My debut wasn’t by any means considered a roaring success. It didn’t break into the scene in 2013 with a bang. In fact, all it had was a quiet launch event at the Central Library, where friends, family and some members of the public politely listened to me ramble nervously about my book.
But it was my debut, and my publisher, though small, was incredibly kind and supportive. So for a 23-year-old just dipping her toes into the world of publishing, it was an amazing experience. At that point, I’d figured my winning the nationwide novel writing contest organised by the National Arts Council of Singapore and Straits Times Press and having my novel published as a result was a fluke, and I probably wouldn’t get another book published for a while.
I was right – not about winning the contest being a fluke, but about the long road ahead to the next publication. (Still, I hadn’t expected it to take another EIGHT years for my second book to be out.) But within those eight years, and now that my second book has been out for four months, there was a lot of learning and growing involved.
So here are eight things I learned upon getting published eight years after I debuted.
1. Nothing is guaranteed
Just because you have a shiny big debut doesn’t mean you’ll always be the darling of publishing (though of course it’s nice to get a good head-start). Conversely, just because your debut bombed doesn’t mean your career is doomed and you should go back to washing cars or your swanky but tedious auditing job and shelf your dream away.
There are authors whose Big Break came with their fifth, sixth or even tenth novel, and they’ve become mainstays on the NYT bestsellers list. There are also authors who were touted as the Next Big Thing who didn’t publish another book or received a lukewarm reception to their subsequent books.
Publishing is so unpredictable because there are so many moving parts, and things are constantly evolving and changing. So many things are out of our control, so the best thing to do is just roll with the punches and celebrate whatever good news comes our way.
2. Keep building your backlist
V.E. Schwab said it best: it’s all about the backlist. Our entire career doesn’t – and shouldn’t – hinge upon the performance of our debut. Or even our second or third book. It depends on how long we stay in the industry and our “portfolio”, i.e. all the books we’ve written over the years.
Publishing is a long game, one that people drop out of – whether willingly or otherwise – if they no longer see the value in staying on, or are simply unable to. It’s nice to break out into the scene upon debut, but many authors don’t get that privilege. Most of us have to work our way up and leave a mark on the scene after years of hard work, and with many titles under our belt.
But the good news is, the right readers will always find a way to our stories. And the more we write, the better our chances are for our work to be seen. And in the long run, a steadily growing backlist will put us more prominently on the map than a loud banger at the start that fizzles out in two years.
3. Stay adaptable
I’ve been trying to get published since 2009, when I sent out my first cringe-inducing query letter to agents, many of whom were incredibly kind and offered feedback to improve my manuscript. I’ve had to stay flexible and
If I’d been writing mostly issue-driven YA contemporary that wasn’t super commercial or getting any bites, then maybe my proverbial foot in the door would have to come in the form of something more hook-y, like an Asian fantasy novel that includes well-loved tropes like ancient magic, slow-burn romance, and a kingdom caught in political strife.
I’ve had to abandon multiple manuscripts after shopping them around for years to no avail. Either the market wasn’t ready for my books, or the writing just wasn’t there yet, or an agent already had a client who had written something similar, the pandemic…
To date, I’ve written 10 manuscripts, and only two have been published. Part of it was timing and luck, but the other part was my stubbornness in getting a literary agent or dogged unwillingness to give up on a manuscript that clearly wasn’t working.
Eventually, after years of querying one project (the project of my heart, in fact), I’ve had to accept that it might just have to take the backseat while I work on something else entirely in another genre. (Although if anyone asks, I’m still always happy to pull out those manuscripts I’ve had to abandon and give them a major overhaul to whip them into publishing-worthy state.)
I think it’s important for us to recognise when something isn’t working and to move on to the next project. It hurts, but we can only get better with each book we write, and if anyone happens to ask down the road, we’ll always have more work to share.
4. Focus on what’s within your control
As mentioned above, a lot of things are beyond our control as traditionally published authors, from the final book cover to distribution channels to sales figures to reception of the book to opportunities that come our way. Some authors get more invites to events, some get multiple starred reviews, some get huge marketing budget or endorsements, while others have to work extra hard to give their book a fighting chance on a playing field that isn’t level to begin with.
That’s just the publication and promotion part. There’s also the reception part—how the book is received. We can’t make everyone love our book, or make them buy our book. We can’t control how they interpret our stories or respond to it. We can’t force them to tell all their friends about it or give five-star reviews.
So there’s really not much that’s within our control on both ends. But instead of feeling defeated by that lack of power, maybe the better thing to do is to not force things in any way.
The only thing we have full control over, though, is our writing, our stories, our craft. We can only focus on the joy and satisfaction we derive from the process of writing, not the tangible, external rewards that writing may or may not bring us.
5. Your only competition is you
If you’re involved in the publishing community on Twitter or Instagram, chances are that you’ll see a book deal or movie adaptation announced every other day. You’ll see news about books making it to the NYT bestsellers list, or a Netflix adaptation in the works, or receiving starred reviews and winning awards.
Being exposed to all those updates that can make anyone start questioning their own worth as an author. Are we not real writers if we can’t even get a literary agent? Does our book not have merit if it doesn’t win awards? Have we not made it yet if weren’t invited to that writers’ festival our peers got invited to? If no one cares about our book, DID WE EVEN WRITE A BOOK?
It’s so easy—and natural—for our thoughts to spiral down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, guided by a good hit of imposter syndrome. So easy for our self-esteem to take that daily beating.
But other authors’ achievements do not take away anything from you; they don’t diminish your light. If anything, they contribute to creating a more vibrant book scene that will in turn improve your chances of getting published, getting attention for your book, and encouraging readers to seek out more books, potentially in the genre you write.
Point is, there is no point comparing what others have with what you don’t. Your only concern is whether you’re a better (and happier) writer than you were yesterday—and your mental health in the long run.
6. You are your best advocate
Publishers have a tonne of books to release and promote. They are stretched, they are overworked, and obviously they want the best for every book they publish. But it’s simply impossible for them marketing and publicity team to do all the work for every book; they have to selectively devote their time and attention, so the rest is up to us as the authors to do.
Reaching out to reviewers, creating additional marketing content, organising giveaways, engaging with readers on social media, engage artists to create accompanying fan art, organise pre-order campaigns… (None of which I had done for my first book because I had no idea that’s what authors did. Also because social media wasn’t what it is today, and I figured who would care about a 23-year-old’s YA debut novel?)
There’s a lot to be done in terms of getting the word out and creating pre- and post-launch buzz. So you want to take things into your own hands instead of sitting around waiting for the publisher to give your book the attention it deserves.
7. Take care of your mental health
It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game – Instagram followers, book sales, number of starred reviews, number of shares and likes, number of author festivals and panels you get invited to. Plus, book marketing is a whole beast to tame, and it takes up an incredible amount of time and energy, both of which could be better devoted to writing your next book.
While it may be tempting to check your Amazon or social media stats every hour, or reach out to everyone in your contacts to beseech them to review your book, doing this nonstop for months on end will 1) make you public annoyance No. 1, and 2) leave you burnt out before the year is up.
I admit, I got caught up in that all that noise in the months after my book was released. Were people engaging with my book, my IG posts? Were they talking about the book? How many of them left reviews? How can I get more people to know or talk about it? And on and on.
Until I realised, one day, that I was getting too consumed by all that.
My job is to write a good book – or at least, one that I’m satisfied with – not stress about social media performance or sales rankings. Sure, an author in this day and age is required to have some social media presence and we all want to sell books, but 1) no one likes that author who keeps shilling their books and building up their own hype on social media, and 2) I’m a writer, not a marketing manager; my goal is to get better at my craft, not conquer social media algorithms.
8. Stay grateful and enjoy the ride
Publishing is wild. It’s slow (there’s a lot of waiting involved), and it can be brutal (rejections, negative reviews, gatekeepers, etc.), and it can drain your morale and spirit if you let it. So instead of worrying about what’s going to happen, and instead of trying to control the outcome, I’m now just trying to let go and be grateful for every milestone, big or small.
Every no, every missed opportunity, every closed door in our face isn’t a rejection of us or our work. It’s what leads us closer to the things that are meant for us. What doesn’t work out might just end up working out, and we just need to trust that everything happens in its own time.
And in the meantime, just keep finding joy in the things you do, because at the end of the day, it’s a career, not your whole life.
Comments and questions welcome, as always. 🖤