What No One Tells You About Writing a Book
This post originally appeared on my blog Caroline in the City.
I’ve mentioned it a few times in blog posts over the last year or so and I can finally talk about it. I wrote a book and it’s out now! This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States is the culmination of years of work, inspired by the region I grew up in and have written about on my website and freelance clients over the last few years. I was first contacted about it last summer, worked on it for three months, and turned it in before the end of 2017. From there, it was double checking copy and photos. I was given a release date, but it ended up getting pushed back a few times. I had all but given up when a box arrived at my house with copies of my book. It’s finally feeling real!
But there’s a lot of things I wish I’d known before starting this process, starting with the writing and organizing my thoughts to the promotion. I also asked a few writers to share their tips for first-time book writers.
This doesn’t have to be your only book.
When you’re working on it, it is easy to feel like this is the only book you will ever write. Even afterwards, when people asked me when the next one was going to happen, I couldn’t even think about it. But I’m starting to open my mind to it, even if it’s not another travel guidebook or travel book at all. I could write a sci fi novel or a textbook or a biography. Who knows!
Torre DeRoche, one of my favorite authors, had some great insight as well:
I wish I’d known I would write more books and that this one book would not make or break my future. I burnt myself out launching that book. I believed that, if Love with a Chance of Drowning didn’t do exceptionally well, then my career in writing would be over before it had even begun. It felt like I was trying to keep a newborn alive.
This meant I took it all way too seriously and completely forgot to have fun with the launch. But the truth is, if one book doesn’t do well, there can always be more books. A writer should create for the joy of writing, not for publishing success. And even if the publishers refuse to take you, self-publishing is a perfectly viable option. I wish I knew that nobody – or nothing – could take writing away from me.
This book may not be your big break.
Like actors, one movie will probably not pay for your entire career. Sure, there are jobs, and books, like that. But most aren’t. Even big-name authors have to continue working, even after their masterwork. An example is Elizabeth Gilbert. In her book Big Magic, she says this:
Even after I got published, I didn’t quit my day job, just to be on the safe side. In fact, I didn’t quit my day job (or my day jobs, I should say) until I had already written three books- and those three books were all published by major houses and were all nicely reviewed in the New York Times. One of them had even been nominated for a National Book Award. From an outside perspective, it might have looked like I’d already made it. But I wasn’t taking any chances, so I kept my day job… I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life.
This book may not be your big payday.
One of the first things my fellow author friends told me when I mentioned I was writing a book was that it’s not about the money. Advances are quickly spent (mine anyways) and your percentage of sales will take a while to actually show up in your bank account. With that said, negotiate payment whether you want a bigger advance or higher percentage of sales. I heard an interview with writer Cheryl Strayed where she talked about bouncing a check when Wild came out, showing that even hit books don’t lead to immediate money. But, of course, if your book gets sold for film rights, that’s another situation entirely!
Deadlines (and terms) are flexible.
It’s easy to accept what you’re given, whether that’s your pay rate or timelines. I also wish that I had more than three months to write my book, especially considering how long the process took after the writing was done. If you know you’ll need more time, don’t be afraid to ask for it!
I wish I’d known I could have pushed back against unrealistic deadlines. When my publisher gave me just six months to write and edit my manuscript, I assumed this was a fixed date that I’d need to meet. In fact, publishers don’t usually expect you to meet the deadline they set, and you’re totally free to negotiate if you think it’s unrealistic. The extreme stress levels that came from writing my book within a strict time limit led to a mental breakdown that I’m still recovering from years later. I wish I’d asked if we could have pushed the date back by a year instead!
You are the best marketer and salesman.
The publisher will assign someone to market your book and get it in front of bookstores, but ultimately, how many books you sell is up to you. Make a list of the publications you want to see feature your book and the stores you want to sell it. Get social media collateral and press releases from your publisher’s marketing team to share with your friends and family. Use your personal network to spread the word about it. After attending a talk about book marketing, I also learned that being a “bestseller” is not the same as selling a lot of books. I’d like to do the second.