“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Tom Leveen, author of Hellworld) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they possibly got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
This guest post is by Tom Leveen. Leveen is the author of eight novels with imprints of Random House and Simon & Schuster, including HELLWORLD, which launches March 21, 2017.
Howdy, writers! Last time we talked, I was a dewy-eyed debut author with a Random House imprint, high on a healthy advance for my first novel, and sure that world domination was right around the corner. Since then, I’ve been flown to Germany on a ten-day tour in support of one of my novels becoming a German translation. I’ve written for a very successful comic book franchise. My eighth traditionally published novel comes out March 21, with my ninth out in January 2018.
Wow! Sounds like things went great, Tom!
While I definitely count my blessings, the dew has gone from my eyes and the callouses from working in this industry are getting bigger by the week. That’s okay, it happens to everyone.
It will happen to you, too.
So here are seven (more) things I’ve learned about being a professional author I wish someone would have told me ahead of time.
1. You might lose at least one agent during your career.
I have lost three.
Most agents are “lost” simply because they leave their jobs. There is not much you can do in this scenario except wish her well and figure out if you’re going to stay with the agency (sometimes possible, but not always) or go in search of another agent.
Approach a new search just like the one you did previously: Assemble a list of prospective agents and start the submission process. If you’ve already sold a novel, you may have author friends willing to make introductions to their own agents, but do not expect this and do not take offense if they don’t. Any introductions authors make on your behalf to their agents are just that and nothing more: introductions. Agents won’t take a new client based solely on the input of one of his authors, and rightly so.
If you’ve sold novels already, mention them in your new queries. If you haven’t sold yet, focus on the novel for which you’re seeking representation, with no mention of your previous agent. When your new agent calls to chat about representation, then you can bring up your situation. And, being the professional you are, say nothing negative about your former agent. Be a pro and stick to unemotional facts when the subject of previous agents comes up. A new agent considering representing you will ask what happened, so be ready to give an honest but kind answer.
2. You will lose at least one editor.
I have lost four.
Editors get “lost” for the same reason as agents: They frequently switch jobs or are laid off as a part of industry changes.
Losing an editor means you’re losing a cheerleader for your work at the publishing house. Also, an editor who has already bought your manuscript in the past is more likely to continue buying; without them, you’re back at the starting line when the time comes to pitch again.
But losing an editor can be a good thing. If you wanted to branch out into a new genre, now is a great time to try. Or maybe an editor with more clout than the last one finds you and skyrockets you to fame and fortune.
The good news is that losing an editor should have no impact on your ability to sell future novels. Everybody knows editors come and go, so it won’t raise any eyebrows when you are pitching to a new editor.
3. Your book gets lost in the shuffle.
If the editor who acquired your novel leaves the company, a book that has been purchased but not yet published can get lost in the shuffle. With nobody around to shepherd your book, it can sit on a hard drive, abandoned. Your frantic emails to people in the company may go unreturned. Someone may email you officially rejecting the manuscript, unless you’ve already been paid the first part of your advance. In that case, chances are good the book will get produced as promised, though sometimes later than originally hoped for.
But sometimes, books just get lost, period. Publishing houses—large and small—are busy places filled with busy people, and I’ve heard of authors spending months trying to find out what is happening to a manuscript that got lost when an editor left. Sometimes another editor is assigned, sometimes not. Sometimes it falls to someone who is not even an editor to guide the book through to publication.
The good news is the book will almost certainly go to press if you were already paid your advance. The bad news is:
4. Your publisher doesn’t love you as much as you think.
Tape this above your computer: Publishers are in business to make money. That’s not a bad or good thing; it’s just a fact.
Please note that editors, the champions for your book, get into the job because they really do love finding and working with new authors. They are underpaid and overworked and no one would do the job if they didn’t truly, deeply love it.
That being said, publishing companies are, in fact, companies. They are there to turn a profit, not make your particular dreams come true. The chances that your book—of the many they are putting out that season—is going to get the extra love of table space at Barnes & Noble is remote, particularly if you’re just establishing yourself. Those extra spaces cost money, and that money is being spent on books they are relatively sure will sell well.
This is first and foremost a business, and as such, publishers can’t invest the same amount of time and money into every single novel out there.
5. Your readers love you, but not as much as you might think.
We love our readers! And some of them love us back! There will always be at least a handful who will loudly sing your praises, take time out of their own lives to promote you to friends, and generally become the reason you’re able to keep writing.
If only they’d leave a review on Amazon.
You know you “need” a social media presence. That’s mostly true, but use only those mediums that you’re comfortable with. And remember: “likes” and “retweets” and “shares” are not book sales. You know what actually sells books?
Word of mouth, and lots and lots of reviews on Amazon.
Sites like Goodreads are not booksellers, and reviews posted on such sites do not necessarily translate to actual sales. Reviews on Amazon, however, can land your book in automated marketing emails and recommendations lists generated by Amazon algorithms that can keep sales of your book humming along.
Encourage your fans and followers to post reviews on Amazon. There’s just no substitute. Be gracious to your fans when you meet them, and be sure to interact on whatever social media you’re using. But also ask for those Amazon reviews, because for whatever reason, it’s like pulling teeth to get readers to post.
Which brings us to:
6. You should have majored in marketing.
Or maybe you did, yet you still can’t get your book out there into readers’ hands.
There are a million articles, books, and videos on book marketing, and you should certainly study up on some of them (but be wary of “Can’t Miss Marketing Classes!”). There’s far too much to summarize here, but I do highly recommend these two starting points:
First, do not go into debt trying to market your book. It’s not worth it.
Second, I beg of you, do anything, anything other than a reading when you go to your bookstore events. I’m a trained theatre actor with more than twenty years of experience and even I don’t do “readings” anymore. They are enormously difficult to do well. Instead, talk about a topic associated with your book that you are passionate about. Or offer a class on something you are knowledgeable about and find a way to tie it to your book. Virtually anything is more engaging than an untrained author giving an untrained reading. Juggle kittens if you must, just don’t give a dry recitation of your favorite chapter.
7. You just started a small business. (Or large one!)
I got a nice advance for my debut novel, which scared me enough to talk to a tax professional before the first check arrived. Had I not done that, I’m sure I would have lost most of it to poor planning decisions.
Unless you are a tax professional, go talk to one before your first advance check arrives, no matter how much or little it might be worth. I’ve heard heart-wrenching stories of debut authors having no idea advance money was taxable income, only to experience quite a shock when the IRS came calling.
Ask about forming an LLC or company. While I cannot and will not advise you on that, I will say to get thee thither to someone who knows at least a little bit about publishing to advise you on how best to protect your book income as well as your overall financial interests.
In conclusion: Yes, publishing is a tough gig, but I promise—if you love your craft, if you love writing—it’s still worth it. Hang in there.
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