Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Promises, Promises

Ok, Promising Writers, this post is going to be a major buzzkill. So if you don't think you're in the mood for a reality check, then you may want to duck out now. But if you can handle it--and I think you can--it might be worth your while.

The purpose of this blog is to offer encouragement and advice, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I made everything about the publishing business seem peachy keen, now would I? Every now and again it's important to manage expectations. If you know what to expect, then you aren't so crushed when something unpleasant happens. And it will. It happens to everyone.

Getting published is incredibly exciting, especially for the first time. When I got my first gig as a ghostwriter I was so thrilled I could hardly sleep for weeks. Several years later I developed my own series (ON THE ROAD) that briefly captured the attention of a television production company. I ran on pure adrenaline for months. I count the day my agent sold my first literary adult novel to Simon & Schuster (THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE) as one of the best days of my life.

In the early stages of any deal, there's definitely a honeymoon period when everyone is swooning over your work. Editors and sales staff will praise you. If there is buzz about your manuscript, movie producers might come calling. There might be talk about media appearances, tours, promotions, contests, bestsellers' lists, on and on. It is so easy to be swept up in all the excitement--but don't. I'm sorry to say that much of what is promised or merely mentioned probably will not happen.

So many things can happen that appear to be a sure thing then just dry right up. I once thought I had a twelve book series sold that ended up being cut down to four due to a personnel change in the publishing house. I've been contacted by TV/movie producers who seemed very interested and then never contacted me again. I've heard many publicity campaigns that never came to fruition. One of my foreign publishers thought I might make the bestseller list in that country and my book tanked. I've been told, for sure, that my book was going to be featured in a magazine that virtually makes bestsellers, only to have it cut just before publication. My first big disappointment crushed me for a long time. When the last one happened, I celebrated my 'almost' victory by going out to dinner. I ordered a martini and toasted the magazine that nearly put my name on the literary map.

Cynics like to demonize publishers, but I've hardly encountered anyone in the business that I haven't liked. Nearly everyone I've met is professional, dedicated, and their love of books is very real. So is their excitement when they come upon a project they really love. They, too, can get carried away. They might want to give you all the resources they can to give your book a push, but corporate demands, budgets, and shifting priorities can get in the way. Things just happen. And the truth is, even the best editors really can't predict what will resonate with the public and become a bestseller. A lot of it is largely out of their hands.

So, how can you insulate yourself against disappointment?

Expect the Unexpected. Yes, things will go wrong. To you. To everyone. That's life.

Set Your Expectations Low. It's okay to get excited about potential good news--as long as you keep it in perspective. There's rarely a quick path to wealth and stardom.

Don't Count on Anything Until It's Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Your contract is not valid until it's signed by both parties. Consider any talk of publicity, celebrity blurbs, movie deals, etc. to be merely idle chit-chat until something is actually happening toward that goal. Even then, don't consider it real until it has actually happened. Seriously.

Don't Spend a Dime Until the Check Clears. Tattoo this one on your arm so you don't forget. I used to work in the accounting office of a literary agency and I can't tell you how many authors got themselves in a bind by spending money they didn't have. So what if you just signed a contract for $100,000 advance? It could take months for the publisher to cut you a check. Don't spend a dime until it's actually in your bank account.  And then, if you're really smart, you'll sock away a portion for taxes and save the rest until your manuscript is finished, delivered, and approved. Do you know what happens in that rare instance that the publisher doesn't like your finished work or that you fail to deliver it? You have to give the money back! Not so easy to do, once you've spent it.

Be Grateful. Even when things go wrong, be happy and humble about the things that do go right. Because they will. Many things will go right, things you would never expect. A bookseller might fall in love with your book and spread the word about it. You might win an award. A high-profile newspaper might give you a rave review. A town you've never heard of might choose your book as a community read and ask you to speak. You might become a celebrity in a foreign country.

Prepare yourself. Anything can happen. That's half the fun.

1 comment:

Howard Waxman said...

Great post. Yogi Berra said "It's never over 'til it's over" so you never want to give up on your work; but to turn that around you can say "It's never real 'til it's real."
One of my screenwriting partners who has had a lot of scripts produced helps to tamp me down whenever I get too excited by promises from producers, usually with a bit of sarcasm about Hollywood based on his experiences. It's great if you have someone in your life who can share your excitement and at the same time whisper caution and moderation in your ear.