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Beating the Odds as a Butterfly


Nobody starts out as an author.

 

We all begin as writers - just normal people with stories to tell. So, we write them down. In a notebook. On a laptop. On the Notes app in a cell phone. And somewhere in that process, something happens. It’s hard to explain, because it’s a specific sort of magic that you can only really understand if you’re an artist. It’s almost like an obsession forms: with your characters, your story. You need to see it through. You need to finish. And when you finally get to the words The End, you feel an overwhelming bittersweetness that the ominous thing that lived inside your brain is now expunged on paper.

 

That’s what it is to be a writer. It’s beautiful, and raw, and it can make you feel so alive.

 

Being an author, however, is very different.

 

In a few weeks, my second novel is coming out. It’s a story of a woman who goes back to school for her MFA in Creative Writing. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I completed my own MFA three years ago – so the views of my main character, Cecily, come very much from a place of personal experience. There are so many things that I wish were taught in school. I can tell you that most of my classmates yearned to become traditionally published. That was the goal. But we were only peripherally involved in discussions on relevant topics like how to find a literary agent. There was nothing – not a single seminar – on marketing your work, or on the business side of publishing. Nothing on self-publishing, copyright laws, what to expect from the editorial process – literally, nothing.

 

There should be a metric indicating how many students in each cohort were able to attain the goal of becoming traditionally published. My guess is, not a lot.

 

It bothers me, if I’m being honest, because there’s just so much more to it than knowing how to write a story. And maybe it’s on me, right? I mean, maybe I should have been enrolling myself in a Publishing certificate course instead of an MFA program. But I never wanted to work in publishing. I’m not trying to be an editor or an agent.

 

The two worlds overlap. A lot. And – at least on the writing side of things – there’s a lot that comes as a big surprise once you enter the publishing side of things.

 

Did you know that only 1-2 caterpillars out of 100 will live to become butterflies?

 

I feel like that statistic could translate to writers trying to become authors. If I look at my own graduating class, I know of several colleagues who have been published in magazines, some who are teaching, and others who have jobs in the ghostwriting or editing space. I honestly don’t know of anyone in my cohort who has been agented and traditionally published. Now, to be fair, the process of finding an agent, going on sub, and ultimately holding your book in your hands at your local Barnes & Noble can take longer than the two years it would take to get a grad degree, so it may still be too soon to tell. But as of right now, I’m the only one. And the reason for that has nothing at all to do with their talent. They’re all great writers. But to be an author, you need to also be really good at the business side of publishing – which they do not teach in an MFA program.

 

Because ew, right? Who really wants to know how the sausage is made?

 

It’s a very, very strange combination of live events, virtual events, social media presence, probably a newsletter (although I don’t have one yet), maybe a blog (if you still think it’s the year 2012, which obviously I do), a solid website, eternal youth and/or a great camera filter. A publicist helps a lot, too. And a big, fat advance, courtesy of your publisher.

 

That’s the cold, hard truth. The larger your advance, the more help you’ll receive from your imprint. If you just got signed by a big five publishing house and your advance is $250k or more, you should be just fine. You’ll probably still be asked to maintain a social media presence and maybe a newsletter – but good news, you’ve got money, so you can hire an assistant to help you with that if you’d like. Your imprint will take care of booking events for you. They’ll pay for your travel to said events. They’ll make graphics for your IG account. They’ll put together curated boxes of swag with ARCs of your gorgeous book and send them out to influencers to create buzz. All the work that they will do for you will free you up to do what you do best: write.

 

I’ve made friends with lots of authors over the past two years and I have to tell you, that’s not us. Even those of us who are big five authors don’t get that kind of love. We’re not being paid that kind of money, unfortunately. We are not the chosen ones.

 

Yet.

 

My guess is that maybe 1 or 2 out of 100 traditionally published authors will make it past the first 3 books. The reason for that is because this industry can feel really hostile and volatile, and certainly a whole lot different than what you come in expecting as a doe-eyed baby author. You learn real quick that it’s not all roses and sunshine. Because if it was, then everyone would do it.

 

My recommendations? Toughen up. Read your reviews on Goodreads. All of them, even the hateful ones. Listen to your readers, take their words to heart, and if you see trends – like, nobody wants to read about a girl who sharts, KJ – then okay. Stop writing that. Bend, flex, and lean into the business side of the work. If you fight it, if you hate doing events and coming out of your cocoon, eventually the business side of being an author will break you.

 

Let your passion drive you to learn all the stuff they don’t teach in an MFA program. Enroll in courses. Watch tutorials on YouTube. Read books about the industry. Put your own money behind your brand. Invest in yourself. Make your own publicity plan, and then share it with your publicist. Be on the same team, and don’t be angry at them for having 50 other authors to worry about in the course of their 40 hour work week. It’s not their fault. They are overworked and underpaid, just like you.


Most importantly, keep writing.

 

I’ll say it again: Keep writing.

 

Because the world needs to hear your story.

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