I’ve already talked here at Magical Words about writing, about the query process and the path to first publication. I think there’s a lot less said about what comes after attaining that first book contract, and consequently, most authors don’t really know what to expect. Certain things can come as a rude shock. It’s not just getting published, but staying published that builds a writing career.
So, I’m going to touch on a few things here. Long-term thinking and career-building start even before you sign that first contract, when terms are being discussed and contract language haggled. It’s extremely important to have an agent who knows publishing contracts backward and forward who can look at things like option language (what you have to show next to your publisher and when they have to respond), competitive works, grant of rights, reversion, royalties and other percentages, etc. Just for example, if you’re obligated to show any next work to your publisher and they’re not obligated to make a decision on the material for, say, some months after publication of the last book under contract, it’s going to be difficult building up momentum in terms of the frequency of your publications. But let’s assume you’ve read all the savvy advice here already about that and that you already have a representative to fight the good fight in terms of contract language. One thing you’re going to be asked to supply is the deadline that you’ll need to hit for revisions and for future books (if it’s a multi-work contract). Your agent will probably advise you that it will take longer than you think and that you should plan accordingly. I can’t emphasize enough what important advice this is. For one thing, while you’re writing your next book, you’re going to be sent at least one and probably two passes with revision requests from the editor. Then you’ll have the copyedited manuscript to go over, and page proofs…you’ll likely have to stop the forward momentum on your work-in-progress each time to deal with these stages of the book you thought you’d put to bed. If you’re anything like me, it’ll take a day or more to get back up to speed again and switch gears from one storyline back to another (or one voice to another if you’re writing two different series). For another, unexpected things sometimes arise…anything from illness to writers’ block. No editor ever protest receiving a book early, even if he or she isn’t able to get to it right away. Late, however, can sometimes cause problems with production schedules and that all-important momentum previously mentioned.
Next, I want to talk about staying published. Often authors work so hard on that first book and get so much feedback and so many critiques that it’s been massaged and massaged into miraculous shape. Just because a publisher has bought a second, maybe even third book on the strength of the first doesn’t mean that you get to sit back and take it easy. You don’t get to turn in a rough draft and put it all on the pro to figure out what you meant to make it onto the page. This is not to say that your work has to be perfect. You do need to surrender the manuscript at some point. (Personally, I love Rachel Caine’s Surrender the Manuscript posts and pirate flag, because that too is an important part of the process.) However, you want to turn in something that’s as good as you can make it, knowing that your editor and in many cases your agent as well will give feedback that will make it even better. You want to keep up the excitement that your advocates feel for your work by doing your best, but also you want to let us focus on those things you maybe didn’t see for yourself rather than waste effort telling you things you already know but didn’t have the time or energy to do before turning the manuscript in. That’s not to say that you can’t reach out for help if something is stumping you. Often, your editor and agent will be happy to brainstorm with you or read over a particularly tricky section to provide feedback.
Of course, most authors—of fiction, especially—intend not just to get published, but to continue being published, which means a few things: 1) you have to invest in your career by working alongside your publisher to promote your work; 2) you can never just “phone it in.” Whether you’re writing a guest blog or the proposal for a new book, you’ve got to be creative, original, engaging, etc. Don’t just pull old manuscripts out of the closet and expect them to sell as is. They might, of course, but chances are you’ve grown as a writer and going back might not be the best way forward…at least not without revamping based on all you’ve learned already via the editorial process. Getting published the first time doesn’t guarantee that you’ll remain that way if you don’t find your audience and earn their loyalty. It was true when I started in publishing and it’s maybe truer than ever today—the biggest seller of books is word of mouth. It trumps ads, social media, interviews, reviews…everything. That means that if you addict your readers and deliver on your promises to them time after time, they’ll tell ten people and they’ll tell ten people
And so on
And so on
AND SO ON….
Until you become a sensation.
It’s hard work all along the process. You get to celebrate and then get straight back to work. As one of my authors, Rob Thurman, said recently on Twitter, “Yes…want to be a writer? Truly? Great! You work on X-mas. You work on Thanksgiving. You work on the goddamn toilet.” So true. So, so true.
To misquote the Peace Corps, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love…then hate…then love again. Yup, those aren’t just your feelings toward the latest manuscript.