The process of publishing is frequently shrouded in mystery. I don’t think this is entirely deliberate — it’s the inevitable result of every publishing house having a slightly different way of doing things, meaning that there’s no obvious step-by-step route that everybody follows. But this does mean that, as a writer, you spend a lot of time confused and in the dark. “Is this normal?” I must have asked a dozen times this year. “What happens next? Am I supposed to know about X yet? When do I get to announce this book?“
The truth is: there is no normal, but yes, that’s probably normal. And there’s no set route for what happens next, but probably, it’ll be a bunch of waiting around and then three important decisions to make back-to-back and also now you have edits to do, good luck, RIP the rest of your life. And so on and so forth. But here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned that I hadn’t anticipated.
Being able to keep a secret is a crucial skill
I mentioned when we announced The Butterfly Assassin that I’ve been sitting on the news since January. I … was not expecting to have to, I’ll be honest. I drafted a version of this post in March, because I thought I would be able to post it soon. Ha! Nope. Now, admittedly, I knew this was a possibility — a friend of mine had to sit on her book deal for eighteen months before it was announced, which quite possibly would have killed me. 7.5 months was more than enough for me.
This isn’t uncommon in the UK. In the US, it seems like it’s more typical to announce promptly, even if the book is 2+ years away, but in the UK, publishers often wait to announce until there’s a nearly-final draft and pre-order links are ready to go, etc. It means less suspense for readers, but a lot more secret-keeping for authors. I’ve been making vague references to edits for months, because I’m incapable of not livetweeting my entire life, but I haven’t really been able to yell about the milestones. I was jealous of those friends who could — I felt like I was being left out of a special club. But on that note…
You can join the debut groups before you’ve announced
Every year there are group chats and Slacks for debut authors to form a community, get advice, check in with other debuts about the whole “is this normal?” question. I assumed, for months, that I wouldn’t be able to join one until I’d announced, and when my announcement got pushed from March to July to September, I felt more and more like I was being left out.
And then a friend said to me, “You know you can just ask them if you can join, right?” It hadn’t occurred to me. As a 2023 debut who had already announced, she was in a group, and she told me there were several authors in there who hadn’t announced yet. Emboldened, I approached the admin of one of the 22 Debuts groups, and they happily invited me to join. Turned out, I hadn’t missed the party. And several people joined after me, so my worries about being the weird latecomer were unfounded.
Keeping it a secret doesn’t mean not telling anybody
Just because you can’t talk about a deal publicly, that doesn’t mean you can’t tell anybody. My family knew. My writing chat knew. My close friends knew. And my thesis supervisor definitely knew — he needed to be aware that I was juggling deadlines, and why I might occasionally translate 160 lines of early modern Irish, which I’ve never been trained in, instead of the 30 he was expecting, as a means of stress-relief.
Publishing is stressful and that stress can manifest strangely
Like I said. 160 lines of early modern Irish in a week. Sometimes you need something completely unrelated to your book to take your mind off it, particularly when there are arguments happening. That particular stressful period for me was when we were negotiating titles. It was early in the process, before we had the contract or anything on paper, and S&S wanted to changed my title. While I was willing to change it, I didn’t like their suggested title, and so we were having a little bit of a disagreement. Since I have anxiety, and since we had nothing on paper to bind us into the whole thing, I was terrified that if I pushed too hard on this issue, they might turn around and go, “Actually, you’re too stubborn, we don’t want to work with you.”
That kind of anxiety never really goes away. At least, not if you’re me. Even after the contracts were signed and I’d been paid (and even after we’d settled on a title we could all agree on), I went back through the contract itself to see what would happen if they decided they were sick of me, and whether they would ask for their money back. Not to mention the impostor syndrome — what if this was a mistake, and they didn’t mean to offer on my book? Surely they’d eventually realise, and turn up in my inbox like, “Sorry, it’s all a big error, we were trying to buy that person’s book?”
I thought getting external validation on my book was supposed to make me more confident, but it turned out it just gave me a whole new set of issues. Love that for me.
Sometimes that stress comes with guilt
Writing is rarely a solitary pursuit, and if you’re lucky enough to have writer friends, you can end up in a slightly strange position. Even if at the time that you became friends you were all at the exact same stage in your writing career, publishing is a strange beast and doesn’t move at anything like the same speed for everyone. (This can contribute to the impostor syndrome: “Why would they buy my book when I have so many talented friends who can’t even find an agent?”)
When you get a book deal, you end up in the odd position of having something that everybody else in your group chat also wants. Now, good friends might be jealous, but they’ll still be happy for you, and they won’t let that get in the way of your friendship. Seeing your friends as competition is a great way to be totally miserable, in the publishing world. But even when they’re being nothing but positive and supportive, as the person who has achieved the coveted thing, you end up hyper-aware of how you talk about it — especially when you’re complaining. You don’t want to seem ungrateful, when your problems are problems that your friends would love to have, but sometimes you’re anxious or stressed or fed-up or otherwise Not Feeling The Correct Amount Of Joy, and it can be weird to express that.
Sometimes, you just aren’t feeling The Correct Emotions. Half the time, you’ll probably be mad at yourself for that, too. “Why can’t I just be happy?!” But a lot of the things that were hard about the writing process are still hard afterwards. Some of them are harder. Some new things turn up that are stressful in a whole different way. And you need a space where you can talk about that.
I’m lucky that my current writing friends are great and supportive and understanding. But in the past, I’ve been in situations where expressing those negative emotions about something that somebody else wanted, something they thought I should be grateful for and happy about, caused them to lash out at me, and it’s hard not to be self-conscious after that. That’s where the debut groups really come into their own, too — everybody’s in the same boat! And everybody’s probably just as stressed and overwhelmed as you are, too…
It’s always all or nothing
Either you’re totally overwhelmed with decisions and deadlines, or nothing is happening. In the past week, I’ve announced the book, received a draft cover that I had to give feedback on, been asked to pick an audiobook narrator, got my copyedits and a deadline for them, and been asked to draft a synopsis for book two. Considering I’m supposed to be writing my thesis right now, this is A Lot, and my anxiety has not been loving it. But sometimes it’s… silence. My supervisor will ask, “Any news?” and I’ll tell him I’m still waiting… and waiting… and waiting…
And then I’ll get an edit letter and the whole cycle begins again.
You get way less time than you think
For years, every time I did NaNoWriMo, people would be like, “NaNo is pointless, no book written that quickly can be any good.” Meanwhile I don’t think I’ve had a single edit deadline that was more than 6 weeks away, and most have been less; due to overlapping academic deadlines, I ended up with only about three weeks of my structural edit, and had to ask for a bit of extra time. I don’t know if this is just how S&S does things, or whether it’s because they know I’m a fairly fast worker, or what, but it definitely took me by surprise how fast the turnaround was. I’m lucky that as a postgrad student I have a certain flexibility, so it is possible to drop everything and get my edits done on time, but I’m in awe of anyone who can juggle this with a full-time job, because I’ve no idea how they do it.
Your editing process may totally change
Actually, the really weird thing is how your editor will refer to your manuscript as your “first draft” or “revised first draft”, as though the first seven didn’t happen and the past six years of your life were a hallucination. It makes sense — it’s not like there’d be any logical reason why they would count the drafts they’ve never seen — but it was vaguely jarring the first time it happened. First draft? I thought. I *wish* it were my first draft…
See also: asking for the “first draft” of a sequel when you’ve already written three. And yet somehow this doesn’t take the pressure off…
But the editing process as a whole is a bit of a learning curve. It’s slightly different at every publisher, as far as I can tell, and also probably depends on the book, but for me, it involved a topline edit (big picture stuff, cutting a chunk of words, etc), a structural edit (more nitty-gritty stuff to do with pacing and worldbuilding), a line edit (making the words pretty and the details add up), and now, copyedits (Punctuation Hell)*. For the first couple of rounds, my editor was happy for me to keep using my highly labour-intensive but patented technique of editing by opening a new document and writing the book again from the beginning, but after that, I had to resign myself to Track Changes and a maze of comment bubbles.
This would be fine, except that I’m using Office 2010 on my computer and Office 365 on my laptop, and comments have a habit of behaving interestingly when you switch between the two, since that’s one of the elements which got redesigned. Whoops.
Also, that first set of edits I did with my editor? Was somehow simultaneously so much harder and yet so much easier than every round of edits I did before. Like, on the one hand: “Oh no, somebody who isn’t me is going to read this, and I’m at the point where I have to get it right because I can’t just keep redrafting indefinitely!” And on the other hand: “Oh, thank goodness, somebody who isn’t me is going to read this and can catch the mistakes and inconsistencies…”
(*These are all drastic oversimplifications and frankly, Punctuation Hell has been going on for a while. It turns out I have much stronger opinions about commas than I ever realised.)
You’re allowed to say “no”
Finally, here’s a lesson I’m still learning: you’re allowed to say no. Don’t like a title or a cover concept? You’re allowed to say that. Whether or not that will result in change isn’t within your power — but you’re allowed to say it. You’re allowed to disagree with edits too. It’s worth taking the time to sit with them and figure out if your gut feeling is justified or just defensiveness, but when it comes down to it… it’s your book.
And sometimes it’s worth hiding behind your agent for those conversations, particularly if it’s something you’re emotional about. No matter how much you want to be a Strong, Independent Author who can assert themselves, your agent’s job is literally to have the difficult conversations for you. They can figure out a diplomatic way of wording things, advise you on how likely it is that you’ll actually win that fight, and generally make it a lot less awkward than having to go it alone. They can say no for you.
But the important thing is: just because getting a book deal is hard, and you’re grateful, and you want it to continue happening so that one day you can afford to pay rent, doesn’t mean you have to agree to everything. If you’re genuinely not happy with something, you’re allowed to express that, and with any luck, your publisher will say, “You know what? You’re totally right. Back to the drawing board on that one.” (And if they don’t… well, you’re no worse off than before, really.)
I guess reading through this post, the real lesson here is that if you have an anxiety disorder, a book deal probably isn’t going to cure it. Pretty sure I didn’t need 2,000 words to say that — but as my editor will tell you, I’ve never met a wordcount I didn’t want to exceed. But I hope that some of these lessons are useful to some of you if you’re on this same journey, or hoping to take this path in the future. And for those who aren’t, I hope it’s an interesting peek behind the scenes to understand what I’ve been up to over the last few months.