What I Wish I’d Known

…When I Published My First Book, Part 1

It’s spring (at least it feels like it in Seattle. Sorry, everybody who’s still buried under snow drifts) and that means it’s also publishing time for much of the small press world. Late next month and in early April, a flood of lovely new titles will arrive from indie publishers, and a phalanx of first-time authors are going to look down at their beautiful new books and think, “what the heck do I do now?”

Something odd happens when books come out: writers panic. Even the writer who’s typically organized, charismatic, and generally on her game can be stunned into immobility by the sheer volume of stuff that needs to be done. The nature of all that stuff takes writers by surprise, too; if someone hasn’t, say, worked for a small press or a publicist before, the marketing tasks involved in launching a new title are going to feel alien and overwhelming.

There are quite a few “what I wish I’d known” resources floating around the internet—and routinely offered at conferences like AWP—but they generally amount (in my opinion) to a bunch of people saying “you’re going to have to do everything yourself” and nodding solemnly to one another without explaining what, exactly, you’re going to have do. So let’s be clear about what you, the new author, have to do:

You’re going to have to contact everybody. 

That means getting in touch with your mailing list, with book reviewers, with book bloggers, with interviewers and broadcast media, with bookstores that you hope will stock your book, with reading series where you want to speak, with post-publication book awards you’re hoping to win. If you’re extremely lucky, your press will help you with some of this outreach work; they might, for example, send 10 or 20 review copies out before the book’s release (with most venues requesting 2 books apiece, those copies go quickly, however). Or they might put you in touch with a bookstore, or nominate you for an award. But for the most part, you are going to have to do cold outreach yourself.

You’re going to have to gather your own PR materials. 

The vast majority of poets and small press authors are going to be in charge of making and distributing all their own PR info. You’re responsible for your author website. You write your jacket copy. You put together your press kit, your tip sheet, your mailers, and your book club resources. You can make these yourself or get help from people like me, but it’s up to you as the author to put together everything you need for a professional presentation and distribute it to all of those people that we mentioned above.

You’re in charge of finding out what works. 

No two books, and no two book launches, are the same. Someone else at your press may have great success getting a book adopted by university courses, while someone else may have had a Goodreads giveaway that really boosted sales. But not everything is going to work for you. You’re in charge of monitoring how your own efforts are working—did Wattpad really pay off? Was the time you invested in Shelfari a bust? What about that reading you did in your hometown, versus the one you did 500 miles away?—and taking an honest inventory of your time investments and their outcomes. You’re the one who decides which efforts to ramp up and which to nix.

You decide what success looks like.

Overwhelmed yet? Here’s the good news: you determine what success looks like. Maybe you want to sell through your first print run of 1,000 copies, or maybe you want to fill every seat in the bookstore at your inaugural reading. Maybe what’s really going to make you happy is a review in that Big Fancy Journal. Because you’re the one directing your marketing, you get to decide what a good outcome looks like, and what is going to make you proud of yourself and your efforts.

Next time around, I’ll talk a little bit about that first (and for many, worst) point: cold-contacting all of those strangers.

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