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5 Bonus Tips on How to Survive in Publishing

Straight talk from an industry veteran on how to stay true to yourself—and champion your book—in the madness that publishing has become. by Patricia Holt

I’ve never understood why mainstream book publishers so cruelly treat the very people who pay all our salaries. Not long ago, authors were admired as the creative center of our culture; today they’re treated with suspicion and kept at the bottom of the publishing hierarchy.

Nobody will admit to this in corporate publishing because they can’t see it. But in my view, after hearing hundreds of horror stories for the past 40 years, an unconscious conspiracy exists in mainstream houses that’s determined to make authors feel expendable and replaceable.

How this happened is worth a series of books one day, but in the meantime, What are you going to do about it? If “they” don’t know about this unconscious conspiracy, how can a lone author fight it?

Well, here is the good news: If the mainstream book industry is going nuts over a hundred things—flat sales, budget cuts, commercialization, layoffs, foreign owners, Internet competition—you are the only constant. The idea for a book that is setting you on fire is going to be the source of your clarity and your courage.

The “bad” news is (not really so bad): You’re going to end up doing all the work for your publisher anyway, so why not start now?

In the July/August issue of WD, I offer up 14 tips for maintaining your integrity and achieving success in publishing. But there’s more where those come from: Here are five bonus tips to help you along the way, from writing your big idea to breaking in to the business.

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1. Write, don’t talk.
The tendency when you’ve got something as hot as your book idea is to talk it out with your spouse or best friend or parent—and oh, how gratifying it is to see them catch your excitement and reflect it back. And then maybe a business colleague or a kindly aunt and I’m not going to mention your Pilates partner or car mechanic, as I’m sure you get the picture: The more you talk out your idea, the harder it is to transfer it into print with the same high energy. When we hit the keyboard, a certain amount of drudgery awaits. If you’ve gone the too-easy route by talking, you’re going to face the too-hard route of writing.

2. Create a daily practice.
The same thing goes for lying in bed thinking of all your great ideas or sitting in a traffic jam daydreaming about how your book will sound. Out, out, go all those perfect sentences and bits of language that may never come back when you’re finally staring at the blank screen. Yes, you can always carry a notebook for scattered ideas, but the better plan is to slam the lid down and wait for your special time. Learn to funnel every bit of book energy into a regular daily practice of writing. Get up at 5 a.m., when your mind is fresh and the house is quiet, and creak open that lid. Your ever-searching mind will love you because never again will you postpone the time to think and write; now all your senses are getting ready every minute of the day for this one precious time—and boy, will the dam burst. (Pardon all mixed metaphors from now to end of article.)

3. Find a trusted advocate.
An author needs solitude during the writing process like an infant needs milk. Every time you sit down alone at the keyboard, think of destiny’s hand placing you there: This is your fueling station, even when—especially when—you read the pages the next day and think, oh hell, it’s horrible. Remember Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts.” They’re just part of the learning process, and believe me, to paraphrase philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, every failure makes you stronger.

But a time does come when you as the author are too close to the material to judge objectively how good it is, and that’s when you need trusted outside help. Resist your inclination to run a chapter by friends or relatives, because they’re rooting for you to succeed—and, like it or not, that taints their judgment. Better to find a writing group or individual coach who’ll work for you. Ask independent booksellers, other writers and book bloggers for referrals; try two or three sessions, and if you don’t find the advice useful, go find another one. Or hire a consultant with publishing experience who knows how to be your writing advocate—someone who not only points out your weaknesses, but shows you how to use your strengths to fix them. If all else fails, find a high school writing teacher or English professor you trust and ask her for a read-through. Just don’t start the submission process alone, without reaping the benefits of valuable outside input first.

4. Cultivate your local bookseller.
If you are an author, you’re probably a reader, and I hope you’ve been placing your book-buying dollars with an independent bookstore. Not only do these hardworking retailers keep free speech and literary diversity alive, but they can be an author’s best friend. If you’re a returning customer who’s known by the staff, when you do land that coveted book deal, they’ll all be so proud of you and so excited your book is coming out that they’ll have ideas to spread the word you’ve never thought of. They can, for example, write selling reviews to other booksellers through the national pipeline of independents called IndieBound; create “shelf-talkers”—personal written recommendations from staff taped on the bookshelf; talk the book up with your publisher’s sales rep; host your first launch party; tell other authors about your book; offer a place for TV/radio/newspaper interviews, get word to the dozens of book groups they host and generally create the kind of buzz that makes your publication day a real event.

Don’t wait until you have a book to build these relationships. Start right now.

5. Schedule phony trips to New York.
So you’ve submitted your work and you’ve garnered some interest. This is a crucial, pivotal moment. Usually you can sense the right agent or editor for you, but until you sit down for a face-to-face talk, you won’t really know for sure. Especially if your decision is split between two or three candidates, the best thing is to get on a plane and fly to New York so you can interview them all. (Of course, very good agents live all over the country, but I’m assuming your major candidates are in New York).

But since they’re all in the fast lane and you’re at the bottom of the heap, remember, it would kill them if they had to be owing to you for coming to New York specifically to see them. Somehow the guilt they’d feel would turn around and make you the stalker.

Once you’ve signed with a house, always say to the editor, “I have a trip to New York scheduled in a few weeks. Perhaps I could meet with you then.” Their relief will be palatable on the phone. Make it clear you come to the city several times a year—and start saving mileage or cash for it now. In your early meetings, your editor will introduce you to the art director, sales manager, advertising and publicity people. Don’t let these meetings drain down the sewer. Establish personal relationships so that later when you have questions, or when some terrible decision is about to be made, your voice will be heard.

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