Liars Club

What I Wish I’d Known Before My First Book Was Published

by Merry Jones on April 24, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

It’s a business.

That, in short, is what I wish I’d known long ago in the last millennium, before everyone carried cell phones, before everyone had laptops.  Back when I thought being a writer meant one thing: writing.  Back before my first book was published.

I’ve written ever since I could hold a pencil.  Stories and poems for my family.  Papers for classes.  A couple of theses for a couple of degrees.  Articles, speeches, brochures and video scripts for corporate clients.  And, at the age of 41 after the birth of my second child, my first book, for readers unknown.

Finally, I thought, I was free.  No clients or professors controlling my content or voice.  Writing would involve just me and the page.  Or, actually, me and the computer screen.  I could write from the heart.  Tell the “truth” as I saw it.  As I felt it.  And I would get it published and people would read it.  And then, I’d write something else.

My vision, however pure, was ill conceived.  Unrealistic.  Naïve.  Because I didn’t realize—had no idea that writing, despite my idealistic view, was a business.

Years later, of course, I get it.  The manuscript is not enough.  Even if it’s a good manuscript.  Even if it’s a great one.  Even if it’s sincere, from the heart or “true.”  Those things are important, but not enough—Nothing is enough without business.  Without business, the manuscript never becomes a book.  Never gets on store shelves or Amazon lists or Kindle downloads.  Never gets reviewed or promoted.  Never gets picked up and browsed.  Even a pearl of a manuscript, without business, is destined to linger dusty, neglected and, worse, unread in some bottom drawer or computer file.  Which defeats the purpose of writing it in the first place.

For sure, writing is a business.  And the manuscript, no matter how excellent or mediocre, is a product.  Whether published by a traditional publisher or by the author, it’s nothing more or less than something to be sold.  Like hair conditioner.  Like dog food.  And, for the product to be sold, it needs to have some mind-catching hook or intriguing character to help promote it and attract customers, just like Mazda has “ZoomZoom” and Dow has Scrubbing Bubbles.  And no one ever forgets Mr. Clean.

When I started writing books, those twenty-ish years ago, times were different.  There were no CDs or DVDs.  No Ipods or Ipads or anything digital.  No On Demand TV, not even any email.  Not everyone had a computer, and those who did have them didn’t shop on them or pay bills on them, didn’t download music or movies on them, didn’t Skype, didn’t dream of “friending” people or “tagging” their photos.  It was a different age, back when I started writing.  And yet, not everything was different.

Writers then, just as now, needed to market their work to agents.  And agents needed to sell the work to publishers and to handle the financial and contractual parts of the deals. But a big difference was that, back then, once a publisher acquired a book, it took on the business of selling it.  Publishers sent authors on tour.  They invested in promotion.  Made radio and TV bookings, paid for travel.  Contacted reviewers, set up interviews.  Made lavish displays for stores.

And, at least sometimes, their efforts worked—My humor books, for example, I LOVE HIM, BUT… and I LOVE HER, BUT… got attention all over the world.  People bought them.  (Still do, fifteen years later.)  My publisher took care of the publicity, marketing, logistics, promotional materials.  All I had to do was play Celebrity Author, being escorted from radio station to TV station, traveling relentlessly from city to city, talking on cue for the camera or the mic.  And Celebrity Authors didn’t have to do the work of setting up media events.  Or contacting and cultivating reviewers.  Or getting their books shelved prominently in stores.

Fast forward two decades to the present day.  Publishers have cut their budgets and expect authors to promote their own books.  And there I was, with a new book, lost.  Completely confused.  A relic of a different era.  With my first mystery, I had no idea what to do.  How to begin.  Everything—even the media had changed.  TV and radio and print had been joined, even upstaged by the Internet.  Authors now needed their own websites.  And online newsletters.  And Facebook.  MySpace.  LinkedIn.  Twitter.  Blogs.  We needed to arrange our own signings.  To network with other writers, bloggers, booksellers and readers.  To attend conferences and conventions.  To lecture.  To conduct guerilla publicity whenever possible. To create and distribute bookmarks and promotional materials in critical locations.  To print and distribute sample chapters.  In a way, to run our own businesses, complete with advertising, marketing, branding and product development.

So.  The business aspect of books is what I wish I’d known about from the start.  Granted, knowing about it wouldn’t have made it easy—So much has changed over time.  And even now that I know, I still struggle with branding myself and my books, still fumble with twittering–or is it tweeting?  I’m still self-conscious about posting and blogging.

But, had I known what the deal was, I’d have studied up on electronic and social media earlier, familiarizing myself with these remarkable and potentially powerful tools, becoming part of on-line communities earlier, preparing myself better for helping my books find their readers.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that being an “author” involves much more than putting words on paper—Or on computer screen.  It means being CEO of my own brand of the written word.  It means promoting that brand and attracting repeat customers (readers).  It means building strong relationships with production/distribution/sales people (publishers) and becoming active in related communities (writers—like Philly Liars Club, readers, booksellers, libraries, conferences).

Most of all, it means not just understanding, but actively embracing this one truth:  Writing books is just a fraction of the business of writing books.


Merry’s post is part of an ongoing series, where Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing. To read answers other Liars have already given to “what we wish we knew,” click on Marie’s post, and Don’s post.  And check back on this site daily for more Liar responses!


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gerri George April 25, 2010 at 1:03 am

Excellent, Merry. It’s all so challenging and daunting and your information will help me plan ahead as I embrace this wild, raucous, frustrating, splendid writing career. Thanks!

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