What I’ve learned from my first year as a published author
Writing and publishing are two different things
Welcome to A-Mail! In this newsletter, I chronicle my attempt to make it work as a freelance writer and the lessons I learn along the way about building a sustainable creative career. I talk about my feelings as much as I do my financials because I think work makes all of us feel weird sometimes and it’s good to be honest about that.
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It’s been just over a year since my first book, You’re The Business: How to build a successful career when you strike out alone, came out. Happy publicationiversary to me!
To mark the occasion, I want to reflect on the past year and what I’ve learned from writing my first book.
Before I get into all of that, though: have you bought You’re The Business? You should! The best way to celebrate publicationiversary is by buying a copy of the book and/or leaving a review of it if you already have one.
Ok, here are six things I’ve learned from my first year as a published author. (And yes, one of them is that you have to do a lot of marketing)
Your first book will always be your first, but not necessarily your greatest (and that’s ok)
Writing my first book was an immense achievement for a number of reasons.
Firstly, I wrote it between the spring and winter of 2020. As a momentous chapter of history unfolded around me, I was inside my flat working on a piece of my own personal history. When I’m 80 and someone asks me what I did during the great pandemic of 2020, I’ll be able to say “I wrote my first book.”
The origin story of the book is also deeply personal. I was made redundant from a staff job in 2017 and started chronicling my journey into accidental freelancing in a newsletter. Its readership grew and out of that, a book idea emerged. From the lowest point in my career came one of my greatest professional achievements.
(The Professional Freelancer, the former name of this newsletter, was one of a handful of working titles I had for the book when I first drafted the proposal. Here’s another thing I learned about writing books: many publishers will want to change the title of your book to something more “marketable”.)
You’re The Business was the perfect first book for me. Something that felt natural – and dare I even say easy for me to write. It helped me understand how the publishing industry works. It taught me what writing 70,000 words actually takes. It was my crash course in deciding whether “author” is what I want my new job title to be, or whether “wrote a book” was a one-time thing to tick off my bucket list.
And yet I do also remind myself that first can mean first in a sequence. My first book will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the first one. But it’s not necessarily always going to be my number one. I know that it wasn’t the greatest book I’ll ever write, because that one is still very much in me. I’m as grateful for that knowledge as I am excited about what’s to come next.
Writing and publishing are two different things
The term “writing a book” is a misnomer because what you’re actually doing is pitching, writing, publishing and selling a book. The writing part is only a small aspect of an overall process that’s as much a business venture as it is a creative outlet.
Writing the book was glorious; I’d spend time, alone, just doing the work. It was during that period that I felt my most successful. When I was in jobs I hated, I’d picture myself sitting next to a window and writing, padding around my house making cups of tea on my frequent breaks. That is exactly what the writing part of writing the book looked like for me. An actual dream come true.
But where writing is private, publishing is public. I do believe that inseparable from the impulse to write is the desire to be read. Otherwise, I’d just write in my diary. But in order to be read, you have to let go of your writing. This was the hard part for me. Once out in the world, the work inevitably took on a life of its own; it was praised, which felt wonderful, but it was also critiqued, criticised, misinterpreted and passed over. All of which stung to varying degrees. (One thing I’ll say about dealing with bad reviews: don’t take criticism from anyone you wouldn’t take advice from.)
Something else was also jarring for me. Publishing, in the sense of packaging your book up for sale, is a business transaction. I’ve even heard it articulated in corporate jargon; writing is process-orientated and publishing is product-orientated. In other words, writing is creative, but publishing is commercial.
You can unpack the commercialisation of creativity in many different ways, but suffice to say, it makes writing books fraught. The best way I can articulate the tension is through the paradox of reviews. Once your book is published, you need to solicit reviews in order to encourage sales, but for the sake of your own sanity, you should never read those reviews. The commercial activity you need in order to sell your book is also the thing that will damage your creativity.
The day the book comes out feels like a birthday – in all its messy glory
My publication day felt like a birthday, in all its shades of ambivalence. I say this as someone who loves birthdays, but they’re kind of weird days. All the focus and attention is on you for something you haven’t actually done. What I mean by that is that publication is an arbitrary day to celebrate the book, because the real heroes of that day are the printers, delivery people and retailers who got it on the shelves on time.
As the author, your milestone day(s) already happened: the day you realised you had a tangible book idea; the day you sent off the proposal to publishers; the day the first offer came through; the day you signed your deal; the day you locked the manuscript. By the time the book comes out, you’re already onto a new project. What I’m saying here is that you have permission to feel a bit weird on publication day.
And yet, just like a birthday is an unapologetic celebration of your very existence, a publication day is the same for your achievement. It’s a rare, wonderful, indulgent, glorious day. I had cupcakes with pictures of the book cover printed on them in bed the morning of publication and so many flowers arrived at the house. And my publication day happened in lockdown, so I didn’t even get to do the usual tour of bookshops and have a 3-dimensional party in the evening – and yet I still won’t have changed it for the world.
Pre-orders are super important
Before my own foray into the publishing world, I had no clue how important pre-ordering was, especially for debut authors. Pre-ordering is when you buy your book from a bookshop or online store before its release date. But what you probably didn’t know about pre-ordering is that it counts towards the book’s first-week sales.
This matters because we live in a trend-driven economy. If those first-week sales are good, your book has a chance to get into the bestsellers lists. If it gets on the bestsellers lists, more retailers stock copies of the book which means more chances for people to see it in bookshops and online. It also means more press and social media attention, which again increases the chances of people buying the book.
My book has already been published, so you can’t pre-order it anymore. I’m sharing all of this because I’ve done a 180 on my attitude towards pre-ordering and I hope I can entreat you to do the same. I never used to pre-order because I didn’t know that my early purchase of something I intended to buy anyway had such a big impact on the author.
So next time you see a book you like the look of - pre-order it! If you have a friend in your life who’s written a book, especially their first one, pre-order it!
Not much changed for me
If I can distil any disappointment I have about my book it’s this: I thought publishing a book would be the end of the hustle, but it wasn’t.
I have the TV show Jane the Virgin to thank for this realisation. In Season 4, Episode 11, after Rafael says to her, “You published a book!” she says:
“I know. And that was a goal of mine for so long. It was this thing I could work towards. And after I got there, I imagined that my life would change because I would be this big success. But it didn’t.”
Now, I always knew my book was niche. It wasn't going to be a bestseller because it wasn’t intended for a mass market. There was no way I was going to sell the TV rights for it and I definitely wasn’t going to be living off any fat royalty cheques. I was truly fine with all of that. I wrote the book because I wanted to create something that I thought needed to exist: a handbook for people who were trying to build a solo career and didn’t know where to start.
But what I had hoped for was that the book would be the end of the grind. The nature of freelance writing is that there aren’t months-long contracts, you typically live commission-to-commission. The hustle is real and hard. And for me, the book represented the possibility of that changing for me and for things to be just a little bit easier.
So many people had told me that while you don’t get rich off the book itself, it does open doors to speaking gigs and other more lucrative opportunities. So while I do feel like my expectations were tempered (I knew, for example, that as a first-time author, it was unlikely I’d earn out my advance), I was disappointed when those gigs didn’t materialise. And truthfully, my life looks pretty much as it did before I wrote the book.
Which, more fool me for believing the Instagram highlights reel. Logically, I know that the reason those speaking opportunities weren’t in abundance is because of the pandemic. Or maybe it was the type of book I wrote; it’s technically a business book but no corporation is about to hire me to tell their employees about how fulfilling self-employment can be. But emotions and expectations tend not to follow much logic.
For what it’s worth, I know that a lot of authors also feel weird about their books. Heck, there’s a whole subplot in Jane the Virgin about it. I say all this because I think it’s worth remembering that yes, it’s possible – indeed it’s human – to be happy/proud/grateful about something and also feel a little bit disappointed about it, too.
I want to write more books
After it’s all said and done, with all the ups and downs, frustrations and elations, would I write another book? In a heartbeat!!