You spend years working toward the publication of your book.
Take writing classes. Attend workshops. Mingle at literary conferences. Develop your craft. Work with a writing coach. Write the manuscript. Hire an editor. Revise and rewrite. Build a website and blog every week. Grow an audience platform. Write reviews of books by authors you admire. Polish a proposal. Query agents. Receive rejection after rejection.
And you wonder if it will stop hurting so much if you simply give up now. When you get a “no” it hurts. You doubt yourself. You question whether the book you’ve written is any good. You wonder if you’ve been suffering from grandiose delusions about your own talents.
When you reread the latest rejection letter a few days later, you might see a glimmer of hope. The agent complimented your writing but didn’t think it was right for them or didn’t think they were the right person to sell the project. So maybe, you think, it’s not you or your writing but simply this wasn’t the right agent. Or maybe the agent is right about an insufficient audience platform, the lack of character development, or the first 10 pages didn’t have a strong enough hook.
And you go back to work. You struggle to improve the manuscript. Tighten the narrative arc. Deepen the characters. Figure out a way to repackage the project. Submit essays, poems, or short stories for publication in literary journals or popular magazines. Give readings of your work-in-progress. Expand your social network. Apply for fellowships. Submit to writing contests. Then you query again and get more rejections.
But it only takes one to say yes. You find an agent! You sign with the one who falls in love with your book. And then they tell you to do more work. Cut 20K words. Rework the subplot. Improve the pacing or craft a better ending. It bums you out to discover finding an agent is another beginning instead of the end of your herculean efforts. Revise again. Rewrite your proposal. Punch and polish the manuscript. Again and again. Finally your agent sends out query letters and you get more rejections.
It hurts more. You’re tired of revising and rewriting and repackaging. You question your story and your ability to tell it. You lose sight of the fact an agent believes in your project enough to take a risk on selling it. Agents don’t get paid a commission unless they sell the property. You get angry with yourself for clinging to the fantasy you’ll get published. And then you get depressed…
…Until your agent lands you a publishing contract. Sign on the dotted line. You can hardly believe it is happening. You’re going to be a published author. But then there are more editorial revisions to be made. Before you turn in the final version of your manuscript, you have to pull together a marketing and publicity plan, seek endorsements from famous people to get blurbs for the cover, and plan author events for the publication date. You beseech friends and family to buy your book when it comes out, and then to post their reviews on Amazon and GoodReads. You line up speaking engagements and radio interviews. Hire a publicist. Send out press releases and arrange interviews with news reporters and book reviewers.
And the entire time you’re waiting for the release of the publication you doubt yourself, your book, and whether your readers will like what you’ve written. Imposter syndrome sets in. You feel like a fraud. You can’t believe your book will really be published or that readers will like it. You work harder to compensate for these feelings and are completely overwhelmed by the endless tasks involved with the business of becoming an author.
Your production editor quits for a better job elsewhere. The galley proofs arrive and you gasp when you see the errors introduced into your manuscript. The cover design is horrible and your feedback isn’t welcomed. The publisher pushes back the release date even though you have met every deadline ahead of schedule. Your contact in the publisher’s marketing department doesn’t reply to your emails or phone messages. Anxiety rises. A sense of doom descends.
The book is launched. Pub day arrives!
It is SO incredibly anticlimactic. You still have to let the dog out first thing in the morning. And pick up the poop. The kids still expect you to arrive on time to pick them up from softball practice. Your husband hasn’t even read the damn book yet. You have to throw your own party. And you wonder if you’ve alienated all your Facebook friends with your “Me, Me, Me” posts. While everyone expects you to be elated, you start singing the blues.
The first 30 days after release are a bit surreal. You expect something to be different. To feel affirmed by the universe: you really are an author now. Legitimated by the rite of passage. Certified, if not sanctified, by the rights and privileges of publication. But you’re exactly the same as the day before publication. Nothing happens. And when you sit down to write, it isn’t any easier than the day you started the first draft many years ago.
You wait for the reviews. When you read them, you suspect the reviewers wrote puff pieces based on the marketing materials and interjected their own prejudices and biases without actually reading the book. You’re devastated when a review is more critical than complimentary. Those which offer literary acclaim lack any significance when you’re in the check-out aisle of the grocery store. There’s no discount on printer cartridges at Office Max when Kirkus gives you a starred review.
You watch the Amazon sales rankings do nothing, go nowhere, and then drop precipitously day after day. You show up for readings and book signings, slap a smile on your face, and thank everyone including your third-grade teacher. Go home and cry because no one acknowledged how hard you’ve worked to make this happen. Post-partum-publication depression sets in.
You avoid reaching out to friends and family. You know you should be happy and enjoy this major accomplishment. You are certain no one else could possibly understand why you would be depressed. Your best friend couldn’t be bothered to post a review of your book. Your parents haven’t bought the book. You used your 10 complimentary copies from the publisher for a GoodReads giveaway but none of the recipients has written a review. When you visit your local indie bookstore, you notice there isn’t even a copy of your book on the local authors bookshelf. You go home and climb under the covers and cry yourself to sleep.
Two months after the book’s release, Barnes & Noble sends back any unsold copies for full credit. Your sales figures plummet. Everyone starts to ask when your next book is coming out and you’re beating yourself up because there hasn’t been time to write while you’ve been promoting this book. Three months after the publication date you can forget about getting any book reviews or news coverage. After six months, the invitations for speaking engagements dry up. Book clubs may invite you to speak—free of charge, of course—and take offense when you request members purchase a copy of the book. They’d planned to borrow copies from the library or buy used copies on Amazon. A year after the release of the book, it’s as though you were never published. Depressing.
Then the publisher sends the royalty statement. They’ve deducted the cost of indexing. The returns for full credit from bookstores which didn’t sell the copies they ordered. It may take years for you to earn out your advance or your royalty check won’t even pay the electric bill for one month. Before you know it, they’ve remaindered the rest of your books they have in inventory. The final humiliation is when you find libraries selling off copies pennies on the dollar because they don’t have room to keep more than one copy on their shelves.
Writers have good reasons to be depressed about the real state of affairs in the business of being an author in this publishing environment. It’s a normal and healthy reaction to the difficulties imposed on writers by the publishing world. It’s not a sign of weakness or a character flaw when writers get the blues. Frustrated, discouraged, irritable, angry—these are righteous emotions. Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, even guilt are normal. Yes, guilt. Because an author gets published and so many other aspiring writers do not, they feel guilty and then feel worse because their success is so thoroughly unsatisfying.
There are days when I wonder if anyone would pursue publishing if they knew what “success” felt like. Writing IS hard work. It has its own rewards independent of publishing. But when a writer pursues publication, the path is painful, tiresome, humiliating, and depressing in so many ways. There has to be a reason beyond ego, beyond the illusion of fame and fortune. That reason is always the same. The writer has a story worth sharing and readers need to know it. They believe readers will benefit, even if at their expense, from knowing this story. It’s about serving readers. It’s not about the author.
Depressing? Yes. The truth often is. But writers need to know their feelings are based on depressing circumstances and their reactions to this reality are normal and healthy. I hope it helps to know what to expect and that you are not alone.
Six or seven years ago my advice to aspiring authors of nonfiction books was to build an audience platform by blogging. An example of how critical blogging could be to securing a publishing contract can be found in the case of Ann Marie Ackermann, author of Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee. After an initial assessment of her manuscript, I had recommended she start a historical true-crime blog, and she did. In fact, the editor of the ideal book series at Kent State University Press became a fan ofRead more…