Publishing Your First Book: Advice for First-Time Authors

by
Shelly Oria
2.14.18

Publishing a book, especially your first book, is an experience that can mess with your head—regardless of how your book “does” in the world. When my first book, a collection of short stories titled New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, was published in November 2014, many people in my life assumed I’d enter a state of total bliss. And to some extent I assumed the same. A decade earlier, I’d moved to New York City from Tel Aviv, where I grew up, and started translating my work from Hebrew in the hopes of getting into an MFA program. Every step along the way felt hard-earned: learning how to write fiction in my second language, graduating, getting my first few stories published, signing with an agent. So why wouldn’t I be blissed out that it all came to fruition, that Farrar, Straus and Giroux was publishing my book? And I was, or part of me was. I also felt too anxious to breathe, which is perhaps understandable. And I also felt sad—at times extremely sad—which seemed much less understandable.

In many ways, my book “did well.” It was nominated for several awards, was reviewed by both the New York Times and the New York Times Book Review—a fairly rare occurrence for a debut story collection and an accomplishment that certainly exceeded my expectations—and it got quite a bit of attention in Israel, including a cover story with a major newspaper, which encouraged my second-grade teacher to track me down and prompted some people to send my parents flowers. But to be perfectly honest, through most of it I was pretty miserable. I’m not shy by nature, so doing many events and going on a book tour, even appearing on TV, wasn’t the cause of my angst. I felt extremely vulnerable and exposed. This thing I’d poured so much of myself into, labored over for years, was now out in the big wild world, so completely out of my control, and strangers were having opinions about it and sharing them: in a review, in a tweet, in an e-mail. Even in the best of all possible scenarios (a glowing review, for instance), I wouldn’t rest for long, because soon another opinion could come in through one of the channels—and maybe it would be terrible? I knew that as a debut author of a story collection I should be grateful whenever anyone cared enough to say anything at all about my book; no matter the content, the attention could help sales. But that awareness meant only that on top of feeling miserable, I felt guilty for not feeling grateful. And more important, it meant that I wanted everything that was happening not to stop but rather to have happened, which is to say that for long months after my book came out, I wished I could leave the present moment. Trying to escape your life is no way to live.

By the time my book was published, I’d already had my private practice as a life and creativity coach for about five years. I work primarily with artists and writers, so the experience with my book has reshaped the way I approach my clients when they face similar challenges. Recently a friend reached out to me for some coaching advice before her debut novel came out; I compiled a list of what I now consider the core principles to navigating book publication, in the hopes of helping her and others avoid some of my mistakes.

1. Be proud. Life is going to pull on you all kinds of ways, but the most important truth is this: You wrote a book. A whole damn book! Remember how you used to think that would never happen for you? Remember all the times you almost gave up? Somehow, somehow you not only finished the thing but also got it published. In all likelihood, you went through hell in the process, but you powered through. That required a lot of work. It also required faith, and energy, and love, and then more work, and then luck, and then other people’s faith in you and in your book. It required some stupidity, too—the beautiful kind that makes us keep going when it doesn’t “make sense.” Because at some point along the way, someone close to you probably suggested that writing this book, and perhaps writing in general, wasn’t the best use of your time. But you kept going. Whatever it took in your case—you did it, and that’s kind of amazing if you think about it. Can you take a moment now to think about it? Try to locate this thought in your body, consider it your core, and return your attention to that particular spot every time you face a challenge related to your book. Or write a sentence that summarizes this notion—all caps—and make it your screen saver. Or find an object that captures that sentiment and take it with you wherever you go, or hold it close to your chest for a minute every day. Or set a daily alert on your phone to remind yourself. Or ask a friend to remind you. You get the idea—make a commitment to stay actively connected to the fact of your accomplishment. Make a commitment to do that through whatever turmoil or feelings a day brings—to return to this truth and feel, even for a few fleeting seconds, your pride.

2. Prioritize self-care. Just do it, even if it makes you feel guilty or silly. Even if it feels futile or frivolous. It isn’t. For the next few months, commit to taking good care of yourself—whatever that means to you on any given day. Sometimes it means going to bed early, and sometimes it means going to bed late so you can spend quality time with a friend; sometimes it means taking a bath, and sometimes it means forcing yourself to write that e-mail that’s been weighing on you. Most of the time it means not giving yourself shit—for smoking after you quit forever, for getting impatient with your grandma, for dropping the ball on that essay your publicist pushed you to write. I’m not suggesting you treat your body or your loved ones (or your publicist) poorly; I’m only saying: Don’t forget the context. The context is that whether it feels true or not on any given day, this is a time of extreme vulnerability in your life. So be kind to yourself. Be a good friend to yourself. Don’t be an asshole.

And stay committed to self-care for far longer than you think is necessary. It’s going to be so easy to tell yourself a couple of months from now that, okay, your book came out, and the experience was great in these ways and disappointing in these other ways and whatever, now it’s time to move on, and you should mostly be over all these feelings. No. The effects of this particular life event run deep and last a while. Whether we understand this phenomenon or not doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we recognize it and respond. And taking care of yourself is a response; it tells your psyche that you haven’t forgotten that it just went through a trying time. When you take a day off from your day job (if that’s a possibility), or go for a run, or pick up some flowers on your way home, you’re telling the creative part of you that you’re not blind to its needs. That’s the part you’re hoping will show up all refreshed and ready to work when you announce it’s time for your next book, so it seems wise to stay on good terms.

3. Journal, every day if you can. For some people this might be part of self-care (I know it is for me), but I think it’s important enough to list in its own right. Because during this time it’s likely that all kinds of public events will take place, and that pressures will be put on you, and that conversations will play out around and/or about you. And all of these are inherently external—they focus on other people’s views of your work, opinions about your work, and reactions to your work. Even if every single one of these reactions is positive, you will still feel a little blinking arrow originating in the center of your body and pointing out; much of your energy will be spent on other people’s thoughts. Journaling is one foolproof way to stay connected to your own voice. But you don’t have to write about your experience during this time; in fact, you don’t have to write about anything in particular. You only have to listen to your own mind and write down some words.

4. Write. This is a tip that seems impossible nine times out of ten and was certainly impossible for me, but if and when it is possible for you: Throw yourself into a new project, into a story that may or may not pan out, into any piece of writing. There is no better remedy in the known world for difficult postpublication feelings. Most theories of creativity discuss the process-product divide in some way (using this or similar terminology), and the work we’re asked to do in this context is to shift our consciousness back to process whenever it veers toward product. (A classic and familiar example: writers worrying about whether or not their book would ever find an agent/publisher/audience way before they’ve finished—or at times even begun—writing the thing. That’s as ridiculous as worrying about your child’s Harvard application when you’re five weeks pregnant.) It’s almost always solid creative advice: Get back to process! But the months following your book publication are by definition all about “product.” It’s a time when you focus on the finished project and its reception. And even when that focus depresses the spirit, or feels toxic, you can’t shift, you can’t move toward process, because there is no more process with this book—it has culminated. Which is why the only available cure is more process...with new work. Because for our psyches it’s pretty much all the same: As long as we find a way to play, to make, to imagine, to zero in on the creative process itself, a sense of balance will be restored.

5. Remember that the stakes are lower than they may seem. Everything matters less than you think. I hope you don’t find this demoralizing; I think it can bring relief. Publishing a book is a big deal, and in some ways your life will change. In other ways, nothing will change at all. You might know this, but you will forget. On certain days, some aspect of things will seem terribly important: that your name is missing from the shortlist of an award, that a radio interview went poorly, that you never got that radio interview even though it’s your hometown. It will seem like a big deal, but it won’t be. Try to zoom out. See this book, and then all your writing throughout the years, and then your whole beautiful life—everything that has led up to this moment, and everything that’s yet to come. Suddenly the moment is relatively small. It appears so big when we’re in it, but it is always, in fact, tiny. This also means that when you truly don’t want to go to an event—or give an interview, or write an essay—well, just don’t. Do you imagine yourself on your deathbed saying, “If only I had trekked to Bushwick for that reading in 2018?”

6. Be mindful of your relationship with praise and appraisal. I’d flat-out say, “Don’t read the reviews,” except I know writers who find reading reviews helpful. You need to figure out what works best for you. But I would argue that mindfulness is crucial with this: Check in with yourself after you read a review (even if it’s a rave). See if you might need to talk to a friend, or if taking a kickboxing class suddenly seems super appealing. Stay in that kind of conversation instead of pretending that what you just read (again, good or bad—in some ways it’s all the same) has not affected you. And even if you decide to follow the mainstream reviews, there is never, ever a reason for a writer to read the reviews of random people on the Internet. Amazon, Goodreads, and certainly any and all comment fields are always 100 percent none of your business.

7. Accept that your experience is far less fact-based than it seems to be. Do you imagine that you’re disappointed only because you didn’t get reviewed by the New York Times? I’m suggesting that even if you had, you’d have been disappointed by the review. If the Times gushed about you, you’d have been devastated that your book—a book gushed about by the New York Times—didn’t sell well. There’s always something to be proud of and grateful for, and there’s always something that feels devastating. So don’t tell yourself that you’re feeling however you’re feeling because of this review or that event. You’re feeling however you’re feeling because publishing a book is kind of a fucked-up experience.

8. Don’t isolate. Talk to your friends, particularly your writer friends. There’s no shame in the joy and no shame in the sadness, the highs and the lows. Don’t be modest when good things happen, and try not to be alone when you’re feeling crushed. So many people have ridden the book-publishing roller coaster before, and they understand what you’re going through. Give them a chance to support you. I have faith in and gratitude for the writing community because so often in my life, writers who didn’t know me offered help or solace or advice. I try to pay it forward. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other writers. Dare to be vulnerable. Rely on your community. And enjoy the ride. 

 

Shelly Oria is the author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which earned nominations for a Lambda Literary Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, among other honors. Recently she coauthored a digital novella, CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s, which received two Lovie Awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Oria lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she codirects the Writer’s Forum at the Pratt Institute and has a private practice as a life and creativity coach. Her website is www.shellyoria.com.