Writers: Control What You Can, Let the Rest Go

Julie Trelstad
Julie Trelstad

My first book publishing job was in 1993 as an associate editor of architecture books at Van Nostrand Reinhold, a trade publishing company that was purchased and absorbed by John Wiley & Sons, ironically another publisher that I later worked for. That means 2018 marks my 25th year in this industry. I’ve worn just about every hat there is to wear in book publishing from editorial assistant to publisher—except being a literary agent. (But I worked in a literary agency, so that counts, right?) The only thing left for me now is to become a writer. And that terrifies me because I happen to know—first hand—how long the odds are for any one book to succeed, or for any writer to build a career out of writing books.

I named my business Julie Ink at a time I was trying to make sense of this crazy publishing world shortly after I shuttered the Plain White Press, the publishing company I’d started and run on my own for five years. (Note to readers: Never start a publishing company solo unless you are also writing all the books. If you think writing is hard, publishing is brutal!) I named the company after myself because I wanted to create a business that would help me and my writer friends succeed.

As I was pondering this first post on the last day of last year, I came across an Ask Roxane column - Is it Too Late to Follow My Dreams? in the New York Times offering advice to two writers who worried that they were past their prime for writing a book. The advice struck home, because at 50 I’m feeling that way too. The advice in the article was what I often tell my clients, only Roxane Gay has the perspective of one who’s been making a living as writer for a long time:

“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control.”

Those forces beyond your control include Amazon, your publisher, marketplace trends, the reading public, and the weather. Over the past two decades, mergers and acquisitions in the publishing industry have left us with a few large publishers who are under enormous pressure to put out as many books as they can and to keep their costs as low as possible in response to stakeholder demands. (R.I.P. Van Nostrand Reinhold.) Authors I talk to are often distraught by the fact that they worked so hard at writing, pitching an agent, and getting a publishing deal that they were dismayed (sometimes horrified) at how few sales happened once the book actually hit the shelves. Books are cheap and getting cheaper, so the profit margins are insanely narrow. If an author can help sell her books, publishers will notice and often do more than if the author doesn’t participate in marketing. As generalists, publishers are great at selling books to bookstores and libraries, but they are typically lousy at selling your book to precisely your right audience.

The good news about this is that the Internet, through social media, gives you access to exactly those readers. This is one-to-one, writer-to-reader work that no publisher can do. The key to building your business as a writer is to find and cultivate your unique and particular fans. Spend your time writing works that will delight them, and when you need to come up for air, connect with those readers online. You might not be able to break through the noise of the current news cycle or outsell a brand name author, but you do have power over doing your best work and finding and connecting with people who will care deeply about it. Remember that the next time you feel like your publisher let you down.

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Julie Trelstad

Julie Trelstad is a book publishing pro (former acquisitions editor, digital rights director, publisher) who teaches writers the art and science of book publishing to support her serious book habit.