Some writers say it’s a total waste if you write something no one reads. Others won’t produce until they have the guarantee of a commission. Some believe traditional publication is so important that they will wait 12 years to find an agent/editor/small press and collect a few nominations to awards you’ve never heard of.
I fall in line with the Roxane Gay school of thought: step away from publishing when you need to, but never stop writing. Honestly, my allegiance really lies with Aaliya, the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine, who translates nearly 40 works of fiction into Arabic just for herself. As a craft and art, writing is so powerful by itself that I don’t believe it requires a large audience to be justified.
Still, there’s something deeply human about the urge to share our work. It’s what Lewis Hyde called The Gift, this need to beget something beautiful and return to the world the inspiration you’ve absorbed. The business of publication can complicate (corrupt?) that humane urge, which Emily Dickinson considers in “Publication – is the Auction/ Of the Mind,” but some of the most rewarding moments in my writing career so far have been found by sharing work with strangers at a panel, or reading a kind note from someone who found my book in a cafe.
A couple friends asked for my thoughts on the pre-publication journey of their own books, so for them (and anyone else who wants to tune in) here are some observations and opinions on how to maintain artistic integrity while building your professional profile. (Fyi, there’s so much to say, I’ll probably be adding to this later 😉
The real reward is the writing itself.
No one can take that away from you.
Know the capacity of your book and publisher.
Even though I’ve talked about jockstraps on Netflix, I am a nobody, and the market is oversaturated with memoirs. I knew that my manuscript was good, unique, and true, and I didn’t want to change a lot of its unorthodoxies to make it more marketable. Since the book, One Headlight, is a tribute to mother, as well as a reckoning with the loss of not only her but my grandmother – two of the most people in my life – I knew I lacked the willpower (or interest) to edit the book from query to proposal to submission, etc. It’d be like editing the imperfections in my relationships, which I found while writing the memoir to be quite beautiful in their own messy way.
So I went with a small press in Alaska, Cirque, who I’ve admired since working at the University of Alaska bookstore in 2011. Cirque also published one of my early essays in 2015. I met the publisher, Sandy Kleven, at a writing conference in 2018, who encouraged me to send a full-length manuscript when the time was right. Since I already had worked with the editor and publisher, I knew that they’d likely jive with the manuscript and support me in essential ways (finding blurbs, sending the book out for local reviews, and managing a truly amazing cover by Emily Tallman). But I also knew that Cirque is very small – a labor of love – and I would have to do more of the promotions and event planning. I was willing to make that trade because writing the damn thing was emotionally taxing enough, and I knew I wouldn’t gain much satisfaction from a larger platform based on something so personal (the memoir would become more of a cause for discomfort). For more straight-forward nonfiction books (sports writing, art history, Latinx literature) I’d be willing to go through the traditional publishing rigmarole, but not for memoir or poetry, and I’m glad I made that decision, even as the profile surrounding One Headlight is pretty low compared to some of my peers, it’s appropriate for the needs of this book.
Your book is a hot (yet bashful) friend
Good writers tend to be modest. They’re aware of the work’s strengths, but far more attuned to the work’s possibilities, i.e., its deficiencies. Consequently, they don’t make the best of braggarts.
Before One Headlight was published, I was telling Naheed Phiroze Patel (whose debut novel is Mirror Made of Rain — check it out!) about my hesitation to promote my book on Instagram/anywhere. She sternly knocked away that nonsense, and told me to think of the book as a friend whose praises deserve to be sung. It’s not you you’re bragging about — it’s a friend.
This entirely shifted my perspective on promoting your own work. What had felt slimy now felt warranted: my friend had mad skills, and I would be sure the world knew that. I still didn’t go crazy with promotions because, again, One Headlight was super personal, but I definitely started to approach more people with the Hey Check Out My Book email.
If you’re with a small press, ask if there’s room in the budget to run a book giveaway on Goodreads. It’s about $100, excluding books the publisher gives away. Cirque did this, and we saw over 1,000 people add One Headlight to their reading list in the first 48 hours. This resulted in some reviews and ratings. I don’t know how many purchases, but as far as augmenting “brand awareness,” Goodreads is fantastic.
Know which venues/events to pursue (and make peace with the consequences).
Bookstores, counterintuitively, aren’t necessarily the best place to hold a reading. Public and university libraries have a steadier revenue-stream that enables them to employee more experienced folks who aren’t stressed out all the time. Most importantly, libraries don’t need to turn a profit in every author event. Bookstores can’t risk hosting (the many) poets and memoirists out there who will invite everyone they know but only one book is sold at the event, which doesn’t cover the salary of the staff who stayed behind to flick off the lights.
Libraries may also be more open to holding workshops or panels. Some of my best events happened in unorthodox locales: bars, museums, comedy venues, queer underwear shop. Don’t hesitate to suggest a fun event, especially a panel or Q&A with another author, artist, musician, etc. whom you admire (Bonus points if you propose the event that supports their own pre-publication timeline).
Contact every building you’ve set foot in
Any school or former employer may be interested in purchasing a copy for their library or records.
Publishers should send Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) out 6-9 months before your pub date (12 months is preferable). ARCs can go to journalists or academics who have published on your subject, editors of regional newspapers or magazines, and trade publications (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal). If you’re an unknown debut writer (like me!) than you probably won’t get much traction unless you’re 1) more attractive than Chris Hemsworth) or 2) have a well-oiled publicity machine behind. Considering that I didn’t have to go through the strenuous process of traditional book promotion, I’m very satisfied that One Headlight received several positive reviews, including from Kirkus, which was a pleasant surprise.
I happen to love everything about writing, and I don’t expect to be one-and-done with One Headlight. That’s ultimately why I felt good going with a small press over a potentially larger outlet that would likely encourage me to change quite a bit. For future books, I’ll probably seek a larger publisher and, assuming the subject matter isn’t so personal, will edit and edit until a proposal or manuscript is (by boardroom consensus) perfect.
Until then, I’ll keep writing 🙂