What I Learned about Publishing (Or An Open Letter to the Debut Class of 2015)

My book is a year old today and I thought I would chat a bit about what I learned about publishing during this year.  Also there’s a little advice mixed in.  Feel free to ask me questions in the comment section.

1. Publishing a book is an enormous endeavor and there’s really nothing to prepare you for what’s to come aside from experience.  Many of my friends and family thought my job was over once I signed the contract, but I knew from publishing three non-fiction books that my work was just beginning. Fiction edits, however, are much, much harder.  It’s more personal, for one.  After all the characters are created from the deepest part of you. You will go through many edits that will feel as though someone is pointing out personal flaws. You will feel freaked out and vulnerable. Copy edits, in particular, are excruciating.  Nits will be picked, plot holes will be poked, and characters called into question.  It’s normal to feel defensive and embarrassed, but really the editors are on your side and they are trying to help you create the best book you can.  Take their queries graciously and always thank them because the education you will receive is priceless. At the end of my editorial process I had learned so much about my writing and I grew into the author I wanted to be.

2. The months leading up to your pub date and after are going to be filled with anxiety and elation.  This is normal.  ARCs will be sent out, reviews will come in, and your Twitter followers will grow.  You’ll go to bed unable to sleep because you’re too excited.  You’ll go to bed unable to sleep because you’re too depressed.  Don’t worry. You are not going crazy.

3. You are now a public figure.  (I’ll wait while that soaks in a bit.) It matters not how well your book sells because you, my darling, are now in the public eye.  Anyone can say whatever they want to say about you.  They will take offense at something in your book, despise your characters, adore your characters, and maybe, if you’re lucky, do the fangirl thing (this is the best).  These are all wonderful things, even the yucky bits. My agent told me that the wider your audience, the more haters you will attract.  Also, people from your past may pop up and say crummy things about you or want something from you.  These are the costs of being published.  Take it or leave it.

4. Don’t expect to make a ton of money this first year.  In fact, do not crawl under the covers and refuse to come out when your first royalty statement comes in.  People (usually non-writer people) often think a book contract is lucrative.  This is because most of the authors they know of live in really cool mansions (read: Stephen King, JK Rowling, James Patterson) and live awesome lifestyles.  The truth is, most of us make about what a first year teacher makes (including yours truly). People don’t understand that your advance may be the only money your book earns, and that it might not even earn out.  They don’t understand that you only get paid twice a year, and you have no idea what that amount will be.  A slim to none royalty statement does not mean your book was a failure.  You wrote a book, got an agent, had it published.  All things that are nigh on impossible for the average Joe to accomplish.  Your job is to get back in your chair and write another book.  That well of creativity is deep and you know it.

5. Don’t expect your publisher’s publicist to do everything for you. I have a fabulous publicist at Viking but there was nothing in the budget for swag.  No biggie, I made my own.  I hired a local graphic art company who used the original art for my cover (ask your editor for this).  He made beautiful bookmarks for me.  I created a tie-in to my story, which is a Tennyson poem from a book that Will gives Vicky.  My father, an artist, recreated the illustration on the front and I copied the poem for the back.  I also made t-shirts with the illustration to sell and for giveaways on my site.  Jen Parrish, an amazing jewelry designer, made a custom necklace for me, which I gave away on my site.  Just a side note: Have your bookmarks printed on matte paper. It’s easier to sign them and the ink doesn’t smear.

A gift for you!



Jen’s beautiful necklace

6. You are a debut author and you will not be sent on a whirlwind book tour.  Those are expensive and reserved for authors who sell many, many books.  Besides, your time is best spent writing that second novel.  (Read this awesome post by Shannon Hale about appearances and signings.)

7. Book signings can be nerve-wracking so be prepared. Have a few standard messages ready.  If you’re signing for young adults, ask them what they do or what they like, etc., and try to wrap that into your message. Buy yourself some ultra-fine sharpies, color coordinated is nice.  FYI, traditionally the page you sign is the title page.

8. Treat all bloggers equally.  I don’t care how popular a blogger is or how many followers they have.  If someone wants to interview me, I’m thrilled and honored.  So give every blogger who reaches out to you a consideration.  You don’t have to say yes to everyone but I did and I don’t regret it.  I’ve had nothing but fun and was treated with nothing but respect.  Bloggers are your friends, by the way. This is largely a hobby for them and they spend a lot of time promoting and discussing books.  They are also some of the nicest people I’ve ever met and I’ve made some very good friends.

9. Throw yourself a book party, dammit.  Don’t be shy.  You are a debutante only once, so go for it.  Spend some of that advance and do it up right.  Here is what I did: I rented a few hours in a train station turned party space, bought wine, beer, and sodas, canapés and cupcakes from Costco, and recorded music on CDs that reflected my book’s theme. I invited the local newspapers and pinned up flyers.   I rented costumes from a theatre store and had two young friends dress as suffragettes.  They handed out bookmarks, temporary tattoos and other swag. My brother and husband tended bar and my mom and sister laid out the food. Barnes & Noble did my book sales and I even had t-shirts printed up to sell.  Most of all, I bought a really beautiful 50s style dress with a big poofy skirt—you gotta look nice, people.  I signed books all night long, chatted with friends, and danced a little with my husband. I was really nervous about signing books so I had people sign a journal while I signed their book, just to take a little of the pressure off.  They wrote so many sweet things and I have a nice memento of that evening and a record of who was there.  I wanted to do a reading but I truly did not have time. I didn’t expect it but there were presents, too.  My aunt sent me a lovely bunch of flowers, my writer friends gave me little trinkets, and my family bought me mermaid themed gifts.

Art by Aunt Shirley

Art by Aunt Shirley

My dad and a couple of suffragettes

My dad and a couple of suffragettes

2014-01-26 12.15.46

10. Do not obsessively check GoodReads and Amazon, or Google your book.  Most mean, troll-y reviews come out just before your book is published and about two months after, so avoid, avoid.  There are GoodReads reviewers that have gained a huge following from writing snarky reviews complete with GIFs.  These will hurt if you let them.  These will carve deep groves in your sensitive writer-ly soul, if you let them.  Do not heed the advice about growing thick skin.  Thick skin is for rhinos and elephants.  You need a thin skin if you’re going to be a writer.  If you’re not sensitive how will you be able to write?  So get out that sunscreen, protect yourself from the harmful rays of negative reviews. DO NOT READ THEM.  I repeat.  DO NOT READ THEM.  No good can come of it. Your psyche has no understanding of trolls and will take their words seriously.

For your reading pleasure, the following is a collection of real GoodReads reviews written about bestselling authors:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

I’m not going to comment on the literary shortcomings of this book, the clichés, the painfully long narrative, the fact that the characters will not think about an issue for months, but then suddenly it becomes important again. Smarter people than me have already said all this.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Those of us who don’t relate to Holden see in him a self-absorbed whiner, and in Salinger, a one-trick-pony who lucked into performing his trick at a time when some large fraction of America happened to be in the right collective frame of mind to perceive this boring twaddle as subversive and meaningful.

And one of my own:

A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller

Oh, what was that? I’m sorry. Did your clothes accidentally fall off by themselves? Were you wearing the emperor’s new clothes? Oh, wait, no. You took off your clothes to prove that you’re the equal of all the male artists despite the fact that the thought of stripping naked makes you want to run away in terror. If they jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?… Despite the book’s premise of feminism and freeing oneself from society’s boundaries, this book failed to execute the message. I did not like it, and I absolutely hated the main character.

11. DO NOT.  I repeat. DO NOT RESPOND to mean reviews.  Do not have your posse respond either.  Everyone has a right to say or think what they want about your book.  It’s their right.  Refer to item 3 above.  You are now a public figure.  Do not engage, stalk, or contact reviewers to try to change their minds.  You can, however, talk to other writers, your family, editor and agent about it, if you have to. Just don’t make your gripes public.

12. Do respond to good reviews on Twitter with a thank you, or at least a favorite, especially if they tweet at you.  That’s just good manners, after all.

13. Engage with your readers that reach out to you.  Especially now when you’re building a readership. It doesn’t take long to reply and let them know how much you appreciate their words.  This, to me, is most important to young adults who often look up to writers and may have writing aspirations of their own.  I adore my readers and it means so much to me when they write.  I mean, after all, these are teenagers and young adults.  They have better things to do but instead they sat down and wrote an email or letter to tell me how much the story meant to them.  Nothing can compare with how happy that makes me.  This is why I write.  As an added bonus, many of these readers are now my friends. I truly, truly care about them.

14. Be thankful and humble.  You are on an amazing journey. You get to tell stories and touch people’s lives.  What an honor.  What an absolute honor. Oh, and congratulations!

A Mad Wicked Folly

20 Responses to What I Learned about Publishing (Or An Open Letter to the Debut Class of 2015)

  1. Happy first year birthday to A Mad Wicked Folly and many congratulations to you, Sharon!! I’m beyond happy that I got to read this book and through it got to meet you! I cannot wait for more convos and more books!!

    *sends hugs & cupcakes*

  2. Mz Jorjŭ says:

    Thank You! I’m just starting out. This was timely advice.

  3. Fonda Lee says:

    Thank you so much Sharon. I needed to read this tonight 🙂

    • Sharon Biggs Waller says:

      Fonda! I can’t believe how quickly your release date came about! It seems like yesterday we talked about agents. I can’t wait to read your book. : )

  4. Regina says:

    What a helpful, insightful, and inspiring post. Thank you so much for writing this from the heart and being a mentor to hopeful authors. I adored A Mad, Wicked Folly and recommended it to so many people last year. I read it in about two sittings, and I loved it so much that I was too intimidated to review it. I finally did a short and sweet review of it right before the new year. I am so eager for your next Historical Fiction novel. Thanks again for sharing these trade secrets. 🙂

  5. This is perfect, Sharon! Thanks for taking the time to write it! 🙂

  6. Brilliant idea to have your signees write in a journal while you sign their book. (Among your many other brilliant thoughts.) Happy anniversary!

  7. I want to thank you for this; it was a pleasure to read your reflections on the whole process of getting published. I am currently part way through it myself and experiencing much of what you have written about.

    Just over a year ago my novel was sold to Capstone’s new YA imprint, Switch Press. The editing process wasn’t as painful as I had anticipated — though partly because I’d already done a lot of rewriting under the auspices of my agent. I must confess, however, that at the beginning it was difficult to accept the criticisms of something I’d worked on for such a long time. There were occasions when I would wonder why they couldn’t see things the way I saw them — until I stepped back and accepted that I had all the details of my world in my head and they did not. It helped that I had a great editor at Switch Press who listened to my arguments while making salient points of her own.

    It may have taken me a while, but I soon chose to see the critiques of my work for what they were: a means of improving it. They weren’t a personal affront or a challenge to my skills as a writer. In short, my agent and my editor weren’t my enemies conspiring against me, but rather partners in crafting the novel into the best it could be. And let that be a lesson to any writer: As long as criticism comes from the right place and is honest, it’s invaluable; and by not accepting it and cherishing it, writers are only cheating themselves. The last thing you want as a writer (or even as a person) is to stop learning and growing.

    Of course, as you pointed out, the writing and editing of a novel are just a small part of the greater whole. Much more so, I think, then in the days before the Internet and social media. Back then writers’ involvement in the marketing of books was usually quite limited (unless they happened to be among the “big” names). Now expectations are much higher, and for someone like me, that’s intimidating to say the least.

    I think about this all the time, now that my book, “Becoming Darkness” (super, super apologies for the shameless plug) is due for ARC in February. I’m now trying to juggle working on other books with getting into social media in a bigger way. I must say I find the whole marketing-of-self thing a bit beleaguering at times — not to mention time-consuming. It cab also be somewhat deflating when you’re struggling to gain followers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr and seeing little happen.

    I think my biggest concern remains the negative things I’ve read about the marketing of books and how publishers do almost nothing for you unless you’re one of the chosen few. While I appreciate that a writer has to do a certain amount of this, for person like myself that is challenging — especially given the financial constraints under which I’m operating. Moreover, I’m ever conscious of the changing face of the market, with increasing numbers of writers (both traditionally published and independently or self-published) going after a shrinking readership. Clearly it means less of the pie to go around, because readers have a lot of other things to spend their money on these days. There’s also the fact that with more books being published than ever before, it’s difficult to be heard above all the clamoring voices. I’m sure there are a great many novels that haven’t distinguished themselves simply because they can’t muster the requisite attention.

    With all this in mind, I have no illusions about what the returns on my book will be. Switch Press is relatively new on the YA scene, and while I am supremely impressed with my relationship with them thus far, I fully understand what they are up against in marketing YA in a crowded market dominated by some very big publishing houses. The real test will be in the Fall, when “Becoming Darkness” hits the shelves and the online retailers.

    While I wait for this to happen, I vacillate between euphoria and self-doubt. The only recipe I’ve found for that is to keep writing and to constantly remind myself (as my family and friends often do) that I’ve made it this far. That’s farther than a lot of people have.

    In the period between rewrites for my agent, her selling the book, and rewrites for my editor, I’ve done a lot of other writing. I’ve already written a sequel to the novel now being published and have two thirds of a concluding book completed (though Becoming Darkness can be read as a one-off). I’m also working on a YA SF trilogy (currently rewriting book one, with book two a completed first draft), and I’m itching to sit down to write a contemporary one-off that I’ve roughed out on paper. (Yes, actual paper. In a notebook. Seriously, I kid you not.)

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for this article. It was refreshingly honest and illuminating and I think the sort of thing any debut author should read. We all need to be grounded — which isn’t to say we should give up dreaming about making it big and scoring that #1 NYT bestseller. It’s just that we should be pragmatic and realistic and understand that it’s not necessarily a reflection of ourselves or our work if we don’t achieve that particular pinnacle. To a certain extent the publishing industry has become a bit like playing the lottery, and you just never know who might have the winning ticket. It just might be you.

    Happy writing!

    Lindsay Francis Brambles @LBrambles

    • Sharon Biggs Waller says:

      HI Lindsay, Thanks so much for your heartfelt comments! I wish you all the best with your writing. : )

  8. Sharon, thanks for this amazing post. This list is exactly the sort of thing I need to hear. I’ve been having doubts about the “need” for a launch party (why go through the rigamarole when it won’t help sell the book, etc). But you have completely changed my mind (and made me realize that my practicality was just a front for shyness)! I especially love the idea of getting family and friends involved in helping plan things, and of buying a special dress! I am resolved, and thank you, thank you, thank you!!

    • Sharon Biggs Waller says:

      Sarah! I’m so glad you liked it. Feel free to email me or DM me if you have any questions or just want to talk. I know how crazy this time can be. And yes! Have a party! It’s really about celebrating your achievement, not so much about selling books (although that’s nice too!).