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What happens when you aren't your publisher's Chosen One?
It's hard to talk about what you don't have.
When my first book came out over a decade ago, I had skewed expectations of what publishing would look like. I think most new authors do. But I also had some grounding, thanks to author friends who were ahead of me. (Seriously. Thanks guys.)
Not everyone has someone (or someones) to help them manage expectations and deal with the reality of publishing. But most have access to social media, and what we see there can really affect expectations, particularly for those who don’t have a network of more experienced authors.
The thing is, we see a lot of posts from big authors — or authors positioned to be big — about special editions, tours, library conferences, and film deals even before the book is released.
But most authors . . . aren’t getting that. And what we see vs. what we don’t see can really distort what newcomers think a publishing career looks like.
Let’s talk about this.
I think one of the hardest realities of publishing is that most of the time, our books just . . . come out.Anticlimactic. The biggest thing that changes is the sudden understanding that most of the book world will never even notice this thing we spent years working on.
It can be heartbreaking. Our books are so important to us, so meaningful. And we have this idea of what publishing the book should be like, and that’s partly based on what we’ve seen other authors talk about on social media:
Months (years???) on the NYT list
Publisher-paid stays at five-star hotels while attending events, conferences, festivals
Promotional boxes sent to reviewers and influencers
Going to the photoshoot for the cover
Cover reveal on Fancy Website of the Moment
Preorder campaigns run by publishers
Speaking engagements at conferences
In-depth publicist support and communication
Going to visit the publisher for a marketing meeting with the team
Book release gifts from the publisher
Regular posts/shout outs about the book on the publisher’s social media channels
Special ARC mailings for indie booksellers and librarians
Physical ARCs (advance reader copies)
Book subscription boxes featuring the book
Amazon/BN/any monthly or book club pick
Swag/bookmarks created by the publisher
Extra time to work on the book with no loss of publisher support
Special effects on the book jacket
Film deals with author attached as writer/producer, going to set, etc.
Dozens of foreign editions
The book in stores like Walmart and Target (not just online)
The book actually showing up on bookstore shelves
When we see these highlights, it’s easy to assume this is normal, that all authors get at least most of those things.
But the truth is . . . most authors don’t. Many authors don’t get any of those things. Not even physical ARCs anymore.
Heck, most of us feel incredibly lucky to get another book deal.
So why don’t we talk about it?
Well, some do. I know authors who are very transparent about their careers. I don’t count myself among them; talking publicly about my career makes me uncomfortable. But also, if you’re not getting something, why mention it? How would you even? “Surprise! I won’t be on GMA today!”
It’s weird to post about what’s not happening to you. And if you do — well, what then? It comes off as sour grapes? Or you risk someone at your publisher noticing and thinking you’re ungrateful?
I want to be clear: this isn’t us vs. them, authors who get treated well vs. authors who get ignored. It’s not a demand for authors to stop talking about their experience as a publisher’s chosen one. And it’s certainly not about who works harder, who has a better book, or who is more deserving.
No, I’m sharing one of the frustrating realities of publishing. Not every book can be a lead title — I think most of us understand that — but it would be nice if we knew how to talk about a normal author experience.
Except that normal depends on publisher and imprint. And normal seems to be diminishing all the time. Once, most authors could expect to have physical ARCs if they were publishing with a Big 5 publisher. Now? Many publishers have said outright that only lead titles are getting them. Goodreads giveaways used to be standard; are they anymore?
So what is the baseline? What is the bare minimum an author can expect, beyond the book (hopefully) being available for purchase on the appointed day?
I really don’t know.
Here’s what I do have:
If you’re getting things from that list above, I’m glad for you. Truly. I hope you understand how special and rare many of those are.
I also want you to know that if they go away (because sometimes they do, particularly after debuts), it’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. But this is, too, one of the realities of publishing.
And for those of you who aren’t getting the red carpet . . . please, please know that this is normal. It sucks. But it’s normal. You’re in the club with 95% of authors. Even if it doesn’t appear that way.
Because when you see some of us traveling for events, we got those our events on our own and we’re paying for the travel ourselves. When you see preorder campaigns, most of us had the goodies designed and produced out of our own pockets — and we’re running the whole thing by ourselves.
We don’t usually talk about it being a self-run opperation. We’re trying to get people enthusiastic about our books, not advertise how we’re not one of the cool kids. But does that add to the social media illusion? Yeah. The omission lets publishers pretend, too.
In the spirit of transparency, I’ll say that I have — at different times, for different books — experienced items off that list.
My debut (2012) released during a time when publishers were printing ARCs for every book, so I had ARCs. I had them for all my solo books until AS SHE ASCENDS in 2018 (NIGHTRENDER, with a different publisher, had paper ARCs too); and we had them for all the Lady Janies books until MY CONTRARY MARY in 2021.
My debut was also a time when that publisher was sending more authors on tour, so I went on a publisher-sponsored tour for INCARNATE. (But not any of my other solo books. Remember what I said about things going away? If you saw me in person for any of my solo books after INCARNATE, I organized and paid to go there myself.) For MY LADY JANE in 2016, the publisher sent us to a few pre-publication events, then on a seven(!!!!)-city tour. It was very cool. There was a three-city tour for MY PLAIN JANE (2018). After that: pandemic. I don’t know whether or not we would have been sent out again; I won’t speculate, but I’ll note that for MY IMAGINARY MARY (August 2022, when travel was happening again), we had a virtual event, which was arranged less than a week before the book released.
There have been other highlights, too, like some of my books getting picked for book boxes (thank you, curators! ily), a publicist I’ve actually been allowed to communicate with, and for NIGHTRENDER, my publisher did a run of wing pins to use as a preorder incentive.
I won’t go through every detail of what publishers have or haven’t done to support my books. I’m not trying to brag, make anyone mad, or accuse anyone of anything.
What I hope you take from my experience is that normal is inconsistent. Support for an author’s books comes and goes. You might get all the things. Some of the things. Or none of the things. And it could all change with the next book.
And if you’re a new or aspiring author, I hope this helps you understand that whatever you’re experiencing, you’re not alone.
Is this fair? Absolutely not. Does it need to change? Yeah. It’s messed up that we feel this way and I’m not here to make excuses. I’m sharing all of this specifically so that authors experiencing these feelings and this frustration know they’re not alone.
It’s also not fair that authors will be held accountable for low sales, no matter what the publisher does to support (or not support) the book.
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