Why You Should Look Beyond Your First Book

by Marylee MacDonald in For Writers Ready to Publish

Think beyond your first book.

What does this mean and why am I suggesting it? I mean think about where you want your writing to take you. How many books do you want to publish? Or, if stories, how many published stories would bring you the satisfaction you’re looking for?

first book

Think beyond your first book by making a list of all the stories, articles, and partial novels in your drawer. Find those that are in the best shape. Then submit like crazy. If you can get some acceptances, this will build your literary resume. Maybe this will open doors for you with an agent.

I’m suggesting that you think beyond your first book because, for twelve years, I worked on a single novel, revising it, trying to find an agent, revising it again, and submitting it to workshops. The novel kept getting better, but I’m not sure it got that much better. It was pretty much done by year four.

Every once in a while I’d get really sick of it, a sort of despairing feeling—This will never be good enough!—and, I’d write some short stories. They won prizes in literary magazines, and I came up with Plan B. I’d use the short stories to gain the interest of literary agents.

Bonds of Love & Blood

BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD came about because I needed a break from endlessly rewriting my first novel.

This is how that leveraging attempt turned out.

In back-to-back years my stories won second and third places in the Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and that entitled me to fifteen minutes with various editors—Tom Clancy’s editor, for one. And, of course, more agents.

I’ve been writing for a long time, and I had enough short stories for a collection. My thought was that I could get a two-book deal. However, the editors didn’t want short story collections, and the agents still didn’t think they could sell my novel.

What the agents didn’t say was that my novel was no good—only that they couldn’t sell it. At the time I thought that if I continued revising the novel, I would get it into a state that would make it saleable. Actually, with hindsight, I was naive to think that a New York publisher would have an interest in the book, not because it wasn’t well written, but because the book is emotionally painful. The book I’m speaking of is Montpelier Tomorrow.

I wasn’t getting any younger. I had to change the equation. On New Year’s Eve 2014, I made up my mind that, come hell or high water, I would find a publisher for my novel. I also vowed to find a publisher for my short story collection.

My novel came out in 2014 and my short story collection, Bonds of Love & Blood, came out in January, 2016.

Why did this happen? Because I made up my mind that I would do whatever it took to get those books published. I now have two published books and three more in the pipeline. I am definitely thinking beyond my first book.

Why Thinking Beyond Your First Book Can Help You

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from James Baldwin (1924-1987).

Fill the bookshelf.—James Baldwin

Baldwin more than filled the bookshelf with novels, essays, short stories, plays, and interviews.

He paid his dues and studied the great writers, as he says in this amazing interview in The Paris Review.

When he was young he did whatever it took. That meant working as a waiter, writing book reviews, applying for grants, and going to the Harlem library to read great writers.

Baldwin did not just want to write one book. He wanted to have a career as a published writer.

Look For Work That’s Done Or Nearly Done

When I made my big decision to get my work out of my file drawers and into the world, I started by making a list of everything I’d written.

first book list

At first I thought about calling my short story collection ALMOST PARADISE. The stories all involved people who couldn’t quite figure out how to make themselves happy. That eventually became BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD. Now, I’m thinking about the next collection, and you can see that I’ve marked some “done or almost done.”

I read each manuscript. Some were fragmentary but had potential. I played around with titles and themes. Then I pulled together twenty stories and hired a “developmental” editor. She read them and told me which stories belonged together. She also told me which stories should go first.

At the time I was doing this, I was looking for an independent publisher for my novel. The places I looked included Brian Grove’s My Perfect Pitch, Duotrope, and New Pages. I also checked the databases at Poets & Writers, but found that many of the publishers listed weren’t accepting submissions.

Most of the independent publishers, university presses, and small publishers listed on the sites above do not require you to have an agent. I wrote a brief query letter, and, within one month had a contract from a publisher.

I finished editing my short stories, and began sending out query letters and the first twenty pages of the collection (or whatever publishers said they wanted.) Within two months, I had two positive responses.

Great, right? Well, yes. I’d sort of been living in terror that if I had a stroke my kids would come and clean out my drawers and throw all my stories away. At least, now, I would finally have work in print.

But, it didn’t stop there.

How Are You Going To Let The World Know Your Book Exists?

Prior to publication of my novel, my publisher urged me to get active on social media. ATTM Press sent me a ton of info about how to promote books. I felt confused and unsure about what I should do first. Hoping I could avoid promoting my book using tools I didn’t know how to use, I contracted with two publicity firms that promised to help me “establish a platform.” One cost $5,000 and the other cost $7,500.

Here’s are the benefits I accrued from that investment:

  • a Facebook page
  • a Goodreads page and one Goodreads giveaway
  • an optimized Amazon page
  • articles about caregiving and ALS in about 120 newspapers

As for books sold, less than a hundred.

Now, here’s the thing about hiring a publicity person. If you’ve written a nonfiction book and you are a recognized expert on a topic that is in the news a lot, then you might see a payback. A PR firm might be able to get you on talk shows or television to talk about weight loss or the Middle East or what makes marriages work. Maybe people will buy your books, or maybe they’ll just listen to you talk for two minutes before they switch the channel. TV watchers aren’t necessarily book buyers.

What a PR firm can’t do is get you into the book review pages of a newspaper or magazine, nor can they get you into bookstores. If you publish exclusively on Amazon, such as through their KDP program, you will have no chance of getting into bookstores.

Learning How To Use Social Media

Let me return to the premise of this post. If you think beyond your first book (or in my case, my second), you will realize that it is absolutely critical for you to learn your way around the internet. That’s because you are going to publish more than one or two books. You are going to be like James Baldwin and “fill the bookshelf.”

See what you think after you’ve read these three articles:

How can you squeeze all this in? You can and you will. Or, you will do part of it, and when you publish your next book, you’ll be further along than if you’d done nothing.

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