A Harvest of Hindsight: My top 10 insights about publishing for aspiring authors
I was asked to speak about my experience in the world of publishing.
My being here is actually not about me. It’s about you. My new book is about you – and your story.
So I thought what would be the most helpful input I could give you, as an unpublished author at this point in your writing journey.
Here are my top 10 insights or lessons that I’ve learned over the past 12 years as a published author. Things I wish I’d known. A harvest of hindsight in the hope that it will help you to get more quickly where you want to go.
I want to start by telling you three stories.
1. When I was six years old, I was chosen to be the Emperor in the school play the Emperor’s New Clothes. I had the strongest singing voice in the class and they couldn’t find a boy to take the part. So I was it. Now my teacher wanted me to wear pantyhose and nothing on my little 6 year old upper body. And I was mortified. I didn’t want my little flat chest exposed on stage, so I petitioned her for a different costume and in the end we settled on a leotard that was dyed in some weak tea to approximate my skin colour and I was perfectly happy with that.
2. The second story happened when I was around 14 years old. At 14 there were only two things I wanted to be: pretty and skinny.
I was neither. And my dad who’d been watching me on another celery-cottage cheese and diet coke eating regime said to me, ‘my darling, you will never be a model. Look at that nose. Those thighs. Stop wasting your time dieting. You won’t be a model, but, I promise you this – you’ll be other things.’
Other things What else was left in the whole world if pretty and skinny were out of reach?
As I was desperately contemplating a future without prettiness and skinniness, he gave me this copy of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood: a play for voices.
And let me tell you, this changed my world.
I remember reading the opening paragraph for the first time.
‘To begin at the beginning. It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters’-and-rabbits wood limping invisibly down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.’
The words were chocolates in my mouth. I could taste the phrases on my tongue like a champagne of verbal bubbles. And I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that.’ And that was when I began to see there was a life for me beyond pretty and skinny and it involved WORDS.
3. My final story happened when I was 25 years old. I was studying law at Yale. And I had friend who invited me to be a nude model for a photoshoot on women’s bodies.
And I thought, well why not? As a writer you’re always looking for these uncomfortable experiences so you’ve got something to write about.
So I took part in this photoshoot – and I got to tell you, it was a lot of fun. At the end, I asked a photo with me and my girlfriend fully clothed – as a memento. At the end the photographer said something to me I’ve never forgotten: ‘You know, Joanne, you’re more comfortable naked in front of a camera than you are fully clothed.’
I’ll come back to these stories later.
But now I’m going to share my top ten lessons from being a published author.
1. PUBLISHING IS CHANGING BUT BOOKS ARE NOT DYING
What we understand by the word ‘publishing’ has changed over the past 15 years and it continues to change.
I start to feel a bit like a relic because the whole world of publishing has changed so dramatically since my first book advance in 2005.
The internet, technology and social media have revolutionized the traditional publishing model.
Because of how the world has changed, there were – and still are – many people who claim that books are dying and no-one is reading anymore. That the internet has killed the book industry. This is both true and not true.
The truth is that because of the changes in technology, the old way is no longer working.
As someone who love books and believes in them, I do not accept that books are dying. Books will never die.
But I do believe we’ve passed the age of ivory towers, being a drunken recluse, anti-social misanthrope, wife-beating drug addict who produces magnificent literature. The days of Jack Keroac and Dorothy Parker are over. And did they do our profession any favours? I don’t know.
Publishing today means something completely different.
You know, every time you post an update on social media or Twitter or your blog you are technically publishing.
What does publishing mean? It means to share what you think and feel with a wide audience. What happens is that aspiring authors still seem to be stuck on a very old fashioned idea about being published.
We get obsessed with this idea that our writing has got to be between two covers, involve trees and have a big publishing house logo on the spine. And of course it must come with a big advance.
Just as an aside – I’m not a fan of advances. I think people get hung up on those aspects of being a published author and they lose sight of why they want to be published in the first place.
It’s no good closing our eyes and ears and pretending that things haven’t changed, but it’s also weak and unhelpful to believe every catastrophic prophecy about where we’re headed.
The world needs books. And we certainly need fierce storytellers. So we need to embrace new technologies and ways of communicating our message with our audience.
2. YOU BECOME AN AUTHOR SEPARATELY FROM PUBLISHING A BOOK
Because publishing has changed, what it means to be an author has changed.
Getting published and becoming an author are two different manifestations– the one is a phenomenon (actual or virtual) – the other is a function of consciousness. And they don’t necessarily coincide.
Sometimes consciousness precedes publication – many of us know we are going to become authors someday (Rilke said, ‘the future enters us long before it happens’) before we are published.
But the reverse is also true – that sometimes we become published before we have owned the consciousness of being an author.
What does being an author mean?
Now this takes us into paradox territory but I know you’ll stay with me.
First of all, authors are the silent heart of the world – I consider it a sacred calling.
Most of us – let’s face it – won’t make money out of our books AND YET most of us would still write them even if we knew for sure that we wouldn’t.
So what does this tell us?
It tells us that becoming an author in your consciousness is not about commercial success.
It’s about knowing the vision of life that your book is in service to, and how many peoples’ lives we will touch with that book – even if we give it away for free.
However, and here comes the paradox – Though it is a sacred calling, and may not make money from our books, we have to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs as well as artists or healers.
Particularly in the last 4 years, I have dedicated myself to understanding and taking notice of trends and innovation and how it impacts the book industry and the reinventions that are necessary for us to keep up with change.
I’ve done 4 business courses in the 4 years including a course on how to run campaigns, and I constantly read books about business, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.
We need to be optimistic and hopeful but also realistic and practical.
3. FAIRYTALES FUCKED US UP or PRINCESSES DON’T GET PUBLISHED
Not a fan of the fairytale, especially for little girls – they made us believe that the highest we should strive for, is to be a princess.
And this is the bloody problem. If your goal is to be Snow White dead in a coffin, or Sleeping Beauty knocked out for hundreds of years, or Cinderella who ran away, waiting for your prince (ie a publisher) to ride in on a white horse and save you – bring you back to life, wake you from your slumber, crown you the Queen…. you are going to be waiting for a long long time.
If you want to model your life on a fairytale, forget about being the princess. Be the prince. No-one is coming to save us, turn us into successful authors but ourselves.
A lot of aspiring authors believe that all they have to do is get a publishing deal, then their job is over, they can go back to sleep and let the publishers do all the work. And everyone will live happily ever after. Now that is a fairytale.
There are two jobs you have as an author:
1. write the best damn book you can and
2. get your book into the hands of as many readers as possible.
What happens is that we put years into writing, and then we hand over our book to a publisher and suddenly we’re filled with learned helplessness. We don’t know how to market our book, or talk about it, or get people to buy it.
Remember, you are your book’s greatest champion. Be the princess by all means (who can resist the fashion?), but be the prince too.
4. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A LETTER FROM KOREA?
The biggest shock for me is that my best books didn’t sell as well as my least best books. In fact the book I consider my most amateurish is the one that outsold Harry Potter for a while in Germany – and it’s the one from which I still receive royalties.
I had a fluke with that first book – and that can make you complacent and lazy, or at least entitled. I thought well one book has been an international bestseller, so all the others that follow will be too.
But they weren’t. There is no algorithm that guarantees that any book will succeed or sell. So we cannot judge ourselves or our book by how it sells.
What this has taught me is that I can’t allow others to decide what value I place on my book. Not a publisher. Not reviewers. Not even buyers. You must love your book. It must be your beloved, for whom you would do anything.
One of my books for which I did not even earn back my miserable advance, is responsible for at least two couples finding love. Another book which sold reasonably was responsible for this email that arrived in my inbox last year, entitled hello from Korea.
Hello from Korea.
I have read your book (love in time of contempt)
And I’d like to say thank you so much.
I’m a mother of 32 months’ kids.
My daughter is so far until teenager.
But I was helped you.
Sometimes I left her in another room for punishment
Recently I think It’s not good.
But I don’t know how to do
In your book, I found answer.
After reading your book, I stand beside her.
It’s very good.
What does success mean? Am I going to let someone else define what it means for me?
Royalties are wonderful – we all want them. But a book has more than commercial value in this world if it changes someone’s life. ‘In your book, I found answer…’
5. WHAT I LEARNED FROM ROUNDABOUTS
This one is to help shatter your self-doubt. I know many of you out there hope to be published but secretly think ‘I’ll never be published.’
So I want to share my fail-proof method for proving you wrong. You know when I knew I would become a published author? It wasn’t when I read Dylan Thomas (that’s when I knew I wanted to become a writer). It was when I read a really crappy book and I thought, ‘I know I can write better than this.’
A lot of crap gets published. And that shouldn’t depress you, that should inspire you. I want to show you two books I take on every writing retreat I teach, they are my two best props: Roundabouts of Great Britain and Images You Shouldn’t Masturbate to…not that I have anything against roundabouts or masturbation – I am generally a huge fan of both. But are they worthy of publication?
I know that every single one of you out there has got a better book inside you.
So write something of great value. Something the world needs. And you will find a way to get it published.
6. CREATE GOOD BOOK KARMA
People sometimes tell me they want to write a book. And I say,’Great, what books are you reading or have you read like it?’ And they say, ‘Ah, no I don’t read books. But I’ve got such a great story to tell,’ or ‘I’m not into books, but I’ve got this great self help book I want to write.’
Really? I don’t get this. You have to care about books if you want to become a published author.
If you don’t, why are you writing a book? If you believe your book has the right to come into the world, and you expect people to buy it and read it, then buy and read books. It’s weird and karmically dodgy to expect others to support your book if you don’t support authors and books.
When you say ‘I want to be published’ you’re saying I want to be part of this community. So qualify yourself as a worthy member of this community.
Support authors. Buy and read books. It will also have the added benefit of making you a better writer. When you leave here today, do so with an armful of books.
7. AIM FOR THE RIGHT THINGS
People chase publishing like it’s the holy grail: ‘I just want to get published.’ But they neglect the most important piece – which is to find your unique writing voice.
Your voice is the most important goal to work towards.
We want others to know our name before we know our own name.
Spend time working out who are you? What are you here for? What is this book that you have come to write? Why you? What is your message?
We want the fame and the acclaim before we’ve achieve the aim.
Focus on the writing, focus on what makes your book, your story unique and then, very often, the publishing happens as a natural consequence.
It’s a lot like Viktor Frankl’s concept of happiness – that people chase it not understanding that it’s a by product of living a meaningful life. In the same way, publishing is often a natural consequence or by product of writing a book with a unique voice, a powerful message. Master the craft.
8. LOVE YOUR PEOPLE
I love books but the reason I love books is because I love people. Books are for people. So, know your reader. Know their problems intimately. Be connected to your readers – create a platform on social media. Ask questions and listen to the answers, speak their language. When a publisher talks about building a platform this is what it means. It means – love people, and find people who love you. Those are the people who will buy your book.
9. TRUST THE UNFOLDING – IT ONLY MAKES SENSE LOOKING BACK
Let’s go back to three stories I told you upfront. What do they have to do with publishing?
Those three stories represent the journey we undertake as writers.
We start off terribly self-conscious. We don’t want to be naked or exposed in public. We want to stay covered. Even when there’s nothing to see.
Then somewhere along the way, we realise we don’t want to be someone we’re not – we want to be ‘other things.’ We want to define the terms of our transformation. We leave our version of ‘pretty’ and ‘skinny’ behind, and we find the path we want to follow.
And then – there comes a point where we are more comfortable standing in our own naked truth, in our own courageous imperfection than we are covered up.
And that moment for me defines what it means to become a published author.
It’s when we can own the self that we are – without apology, without shame, obsequiousness and to become fully visible – to others, but mostly to ourselves.
But here’s the thing – when I was six and I didn’t want my nipples exposed, I had no idea of any other reality. I thought I would always feel that way. Because you cannot foresee, control or predict the steps you need to take to get to where you want to go. The journey unfolds in its own mystery. And you can’t bribe it. You can’t force its hand. You cannot rush it. The only thing you can do is trust it.
That’s when you look back and see that all those unrelated moments form a beautiful and perfect picture.
10. Finally, when you do become a published author, you will have to deal with this big thorny issue of what other people will say and think.
And you are going to have a couple of regressive playground moments where you’re going to think: They don’t like me. They’re being horrible.
A few pointers to help you with this:
- You can never protect yourself from trolls and haters – what does Taylor Swift sing? Haters gonna hate hate hate…and your job is not to engage with them.
- Don’t read negative reviews – it just saps your creative energy for your next book – to quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski – ‘It’s just like their opinion, man.’
- Don’t write negative reviews – support other artists in their endeavours, don’t pull other people down, respect their efforts – to really pay that forward, go write a great review of a book you love.
- Your writing will only appeal to a certain group of people – focus on your target market, forget about the others
- Use your words to help people reach the light. Use your words to inspire, nourish and grow the spirit.
Your job is to write with fearless honesty and to arrive at that point where you can stand in the spotlight with strength and equanimity (bare-boobed if necessary) without flinching.
Focus on the writing.
Focus on the quality of your thoughts. Every book is a reflection of your consciousness at the time that you wrote it. So – work on refining your consciousness and your craft.
Lose the ego – because ‘success’ has only got a fraction to do with book sales. Mostly it has to do with the vision of life your book is in service to – and how well you have done justice to that idea. And how many people you can reach and touch with a message that brings hope, healing and transformation.
The rest doesn’t travel. We leave it all behind in this material world.
What endures is the legacy we leave. So leave a worthy legacy. But remember to have fun while you’re doing it.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?