Columns > Published on June 20th, 2014

Be Cool: How Not To Be a Diva Debut Author

Dear Debut Authors,

Can we talk? I’ve been noticing how you’re dealing with this whole new book thing and it seems like you’re going through some changes. And, well, you’re different. Or something about you is different. It seems as though all you talk about anymore are your events and what kind of famous people you’re BFFs with on Twitter. Your agent seemed pretty cool, looks like they got you a good deal and are taking care of you…why are you making plans to ditch them for that guy in New York? Your publisher’s pretty awesome, I love their titles. I see their books everywhere – how come you’re not happy with them anymore? And what’s the deal with how you talk now? You sound like you’re auditioning for something. I don’t know, you’re just not the same. You’ve changed. I love ya, but…you’re kind of acting like a diva.



I've had this letter in my head throughout 11 years of agenting, consulting and editing for an indie publisher. It's not an easy one to write because I appreciate how hard it is to be an author in today's hyper-marketing driven publishing world. Emotions run high for the author and those assisting in the book's production. Delicate egos, altruism, budding careers, royalties and bottom lines don't always mesh well together. Feelings get hurt, self-importance can run rampant and myriad misunderstandings abound. Alas, that's the business we're in. It ain't perfect.

For a debut author thrust into a new world of publishing alongside those they've read and respected for years, it's heady and terrifying. You want the attention, the notice you've longed for. You want respect. And yet, you may not fully understand "how publishing works." (And really? Those rules change frequently...somebody's always coming up with a different way to achieve their goal.) Your understanding of how an author is supposed to act may be misinformed. You may be "acting as if," as the popular self-help mantra goes, as in, acting the part of a successful, famous author without the benefit of the perspective they earned along many years of failure, triumph, and many faux pas. 

Perspective is a gift only given to those who've done the work for years and have taken notes.

If you feel like you’re struggling to get noticed, no amount of hyperbole is going to get you noticed. Accept that your first burst into the world may not be as big and bold as you had envisioned. Keep doing the work.

How is a debut author supposed to have perspective? It's impossible, isn't it? There's not a lot of personal experience to reference. This is fresh territory. Keep this in mind, writers — to keep yourself in check, just be cool. Don't lose your head. Here's how.

Be cool in workshop

You have valuable lessons to share to your fellow aspiring writers, but unless asked, it may be best to keep your advice to yourself. This is a hard one — you want to share what you know. And admit it, you kinda want to be the expert on publishing and “how it’s done” in your group. But isn’t workshop about making the work better? Isn’t it about being of service to your fellow writers?  As Lillian Hellman wisely said, "If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves." If you want to give advice about publishing, organize your own workshop or panel discussion open to the public. Blog about it. Write about it and submit it to the mags. But let your workshop time be about the work.

Be cool about self-marketing

It’s real easy to fall into what everyone else is doing online: over hyping yourself, your new release, your reviews, your events, your workshops, etc. As DIY marketers for our work, we’ve been conditioned to operate this way, wouldn’t you say? Agents and publishers expect you to promote your work and be visible. Readers are kind of expecting it, too. And lord knows, if nobody’s making noise about you or your book, it won’t sell. Your work will go unnoticed. And lack of sales mean no royalties, and often means no second book deal. That’s a lot of pressure for any author. For new authors, who maybe haven’t spent as much time building their portfolio of work, the urge may be to shout out to the world every validating nugget they’ve received about their work and call it “critically acclaimed.” I beg you, unless those nuggets are actually gold and are attributed to well-respected and nationally well-known authors, book critics, and/or subject experts and maybe celebrities, don’t do this. This does not build your credibility.

There’s a fine line between over-hyping your overall package (you, your work, and the brand) and quality self-promotion. There's bound to be trial and error here. Lots of error, maybe. The key thing is to learn from your mistakes and try your best not to repeat them. Be wise to what is not resonating with your audience and move on.

Be engaging, be proactive in promoting your work, be prolific. Write articles, guest blog, hustle to get the interview, submit to lit journals, submit your published work to anthologies. Your best marketing is the work that’s out in the world — the stuff someone chose over all the rest to publish. Let the work speak for itself. Let your fans speak up for you. Let word of mouth do its thing. If people like you and your work, they will be happy to hype your work for you. If you feel like you’re struggling to get noticed, no amount of hyperbole is going to get you noticed. Just keep doing your thing. Accept that your first burst into the world may not be as big and bold as you had envisioned. Keep doing the work. The work and your character will speak for you. The people who love your work will speak for you. Over-hype only works for those insanely quirky marketing geniuses with awesome connections. Most of us are not those people.

Be cool to your agent 

If you’re a relatively unknown author, chances are your agent is up and coming too. You’ve been through the trenches together. You’ve laughed, shared a few tears after getting all those rejection letters, you’re in this together! Right? That’s how it was at first, anyway. Now that you’re a bigger deal, remember something — that agent who saw something in your work and did everything they could to get you a deal, to get people to read your book, is still pretty awesome. You may have some other bigger agents chum up with you, ready to “be there” when you’re ready to move to bigger and better pastures, but think twice. If your agent is still working for your best interest (and it shows), let them.

Be cool to your publisher 

In the last 6 or more years, publishers have been through the wringer. Between Amazon being Amazon, Borders’ Bankruptcy, and disappearing independent book stores, publishers, traditional and independent, have left their blood on the battlefield. They’ve restructured, gotten leaner, or closed up shop completely. Most publishers count on one or two strong titles a year to pay for the less flashy titles they publish. And pay their editorial teams. And design teams. And marketing and PR teams. Finance teams. Legal stuff. And the cost of book production. Publishing is an expensive gamble. Editors work off their gut and try like hell to convince their marketing and finance team there’s an audience for your book. Often, their careers are put on the line. If a book flops or doesn’t earn back what a publisher invested in it, the publisher loses thousands of dollars. I can’t think of any publisher who can afford this.

There are a lot of moving pieces in publishing and sometimes, emotions run high. At the end of the day, they all want to create a beautiful looking book that’s awesome to read for you and your many readers, and for their catalog. It’s in their best interest. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. It always happens. The more books a publisher publishes in a year, the less expensive each book costs to create, theoretically (factoring in overhead expenses). So, imagine how much time your editor has to make sure everything about your book is as perfect as you’d like it to be. Not much. And, let's not forget they have their vision of what your book should be, too (most often gleaned from what's worked well for them in the past). 

Don’t be a jerk to your fellow authors. It’s not cool.

If your publishing company has a marketing budget for your book, be grateful. If they actually send you on a book tour and can only afford to set you up in a Super 8, be real grateful. They are investing heavily in you. You may not get the cover you dreamed of, or the ad space of your dreams, but know that your publisher is most likely doing their best with the resources they have. You’ll get to decide at some point if that publisher is worth publishing with again or not. For now, be grateful an entire team of people have put their business on the line for you and do everything you can to support your book. Even if you hate your book cover.

Be cool to your bookseller

Perhaps your family and friends have marched up to the counter at Barnes and Noble and inquired as to why your book is not on the shelf. Perhaps you got off the phone with your local independent bookseller and feel slighted because you’re not “big enough” to have a signing there. Here’s something to keep in mind — just because your book is published and distributed nationwide, doesn’t mean every book store, or even most book stores will carry your book. It doesn’t mean every book store or most book stores will call you back to book you for a signing event. Many booksellers want to see proof. Proof that other critically acclaimed authors have nice things to say about your book (blurbs), proof of positive reviews from nationally recognized review outlets, proof in a marketing budget from your publisher. They want proof that they can easily hand-sell your book and not lose money on keeping you stocked on their shelves. Most booksellers know their customers and business pretty well. And most have been burned by authors who demanded they order an overabundance of books for their event only to have 20 or so people show up. Guess what. That bookseller now has to sell that massive overstock, possibly mark it down, and even send all those books back to the distributor, paying the cost of shipping.

Keep in mind your local bookseller would probably love to support you and your work, but they need proof that your book will sell. Their very livelihoods depend on it. So give them what they want — proof. Reviews. Numbers. If you can’t, just kindly thank them for their time and consideration. Give them your business. Be cool. Some day you may be able to give them what they most want — a buying audience — and they’ll be so glad to support you.

Be cool to seasoned authors

I bet you’ve made a few new author friends since you’ve been published. Perhaps they’ve got a bestseller or two under their belt. Kinda feels awesome, right? Somewhat validating? Yeah, it is. Be real cool here, dears. You’ll be tempted to get too close too soon. Maybe ask for a few favors now that you’re part of the club. Perhaps complain about your agent or publisher, who may be a few degrees of separation away from them or their agent/publisher (it’s a small world, y’all). You may be tempted to drop their name less than professionally in a tweet or blog, (Hanging out with my bud, Big Time Author’s Name at BEA! Woo!). Think twice. These relationships have the potential to be long lasting, but ease into them. Keep it professional.  If you want them to answer your emails, be cool. Be a friend.

Be cool to newbie authors

Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. So maybe a fresh off the press author is asking you advice about how to sell books, how to get more readers. Maybe they’ve self-published, micro-published, hybrid-published, independently published, whatever. Maybe your experience is not similar to theirs. Who cares. Don’t be a jerk to your fellow authors. It’s not cool.

And you know what? I can’t think of anyone in this profession who hasn’t made some of these cringe-worthy mistakes at least once in their career. Navigating a world where ego and self-loathing duke it out on a daily basis is painfully awkward for most of us, to say the least. It’s okay. Tomorrow is a new day to get it right. Given the time, you will. We all will.

As Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, “There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."

(Down below there’s an Amazon link to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, because reading Vonnegut will make you a better person. Feel free to check it out at Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, or ask your local independent bookseller. Hey! Now there’s a great opportunity to make friends and show them your great taste in books!)

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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