In my limited, biased, ever-changing experience, the hardest part about being a published author is enduring the external, perceived transition from a person to a thing. I say external and perceived because even though it feels real, it’s not. But after publication, the reading and publishing world may start treating us like it is, and if we’re not wholly conscious of it, we may start believing it. Evaluating ourselves against other perceived things. Behaving, writing, and speaking as if we are things. And then… our heads explode (really! That part’s in the manual and everything)!
How exactly do writers become things?
I blame capitalism.
(Ha! I always wanted to say that.)
Before publication, writing is deeply personal; it’s art, soul, dreams, creation, sweat, blood, and fairy dust. After publication, writing is deeply personal; it’s art, soul, and all that other stuff… but it’s also a commodity. A thing that can be branded, packaged, categorized, shelved, and stickered with a price based on fancy economic principals. A thing that can be copied and distributed via virtually limitless media and channels. A thing that can be loved, hated, analyzed, dissected, favorited, cheered, booed, challenged, spat upon, lovingly dog-eared, passed reverently among friends, used as kitty litter liner, awarded, or altogether forgotten—and done so exponentially, thanks to the internet.
Our tendency under this model is to arbitrarily define “success” in sales numbers, awards, and dollars, and then to measure against this limited definition with the only scraps of information we have: advance amounts, delayed sales numbers, marketing campaign details, print runs, lists, stars, buzz, and all the other stuff that can be counted, taken out of context, and overanalyzed until it sucks the write right out of us.
It’s quite crazy-making, because from a practical perspective, authors who make their living writing books need to sell books, and to sell books in our capitalist society, we kind of have to accept this thing-ness stuff. It’s part of the deal, just as it is in any for-profit business endeavor.
The important thing to remember, though, is that we’re not the things—our books are. So if you’re feeling a bit thingy these days, read on!
How to Not Be a Thing: 10 Anti-Insanity Tips for Writers
- Turn off Google alerts. Google alerts is like being in high school, and every single time someone utters your name, the principal comes over the loudspeaker. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, Jeff Johnson doesn’t know you’re alive, so stop practicing your signature with his last name. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, your brother found your diary. Why do you write about Jeff Johnson so much? See announcement number one. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, you have a huge butt, and also, there’s toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, um, your hair looks nice today. But bzzzz! Not nice enough for Jeff to notice. Yeah, Google Alerts is like that, personalized insults delivered right to your inbox. Trust me—nothing said about you online is worth risking your emotional sanity, because if there’s something being said about you that you really need to know, such as… you’ve been nominated for a National Book Award! or Johnny Depp loves your book so much he wants to pay you a personal visit to get a signed copy! …someone will contact you directly.
- Stop comparing. Unless you’re self-published, it’s unlikely that you’ll have accurate, up-to-date sales data at any given point. And what’s a good number, anyway? 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 copies sold might be phenomenal for one book, abysmal for another. This author got on a 10-city tour, that one got a dedicated Web site, this one got an ad in the NYT, that one is visiting every school in the country, this one got a 6-figure advance, that one got less… well? Every book is different and requires different marketing. You don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes at your publisher, but even that doesn’t matter. Maybe you got the platinum edition marketing campaign or maybe you got utterly forgotten, but comparing anything to other authors doesn’t make the next book happen. I’ll tell you what it does make happen: crazy! Now stop looking at so-and-so’s Amazon rank and go work on your manuscript!
- Think like a reader. If you walk into a book store with 3 friends and ask each to point out her favorite book, what are the chances you’ll pick the same book? Your best friend might’ve based her entire life’s dream on a book you thought was utter drivel. Your neighbor can’t stop ranting about a book that you love so much you’ve read it a dozen times. And your cousin Louise was all mehhhh about a book that’s just been turned into a blockbuster movie netting a gazillion dollars. So it makes sense that readers will have widely differing opinions on your work, too. This is a good thing. If we all liked the same stuff, how lame would this joint be? Sure, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a crappy review, but it’s all subjective. I don’t take sugar in my coffee, you hate coffee but love tea, someone else only drinks the chemically-laden General Foods International powdered stuff, which I personally think is nasty (even though I secretly used to love it), but you don’t see the General crying about it, right? I know, I’m a lot braver writing about this than I am in real life, but I’m working on thinking more like a reader when it comes to other readers evaluating my stuff. Better yet…
- Don’t read reviews. I’m still not 100% off the review pipe, but I’m getting there. Reviewers do not take the place of a good critique group, and readers aren’t there to give us constructive editorial feedback. They’re there to be entertained, informed, inspired, and educated. All the reasons we read books ourselves. And if your book doesn’t do it for them, that’s okay. It really, truly is. The question is, do you really need to know about that? Unless it’s going to help you improve your next project without killing your spirit, skip it.
- Don’t take it personally. Maybe you haven’t turned off Google Alerts, or you’re still analyzing every review, or someone actually emailed to let you know how much he hates you. I know it feels personal—it should feel personal, because it’s our art, right? But you have to know (and believe) that it’s not personal. That reader doesn’t like your book—he doesn’t even know you as a person. That reader may even say he doesn’t like you, but he means your book. It’s all part of that external perception thing—lots of times, readers don’t separate the book from the writer. Guess what? That’s sooo not your problem.
- Don’t chase trends. For one thing, it’s totally impractical. From initial sale to shelves, the book publishing process can take several months to 2 or even 3 years. By the time “the next big thing” hits the shelves, the rest of the industry is on to the next next big thing, or maybe even the big thing after that. More importantly, if you’re writing something just because you think it’s going to be a hit, and you don’t really care about the story or the subject, welcome to flopsville. Teen readers have highly attuned B.S. detectors, and they’ll see right through it. Plus, you won’t be happy.
- Write what you love. Notice I didn’t say the oft-spouted “write what you know.” You don’t have to know anything. You just have to care about it enough to find out, to imagine, to create.
- Remember the joy of writing. What brought you to the page in the first place? Do you remember? If you’re losing it—if writing feels like a chore instead of a joy (even a hard-won joy), take a break. Recharge. Come back when you’re feeling more excited about it again. If you’re slogging through the work, readers will slog through the book, and that isn’t good for any of us.
- Write. Period. Talking about writing, reading blogs about writing, thinking about writing, dreaming about writing… all of this may be important and intellectually stimulating, but it’s not actual writing. To be a person who writes, you have to be—wait for it—a person who writes.
- Don’t give up. Keep writing. Write another story. Write the next story. Write the story that’s keeping you up at night. If you’re getting rejections or negative feedback, try again. Again and again and again. Writing is not easy. Publication of one book doesn’t guarantee future success of another. All you can do is keep writing. Don’t. Give. Up. Ever.
Say it with me now: I am not a thing. I am not a thing. I am not a thing.
For all my writing friends, wherever you are on the journey, here’s to a new year filled with joy, inspiration, and of course… writing! Lots and lots of writing. In fact… get back to work!