Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lessons Learned in the First Year

by Laura Benedict

LBenedictAug08.jpgEarly last November, I was nearing the end of a seven-week of tour for Isabella Moon. When I finally returned home--after a week in Alaska, thirteen reading/signing events, twenty bookstore drop-ins, and four thousand miles of driving through Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri--I collapsed in a heap in my bedroom and could barely be dragged out of it for a week. My mind was so scattered and I was so distracted that I could hardly write. Laundry went undone, and we ate out way too much. But I recovered and my family recovered and we made it through the year just fine.

When I looked back at the events of the past year, I pondered writing a long, heartfelt essay about how my life was bene_lonely.jpgchanged by the publication of my first novel. My life has changed alright, but the most significant way in which it has changed is in my obligation to my readers--My second novel, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, will be out in a few weeks and I'm way behind on the writing of number three. So, as I'm a big fan of lists, here's a quick and dirty sketch of what I've learned over the last twelve months:

My agent is a treasure. A good agent is worth her weight in gold. My conversations with my editor are always focused on editing my work because my beloved Agent Susan handles everything else. She does all the truly hard work. When I get worried and start fretting about things over which I have no control, she gently reminds me that my primary job is to write. If she hadn't reminded me of this frequently over the past year, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts would not be coming out January 6th.

To take my own press with a grain of salt. At first it was kind of fun to read all about my bad self in the press and to discover the many nice things (and not so nice) said about me and my novel. There were times during the year, though, when I felt like the newspaper and magazine interviews written about me seemed like they were actually written about someone else--someone who was way more together than I actually am. The truth is that I procrastinate, lose stuff, say regrettable things, get perfectly silly after two beers and get very nervous when I have to get up and talk in front of a room full of people. I am the same person I was before I had a book contract.

As a writer, I have very little control over how many of my books are sold. Many other writers will disagree with this statement, and that's just fine. I know writers who have done end-runs around dilatory marketing departments and gotten themselves into big-box stores. I know writers who carry boxes and boxes of their books in their car trunks and hand-sell them everywhere and spend the rest of their waking hours doing online promotion. Sometimes these things work. Mostly they just sound exhausting to me. There are limits to what writers can and should do, and those limits will vary from writer to writer. The most important thing is to write the best book one can.

That said:

The only person who really, truly cares about a writer's career is, well, the writer. There is always another writer waiting in the wings, someone who has written something just as good--or even better. And so writers must do what they reasonably can to construct their own careers and not whine when they think they are being treated badly. There are no Svengalis to take blossoming writers in hand and lead them to commercial success. To borrow an old EST Training phrase: You are responsible for your own career experience! I've had to decide what my own idea of success is and pursue it, rather than use someone else's definition.

And, unfortunately:

Publishers don't have a magic formula to sell books, either. This was a big surprise to me. Yes, co-op money will get a book better face time in the bookstore with potential buyers. Yes, a good gimmick or timely topic will sometimes get a writer on the Today Show. But there are never guarantees. There are many highly-touted books that end up in remainder bins, to the dismay of both writers and publishers. (If you see my book in a bin for cheap money, buy it! Even cheap hardcovers last a long time and make wonderful gifts. Those pesky red stickers peel right off! But, uh, please don't drop me an email to tell me you saw it there. It stings. Just a little.) It's good to keep in mind that publishing houses are corporations and corporations need to consistently improve their bottom lines. They are not thoughtful caretaking entities. From writing to promoting, they will take every bit of energy a writer has to offer--and it's nothing personal.

Most bestselling writers deserve to be bestselling writers because they work at it all the time. I have met many amazing, successful writers in the past year. They are some of the hardest working people I've met in my life. They are generous to a fault and often put their work ahead of nearly every other personal consideration. And they never whine. Well, almost never--they're only human.

It's foolish to be jealous of other writers. I watched with horror as my publisher devoted more resources to other writers' books than they did to mine when it came out. Sometimes I pouted about it, but soon realized that my distress was only costing me time and energy better spent working. My religious training came in handy here: there's a parable in the Bible about the owner of a vineyard who, in the morning, hired a number of workers at a given day rate. Later in the day, he gave late-arriving workers the same pay that he gave the first workers even though the latecomers only worked for an hour or two. When the first workers complained, the owner said, "Didn't you agree to work for that rate?" He was the owner and he could pay whatever he wanted. Every writer has to make his or her best deal and live with it.

Publicists are worked to death. Be nice to them. Remember to say, "thank you."

It's not necessarily a good idea to hire an outside publicist for one's first book. They're way too expensive to make a real difference nationally, but are often useful in smaller markets. I didn't do this, but asked a lot of people because I thought about doing it.

I have to stay away from my Amazon and Barnes and Noble pages. The fluctuating numbers there are like some kind of dangerous drug. They thrill me then break my heart--all in the space of any given twenty minutes. Too stressful!

If one believes the good reviews, one has to believe the bad reviews, too. Just a fact of life. A few reviews of Isabella Moon were unbelievably cruel and they wounded me deeply. Others made me unreasonably happy. I read way too many of them (though I was amazed and pleased seeing how many of them were out there) and even sought them out. Many times I lost confidence in myself and in my writing because they affected me so profoundly. Reading one's reviews really is a bad idea. But I'll probably continue to do it anyway.

Book tours are a whole lot of fun, but not particularly glamorous. I love, love, love meeting readers and book groups and bookstore staff. There are few things more gratifying than walking into a bookstore and connecting with someone who is excited about my work. Sometimes signings can be quite lonely affairs for the author (I've discovered that this happens to well-known writers, too.) and won't meet anyone's expectations. It's hard when that happens. And it's a challenge to sleep in a different hotel bed each night and an even bigger challenge to not to indulge in the small, dangerous comforts of vending machine donuts and delivery pizza when one gets back to one's hotel room. But there was that moment when I walked into my spartan Roanoke, VA Hampton Inn room to see that my frequent-guest status meant that I got a bottle of water and a pack of Oreos!

Oh, and pack light. Always. I schlepped a lot of heavy suitcases through airports and hotel hallways. I always regretted overpacking. I got better at packing light as the year went on. I only took five pairs of shoes to New York for Thrillerfest--down from eight the year before.

Independent bookstores are filled with wonderful people who care about books--but the big stores are, too. I always feel so at home at an independent bookstore. When I was in Denver for Left Coast Crime last year, I visited Murder by the Book, one of the coziest, most welcoming bookstores in the country. I wish I could have spent the whole day there just browsing and reading and chatting about mystery books with the owner. I've heard many writers and readers complain about big stores simply because the stores are attached to large corporations. But most of the people who work in them love books just as much as the folks who work at independents do. I'm grateful for all of them!

Conferences are a heck of a lot of fun. Community is important. If you're a reader or an emerging writer (or both), take some time to attend a conference. It's a wonderful way to get out from behind the computer and meet people and talk about books. Writing is a necessarily solitary pursuit, but it's good to get out sometimes. Book publishing is an industry, just like health care, manufacturing, etc. and networking is important. (Hint: all the meaningful business is done in the bar after all the panels!)

My favorite live interviews are radio interviews. Television interviews scare me. I could sit and talk into a radio microphone all day.

I miss my family when I'm away from them. A lot.

I spent a too much time worrying about marketing my work this past year, and not enough time writing. While I did finish my second novel, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts, this year, I'm glad I got a start on it the spring before Isabella Moon came out, or I never would have made my deadline. I'm better organized now.

Online social networking is a distraction. I'm on Myspace and Facebook. I dropped Twitter because it distracted me from writing. I love meeting new people online, but I would get much more writing done if I spent less time socializing. And, in the end, that's how I got to have a debut year in the first place.

I wouldn't give up my blog for anything. It's my link to the outside world, the best way for me to communicate what's on my mind on a daily basis.

The last year was an astonishing adventure. Dream after dream came true for me. Finally--after many years of writing--I was able to come in close contact with the people I was writing for. I'm very grateful whenever someone takes the time to read my work. If I had it to do all over again, I think that the only thing I would do differently is to spend a couple extra days in Alaska (after the Bouchercon Conference) to see the sights. I feel a little cheated that I didn't even see a moose!

1 comment:

Chevy Stevens said...

Great post Laura! For someone just starting her debut year, and wondering about the whole tour thing, and pretty much everything else you mentioned, I found it very helpful!