This essay also appeared in The Startup on Medium
In the fall of 1985 I sat down at an ancient typewriter and called myself a writer. I wrote short stories, one after another, and nine years later published my first one. Eventually I collected the best of them, and this became my 2011 title, All The Roads That Lead From Home. My seventh book, a novel entitled Maggie’s Ruse, was just released by Unsolicited Press. Between those two books a lot of things happened, and I went up a steep and often difficult learning curve.
Here are some of things I learned.
It’s difficult to get a book into the world. The huge effort of writing it aside, a book needs good editing. Finding mistakes is hard, and it takes many sets of eyes. It also needs a stellar cover design and a pleasing interior layout. The people who make this happen are crucial. No book comes into being without them.
Books move slowly. The time between the acceptance email or letter, if one is old school, and holding the galley or ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) in one’s hand can be months, a year, or even longer, depending on the other books your publisher already in the queue. You have to be patient with the both the submission process, and waiting for next steps. You may find that not seeing your manuscript for a while means you react to it differently. Did you really mean to say that, and in that way? Yes, you did. Trust your work.
A story collection has an arc, just as a novel does, but isn’t as complex as a novel from a writing/creation standpoint. Other authors may disagree, and that’s their right. My book publishing journey began with two short story collections, and then, after a lot of dithering and hand-wringing, a novel. Writing a novel became necessary when I realized I wanted more room to roam, to really dig into someone’s heart and soul, and take the long view of things. It’s said that in a short story, a character is revealed, and that in a novel, a character develops. I’ve found this to be true, and directly related to how much space I’m able to give someone on the page.
Getting people interested in your book is a lot harder than you think. Marketing is its own world, and it’s not easy. You can spend a lot of money on advertising and placement and still sell only a few copies. A good, well-connected publicist really helps get the word out. It take a while to learn where to invest your promotion dollar, and you need to be savvy about what’s a good investment and what isn’t. For what it’s worth, I think Instagram is great platform for promoting books. People talking about your book, next to a beautiful photograph of it, can be awfully persuasive for people looking for their next read.
Readers land on your pages with their own set of expectations. If you book disappoints them, they’ll say so, and not always nicely. Reading is a skill just the way writing is, and sometimes readers let their preconceived ideas about stories get in the way. A good reader will suspend her personal paradigm and dive in with an open mind. These are the readers you want, not the ones who wish you’d written a different book that they would have liked better.
Writing evolves, and so does book publishing. Nothing stays the same for long, whether at the writer’s desk, or your publisher’s planning session. Despite what one hears about the decline of brick and mortal bookstores, independent book sellers—and publishers—are alive and well. People in this country read a lot, and there’s always healthy demand for new and well-written titles. Meeting that demand, and finding an edge, keeps the whole thing moving forward. That said, I always urge writers to write from the heart, and not into the marketplace. A beautiful story, beautifully told, will always find a home.