Photo: My desk today, with the wall covered by images that inspired me during the writing of Last Night at the Telegraph Club (more on that to come!)
My first novel, Ash, was published in September 2009, which means this year marks my tenth year as a published novelist. Over the last few months I’ve tweeted out some of the lessons I’ve learned in the past decade, and as 2019 draws to a close I wanted to gather those lessons together in a more archivable format. These lessons come from my experience in traditional young adult publishing. Writers who are published in other genres, age categories, or who are self-published may have differing experiences.
Some of these lessons are about the business of publishing, but some of them are about the emotional experience of being a writer. Some of them are very practical notes about money, and some are not very fun to hear. I’ve learned them by making plenty of mistakes, and I share them with you in case they can help you avoid making the same ones.
1. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
Writing novels puts you smack dab in the middle of a culture of comparison (hello, Goodreads), and it’s all too easy to become jealous of what other writers are getting in terms of promotion, marketing, sales, reviews, awards—the list goes on! Jealousy is human, but it’s also corrosive on your self-esteem and creativity. Practice resisting the temptation to compare yourself with others. Instead, practice focusing on what you want from your creative life, regardless of what happens to other writers.
2. Once the book is published, it’s no longer yours.
It’s hard to let go of something you’ve spent years working on, but after your novel is published, it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to its readers. Practically speaking, this means it’s best to avoid Goodreads and all reader reviews of your book, whether they’re on book blogs or instagram. Sometimes readers will tag you on social media with a book review, and if it’s a positive mention it’s polite to thank them, but I recommend that you never click on the link to the review. Just don’t go there. The book isn’t yours anymore, and reviews of it aren’t for you.
3. Accept the hard truth that you’re one of countless writers in the world.
This means you will not be invited to everything, nor will you get all the marketing support you want, nor will you be paid as much as you’d like to be paid for speaking. For authors who are LGBTQ, disabled, and/or of color, you will be confronted repeatedly with the unappetizing reality that venues often only want to hear about your oppression. None of this is fair, but publishing is not fair; it’s a capitalist enterprise.
No author wants to hear this, but one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned over the last decade is that I cannot ignore reality. Ignoring it only leads to disappointment. I’m not saying you should move through the world dragged down by cynicism or despair. I’m saying you should accept reality, with all its bumps and obstacles, because that will allow you to strategize how to deal with it.
4. You deserve to know basic facts about your book’s publication.
There is a pervasive feeling among many authors that publishers are overly secretive about their plans for your book. I think that while sometimes this secrecy is intentional and misleading, often it’s accidental. The publisher is doing their thing, and it doesn’t cross their mind to tell the author what they’re doing, because the author actually doesn’t have much to do with it.
However, I’ve learned that it’s extremely important to understand what the publisher’s expectations are for your book, because without that baseline, you’ll have no idea whether the book performed well enough. Publishing is a business, and while your novel is a work of art to you, to the publisher it’s a product.
That means you deserve to know the basic facts about your book’s publication, such as the publication date, the print run, whether it got into Barnes & Noble, and the publisher’s marketing plan. Practically speaking, this means that you should ask your editor for this information. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your editor, then ask your agent. If you don’t feel comfortable asking your agent, then ask yourself why, because your agent should be your advocate and you should always feel like they will give you direct answers.
5. The book cover is the most important part of marketing.
It’s your book’s biggest ad and it should reflect not only what the book is about but why a reader would want to read it. That’s why you should learn to think of the book cover impersonally, as a marketing tool, not as a personal reflection of your heart.
It’s a good idea to educate yourself on what kinds of book covers work for books like yours. When your editor initially shares your book’s cover with you, take some time to consider whether you think it works for your book, and express your opinion to your editor and agent about the design. Remember to express your opinion in a businesslike way. Remember also that it’s your book, and you do know it best.
6. Don’t spend unnecessary money on book promotion.
If your book is traditionally published by a mainstream publisher, they’re already going to be investing some amount in book promotion, which will involve (most importantly) getting your book into bookstores and libraries. This is the most important thing, because no matter how many interviews you do, if people can’t buy the book easily, they won’t.
You can do additional promotion on your own, and every author I know does some, but there’s no need to spend thousands of dollars on swag or book tours or conference fees. For example, I often see authors investing a lot of money in preorder campaigns in which readers get all sorts of tchotchkes for preordering a book, but this swag is not going to sell your book. The swag is nice to offer to your fans, and I’ve certainly done this, but new readers will probably not be convinced to buy your book in order to get a temporary tattoo of a character they’ve never read about.
For the vast majority of authors, I recommend spending maybe $150 on bookmarks, of which you probably don’t need more than 500. If you run out, you can easily reorder. Recently I’ve used Canva to design my own bookmarks, and Smartpress to print them.
Other than that, you should maintain your own official website. You don’t need to pay a lot to hire someone to design it, although I have done that in the past. It looked great, but eventually went out of date. Now I use Squarespace, which provides tools for you to design it yourself using their templates, and there are other services that are similar. Most importantly, your website should always be kept up to date with information on how to contact you, your agent, any events, and your books. People need to be able to find you online at a place that you control, independent of social media.
Speaking of which, you should claim your social media handles at Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and wherever else your readers go online. You don’t need to actively use them all, all the time, but you should claim your name and make it consistent across all social media platforms.
Regarding professional conferences like ALA, NCTE, and Book Expo, I don’t recommend spending a lot of money to bring yourself there. If your publisher is bringing you, that’s great! You should definitely go in that case. If they’re not offering to bring you, then I recommend staying home unless the conference is local to you. These professional conferences are very expensive, and publishers have a limited number of authors they can promote at them. If you’re not a featured author, I don’t think it’s worth the fees to go. Besides, your publisher will still promote your book without you there.
For useful and fascinating insights into the publisher’s perspective on school and library conferences, I suggest listening to this Kidlitwomen podcast (part 1, part 2) with Little, Brown Books for Young Reader’s director of school and library marketing.
7. You deserve to be paid for school visits and speaking engagements.
As an author of young adult novels, I’ve often been invited to speak at schools, libraries, and writers’ conferences. Sometimes, these venues tell me that they can’t afford to pay me, but their students would love to hear me speak. Over the last decade I’ve been learning how to not feel guilty about saying no to unpaid speaking engagements, and I urge you to learn this too. You deserve to be paid to speak about your work, to teach writing workshops, and to travel far from your home to do so.
I’ve developed this page on my website, where I list the speeches and workshops I’ve prepared and am ready to teach. I’m also available for keynotes and talks that are specific for an event, but asking me to write an entirely new speech or develop a new workshop should require additional payment.
On this page, I also ask event organizers to email me to discuss my speaking fees. Over the years I’ve had speaking fees listed in a rate sheet, and I’ve also posted them publicly on my website. I’ve learned that most event organizers pay no attention to this; they have a budget in mind and are unable to go beyond that. Perhaps if I were a more awarded or bestselling author, I could have a rate that is nonnegotiable, but realistically, I’m not able to do that yet. So I always ask the event organizer what they have budgeted for a speaking fee, while also telling them that my travel and accommodations must be covered. I also ask for a contract that covers all the terms of the event, including when and how I will be paid. If they don’t have a contract, I provide one. Here are some examples.
I still do some events for free, such as visiting local LGBTQ student groups, and I would never expect to be paid for a bookstore event where they’re selling and promoting my books. But if I’m asked to teach or lecture, I expect to be paid.
8. Honor your creative goals.
At the end of the day, your writing career comes down to you and your words, alone. The only thing that will make all the unfairness and weird ins-and-outs of publishing feel worthwhile is satisfying your own creative goals.
I’ve learned that I want to level up with each new book I write, which means I try to focus on improving my craft. I do this by reading writers who are better than me and trying to learn from them. I have no idea if others think I’m leveling up with each book, but that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is whether I think I’m leveling up, and I can’t lie to myself. It’s so rewarding to look at something I’ve written and be certain that this story or this book is better than the one that came before, because I did something different or solved a long-running problem or created a story I’ve always wanted to read. That’s the most important thing.
9. Take care of your mental health.
I have general anxiety disorder, and in the past I’ve also gone through bouts of clinical depression. I’ve been dealing with these mental health issues my entire life, but finally in the last five years or so, I feel like I’ve succeeded in establishing a daily practice to take care of my mental health. I did this through a combination of Buddhist meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-care (nutrition, exercise, general health). I’ve learned that taking care of my mental health has to be my number one priority, even more than anything writing-related, because if I’m not mentally healthy, I can’t write.
Practically speaking, taking care of my mental health also involves monitoring my feelings about social media. Does it feel good to go online? Does it feel like pressure or stress? If I need to take time away, I do. It will always be there to return to when I’m ready.
Back when my first novel was published a decade ago, I was pretty sure I’d be an author for the rest of my life. While I am definitely still here, I know now that my certainty was based entirely on brazen naïveté. I didn’t know 99% of the things I shared in this post when I started. I’ve had my share of publishing and writing challenges over the last ten years, and those challenges have made me both more realistic and more determined to still be here, writing, in another decade.
Nothing is guaranteed. Every day that I sit down to write, I remind myself to be grateful for the time and space I have to do this thing I’ve wanted to do my entire life. So at the end of 2019, I’m celebrating my first decade as a published author, and I’m also making a promise to myself to do everything I can to make sure I’ll still have this job ten years from now.
Lo & Behold is Malinda Lo's biweekly newsletter about writing, publishing, and other interesting things. If you enjoyed this issue, please consider subscribing: