Things I Wish I’d Known Before My Book Launched

seven tips for debut authors

My debut YA novel Neverland has been out in the world for four months today (yay!). Like many authors, getting a book published is something I’ve dreamed about and worked towards for years. Decades, actually. No joke, I’ve wanted this since I was five. So you’d think I would have been prepared. But since signing my publishing contract, I’ve been on a massive learning curve, especially when it comes to publicity. Looking back, there are so many questions I wish I’d known to ask in the lead up to Neverland‘s release, but I was also lucky enough to be given loads of excellent advice that has stood me in good stead.

So in the spirit of paying it forward, I want to share some real talk with future debuts about what to expect and things you can do around the release of your book to help it make its way in the world. My experience has been with a traditional Australian publisher, but much of what follows will apply to OS and self-published authors too. There are practical tips, but also some bits about the emotional side of putting your work out there. Because books are extremely personal, both for writers and readers, and while it’s beyond exciting to know your that story is finding its way into readers’ hands, it can also be pretty nerve-wracking to speak publicly about your work and have readers respond to it.

Let’s dive in.

This is not a drill: your book IS going to be published and you WILL need to talk about it. A lot.

As a long-time sufferer of the dreaded Impostor Syndrome, I spent the year between signing my publishing contract and Neverland‘s launch waiting for the inevitable call from my agent informing me that my publisher had had a change of heart. The book was dead. I’d wanted this for so long, and it felt too good to be true. There had to be a catch, right? Like if I got too excited about it, the universe would notice and conspire to take it away.

But no. Once you sign that contract, you can be fairly certain the book is coming. And when it does you’re going to need to brush your hair, put on some decent clothes and step away from the comfort of your computer screen to tell people about it. It doesn’t matter if you’re self-publishing or being published by one of the Big Five, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking to readers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, bloggers, media—basically anyone who’ll listen—about your book. Which can be daunting, because let’s face it, we authors aren’t always known for our mad public speaking skillz.

If you’re thinking: ‘Pfft, whatever, I can just tweet about it’. Um, no, you can’t and I’ll get to why later. Back to the public speaking bit. Here’s a brief checklist of what you’ll need to prepare (shout out to my agent, Danielle Binks, who talked a very-nervous me through this before my first author gig):

  • An elevator pitch for your book

This is usually the first thing people ask for in an interview, and if they don’t ask, you need to find a way to slip it in so that people know what your book’s about. Try it out on friends when they ask about your book in the lead up to the release instead of shuffling awkwardly and changing the topic (guilty).

  • A few key talking points about the book

Think about the elements of your book that you want to discuss—central themes, the research involved, etc. And also consider what you’re likely to be asked and prepare some responses. For example, with Neverland I’ve talked a lot about ‘unlikable’ female protagonists and the need for young women to take charge of their stories, how romanticising the past can keep us from moving forward and the importance of including mental health issues in YA.

Side note: People almost always want to know where the idea for your book came from, how you got published and what you’re working on next. So prep for that!

  • A list of book recommendations

Because I write YA, one of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘What other YA titles would you recommend?’ Sometimes people want to know about the YA I loved as a teen, others want to know what recent titles I’ve enjoyed. You should already know your category/genre well and be reading new releases, but if not, get on it. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is and how unprofessional (not to mention rude) you’ll look if you can’t speak to your colleagues’ work.

  • Your author ‘look’

I’m not suggesting you invent an entire alter-ego, but if you’re like me and your wardrobe consists almost entirely of PJs and active wear, you’re going to want to put a little thought into a few outfits you can wear for Authoring. Most events have a smart-casual vibe (if you’re doing a signing, readers might also ask to take pics with you), so pick clothes you feel comfortable and confident in.

In case this sounds like my publisher lined up an endless parade of glamorous author events and my part in promoting Neverland was simply to show up, say something semi-articulate and sign some books, allow me to clarify. My publisher (Penguin Random House Australia) is one of the biggies and, yes, they have done a lot to spread the word about Neverland, including dragging me out of hiding on occasion. But I’ve also done a lot myself. And you’re going to need to do a lot too (eg: you may need to organise your launch, introduce yourself to local booksellers, put your name forward for school and library visits, etc.). Look for opportunities. Create opportunities. But most importantly, talk to people about your book—I guarantee good things will come of it.

Your book no longer belongs to you

So, your book is coming and you’re going to be talking about it. Fingers crossed, other people will be talking about it too. Seeing Neverland ARCs pop up in my Instagram feed was both max-level-exciting and stomach-plummet-terrifying because it meant reviewers were reading my book, but also reviewers were reading my book. My poor, defenseless baby book that I had worried and dreamed over for half a decade. What the hell was my publisher thinking, sending it out into the world? And how very dare they! I started imagining every horrible thing a reviewer might conceivably say. Fortunately, my agent stepped in with some tough love before I got too far down that rabbit hole. She told me I had to let the book go. I’d done all I could and it belonged to the readers now.

That can be difficult to accept when you’ve been close to a story for a long time and the characters feel like family. And how do you even let go of a book anyway? I used a twist on a ritual my high school drama teacher taught me.  He used to tell the cast to view the final performance of a show as a farewell, and to take a moment to say goodbye to a scene the last time we ran it. It always felt cathartic. So that’s what I did with the proof edit of Neverland—I made myself farewell each scene as I worked through it. And it helped!

Putting some distance between yourself and your manuscript makes it easier to hand it over to readers and make peace with the fact that not all of them will love it. As a bonus, I also found the added objectivity made it easier to talk about my book publicly because it didn’t feel like people were aiming questions directly at my soul.

Reviews are for readers, not authors

There’s a reason many authors choose not to read reviews. The negative ones make you feel awful and the ‘meh’ ones crush your spirit. You don’t need those voices in your head when you’re out promoting your book and/or working on your next manuscript. And, honestly, even reading glowing reviews can be awkward, like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation about you. Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. Reviews are by readers for readers. And those readers are entitled to think and feel whatever they want about your book, and to express their opinions without fear of your wounded ego chiming in.

Authors who argue with their reviewers look petty and unprofessional. There’s been much discussion about this in the #LoveOzYA community of late, with some bloggers threatening to stop reviewing debut authors altogether. And unfortunately, it is mostly debut authors who are guilty of writing back, because we’re new at this and not all of us are lucky enough to have a great agent/publicist/experienced author friend to pull us aside and explain that responding to reviews is a giant no-no. So this is me telling you: Stay. Away. From. Goodreads.

Because while negative reviews may feel like the end of the world, they’re not. I buy books based on negative reviews all the time. One reader’s trash is another’s treasure. Something you hate about a book, I might love. Negative reviews aren’t worth stressing about. But no reviews? That’s a different story. That will kill your book.

A note for reviewers: Please, please, pretty please don’t tag authors in negative reviews. We’re not going to share them and it’s too late to change the book. There’s nothing constructive to be gained; it’s just mean.

Social media is important, but it’s not everything

At some point, I’m going to do a separate post—maybe even a series of posts—about authors and social media. It’s a big topic. In brief, yes, you do need to have a social media presence because, yes, it’s a great way to spread the word about your book, but it’s not the magic bullet that will turn your book into an overnight bestseller.

Social media is the ‘easy’ publicity option, and it can become a crutch, especially for those of us on the shy side. It only takes a minute to send out a tweet, or post something on Facebook or Instagram and feel like you’re doing something substantial. These things are worthwhile, providing you do them along with not instead of other promotional activities, such as visiting local libraries and bookshops, attending events, giving interviews and talks, presenting workshops etc. (which take more time, work and, yes, courage).

The two key reasons social media alone isn’t enough are a) we make stronger connections in person and b) our digital communities are often much smaller than we realise. So, while it may look like your posts are generating a lot of hype, when you dig a little deeper, you might find that it’s the same people liking, discussing and sharing your posts (hi, mum!). This is awesome—people are showing your work some love!—and it reminds your immediate community that you have a book out, which is important because people might need to see twenty, fifty, one hundred posts before they buy a copy (yes, even your closest friends). But your stats can be misleading; hundreds of likes don’t necessarily equal hundreds of sales, and ultimately it’s sales that your publisher is interested in.

So, how do you get the most out of social media?

Social media is primarily a way to find and connect with your bookish tribe. And it’s particularly useful for those of us who don’t live in major publishing cities and consequently don’t have as many opportunities to get out to events and meet people in person. It’s where I found my agent, and how I meet and keep in touch with fellow #LoveOzYA peeps and book bloggers. But I also try to meet these people IRL when the opportunity arises, and the online friends I’m closest with are the ones I’ve met face-to-face.

As your friends, the people in your online social circles will be keen to hear what you’re up to. So yes, tell them about your book and share your good news—they’ll celebrate with you and support you and help you spread the word. But don’t become the bore who only ever talks about themselves. You need to listen. You need to converse. You need to take all the love you receive and pay it forward. Be a human, not a shouty book-promoting robot.

Embrace your bookish community

Once you’ve found your bookish tribe, hang with them! Your fellow authors are your colleagues, not the competition. This is particularly true in a small market such as Australia, where local titles are often overshadowed by bestsellers from larger OS markets. When we support each other, we all do better. And if you need proof of that, look no further than the #LoveOzYA community.

So, show your fellow authors some love by reading and championing their work as well as your own. Go to their launches and events (I cannot tell you what a relief and comfort it is to see familiar faces in the crowd). Take note of how they present and learn from them. Patronise your local bookshop (if/when you can afford to), become a familiar face at your local library and support local bloggers, booktubers and podcasters by reading/watching/listening to their work and sharing it around.

There is life after launch day

For most of us, getting a book published is The Dream. And because it usually takes many, many years and rejections to achieve that dream, we can demand too much of it and fail to plan beyond it. And that’s a problem. Same as fixating on a wedding, rather than the marriage. Or a birth rather than becoming a parent. Or graduation rather than your career.

Around the time of the launch, everything is hectic and exciting. And then the next wave of releases comes out, the hype moves on and you’re alone at your desk again wondering if maybe the whole thing was a dream. You might be relieved to have solid writing time again, but you might also feel disheartened and at a loss. My advice? Have other projects ready to work on and plan some fun general-life stuff to look forward to.

Also, take heart in the fact that the launch is a beginning as well as a send-off. You’re entering a new stage of your writing career and there’s more to learn and work to be done.

On the flipside: publicity is the monster that always needs feeding. There is always more to do, but only so much you can do. And at some point, you have to call it. That’s not to say you should flat-out refuse to do more, but allow yourself to take a breath and focus on the next thing.

Celebrate!

The time between when you sign your publishing contract and the book’s release may seem like forever, but it happens in a heartbeat. And the weeks either side of the launch are a total blur. Make sure you pause every now and then to enjoy the exciting bits: seeing the cover for the first time, signing off the final edit, getting a lovely endorsement from an author you admire, holding a finished copy, meeting other authors, meeting readers, seeing your book in bookshops, the launch, a good review in the paper, having a reader tell you how much they enjoyed your story and much more!

You’ve worked extremely hard to get to this point. This is your time to share what you’ve accomplished and celebrate!

Further reading

Annabel Smith and Jane Rawson’s Joint blog series ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Book’ is fabulous and has been a huge help to me.

Also highly recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog, which includes truckloads of advice on book promotion. Here’s a great post on the dos and don’ts of social media to get you started.

—Margot XO 

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