How Being Published by the Big Six F*cked Me Up.
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All my life, I’ve had one dream.
It was my dream when I was a ten-year-old sitting in my elementary-school auditorium listening to Tomie dePaola talk about writing his stories on yellow legal pads with a Sharpie.
It was my dream when I was fifteen and writing my own stories on yellow legal pads with a Sharpie, hiding in them from a crazy world where my dad was in prison and I had to work full time to help feed my brothers.
It was my dream when I was twenty-four and my marriage imploded, so I dragged my babies to the armpit of America so I could be a newspaper reporter.
It was my dream when I was thirty-three and won NaNoWriMo for the first time, and then went back to college to learn how to write well.
It has always been the same dream for me.
My one dream has always been to be a writer. And I have been, since I was a teenage freelancer. And a twenty-something journalist. And a thirty-something creative writing student.
But those weren’t my dream.
I wanted to write Novels, with a capital N, that would sit on shelves in libraries and bookstores, waiting for readers to buy them and read them and love them forever and ever. Amen.
Stories are my mojo. They are my happy place. And writing them is all I’ve ever wanted to do.
And I did it.
I Sold a Book to the Big Six
I wrote a book called Viral Nation and I sent it around to agents. One of them agreed to let me hire her. She sold my book to an imprint of Penguin.
I got a contract in the mail in a big white envelope with an orange penguin on it. I got a box full of advanced reader copies with the most beautiful cover I’ve ever seen. That cover had SHAUNTA GRIMES on it.
One fine July day in 2013, I walked into Barnes and Noble (which is the only non-indie bookstore left in my city) with my family and took an escalator to the second floor and went to the “G” shelf in the YA section.
And there it was.
Can you imagine how that felt? Thirty years of working and dreaming, with no clue at all until the very end that I’d ever have success. I can still feel the lump in my throat, the swelling of my heart.
I’d made it. And not only that — the contract in the penguin envelope guaranteed me another published book.
So I wrote that one.
And it broke my heart.
One fine July day in 2014 I walked into Barnes and Noble (still the only chain bookstore in my city) with my family and went up the escalator and found the ‘G’ shelf in the YA section.
Only this time my book wasn’t there.
Can you imagine how that felt? It was like being invited to the cool kids lunch table, and then having all the cool kids go eat somewhere else. I couldn’t breathe. I barely made it out of the store without collapsing under the weight of the fact that even my local Barnes and Noble didn’t carry my new novel.
Barnes and Noble didn’t pick up my second book.
As a result, my publisher didn’t offer me a contract for the third book in my trilogy.
I could tell you a story about my YA book being sold to an imprint that mostly publishes romance books (Nora Roberts and Christine Feehan have the same publisher.)
About my book blog tour for my YA science fiction story consisting of a dozen romance book bloggers.
About sitting at the American Library Association conference with my books in the adult section of the Penguin aisle, while every children’s librarian in the country poured over the Penguin Young Readers half of the aisle.
Or about how I knew something was wrong and I kept asking my editor if I should end my series with book two and she kept saying, “Oh no, you can end on a cliffhanger.” And how I believed her.
That’s not what this post is about though.
This post is about how achieving my dream: to be published by one of the Big Six, fucked me up.
For a year after that second Barnes and Noble trip, I fell apart.
I was devastated.
I convinced myself that my entire career consisted of two failed thirds of a trilogy that ends on a cliffhanger.
That after the whole orange penguin thing, anything short of that (and everything felt short of that) was a step back that I didn’t want to take.
I stopped hanging out with my local writing community.
I quit making myself available for promotional-type things like signings and school visits.
I couldn’t even make myself go into Barnes and Noble again. (Thank God for Indies.)
Worst of all, I stopped writing.
Then things got really crazy.
My agent didn’t like my next book, which I’d written between turning in my second published book and waiting out the dead slow publishing process to run its course. In fact, she didn’t like any other idea I had for another book.
So I fired her.
That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
It was also probably a good choice (I mean, she really didn’t like any of my ideas.) But after spending about a decade looking for an agent, firing one felt more than a little ridiculous.
That next book landed me another agent, but she couldn’t sell it. And then she decided that she didn’t really want to represent YA anyway and she fired me.
I finally figured out the one really important thing.
Being published by a Big Six publisher fucked me up, because it convinced me that this was the way to be a writer. The only way. And when it was pulled out from under me, there was nothing but a black hole under my feet.
It took a while, but I finally climbed out of that funk.
It turns out that I’m a writer, regardless of who publishes me.
I happen to have been ready to be published at a time when the entire industry was in a state of flux. It still is. The Big Six are scrambling to figure out how to stay relevant.
And that has very little to do with me. Penguin sent Beth Revis’s book into space, and couldn’t manage to figure out how to get their Young Reader division to send out a Tweet for Viral Nation because whoever sends those Tweets was in a different building from my imprint.
That didn’t have anything to do with me.
Traditional publishing is a mess right now, and that doesn’t have anything to do with authors.
Once I understood that, I figured something else out.
This is an exciting time to be a writer.
I also happen to be a writer during a time of unprecedented freedom and power for writers.
I thought that I’d sell a book to Penguin, and they’d take it from there. They’d market it my book. They’d promote it. They’ make sure that readers know that it was out there for them to read and fall in love with.
It turns out though, that that’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at publishing.
I was at a writers conference a week ago and got to have lunch with Shawn Coyne. I told him my history of resistance to non-traditional publishing and that I still struggle with this idea that going indie means admitting that I’m not good enough.
And he told me that my resistance was a lie I was telling myself. I’ve already proved I’m good enough.
The truth is, I am the CEO of Shaunta Grimes, Writer.
My writing career isn’t a magical creation made of pixie dust and rainbows, glued together with stupid, blind luck.
It’s my business.
I set the hours. I answer to myself if I don’t get the work done. I make the decisions regarding my stories.
If I traditionally publish again, it will be because I’ve decided that it’s the right move for my business.
I will never publish with any publisher again because I think there isn’t another choice.
Penguin published my book. They gave me a talented editor and a spectacular copy editor and a cover so beautiful it made me cry. They gave me an advance. Because of them, Barnes and Noble picked up my first book. Libraries stocked my titles.
They didn’t prepare me for the reality that almost no author can count on a publisher to run their business for them anymore.
As the CEO of Shaunta Grimes, Writer, I know that there is more to my job than writing. After I create the best novel I can, it’s up to me to hire an editor, a copy editor, a cover artist.
I can do that by selling my book to a publisher. Or I can do that by seeking out employees myself.
It’s up to me to find my readers.
It’s up to me to write books that they want to read.
And it’s up to me to get my stories to them.
I’m excited to explore the ways that can happen.
I might try for the Big Six again someday.
If I do, it will be because I think that’s the best way to build my business.
My Best Tips for Being the CEO of Your Writing Career
Build an email list. This guy can help.
Set a writing schedule and stick to it. You couldn’t put off any other job until the absolute perfect moment. Don’t do that to this one, either.
Invest in learning your craft. Build a library of writing books. Take classes. Consider an MFA. You were born a storyteller. You need to learn the mechanics of writing well.
Remember that comparison is the thief of joy. Teddy Roosevelt said so and he knew what he was talking about. Don’t worry about whose books are being sent into space. Your own books are your business.
Start calling yourself a writer. Today. If you’re writing everyday and investing time and money in learning your craft, then you’re a writer. Own it. Say it out loud to someone before you go to bed tonight.
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Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes, is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and is the original Ninja Writer.