I thought I knew a lot about writing, but the past month has been an exceptional crash course in book publishing and I’ve enjoyed every minute.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about the process that I hope you’ll find useful:
1. Your agent is everything. Honor that.
The role of the agent was quite mysterious to me… until I had one. An agent has many roles, and you can learn a great deal from him or her. Though I didn’t choose my agent because of the particular circumstances of this project, I feel incredibly fortunate to be working with him, and in this short month of collaborating, I’ve learned about contracts, royalties, foreign rights, the elements of a book author’s career trajectory (or what a book author should be thinking about after his/her first project– more on that below), and more. Most of what an agent does is behind the scenes and may not even be visible to you, but it’s important to be aware how much of an advocate he/she is and how much work he/she is doing on your behalf. A great agent is worth every cent of his/her commission.
2. You should always read your contracts.
Contracts are a contentious area for many writers: we don’t like to read them, we don’t understand them. we’re not sure what’s open to negotiation and what’s non-negotiable. When you’re having a book published, it’s really important to read your contracts, because they’re setting the terms of your financial and professional life for years to come. Again, your agent is invaluable in demystifying terms of contracts. If you have questions: ask.
3. Work with everyone as if his or her role is central– because it is.
Early on, I made a list of the names of folks involved in bringing our book to shelves at each publishing house where Lisa and I have direct interaction. There are publishers, editors, copyeditors, proofers, and publicity folks… and all of them play an important role in moving your book forward and championing it. I’ve been grateful for the absolute professionalism and politeness of everyone in the process, and on this particular book project, how quickly and intensely everyone has moved. I have tried to reciprocate with absolute gratitude for the hard work that each person has invested in our book.
4. Be supremely organized.
It’s really easy to lose track–and quickly–of the life of your book, particularly when foreign rights are involved, but the more organized you can be early on, the more easily you’ll be able to manage the promotion of your book, as well as the nitty-gritty pragmatics of authorship, including payment of advances, management of taxes, and royalties.
5. Prepare to be astonished.
The process of this book wasn’t/isn’t exactly normative: its trajectory has been incredibly fast, so I don’t expect that future books will involve waking up to near daily emails about acquisitions. That being said, I think there’s a lot to be amazed about during any publishing process. For one thing, the countries you don’t expect to be players at all are often your ace in the hole when it comes to foreign rights. Who would have thought, for example, that Korea would be one of the best paying foreign rights holders for the Pope book? Not me.
6. Your work isn’t over when you finish writing.
If you really want your book to thrive, you’ve got to be active in its promotion. You may work closely with the publicity and/or marketing director(s) of your publishing house(s), and the work that they invite you to collaborate on may be as involved as writing the book was. If you’re open to this, you’ll learn a great deal.
7. The success of one work sets you up for the next.
This seems obvious enough, but it has a lot of pragmatic elements that are best left for discussion with your agent. As my agent explained in simple terms: You can’t take on a middling second project if your first book was a success. Doing so makes it much harder for an agent to negotiate good terms for you on future projects. In other words: Decisions about what projects you’re going to take on become more important.
8. Your taxes become a lot more complicated.
If you think freelance taxes are complicated enough, then you may be best off hiring an accountant who specializes in working with writers (yes, they do exist). For authors whose books are being published by foreign houses, you’ll suddenly be entering the world of foreign certifications. I can’t really explain to you what that means… other than a whole new pile of paperwork.
9. You don’t need to know everything that’s happening on your behalf.
This is especially true if your book is being picked up by multiple foreign publishers. You’ll want copies of your contracts, of course, but you don’t necessarily need to know how many publishers bid for your book, what the offers were, or even why your agent made the decision he/she did about the winning bidder. When you have a great agent, you can simply trust that he/she is making the decisions that make the most sense for your book, for your long-term career prospects, and for your finances.