On Psychotherapists, Confessors and Other Narrative Conveniences
All the posts I mentioned at York Festival of Writing

Ten Things To Know About Being Published

1) Enjoy it. Really enjoy it. You are a communicator, a storyteller, a weaver of words, and now you have an audience: don't fix your eyes so much on the past, or the future, that you can't feel that audience, relish it, and reward yourself as you deserve and can afford. You will never again be an unpublished writer. In the interests of truth, some of the nine things that follow are not sweetness and light, but don't let your Inner Pessimist close your eyes to the sun that is shining.

2) Succeeding as a writer is not an exam you will pass if you can only work hard enough. Most of us grew up in an culture where, even if hard work and good work were not always rewarded, the general feeling was that they should be rewarded. Unfortunately, in the entertainment industries - including trade publishing - the relationship between hard work, good work, and the recognition and money that returns from the audience to the creator, is not a straightforward one. This is not an evil conspiracy among the enemies of literature to thwart writers in general or you and your work in particular, this is just how it is.

  • 70% of what happens to your book out in the world is entirely unconnected to its value as an act of storytelling: it's conditioned by what the publisher does (or doesn't), the weather in the book industry, the evolution of the entertainment industries as a whole, in the context of the global economy. 
  • 25% of what happens to your book is conditioned by whether it does, actually, work for the readers you were hoping it would work for.
  • 5% of what happens to your book is conditioned by whether, in the grand scheme of human creative endeavour, it's a good book or not - always supposing you can define "good" in the first place (I had a try here).
  • 0% of what happens to your book says anything about you as a human being or an occupier of a space on the planet.

And since the book is now in cold print, there's nothing you can do even about those 25% and 5% proportions. You may be able to do something about that fraction of your next book's chances - and separately you can try to hold on to your sense that you are worth more than your writing career. But that still leaves 70% which is largely out of your control. So, in a fatalistic way - but to the benefit of your blood-pressure - you might as well relax a bit.

3) As a writer, you need two heads: a writing head, and a business head. One of the business head's most important jobs is to protect the writing head. That might mean a moratorium on social media - or on alcohol - or on doing events. Agent Jonny Geller said something similar on Twitter recently: "One of the ways to survive as a writer is to separate your life as a 'writer' (what you want and need to write) from your life as an 'author' (what is expected of you to maintain your life as a writer). They are different but sometimes - usually around publication - intersect."

4) If your book doesn't earn out your advance, you don't have to give the money back. Click through to my post contracts and moneyin the Being Published series.

5) Getting print reviews is incredibly difficult these days even when you're not an unknown debut novelist. The fact that your book doesn't get any is not the end of the world. Ditto winning, or being short- or long-listed for prizes. Personally, I try to hold on to what Deborah Bull, Creative Director of the Royal Opera House, says in her lovely little memoir The Everyday Dancer. When still a baby ballet student, she realised while scanning the lists of who had got into what production that, "Sometimes you're chosen, sometimes you're not." Much of the time it serves no purpose to try and read any more, into any of it, than that.

6) When you stick your head into book industry social media, everyone appears to be doing three times as much as you to promote their book. But that's a composite picture: no one person is doing everything. And if they are - they're not writing their next book. If you can't help but compare yourself to others, make sure you're only comparing yourself to other debut authors of your kind of book aimed at your kind of readers: that's the main comparison you can draw practical conclusions from. 

7) Compared to the folk in many industries, book industry people are mostly remarkably nice, and usually kind, but their interests are not identical to yours, not least because they're divided among many books and many authors. You are the person responsible for looking out for yourself professionally - though your agent can help, as can the Society of Authors and the Writer's Guild - and for looking after yourself emotionally. And only you know what that looking-after entails, in terms of asking for help, and putting down boundaries. So do what you need to do.

8) Sometimes industry people are reluctant to tell you hard truths. It's partly just kindness and social embarrassment. But they also know that, to write, we have to feel that writing is worth it, so it's not sheer two-facedness and cowardice if they hide facts which they fear will make us feel it's not-worth-it. And sometimes they just forget that we're not "insiders": we've been parachuted into the upper levels of the industry, without having learnt things that every publishing assistant learns with their first canteen coffee. If the first thing your editor said, after you've each signed the contract, were something like the truth - "Here at Glorious Books we have 7 levels for time-and-money spend on promotion; Margie Attree's The Housemaid's Knee is A this season, and yours will be F" - would that be good, or bad, for your writing life?

Certainly you could ask your agent for some help in checking your expectations against reality. But only you can decide whether you want to ask for the harder truths, or not, about how your book is doing measured against the publisher's expectations for sales and publicity. You might rather get it over with and move on, but there's no dishonour in deciding your writing self is best protected by not asking for brute truth until it's forced on you because you must make a decision. 

9) Your second Royalty Statement may show lots of minuses. The first will have shown the initial push-out of books into the shops and online sellers, and the royalties they earned (which you may get, or may go into the pot to start paying the publisher back for your advance). The second royalty statement will show that many of those books came back, and some of the royalties have evaporated. This is not the end of the world, or even your career. Scroll down Being Published 1: Contracts for more for on that.

10) The majority of "writing careers", if counted in contracts for trade fiction and non-fiction, are short; what's more, as working lives go, being a self-employed writer is notoriously a life of feast-or-famine, triumph-and-disaster. I don't have figures, but I'd put money on many, many debut authors, if they get a second contract, not getting a third.

So even in the rare case of you getting a stonking advance and a two-book deal, either don't give up the day job or take up an "other job" - the one that fits, sort-of, with your own writing. And certainly have a Plan B for when your carefully husbanded advance does run out. With a bit more financial security and less economic fear you'll be less hampered creatively, and have something else, other than book-deals, to support your self-esteem and structure your working life. This post is about the models of writing-for-a-living which I see (sort-of) working.

For more on all these topics, click through to the Being Published series. If you fancy spending the second weekend in September among hundreds of editors and agents, fellow writers, workshops, panels and student-priced drinks, the York Festival of Writing is still open for bookings. And in November, at the Words Away Salon Kellie and I will be welcoming Richard Beswick, Managing Director of Little, Brown and its paperback imprint Abacus; we'll be talking about what every writer needs to know about being edited and being published.