Becoming a “Published” Author
by Elise Kova
There’s this sort of halo that I think hovers around authors. No, I’m not trying to put myself on some pedestal. Actually the opposite… but that should be apparent by the end of this. I’m thinking of how I was when I first started writing. Authors were like, these mythical creatures that I almost wasn’t sure if they quite “existed” because they only seemed to be online, printed on pages, and present at the even rarer book signing that you had to rely on the internet and other people’s photos to prove actually happened. Because, chances are, you weren’t one of the lucky ones who got to go.
You hear of the JK Rowling cocktail napkin and imagine the author huddled in a bar, struggling to make ends meet, and then – seemingly overnight – they become an international sensation and are set for life. You idolize the images of Veronica Roth at the Divergent premiere red carpet. And, if you’re anything like me, you see pictures of Sarah J. Maas at Costco signing books and think, “OMG THAT ANGEL IS FAR BETTER THAN COSTCO! That’s where people like me shop…”
There’s that sort of magic I thought publication had. From idea to bestseller, or maybe not even bestseller, lets scale it back, to published author, just kind of “happens.”
Except for, it doesn’t.
I didn’t think I’d be “published” (yes, I’m using quotes, I’ll get to that later) when I first started writing. It wasn’t as if one day I woke up and said “I’m going to publish a book now.” I guess if you go FAR back I started writing in elementary school. In sixth grade I had a teacher who assigned a creative writing project and I said I wanted to write a book. When she expressed doubt I submitted a 35,000 word novella. But, I still didn’t think about being an author. That wasn’t a “real career.” I actually graduated with my MBA and set out on a “normal” career path in marketing.
In 2012, I sold everything I owned to have a life adventure and move to Japan. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life and transformed me fundamentally as a person. During that time I met a beautiful soul who had a passion for writing. She was the one responsible for reestablishing the idea of putting pen to paper back in my head.
We talked about writing, inspiration, and stories we loved. I also heard Zedd’s song, “Clarity,” for the first time. I had the song on repeat, the lyrics embedding themselves into my consciousness, into my overactive imagination. I had this image of a woman at the center of a magical windstorm and a man struggling to get to her. I asked myself the questions the songs proposed, “Why is their love clarity for them? Why is it insanity?”
When I had the answers, I started writing because it was a story that was begging me to be told.
But, again, I didn’t think I was pursuing that scary word “publication.” I was writing a fanfiction of my own creation. Approaching it from this perspective I said, “Well, I LOVE Fanfiction.net and AO3. Wouldn’t it would be cool if there was a site like that for fiction?” Then I found FictionPress.
In an effort to not write a blog post as long as one of my novels I’m going to fast forward again: End of 2013, early 2014, I finished the fifth and last book of Air Awakens on FictionPress. With the support and encouragement of my readers I’d been writing 3,500-5,000 words/day. Turns out, that was also a pretty good way to get noticed on FictionPress and everyone seemed to be asking the same question, “When are you publishing?”
So, I started to ask myself the same. Was I going to publish? Was I not going to publish? What did I want out of this?
I reached out to one of my college friends. I had the luxury of knowing someone who’d gone off and become a published author and she had the kindness not to close the door in my face when I came knocking with questions. I asked her about her path and about publishing, what it meant, what it entailed.
Suddenly, a whole new language was added to my lexicon. I became very familiar with phrases like “Slush Pile,” “Partial Request,” and “Query Revision.” Suddenly, writing was no longer this random thing I did as a hobby, but something I was trying to make a profession.
With that came some changes. My friend was kind enough to read my manuscript and send three pages to which she said, “Have a glass of wine before opening this word doc.” (For the record, I’m American and over 21) My first hurdle was when she told me that a 127,000 word debut YA manuscript, even for high fantasy, was crazy.
Cutting 35,000 words was like cutting off a limb. I cut characters. I completely removed sub-story arcs. I transformed my manuscript.
But it became a tighter story, a better story. It was my first lesson in becoming in author: letting go. Letting go of the story I thought was “perfect” to make something more accessible for people and more marketable. I’m still so glad I made those changes and learned that lesson.
My next lesson was in perseverance.
I felt like a bad date when it came to agents. I kept hearing variations of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Their lists were full, Air Awakens didn’t match what they were looking for, the story didn’t quite resonate with them but they were sure it’d be perfect for another agent. My friend reassured me that this was normal for a debut author in a competitive market of YA. I read online the stories of how many query letters people went through. But, despite knowing all that, I still felt like a leper. I was months out of taking all my stories off FictionPress and I felt like I was loosing all touch with my readers. They still checked in from time to time, eagerly asking, following up, but I had nothing to tell them other than that I was “working on it.”
I remember the day I walked into my apartment, dropped all my stuff, and checked my phone. There was an email from that agent. The one who’d requested the full and I was sure it’d be “the one.” I pretended I was okay when it was another rejection. I got to the kitchen before I sunk to the floor and started sobbing. I’m talking messy “What the heck am I doing?” tears.
That was when I drew the line in the sand. I didn’t care about the traditional publishing process. Okay, I still care, and think it’s important for a number of reasons. But, for me, for my journey, I didn’t need it to define my success.
Thus, my publication process really began when I peeled myself up off the floor, wiped my face, put a line in my excel spreadsheet I was using to track my queries, and said “once I get here I’m self-publishing. I refuse to trunk my novels.”
I got to that line, and I did exactly what I said I would.
The only thing was, I had no idea what “self-publishing” was. I knew I didn’t want to be one of those Indie authors who had the cover everyone laughed at and typos everywhere. I’m sure those authors work very hard also. But, if I was indie publishing I wanted to make it as professional as I could. I didn’t want to bring the lingering stigma of self publishing onto my book. I loved my characters too much to do that to them.
I started with the editor. During my participation in Pitch Wars I came across @JMWEditor, she’d offered some sample editing for free and I loved it. I signed up to work with her the day I decided to self.
The next thing was the cover. I didn’t want just another iStock cover. I thought of all the fantasy books I’d loved as a kid. They had beautiful painted covers and something about them was perfect for the genre. Fantasy is another world, it’s not real, so I decided against photography. I wanted something that was only Air Awakens. I found @zwxArt out of a few deviant artists I’d reached out to, but I knew she was the one I wanted to work with. There was a stunning ethereal quality to her work and one piece in her portfolio screamed the essence of air.
Then came my next lesson, something along the lines of: Fake it till you make it.
I had no idea what I was doing. I was absolutely clueless and spent HOURS googling what other authors used for their cover art contracts. What things did you need to make sure you could legally use the art? My research led to even more questions… How did self-published authors report taxes? What was considered “Tax-deductible business expenses?” Did I need to incorporate into an LLC? How did I go about selling my books?
So, on top of trying to write an even better book, edit, and coordinate things, I had to be an entrepreneur.
Good thing was, that’s one background I DO have. As an MBA, I did take basic finance courses, marketing, and entrepreneurship classes. It’s amazing how much that will prepare you for being an author (or at least an Indie one).
I’d set a publication date and was gearing up promotions when I found out about a distributor that managed selling books called Gatekeeper Press. They intrigued me for a few reasons. Firstly, they could sell hardcovers – this was big to me in the fantasy genre. Secondly, they managed everything for flat fees, not cuts out of my royalty percentages. Thirdly, they could get me into a LOT of distribution channels that would be a headache (or impossible) to get in on my own. Finally, I retained ALL the rights. So in the off chance a publisher wants to pick me up that can happen. I know when to DIY and when to outsource and the cost/benefit analysis on this one weighed in Gatekeeper’s favor. So I began working with them.
At the same time as all this, I continued to keep up with my published friend and gained new mentors. I had another self-published author I began talking to, and another hybrid (traditional & self). In an odd way, all the discussions reaffirmed my decisions.
I learned more about how traditionally published authors, usually, have no to very little control over their covers. How they’re stalled and/or at the limitations of the publishers. The small royalties they receive. And, what surprised me the most, that they had to still pay a lot out of pocket for their book tours and promotions.
At the end of the day, I wanted my readers to be my bosses. I wanted them to dictate the speed at which they wanted and I wrote my books. I wanted to make choices I felt would be best for the market and listen to their demands.
And, now, I’m here. Here being my very first book birthday. Air Awakens is “published” today, August 27th, 2015. I use those quotations because, I didn’t take the usual path. I’m not some big book-deal author. I’m not even a small book-deal author. A lot of people won’t even consider me an author because I didn’t take the traditional route. Because an agent didn’t validate me as good enough, or because I decided to take the chance on myself that others wouldn’t take.
I also use those quotations, again coming full circle, because I don’t feel like how I thought an author would feel like. There is no chorus singing in the back of my head. There is no change to my day. There is no overnight success.
Today, the day my book is out, I will get up and go to work. I will have meetings and take phone calls. I’ll just be me, same old me, who now happens to have a book out that most people don’t even know about. I’m gearing up for book two ARCs, I’m waiting on book three edits, I’m polishing and revamping book four. I’m still working for my characters and my readers.
My publication process didn’t start out with the goal of having a “book for sale” and it’s not going to “end” or be validated by that either. I started writing to make something fun for people to read. To tell a story I loved in the hopes others would love it too. To put words on a page that maybe, just maybe, could reach out to someone and make their day better. I don’t think I’ll feel like an author until people who I didn’t send advanced reader copies to comment on it. Until I have people love it and hate it (But hopefully love it more). Until I have someone, just one person, begging me for book two.
What’s the moral of this LONG story?
Never give up.
Never let others define success for you.
Never think there’s only one path to get what you want.
Be open to change.
Be open to meeting the people who will change you.
Be open to working so hard it makes you dizzy.
And, always, love, love, LOVE what you do. If what you’re doing is not the reason why you get out of bed in the morning then find whatever is and make sure you’re doing that also, if not instead.
I hope some of you will reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, or Tumblr. I hope if you have questions you know you can ask them. If they’re about Air Awakens, about publishing, about writing, or about me I hope to see them in my inbox. I hope it’s clear how much I relied on other people during my process and you know it’s okay to do the same if you’re just setting out.
And, of course, I hope you love the product of my journey: Air Awakens
Always and forever your author,