Full disclosure: This blog post should’ve been up two three weeks ago.* Lately I’ve been negligent in my WROB fellowship duties (and many duties, if I’m being real). For the past few months my schedule has gotten more and more crazy as the pub date for my first poetry collection gets nearer. Now that some semblance of sanity is starting to appear on the horizon, I’ve identified five things I wish I’d known about the publishing process before starting out. None of these learnings are novel, but there’s nothing like being humbled by the act of doing something new to make each lesson land sharply.
- PUBLISHING TAKES FOREVER
The gears of publishing machinery move v e r y s l o w l y. So much of the process boils down to an unglamorous, unending waiting. Waiting for it to be “your turn” in your publisher’s roster, waiting for your edits to come back, for galleys, for a more inspired ending of a poem to surface. I tried to create new work during that time but I quickly realized…
- IT’S DIFFICULT TO WORK ON NEW CREATIVE PROJECTS WHILE LAUNCHING A BOOK
When TESTIFY’s pub process (re)gained traction I was six months into working on a new book-length project— this close to turning a corner in understanding the story’s structure. I was unprepared for (and, occasionally, resentful of) the onslaught of admin that landed in my lap. The e-mails alone are a part-time job: pitching tie-in essays; planning book launches and readings; being in communication with publicists, editors, and graphic designers… Week after week new work was repeatedly pushed to the bottom of my task list in favor of practical (or paying) responsibilities. When I’m not writing poems or answering e-mails, I’m juggling a full-time job and running a small business. There’s no advance to float authors between books in the poetry world, so carving out time to create new work while launching a book continues to be an ongoing challenge. (If you’ve got tips or suggestions, I’m all ears.)
- EVEN IF THE PROCESS SEEMS OPAQUE AND MYSTERIOUS, IT’S ALL JUST PEOPLE
When I was submitting my manuscript the pub process seemed scary and impenetrable, especially as a young poet with a newly minted MFA and no clue what to do next. As everything moves forward I’m regularly reminded that each limb of the publishing apparatus is made up of people. People who know each other and people who don’t. People who are friends in real life and people who have only met on the internet. People who have jobs and lives and responsibilities (so no, their delay in responding to my submission wasn’t personal). Case in point: a colleague I connected with through my publisher asked me to be a contributing editor at a new press he was starting. A year and a half later, I’m plugged into the “people side” of the poetry world in a whole new way. In grad school it felt like the words “publication” and “press” warranted capitalization, faceless institutions built of books and words. Now I know a press is just a group of people, and none of them bite.
- YOU REALLY SHOULD BE ON TWITTER.
If this industry is made up of people, most of those people are probably on Twitter. In my non-writing life I’m social media averse. I have a laundry list of reasons why, and I was quick to rattle them off—until a publicist told me in no uncertain words that I needed to be on Twitter. (Verbatim: “You needed to be on Twitter yesterday.”)
At first I was stressed about having to think up witty tweets, as if each post needed to be a pithy 140 character poem. Then I realized I could follow intelligent-sounding people I already like and share their tweets, adding my own comment when necessary.
Since joining I realized that literary/writing Twitter is actually a landscape where opportunities can happen. Editors tweet out topics they’re looking for pitches on, or have their contact info in their bios. Grant opportunities, submission deadlines, contests, and potential collaborators—all on Twitter. Angie Thomas, YA author whose debut novel “The Hate U Give” has been on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks, is an excellent example of how Twitter can help launch a career. In June of 2015 Thomas turned to Twitter to ask literary agent Brooks Sherman if he considered a YA novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement acceptable to publishers. One year later, Sherman was representing Thomas in a thirteen house publishing auction that resulted in six figure deal. Sure, it’s a Twitter fairy tale, but it’s also a reminder that social media is more than a way to stay on top of the trends.
- YOU WILL FEEL LIKE YOU’RE FAKING IT ALL THE TIME
Writerly imposter syndrome is real. I spent so much time in the early stages of this process second-guessing myself and others who praised my work. It felt like everyone I encountered had access to some rulebook I hadn’t read, or a scorecard I couldn’t see. Even though I’d succeeded at getting picked up for publication, I spent a fair amount of time entertaining self-doubt. Should I have cc’d my publisher on that e-mail? Is that something I should do, or something my publicist should do? Should I run this idea by someone before I send this pitch?
Eventually, I found my way back to a powerful quote from my mother-poet Audre Lorde: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” Thought I might not have been in this exact situation before, I’m generally a diligent person. My instincts led me to write TESTIFY, and they got me this far so they can’t be all wrong. Now I know there’s no rulebook.
If I could go back in time I’d give myself the following advice: do the best you can now, take notes for next time, and know there will be a next time—whether it’s five years from now or fifteen years from now, there will be another book. And whenever that happens, whatever curveballs that experience throws your way, you’ll know more than you did the first time around.
*Thanks to my WROB writer colleagues for their patience and understanding.
–Simone John, 2017 WROB Gish Jen Fellow