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A 15-Year Overnight Success

Updated: Dec 12, 2020

3 atypical questions every author pursuing a publishing deal should be asking themselves.

I recently signed a large publishing deal involving my children’s picture books. So far it has been the biggest reward of hard work in my writing career. Over the years I’ve done many school/company visits for ages 3 to adult. At the visits as well as at other appearances, I often get asked the same questions over and over again. Here are a few examples: How do you write a children’s book? How did you get started? How did you publish your books?” How did you find a publisher? How do you find an illustrator? How do you make money? and many, many more.

You can find these answers on the internet.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from asking questions. These are all ok questions for younger kids who are curious. But if you’ve been serious about getting your books published, you should have moved beyond these questions already because you’ve at least taken the time to do a quick web search. You don’t need me to find this information. In reality, the path I am taking will not be the same for you. Parts of it may be similar, but it’s true it’s different for everyone. Having expectations of what you’re supposed to do, will blind you to things you could do. (A variation on my usual theme “Don’t let your expectations get in the way of your perception.”)

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a classroom of adult artist/writers sharing my thoughts on being a creative professional in the business world. These people weren’t just starting out. They were already professional illustrators and writers looking to find a way to move forward in publishing. They’ve already searched the internet. Instead of more answers, I gave them 3 questions to ask themselves:

If you had unlimited resources, do you know the process from beginning to end?

If money and time weren’t obstacles, could you describe the various ways to create, protect, produce, publish, distribute, market, sell, and manage the money made from your books? If not, why not? Where are the knowledge gaps? What are the benefits and pitfalls of each?

Why is this important?

Many creators spend the majority of their time on what you would expect, creating. When all is said and done, you’ll need to know much more to get the most out of your products. And by most, I mean money, recognition, and staying power.

The first obvious reason this is an important exercise to go through is so you’ll know if you’re being taken to the cleaners when talking business. Being able to discuss binding types, distribution channel percentages, “market rates,” publishing rights, ISBN ownership, or explain the way the ebook industry is constantly in flux can immediately put you in another class of negotiations. It not only says “I know what I’m talking about”, but also “I’m not afraid to do the hard work.”

The second, less obvious reason it’s important to know the book world from conception to infinity is that you’ll feel better about the deal you do sign. The agreement I just signed took about 3-4 months to negotiate. Partially because they were very busy, but also because I went back and forth with them a few times about my specific needs. Having robust knowledge of the industry standards and trends, allowed me to recognize that they were negotiating in good faith. It was easier to see I was working with knowledgable, fair professionals who wanted something positive for me while they got what they needed as a business. I appreciate that. It showed that integrity wasn’t a question. My lawyer felt the same. Once I signed, I felt great about the partnership. No one wants buyer’s remorse.

Do you understand and accept the work is just getting started AFTER you sign?

To many of my professional colleagues who don’t see the behind-the-scenes work, it looks like I suddenly signed a big record deal. The truth is, I didn’t win a contract on a reality singing show. It took me 15 years to have an overnight success. During that time I learned everything I could about the business, created my own publishing company for myself as an LLC so I could be taken seriously when speaking to distributors, went to countless book fairs, comic cons, and expos selling my titles directly to readers, talked to booksellers about what sells, pitched to agents, and continually looked for cost effective ways to market myself. It was a grind. But it prepared me for a single chance conversation that ended up connecting me to my new wonderful publisher (That’s another story all together).

Now that I signed, it’s clear that the process repeats itself on a much larger scale starting all the way back to the creation phase. So if you just feel like you’re dumping your book with the publisher and saying, “here, you do this,” the book may have success but the real question is will it (and you) have staying power. #onehitwonder anyone?

If you’re willing to go back, rework the work, change your filters, and roll up your sleeves, your success is more likely to be long-term. You’re part of the product. If you distance yourself from it, it’s not as valuable (or as interesting). Take interest in the process, help with the work when needed, get out of the way of the team when it’s not, and never be afraid to carry boxes of books to set up for a show. Speaking of team…

Do you consider yourself in the book publishing business?

As discussed in the first question, it’s important to know all aspects of the process to not be taken advantage of. It’s also important so you can recognize skills you don’t have. You’re part of the publishing industry. Your role is that of the author (or in many cases “content creator”). Your work gets socialized with a team of professionals whose job it is to contribute their expertise to the product.

That may mean…. gulp…. change.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a famous actor on a famous stage in a famous show if there’s no one to operate the lights. That light technician has been studying color palettes, effects, control technology, and refraction rates for years. Have you? If you let them do what they’re best at, the show will be so much better for it. The same is true for the professionals in the publishing industry.

As someone who creates literary work, it’s tough to have someone else insert their opinion. I get it. But it’s not just their opinion, it’s their expertise. It’s their talent. Why wouldn’t you want to add that to your work?

You have to participate in the publishing process and recognize that you are only one part of it. Learn from the professionals in their areas. It will make you a better author and creator. It’s not enough just to write the book, drop it on a desk, and say, “I give you the gift of my genius.” It’s a process. You have to put your work through the rock tumbler so it can shine. Bottom line, no one wants to work with someone who doesn’t want to work.

Asking yourself these 3 questions will help you decide what kind of author you want to be. Your work ethic matters just as much as your storytelling. Dive in, have fun, and remember your book isn’t just created and then sold. It’s loved, sometimes with tough love. It’s sculpted and prepared. Then it’s released to the world by a family who cares for it just as much as you do.

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