This is the first in a series of a toolbox called “How I Book,” a collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, and Dan Blank, the founder of WeGrowMedia. The aim is to provide honest, practical advice to writers negotiating the murky waters of publication, especially around their roles in publicity and marketing, where so much is expected and so little guidance is often offered.
Five Things I Wish I’d Known Five Months Before I Published My First Novel
By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
I wrote my first book while during my senior year at Vassar, in a program called “Senior Composition,” taught by an eminent poet. The class of twelve — selected by the poet from a roster of applicants; we were the only English majors allowed to write creative theses — met in a secret room at the top of a set of stone steps in the heart of the college’s gothic library. Our year of critiquing each other’s work culminated in a reading, organized and promoted by the English Department. Because this was bookish Vassar, there was a big showing from our fellow students. The audience crowded the parlor until it was standing room only.
A few years later, when I sent my second novel out to agents (this book was to become my first published novel, The Effects of Light), I still believed that my experience as a professional writer would be aesthetically lovely (fountain pens, wooden desks by windows, hot tea), supported (mentors, colleagues, finances covered), and considered important by readers (they would just find me… right?). My privileged perspective was upheld… for a time. An agent loved the book and worked with me on it for nearly a year (she is still my agent, by the way). Of the first round of editors to whom we sent the book, there were nibbles from two major publishers, one of which offered a pre-empted two-book deal in the mid-six figures (“pre-empt” means that you have to decide right then and there if you are going to take the deal). I took the deal. I quit my day job.
Needless to say, reality struck soon enough. My editor left the company six months before the book came out. The Effects of Light did fine for itself, but nothing like what the publisher had hoped it would do (it didn’t even come close to earning back its advance), and I was still bound to the publisher for a second book (I had no idea what that book would be). I sat back, watching what I thought would be my effortlessly supported career swirling down the drain (although at the time I still believed I was special enough that I would rise like cream).
When I delivered my next book, Set Me Free, it was clear from the start that I was screwed. I was asked to completely rewrite the novel with a secondary editor; not the top-notch editor who’d taken me on when my acquiring editor left the publishing house. My in-house publicist failed to send the book out to half of the trade magazines. But I failed to see the warning signs. I still believed that my audience would just, well, be there, waiting for me, as my fellow students had at Vassar. I hired a personal publicist and sent the book out to awards on my own (one of which it won), but I didn’t have any sense, beyond that, what I could do to help my book get into the world. From the perspective I have now, I can see that while I thought I was doing plenty, I was actually sitting on my hands, on the sidelines of my own career. I was afraid to look to closely at my own failure, or to examine my own complicity in that failure.
Set Me Free sold abysmally. Worse yet, it became clear, as months led to years, that my second book’s sales record meant that no one wanted to publish another book by me. My agent and I sent out the first book I’d ever written, the one I’d penned at Vassar. We got rejections across the board. I wrote another book. The same thing happened, only this time, the rejections stung even more; one stated that it would be too much work to re-launch a career that had plummeted so far. That was a wake-up call.
I did write more books, eventually. And a publisher did buy them. But this was after years of bitterness, of hard work, of doubt, of shame, of lack of belief in my abilities. When Bittersweet hit the New York Times bestseller list, I was shocked; my goals had been reconfigured since I published The Effects of Light. All I wanted, upon publishing Bittersweet, was to sell enough books that a publisher would give me the chance to put another book into the world.
My next novel, June, will be published on May 31st. But I have no more illusions that an audience is just waiting for me to bless them with my next book. Nor do I assume that this good fortune will last. The best thing I can do is keep my head down, and, yes, write my books.
But I understand now that just writing books is not enough. Not for me. Not if I want this to be my job. I wish someone had sat me down in that idyllic Vassar classroom nearly two decades ago and told me some of the realities of the career I was choosing. Here’s what I wish she had said.
1. Decide What You Want And Go After It
I stated above that when I published Bittersweet, what I wanted most from the experience was to be able to publish another book. The full truth is that I also dreamed of financial security — a nearly impossible goal for writers in this day and age. But it’s important to say that I wanted it, and that, for at least the time being, I seem to have gotten it. Here’s why I think that’s the case.
I spent the early part of my career in the hazy fog of literary fiction. If someone asked me what kind of books I wrote, I said “they’re literary.” I didn’t have any sense of who my audience was beyond “people who like good books” (don’t worry, I’m cringing more than you are). And I had no idea what I wanted for my career, beyond publishing a book. I just kind of assumed publication would go hand in hand with a nice chunk of money, and that a career would unfurl itself like a red carpet underneath my feet.
It was only after I experienced true career failure that I took stock of what I hoped to get from my career. I realized, first of all, that I’m someone who wants to earn my living exclusively with writing. Let me state here that I have plenty of incredible writer friends who’ve found other ways to pay the rent — they are extraordinary teachers, or have fulfilling office jobs, or have a partner who can financially support them. That’s great. There have been many times in my life I’ve felt envious of what this buys these friends — the chance to write what they want, over the course of whatever period of time they’d like to write it — because they are not relying on their writing to pay for their kids’ preschool. But I discovered that’s exactly what I want my writing to do (I don’t do anything as well as I write, except maybe make guacamole), even if I had no idea how to do that.
During the slump that occurred after Set Me Free’s publication, I had lunch with my first editor. I belly-ached about the state of my career and asked him what I should do. “Write a bestseller,” he replied, without a trace of irony. I was so low, so desperate, that I was able to actually hear him. He was telling me it was time to make a choice. Did I want this? Then I needed to commit.
I realized, then and there, that my ambition was to write something that would sell, because what I really wanted — what I felt I needed — was twofold: to be able to keep writing and to contribute financially to my family. A younger, more dreamy version of myself would have balked at blatantly prioritizing making art that could be commercially viable. Doing so probably meant letting go of award ambitions, and of being part of what I perceived as the “cool” literary folks that surround me in Brooklyn. But in order to fight for what I wanted, I was going to have to risk losing out on some of my literati dreams, and make use of the tools I had at hand.
I studied literary books that were bestsellers. I re-read the well-written books that I loved that had sold well. I realized that, as a writer, I had strengths I’d always seen as weaknesses: a love of plot (which is not strictly literary, I’ve found) combined with a literary sentence structure (which is not present in many strictly commercial books). I decided to write a book that celebrated these weaknesses/strengths, and I chose to write the book about topics I felt would resonate on a large scale — an outsider looking to belong to an elite group; a beautiful, gothic place; a family riddled with dark secrets.
The project could just as well have failed. Any number of things could have gone wrong along the way (the editor who finally acquired Bittersweet was among the last in my agent’s second round of editors who received the manuscript; the book only began to receive a lot of in-house support after it sold to foreign publishers, making back my advance long before publication day). A huge amount of luck was involved too, from the fact that the People review the book received happened to fall right on the fold, to the fact that that review appeared the weekend before Bittersweet was published, and on the same day that a positive review appeared in Entertainment Weekly. A ton of hard work went into the promotion of that book, both on my part and on the part of my in-house publicity and marketing team (more on that below). When the book hit the bestseller list, it was the culmination of months of dreaming, scheming, and hard work. It didn’t just magically happen, as a younger version of myself dreamed these things did. And I think being realistic with myself about what I wanted, and what I was saying goodbye to (mainly, more literary cache), was a vital first step of this so-called “success.”
2. No One Cares As Much About Your Book As You Do
“At the end of the day, it’s your name on the book.” That’s another piece of advice my very first editor gave me. It’s a nice way of saying that no one cares about your book as much as you do, which is the damn truth, because no one knows your book as well as you do. Your publisher wants your book to make money (because that’s how they make money). Your agent wants your book to further your career (and make money, so she gets her cut). Your mom wants to see you accomplish something you love. But you are your book’s only true advocate, and if you took the time to write something, you damn well better make time to fight for it, during its tiny chance to shine in the world — often as little as three weeks from the day of publication (not to mention during the pre-publication process).
What does being your own book’s advocate look like, practically? Well, it means making connections. Personal connections are fabulous, and easy enough to cultivate through going to literary events, be they readings, festivals or workshops. It’s the hard truth that the book world operates on the general principle of people in power helping out people they know and like. This is, of course, not always the case, but because it often is, it never hurts to be a good literary citizen (I happen to believe it’s rewarding to boost your friends, but I concede that it also pays when they help you in return).
Social media is another great place to make these connections; it’s where I’ve begun many literary friendships over the past three years that have leapt into real, lasting connections that span the personal and professional (more about this below). I’m also a big fan of having a weekly newsletter, which is a great way to keep my core group of readers up to date on my life and writing. They’re invested in me because I’m a part of their lives, and that requires actually wanting to be part of their lives — from responding to their emails, to giving away one of my favorite books to one of them every month.
No matter how you’re connecting with your literary community, it’s a significant commitment. It cannot be half-assed. People smell half-assed a mile away, and they want nothing to do with it. That’s why it’s important to look the reality of what this kind of connection really asks of you, and decide to embrace it, because…
3. More Than Half Of Your Time As A Writer Will Be Spent Promoting your Work
I’ve met plenty of writers (who dream of supporting themselves as full time writers) who claim to have no interest in being a part of social media. I am unabashedly appalled by this admission. Yes, it’s a scary tool for those of us who did not grow up in the age of technology, and I was scared of it too, for a long time. Then I sold Bittersweet and realized that how high the stakes were. No matter how the book sold, I wanted to know I’d done everything I possibly could to get the word out about it. I realized I needed to learn about how best to do that. So I borrowed money from a supportive family member and hired Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia, who acted as an online author platform guide to me. I knew I needed a buddy to get me over my fear, and he helped me immensely, from redesigning my website, to starting me on my newsletter, to helping me run a twenty-four book giveaway on my website. More than that, he encouraged me to think of myself as a brand — a concept I’d always shied away from. “But you want this book to sell, right?” he’d ask. “And you want to sell more books in the future? You already are a brand. You’re just afraid to call yourself one.” Dan is often very, very right.
I’m on social media every day. Some days it’s easy, and some days it isn’t. I’ve learned how to push back against it, to close it out of my life when it’s not the right thing. But often it is, because it’s a chance to connect with my colleagues and readers on a daily basis, in a way I wouldn’t if it was simply me alone here in my house.
As I enter the months before the publication of June, I’m kicking off my most uncomfortable era in a book’s life, when it is no longer mine, but not yet fully out in the world, out of my grasp. There are a ton of tasks required of me during this time — penning and pitching articles; handwriting notes to booksellers and other supporters; creating a reading group guide, and the list goes on. It’s easy to forget what got me into this job in the first place: the chance to create made-up worlds and live in them.
But look, this part of my job is necessary. If I don’t do these things, no one will. This is what success looks like. Doing these promotional activities in support of my book increases my visibility, strengthens my partnerships, and lays the groundwork for that next book I want to write. This kind of self-promotion — much as I hate the name — isn’t something I do to support my job; it is a fundamental part of my job. It took me a long time to realize that. But I’m glad I did, because now I know where it belongs — it doesn’t define my writing, it supports it.
4. Learn How to Partner
When I first started out, I believed myself to be an island of original thought. I had this notion that my little island was so remarkable, so full of undiscovered truths, that I didn’t really need much help from other people, or, more alarmingly, that people like publicists and marketing people were absolutely free to do their jobs to help along the life on my little island, but that I didn’t have much need or care to step off of my island and help them.
I could not have been more wrong.
By the time I sold Bittersweet, I had a real understanding that I had to spend the next year of my life doing everything in my power to help get that book into the world. In fact, I didn’t do much writing at all in the year before publication. But this commitment to the book did not just mean isolating myself in the world of website redesign, or learning how to be on social media. I needed to get to know my team — my publicist, my marketing person — and prove to them that I was an asset.
I didn’t just try to meet their expectations; I tried to exceed them. When I filled out their author questionnaire, I worked hard to fill it with every detail I could. This took a week. When I went in to meet my editor, I brought chocolate bars for the sales team, who’d sold the book internationally in a remarkable way. I hand-wrote letters to any booksellers and bookstores that had hosted me for events for my first two books, which my team then sent out with ARCs (advanced readers copies) when the time came. Yes, I was already at an advantage — my publisher was making ARC’s! Because of the sales team, my book was making money for the publisher before it even came out — but I’d argue that the ways in which I worked to position myself as an asset to my publishing house made a big difference in the decisions made around promoting my book. Because they knew I was up for anything. Because they knew if they asked me to turn something around in less than 24 hours, they could count on me to do so. Because they knew I was polite, and professional, and only said “no” when I had a good reason to do so.
I’m not trying to toot my own horn here; I mention all this because I think it’s important for writers to see what a commitment it can be to really commit to partnership and promotion. That can be a huge drain, especially on one’s creative self.
Then there’s the necessity of partnership with other writers. I think this aspect of a book’s/writer’s life can’t be understated. One of the most successful things that Dan Blank and I did in support of Bittersweet’s publication was to host a five week long book giveaway on my website, each day hosting a different author with a new book coming out that same Spring. My friend, author Julia Fierro, provided the names of most of these authors — in her work as Founder of the Sackett Street Writers Workshop, she had a huge stable of writers to draw upon. Dan had the technical know how, and I had the time to do the administration. We each did our part.
Now how is “success” defined in this case? Beyond the tens — and sometimes hundreds — of people drawn to my personal website every day, I gained connections with twenty-three other writers, most of whom had never heard of me before Julia and I reached out hoping they’d be a part of that giveaway. Most of those authors are still in touch with me via social media and e-mail; on Bittersweet’s publication day, many of them Tweeted or Facebooked in support of the book, and I did the same for them. We never would have received each other’s support had we not established trust and connection via that giveaway. I feel now, more than ever before, that I am part of a true community of writers, that I am partnered in our mutual successes. It’s a lot better than being an island.
Thank You’s Are Gold
You know when you do a favor for someone else, maybe as part of your job, and yeah, it doesn’t take up a huge amount of time or energy, but it definitely takes up some of it? You know how you feel afterwards, when someone emails you back a quick “thanks” and that’s the last you hear of it? I don’t love that feeling either. How about when that same person, instead, asks for your address, and a week later, you get a handwritten card in the mail that says “thank you for doing that special thing for me; I saw it and I appreciate it?” Just like you, I’m absolutely thrilled and surprised.
This is why I believe that a handwritten thank you note is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal. Writers have to ask people to help them all the time. We ask our publishing team do everything they can in their power to help our books make their way in the world. We ask our fellow writers for blurbs and for advice and for connections. We ask bookstores to host us, and sales reps to shout about our books to the world, and tenuous connections at online publications to take a chance on the book we wrote.
It is vital to say thank you to all those people, especially if you want to stay in this game for the long run, especially because so few people do this simple thing. And there are plenty of ways to do it! If a handwritten note isn’t your style, a particularly thoughtful email could do the trick (although I think the ability to hold such a note in your hand stands in stark contrast to reading something on the screen). Or you can offer up some names in your acknowledgements, or send a small token to someone who’s gone out of their way for you. Chocolate is rarely turned down. And a shout-out on social media can be great too.
The point is you are not a special, rare island. The point is that if you don’t simply want to publish one book, if you want to continue to expand and grow along with your career, if you want a community of helpers and believers and supporters, you’ll need to step off that island of your mind and roll your sleeves up and do some uncomfortable work. That work will end up being rewarding, but it might take a while — it might take more than one book, or two, or three — for it to look like that. But that’s the life of the writer, the life you, and I, have chosen. And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of four novels: JUNE (forthcoming, May 31, 2016); New York Times bestseller Bittersweet; Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, given annually for the best book of fiction by an American woman; and The Effects of Light. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Brooklyn. You can find her at MirandaBW.com.