
Past performance is not an indicator of future returns.
Peaks and valleys is the term I hear often. Some months you’ll do really well, have a lot of sales, and think things are finally picking up. Some months, you wonder if you’ll have enough in the bank to buy a cup of coffee. Sometimes you’ll spend weeks marketing a release and it falls flat. Sometimes out of nowhere, you get a dozen sales of a title on a day and you did nothing. Nothing begets nothing, as Billy Shakespeare wrote. Sometimes, something begets nothing, or nothing begets something. Anyone who claims they understand and know all of what’s going on the industry right now is either lying or trying to sell you something.
You can write what you want, or write what the markets want. Don’t try to write both at the same time. In fact, don’t try to write to the market at all.
A few years ago, I ran an experiment under a different pen name. I put out a book that I tried to make as trope-driven and a reflection of what the market wanted as possible. Half way through writing the book, I decided I just couldn’t end it with the predictable, cliche ending lovers of the genre expected. The result? Both me and the readers ended up hating the book. In trying to make us both happy, everyone involved just ended up unsatisfied.
If you do find a few other authors with whom you can have both a professional and personal relationship with, treasure them. Also, some readers will stand by you, no matter what. Collectively, this is your tribe.
I’m friendly with many authors and readers, but as I mentioned above, I’ve learned to be a lot more reserved when it comes to assuming friendship. This is sadly because I’ve also had the experience where even authors who proclaimed we were friends, ended up stabbing me in the back. For a short time after this happened, I decided to cut myself off completely from any social interaction. I even considered unpublishing all my books. Thank goodness reason got to me before then. It was a close call. In the aftermath, after all the dust settled, and I saw who was still beside me, I learned the meaning of true friendship. Friendship is something that becomes so much sweeter and rare when it’s concentrated in the hearts of a few rather than diluted across a trove of many. I honor each of the friends I’ve made.
Now for a few highs and lows…
The best day of the last five years was… when Melissa Perea published her review of A Love By Any Measure. On top of being an awesome review, it happened to also be the day I’d decided to give up writing. I’d been having a difficult time for several months, and things just kept getting worse. Declining sales, bad or lukewarm reviews, a cancer of jealousy that wormed its way into my bloodstream… Then, literally, as I was signing into Facebook so I could delete my account, I saw a message from Melissa about how much she loved my book. I still tell her she saved my writing career, and it’s true.
The worst day of the last five years was… when the publishing house that had put out my first book and I decided we needed to part ways, and I suddenly found myself with two written books and no publisher. Ultimately, I’d decide to self-publish, but on that day, I thought my writing career might have been over before it ever took off.
The most awesome moment was… stepping into the elevator at RT2011, and having a woman across the way see my name tag and squeal, “Oh my god, it’s you!” Nowadays, that situation would probably flip, since that woman was Darynda Jones.
The most embarrassing moment was… when, after spending two months prepping A Love for Any Measure for print, and after having sent out dozens of copies to reviewers, I realized there was a huge typo on the FIRST BLOODY PAGE.
The most surprising moment was… when A Love by Any Measure was the number one free book on Amazon Kindle. It only lasted an hour, but it was awesome.
The moment I wish I could most take back was… when I decided to respond to a troll review on Goodreads. Never swat a troll. They release a pheromone that alerts all the other trolls and they swarm.
The thing I look forward to most in the next five years is… really coming into my own. I feel like this first half-decade has been practice, and that I’m only now really finding my voice. I still have so many stories inside me, so many characters who claw for an opportunity to come out.
So, thanks for the first five years guys. I think it can only go up from here.
Oh, and I would be remiss without mentioning one more thing: On that day five years ago, a dear friend also had her first book release. A week or so later we would have a joint release party, where my three friends and her forty friends would come together and give us the night of our lives. Happy Anniversary, Robin DeJarnett! Now, when is that sequel coming out?