A diverse array of authors share their advice for those just entering the publishing industry
When I began my career as an author, I knew nothing of the book publishing world. I was educated on the fly, through observation, conversations with more experienced authors, advice from my agent or publisher, and often by trial and error — mostly error.
Over time, the landscape made more sense — but only after a lot of hard-won lessons. The publishing industry can be very opaque. This series is an attempt to shed some light on it.
I’ve gathered advice from dozens of authors, across many genres. Some are are New York Times bestsellers with multiple books. Some have had their work adapted into film and TV. Others have been integral parts of the publishing industry, and have tracked its evolution over the years.
My hope is that the advice here, and in forthcoming columns, will serve as a resource for authors starting out.
A note on anonymity: All of the advice here is from authors I know and trust. Nearly to a man, they wished to speak anonymously, so they could discuss tricky topics freely.
Financial acuity is an essential skill if you plan to make a living, even a partial living, as an author. One author advises further education:
“Nothing is forever. You can get one great advance and never another. You can start out with a tiny advance and work your way up and then go back to tiny advances. You just never know. Financial advisors are available at many banks and credit unions for free, but there are also a ton of books about the subject. As an adult, it is no one’s job but yours to figure out how to spend and use money. Most people weren’t taught to do so in school. And you can’t expect your agent or publishing house to tell you anything. So educate yourself on how to make your book advance last.”
Advance payments are more complicated than one might realize. One author took the time to break it down:
A six-figure payment sounds like a lot. But you don’t get that money all at once. If you get a $100,000 advance, you will:
Set aside about 40% for taxes (unless you are in a higher bracket, in which case, 50). That’s $40,000.
Set side another 15 percent for your agent. $15,000
Divide the remaining $45,000 into three to four payments, depending on your contract. You will get some on signing your contract, some upon turning in a completed manuscript, some upon publication, and with some publishing houses, the rest when your book goes from hardcover to paperback. That whole process can take two years, and in some cases, three.
How many times have we seen social media kerfuffles? They happen in all industries, and they rarely end well. Here’s a few bits of advice to remember:
“Say it, forget it, write it, regret it.” — Dorinda Medley, Real Housewife of New York
I’m serious, don’t put anything in print you wouldn’t be comfortable having shared. Or if you do, please make sure you trust the person you’re talking to. This is an industry, we are colleagues, gossip happens. Protect your neck.
And some ideas for where you can share your frustrations, if they aren’t appropriate for social media:
Don’t ever forget that your social media is a professional, public, and most important, permanent space. It’s normal to be upset by things in your work life, but find safe, secure places to share those feelings with people you trust — don’t unload where everyone can see it. I use time to help me with this — if it’s worth saying in the heat of the moment, it’s also going to be worth saying in twenty-four hours. So don’t be afraid to give yourself that time.
It’s not all kumbaya in publishing. Here’s what the authors have to say on it:
Publishing is a business. Your publisher, if push comes to shove, is not on your side. Look out for number 1. That’s you.
And on balancing the dream with your own self-worth:
Even though, for many of us, it’s a dream to publish our books — it’s also our job. We are doing business with our publisher, they are NOT doing us a favor by handing us a magical book deal. Know your worth, and expect the same respect and fairness you would from a business you are working with.
Here’s a lesson many of us have learned the hard way:
Remember that no matter how much you love your editor/publisher (no matter how many funny gifs or heartfelt compliments you text each other), ultimately they represent their company and their interests might not always align with yours. So don’t let yourself get caught up in the idea of personal loyalty or the relational side of things, because that will always be one-sided. Publishing is always a business first.
To wrap up this column, let’s look at advice about interpersonal relationships in publishing, with fellow authors and readers.
If you’re a shittalker, it will absolutely come back around to bite you. I’ve watched, in real time, as someone lost the opportunity to have their book reviewed in a very prestigious publication because they were an asshole and when the reviewer found out, they were like, “oh yeah, nope, I’ll help someone else.” It’ll cost you festival invites, school visits, all sorts of opportunities.
It’s always better to lift authors up, not tear them down behind their backs. To that end:
The only thing I’ve found that keeps me going during the highs and the lows of this career, is lifting other authors up. When things are going great for me, it’s a boon to them and keeps me grounded in why I got into this: to celebrate and share stories! And when things aren’t going great, helping other authors is a the only cure I’ve found for professional despair. Generosity is one hell of a mood stabilizer for me. Also, if the authors I help succeed wildly, they will sometimes pick up the tab for lunch, and who doesn’t like lunch?!
And if you’re lost and confused, one author advises;
Ask questions. You don’t know what you don’t know. Talk to other authors. 99% are willing to chat and share what they know, because that’s how we learned too.
Another bit of advice — and one to live by:
Nothing in publishing is as good or as bad or as exciting or as scary as you think it is. When things are going well — for you or a friend — celebrate! When things seem bad, take a breath. Remember that listening and learning are verbs, and they take longer than the Twitter-prescribed 36–48 hour window. When all else fails, listen to your friends. They can save you.
If you have readers, congratulations — it’s a great achievement! But with readership comes responsibility. From an author who has successfully traversed these tricky waters:
Prioritize boundaries, particularly with teen readers, and resist the (very real) urge to try to save people who are hurting. Your books may move some readers to reach out to you for help navigating painful situations in their personal lives. It’s an enormous honor to be trusted with this kind of information, and it should always be handled with care, thoughtfulness, and respect. I strongly recommend not engaging directly in an attempt to help, because you, as an author and public figure, are not equipped to provide the kind of support these readers need and deserve. Instead, it might be helpful to maintain a list of mental health support resources on your website (and consider adding some to an auto-reply in your email). And take care of yourself — seek out peer support during these moments. It can be incredibly hard, and you’ll feel helpless and inadequate. There is no good solution, but I believe this is the one that has the least potential for harm in most cases.
A big thanks to all the authors who contributed, and thank you to everyone who read. I will have more Anonymous Author posts in the coming weeks, with advice about how to treat your time, valuing your own work, and the type of people to find as a support network. Until then, happy writing!