Back in 2016, when I was a debut author, I felt like a fish on dry land. I was flopping around and getting some attention, but I was completely out of my element.
There are tons of resources, writer’s groups, and blog posts for newer writers trying to break into publishing, helping them hone their craft, query letters, and book proposals. However, there seems to be a drastic difference in the amount of information available about what comes next.
Having gone through the process myself, I thought I’d share my most valuable lessons learned from my debut. Here are the four biggest things I wish I had known as a first-time author.
1. Get Bookmarks Made (well before your book releases)
As someone who had coordinated marketing materials at my previous day job, I thought I knew what I was doing when it came to book publishing. So, like I had done at my 9-5, I ordered business cards for myself.
Yes, I’m serious.
Unless you also do freelance editing or writing for companies, or something else of that ilk, there’s little point to an author having business cards.
Authors don’t give out business cards. They give out bookmarks.
Think about it. If you’re writing fiction, chances are your target audience isn’t industry professionals of a particular field. Your audience is… readers! Readers read. They need bookmarks.
See how well that goes together?
Once your publisher sends you the cover art — and you know that its final – contact a graphic designer to generate some bookmark art based on the said cover (unless of course you can do this yourself or know some who can.) There are tons of indie artists online looking for jobs like this. A simple google search can lead you to the portfolios of several artists until you find one that seems to match the style of your cover art.
You can also reach out to authors online and ask for artist recommendations. Referrals are great, because they can also tell you who to avoid.
Once you have the bookmark art, get them printed. Again, there are many online services that will mass print bookmarks for you. Carry a handful with you at all times and make sure you have at least a few hundred before you do your first in-person convention or publicity spot.
BTW – While you’re already getting bookmarks made, you might want to have your artist design coordinating social media banners or website graphics at the same time. Many artists offer discounts for jobs using the same art across multiple media.
2. Realize That Publishers Are Human
I think newer writers tend to view agents and publishers as some sort of demigods. I sure did. After all, they safeguard the magical process that transforms your manuscript into an actual paper book.
Now, most people in publishing are wonderful. They’re there because the love books as much as you do.
But, like you, they’re human.
They might make mistakes, miss emails from you, fall behind on deadlines, and much more. For example, my debut novel was about futuristic video games and I had a copy-editor who (through no fault of their own) didn’t known videogame lingo. So, they proceeded to correct intentional “typos” that reflected gaming terms and slang. Unfortunately, this meant that I had to manually go through my book and re-correct what had been changed.
Again, not the copy editor’s fault – but it can be a hard lesson for debut authors to learn. While everyone in publishing loves books, your novel is going to pass through a lot of hands in its journey to publication and not everyone is going to fully understand what’s best for your story.
And that’s okay.
Learn to go with the flow and don’t hold grudges. Everyone’s doing their best with their overflowing work schedule. And if you happen to run into a major issue with your publisher, contact your agent. That’s what they’re there for.
3. Market Yourself
This was perhaps my biggest mistake as a debut author. I thought I needed permission to market myself or to do interviews.
You don’t. If you have an opportunity for some free publicity, jump on it immediately.
I thought the publisher had to be involved in everything, so I wasted a lot of time waiting to hear back from my publicist about whether I could do certain interviews where the individual/blog/media outlet had approached me personally.
Don’t wait around for the publisher or anyone else to promote your book. Take marketing into your own hands. This doesn’t only apply to the opportunities that come your way. Go out there and hunt them down.
A publicist at any publisher is working on several, if not dozens of novels at once. Your book is only going to be allocated a fraction of their time and energy (as it should be – there are other authors besides just you!) However, YOU can market your book with as many hours in the day as you are willing to spend.
Contact blogs. Get an article in your local newspaper. See if your old high school has a newsletter or Facebook group you can join. Do whatever you can to get your book cover in everyone’s face. It might seem like you’re being annoying. You’re not. You’re doing your job. If your book doesn’t sell enough copies, you might not have that job anymore.
That being said, be wary of companies that offer to promote your book on your behalf in exchange for a fee. Some of them are scams and some are specifically for self-published authors.
4. Plan Your Release Day
Unless your book was picked up in a mega deal and is slated to be the next Twilight/Hunger Games/Harry Potter, your publisher probably won’t be planning much for your actual release day other than a fury of online publicity – which you’ll already have prepped and completed weeks ahead of time.
By the time your first book hits the shelves, chances are you’ll already be working on book two and planning book three. It’s easy to be lost in the work and watch your release day sail by like any other.
For my debut, I did plan a quiet celebration lunch with my family, followed by a trip to my local chain bookstore. Unfortunately, I never thought to call ahead and they didn’t have my book in stock yet. It was two weeks later when I finally got to see my novel on the shelf. The whole thing felt sort of underwhelming after spending the previous two-and-a-half years getting to that point.
For my second book, I knew better. I planned an online live stream during the day so I could interact with readers, answer their questions about my new release, and explain where they could pick up a copy (or read a free excerpt on my website).
When I readied for my trip to Barnes & Noble, I called ahead before I left the house and found a store that already had the book on the floor. I brought my biggest fan, my then-boyfriend, now-husband, with me. Having someone with me who was just as excited as I was made all the difference.
He hadn’t known me when my debut released, so this was a new experience for him. When he saw my book sitting there as we walked into the store, he completely fanboyed over it. He seemed taken aback by the whole thing, that the book he was helping me proofread just months before was now sitting on the New Releases table in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
It was a wonderful experience, to share that moment with someone who couldn’t be happier for me.
So, if you can, bring your biggest supporter with you – whether it’s your significant other, best friend, sibling or parent. That person who was there for you through the ups and downs, someone who knows the tears and blood that you put into the novel. It will mean so much to both them and you to see the whole process come full circle.
I don’t really believe in tacky sentiments, but this one is true about book releases: Special moments mean more when you share them with someone special.
If you happen to be the rare breed of writer referred to as “an extrovert,” you might want to plan a release party and invite your friends and family over to your house or event space to do a reading (and cake, make sure there’s cake).
That being said, on the release day prepare to be at the computer or on your phone. A LOT. Chances are your publicist will have set up blog posts, interviews, and other marketing – most of which will be releasing within an 8-12 hour window.
You’ll be busy retweeting and reposting everything on whatever social media platforms you have, thanking those bloggers and media outlets kind enough to host your book for the day, plus doling out even more thanks to everyone who congratulates you or helped you along this journey.
One last note
Have fun. As I mentioned before, it’s easy to for us writer-types to keep forging ahead without stopping to appreciate our accomplishments along the way. If you don’t slow down and bask in the glory of the years of work hard it took to get to get your debut on bookstore shelves, that day will breeze past in a blink.
It’s only once that you have a debut novel. Don’t miss out on the joy that comes from accomplishing your dream.