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Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far

March 4, 2013

Last year I got an email from some guy that I’d never heard of. Let’s call him Chuck. He was very flattering of my work and asked if I would write a guest blog to appear on his widely read literary blog.

His reoccurring theme—for authors at any level—is “Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far”. It sounded like fun so I thought it over and put some pen to paper (digitally speaking) and sent it to Chuck.

monkey.jkt

Weeks went by and I never heard back from Chuck. So I sent him an email.

And another, and another. Nothing.

To make a long story, short, when I finally got a hold of the guy, he was an asshole and almost took pride in the fact that he had wasted my time.

A few days ago I was going through some old folders and I found the Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far. Even though I’ve learned one or two more things since I wrote the post, it all seemed pretty relevant to me. Seemed a waste to let it languish in some random folder on my hard drive. So here you are:

THE SEVEN THINGS I’VE LEARNED SO FAR:

1. One book, an author doesn’t make. When I sold my first picture book, A Monkey Among Us, to HarperCollins in 2002, I was sure I was on Easy Street. LOL, as the kids would say. I went to BN on the day it was published—all excited to be famous—and guess what? They had never heard of it.

A Monkey Among Us went on to sell right through and even won a small award or two, yet within a year it was quietly put out of print.

Welcome to Easy Street!

Having a book published does give you legitimacy—and makes the next steps on your path a little easier—but take a look at any publisher’s inch-thick catalogues and you will see what you are really up against.

2. Talent isn’t everything.  I worked as a freelance production artist in children’s publishing for many years before I first got published. Seeing the quality of work that was actually getting published made it easy for me to convince myself that a mortal could really do this.

I was also very young and stupid.

Now that I’m ten, fifteen years in the business I’ve seen tons of people, way more talented than me, who can’t break in. Why? What else does it take?

Sadly, I suspect it’s really just a mater of staying at it long enough to get lucky (and an inflated sense of self doesn’t hurt).

3. If you fancy yourself an artist, keep that shit to yourself. Publishing is a business. (There I admitted it). To publishers, the bottom line will always be the bottom line.

You’ll be thinking about what your story wants, but your editor might be thinking about what Sales and Marketing wants. Sales and Marketing is only thinking about what the book buyer at Target wants. And Target only wants a known quantity.

Like everything on my list, this is both good and bad news; once you have the information you can do with it what you will. Here’s what’s hot this week by the way: Jewish stuff, robots, zombies and voting.

4. Be real, real. Every topic you can ever think of has already been done, twice. And if it hasn’t been done before, see lesson number three (Known quantities only, please!).

Therefore, better to be honest. Establish an authentic style and push boundaries; they’ll catch on.

There are some writers who find a formula or gimmick that worked once, and they do that for their whole careers. These people aren’t happy. Their royalty statements may be fat, but they know what they’ve done. They know who they are.

5. It’s supposed to be hard. I always laugh when someone in the industry tells me how hard things are these days in publishing. As opposed to when?

My last time in New York, I was with an editor-friend, and I was bitching about how little money I’m still making after a dozen books, and she said something like, well you know, not a lot of people can make a living doing what you’re doing. In other words: Dumb ass, you’re not really supposed to be making a living at this. Remember… starving artist?

Oh, right. That was in the brochure.

6. No surrender, no retreat. It’s been said, a bad idea is an orphan, while a good idea has ten thousand parents. The Ugly Pumpkin, Five Little Gefiltes, Twenty-Six Princesses—all my best sellers—were rejected multiple times.  Now, no one but me remembers or cares.

That doesn’t mean all your crap equals gold, of course. But it does mean you should be tenacious. If there is a character or story in your files that will not leave you alone, there is a reason.

Keep pitching until you find the right editor.

7. Be a mensch. Publishing can be war. You are trusting your best work with editors and book designers and sales and marketing types; some of these people will know what they’re doing. Some won’t.

If you give a shit about your work—and I hope you do—feelings will be hurt, projects will fail and bridges will burn. But at least if you remember to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry, once in a while, when the dust settles you’ll still be working and you’ll find you really like the people you are working with.

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