Columns > Published on April 10th, 2017

10 Mistakes I Made as a Debut Novelist

As a debut novelist with an approaching pub date, your browser history gets filled with titles like "X Lessons I Learned as a Debut Novelist" or "Tips on Being a Debut Novelist" or "Marketing Your Debut Novel." In the months leading up to that big day, you can wind up doing as much research as an expectant mother.

But there are some issues that, in my experience, you won't find addressed in these sort of articles—issues of the sort that blindsided me when my first book came out.

As a freelance book editor with 6+ years in the publishing industry, I thought I knew what questions to ask of my small-press publisher, what to look for before I signed a contract, and what to expect after the book dropped.

As it turned out, I was wrong.

Here are 10 mistakes I made, so you don't have to. 

1. Focusing More on Newspaper Reviews Than Book Bloggers

As an author with a small press, I knew I would be handling most, if not all, of my own publicity. And sure, I knew I had only a limited number of Advance Review Copies (ARCs) to send out to potential reviewers. But wouldn't I be doing my first novel a disservice if I didn't at least send it out to the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Chicago Tribune?

Well, maybe. But in the end I found the only newspapers that bit were ones I had a regional connection with—and if they helped to drive sales, the effects were certainly not staggering. Reviews from book bloggers, while less prestigious, can translate a lot more directly into sales, because readers actually come to these folks for recommendations (and those readers are no more than a click away from a Buy button). 

2. Focusing Most of My Efforts on the Three Months Around Publication

Conventional wisdom says that the first few months after your novel drops are the most critical time for driving sales and generating buzz. And conventional wisdom is not wrong, especially if you're working with a major publisher that will soon move its marketing muscle elsewhere.

But if you're a small-press author, it's important to realize that you're in it for the long haul. I found that once the buzz had died down from my initial marketing push and reviews, I didn't have a strategy in place for keeping the momentum I'd generated from dying down. Which leads me to my next mistake.

3. Not Having Essays and Guest Posts Written Before My Book Dropped

Actually, I did have a strategy for maintaining my momentum, and that strategy was to publish articles and guest posts on subjects related to my novel. And I did have the foresight to pitch a number of sites and publications before my pub date.

What I didn't realize was, on the one hand, how long it would take for print publications to decide whether or not they wanted to publish a piece they'd greenlighted—and on the other, how little time I would have on my hands to actually write the guest blogs for the sites I'd successfully pitched, given my ongoing promotion efforts (via book events and social media). Plus, that whole making a living thing.

It would have helped a lot to have simply written these articles and guest posts before the tornado (aka, the publication of my first novel) hit.

4. Assuming Issues with Amazon Were Mistakes on My Publisher's End

It wasn't long after my book launched that Amazon listed it as Temporarily Out of Stock. I assumed this was a problem on my publisher's end, and they assumed it was a problem with their distributor.

But I've since been informed by friends in small-press publishing that this is a tactic Amazon sometimes uses with books being published by a print-on-demand service other than Create Space—which is to say, any POD service they deem to be in competition with their own. 

That troubling message did eventually go away, but not until after who-knows-how-many sales in the excitement of my opening week had been lost. If you find yourself in the same straits, the bad news is, there's not much you can do about it (as far as I can tell); but hey, at least you won't be bugging your publisher about it.

5. Assuming I Could Utilize Amazon's Affiliate Program

In the future, I will bear in mind that my willingness to go the extra mile for people I do not know well may be more of the exception, as far as human nature goes, than the rule.

Speaking of Amazon, I listen to various podcasts on book marketing, so I had assumed I could use Amazon's affiliate program to make a commission on sales of my book (and whatever else folks happened to pick up) if I directed traffic to their site through my mine.

But it wasn't long before I received an email from Amazon letting me know that my website was not eligible for their associate program. This may have been due to nothing more than my having missed a key bit of language to include, but beware: there are reports of people who have tried to resolve issues with their Amazon Associate account and failed.

6. Assuming Friends of Friends Would Help 

I'm the sort of person who loves to help to connect people with opportunities and resources, whether it's a feature in a local reading series or a place to stay while they're on tour—and that applies to friends of friends as well. I assumed that would be true for others as well.

But when I was trying to set up a book tour, I found that these kind of loose connections simply did not hold—and even people who I'd connected with in person at conferences, people I considered friends, either did not come through or dropped the ball in communicating.

I don't hold it against any of them. But in the future, I will bear in mind that my willingness to go the extra mile for people I do not know well may be more of the exception, as far as human nature goes, than the rule. 

7. Going to AWP

Going to AWP in L.A. was great fun, and I'm happy that I got to share in all the fine events, intelligent discussions, and general debauchery that is the nation's largest literary geekfest.

But of the dozen or so publications whose employees and volunteers expressed interest in a review copy of my novel, only one of them actually took that review copy and, well, reviewed it. That was a whole lot of effort on my part, as well as a lot of review copies, for almost no reward—not to mention the cost of airfare and hotel.

8. Assuming My Publisher Would Submit My Novel to Contests—and Pay Contest Fees

Call me naive, but I'd always assumed that the people who read for contests somehow just pulled recently published titles out of the ether—like, if a book had gotten good reviews and people were talking about it, it would naturally be considered for some sort of prize.

The reality is that books get nominated for prizes because publishers submit their titles for consideration—and pay the contest fees. Which means that if your debut novel is coming out with a small-press publisher, you may be asked both to submit the book and pay those fees yourself.

9. Assuming That Being Traditionally Published Would Make Working with Bookstores Easy

I had assumed that because I wasn't self-publishing (or published through one of Amazon's imprints), bookstores would consider carrying my novel. But it wasn't long before I discovered that the wholesale discount being offered by my publisher simply wasn't big enough for most bookstores to do so.

After a certain sales threshold was reached, my publisher agreed to work with me on that discount. But I still find that small independent bookstores often want to take my books on consignment rather than order it themselves.

10. Not Using a Computer or iPad for Mailing List Sign Ups

Having done my homework, I knew that this first novel was only the first step in my career as an author—the important part was to build a mailing list that would allow me to stay in touch with my growing fanbase when my next novel was published. 

So I made a clear ask about this at every reading and presentation, and I even developed a cute little thank-you gift for people who signed up for my list at events. Which proved super successful! Except for the fact that when I went to enter in their emails via the sign-up form on my website later, half the time I couldn't tell someone's M from the N or their T from their X.

The solution? Have people sign up via a computer or iPad at the event itself, thereby removing the margin for error. 

Hope some of this helps. Next month: What I did right. =)

Get Hot Season at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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