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Part 2: A deeper dive into the publishing industry — and how to stay strong once you’re in

Photo by Sabaa Tahir

In April of 2015, my first book, An Ember in the Ashes, was published. But the real publishing journey began a year and a half earlier, when my book was acquired by my publishing house. At the time, I knew nothing of the industry.

Without the hard-won advice of friends and colleagues, I would have been lost. I was lost. This article is the second in a series about how to navigate the publishing industry.

This time, we’ll focus in on time management, being undercut by your peers, the reasons we write, and more.

HONE YOUR CRAFT

The longer I was in publishing, the more I heard one refrain: nothing is as important as the writing itself. Here, an author puts it better than I ever could:

Bestseller lists are great. Awards are great. Best-of lists are great. I’ve experienced all three. But after years in the industry, you know what I learned is better than all of that? Working on your craft. As important as it might seem to be on a magical list, in 10 years, it won’t matter if you haven’t improved as a writer. The world moves quickly, and no one will remember who you are. Just look at Printz award lists from 10 year ago. Have you read most of those books?

Plenty of authors who start with a promising career struggle later on because they aren’t producing the same quality of work. Don’t fall into the trap.

Next is a note about something particularly close to my heart: deadlines! In some areas of publishing, writing a book every few years is perfectly acceptable. But we all know our editors would be happy if we worked a little faster. (Mine would, anyway!) But keep in mind:

Readers will forgive a late book. But they won’t forgive a bad one. Take the time you need to do your best work. And if you don’t have an agent who fights for that time? Get a new agent.

As a former editor, I can’t emphasize enough how important I think the next piece of advice is. My beta readers are the only reason my books aren’t complete trash when I send them into my editor. Because editors can do a lot — but not everything!

Make friends with those whom you can share critiques with so that you are never solely reliant on editors because, as sorry as I am to say this, friends have saved my novels countless times when editors have not.

IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

How do we remain in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving? Some suggestions:

Surround yourself with people who understand what you are trying to do with your writing and believe in you. Fighting for a better world is a long, hard battle and we need to do it together.

In the same vein, understanding your motives for writing are important. It’s easy enough to say you want to be a writer. But why?

Think about what you really want. If you want to be famous, good luck. That’s a goal, but it’s not a writing goal. If you want to write, think long term about that writing. You can’t control the market, your sales, or what other people do. Things may go well or poorly on those fronts. You will have setbacks, and sometimes you will think your career is over. Don’t hang on those moments. If you want to write as a career, it’s not about a flash here or there. Persist.

Writing careers are not static and unchangeable. On looking at a career with a growth mindset:

You are more than one book, one genre, one chance. Never pin all your hopes on one thing. The key to staying alive in this industry is FLEXIBILITY and the willingness to move on to the next idea with enthusiasm and tenacity, no matter how the last book performed. You have as many opportunities in publishing as you have ideas, and no career is ever truly “over” until that writer gives up. It may get tougher; learn to bend with the wind. It may take longer; learn to endure. Doors may close; find new doors. It may seem impossible; it is not. If your raft falls apart, grab everything you can and build another. And another. And another. Is it cliché to say “Don’t give up?” Well. Don’t.

I am a consummate procrastinator. In fact, by editing and compiling this column, I am procrastinating. I know I’m doing it…and I do it anyway. Here, a very practical and successful writer of both adult and young adult books, shares some fantastic thoughts on how to think about your time.

One of the principle concepts to keep in mind as an author is taught to business majors on their first day of college, but creatives seldom get clued-in about: ROI, or Return on Investment.

It’s fine to think of yourself as an artiste, swimming in a sea of creativity and reveling in the spell of the muse. But you’re also a business person now, and you’re running the kind of business that statistically is most fraught and set to fail — a SMALL one. Think of your time as a currency, and the most precious one you have.

Repeat for emphasis: THINK OF YOUR TIME AS CURRENCY.

No matter what you’re doing, ask what you’re getting out of it, and more importantly, if it’s worth the time you’re spending doing it. Because it’s time you could be spending writing your next book. And THAT could be the book that gets you the life-changing advance, or the GRRM-style TV deal, or your spot on Oprah’s book club.

Note: this doesn’t only include the “work for exposure” style of exploitative labor creatives often get asked to do. It includes producing swag or writing a blog post or going on social media. So many writers spend SO MUCH TIME on places like twitter trying to build a platform, but there are writers out there with 100k followers who don’t hit bestseller lists, and writers who put very little into social media and yet hit consistently.

A follower is NOT a book sale. A twitter debate is not paying your rent. Swag is a cost. Time is gold. Every minute you spend not writing your book, ask yourself: what is in this for me? And is this worth the time/energy/investment I’m putting in?

And if it’s not, cut it out.

Publishing is an industry run by humanoids. And humanoids are inevitably complicated. You’ll run into rage, jealousy, passive aggression — the gamut of human nastiness — in any industry. Publishing is no different. The authors who wrote in have all dealt with it:

“What has always cut me the most are those who damn with faint praise. It was “good enough,” the book was “readable,” you’re doing “fine” as a writer. You know it when you feel it, and don’t let instinct tell you otherwise. When people speak to you that way, it feels arrogant to think that perhaps they’re jealous. Listen to me: they’re jealous. They want to dull your star light. They want to shine, and since they lack the talent, they’ll throw you behind them so at the very least their silhouette is recognizable. Fuck that nonsense. That light is yours. The longer a career, the more it fluctuates. But no matter how dim or bright, remember it’s guiding someone out there and someone needs it to light up the dark. Don’t let someone stain it.”

And here’s a sad truth that most POC in the industry could confirm. (Yes, I have been called Sona, Sandhya, Aisha, Samira, and Renee. Once, someone confused me with Ellen Oh. )

If you are a person of color in this industry, gird your fucking loins. You will get confused with other people of color. Reviewers will give white authors passes for things that you will never get passes for. I saw a reviewer praise a book by a white author to the high heavens because it had “racial diversity.” Meanwhile on the same review site, a Muslim author who incorporated her cultural mythology in a book was accused of writing to trend for doing so.

You will be asked why you didn’t write about immigration if you are an immigrant, or the African American community if you are black, or arranged marriage if you are Indian. Publishing people — teacher, librarians, booksellers , editors, agents— mean well. They do. But just because they are well-read doesn’t mean they are educated.

You have to ask yourself, “Do I want to do the educating? Do I want to correct this person’s racism?” Sometimes, you’ll feel like you have to. But you don’t. You don’t owe anyone anything. But practice your poker face. You’ll be wearing it all the time if you want to survive.

Interestingly, this is one of the sections I got the most DMs about. And it’s also one that authors had a LOT to say about. So here’s some good practical advice from an author who has a background in business:

The moment you get that first advance you need to realize you are running a business. If you aren’t familiar with how to do so, get familiar fast. There are plenty of online resources to do so. Basic info:

1. Talk to a tax accountant about how to maximize your take-home pay and (legally) minimize your taxes. If you have dedicated office space at home, for instance, you can (as of 2019) deduct a portion of your rent/mortgage based on the size of the office and how many hours you work there.

2. Figure out what kind of business you want to be. A sole proprietorship? An LLC? There are drawbacks and benefits to each. Research it and decide.

3. If you can be responsible with it, get a business credit card and buy EVERYTHING relating to your business with it. If you need a computer for work — get it on that credit card. If you are traveling and get a taxi to get to a conference — business credit card! Use it ONLY for business purchases so that when you do your taxes, all your work purchases are in one place and you can easily deduct them.

4. Pay said credit card off in full every month if you can.

5. If you are lucky enough to sell foreign rights, make sure you take your taxes to an accountant who knows how to manage foreign taxes.

6. Figure out how much to donate to retirement, and how. If you are sticking in your day job, you should be doing this anyway. If writing is going to be your full time, you need to think of your future. Research IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, index funds and mutual funds. It sounds intimidating, but if our Boomer parents could figure it out, then we can, too. This is your future and your life. Be smart about it.

That’s it! Next time, we’ll talk about agents, marketing, and contracts.

A few non-published writers have asked for articles that decode publishing. I’ve a few in the pipeline about topics like query letters, picking an agent, etc. So keep an eye out.

As ever, thanks for reading, and thanks to all the INCREDIBLE authors for taking the time to send in advice.

Writer. Musichead. Book Junkie. Sock Aficionada. #1 NYT Bestseller. My books have long titles. A SKY BEYOND THE STORM out 12/1/2020.

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