Landing a book contract with a major publisher, Penguin, was a dream come true, and I thought I knew what awaited me. Prior to that wonderful day, I spent many years acquiring knowledge about the publishing process, mostly by reading books, articles, and blogs. Even so, there were quite a few things that I learned along the way. Here are some of the ones that surprised me the most:
1. Yes, you can get a book deal via social media. After many years of pitching book concepts through a literary agent to no avail, I ended the relationship and decided to try my own luck. I searched for editors at publishing houses on LinkedIn and sent a pitch to an editor using an InMail. Because the number of characters is limited, I had to convey the entire book concept in just a few concise paragraphs. To my amazement, a social media-savvy editor, Marian Lizzi at Perigee (an imprint of Penguin USA), responded and requested more details. So there you have it -- an InMail that eventually led to a book deal.
2. You might need an agent even if you land a publisher without one. Penguin decided to make an offer, but I had no literary agent to represent me. Anyone who has ever seen a book contract knows that these are complicated legal documents with numerous terms, caveats, clauses, and stipulations. Even though I am a court-certified interpreter with legal knowledge, "literary legalese" has its own specialized terminology. For someone outside of the publishing business, the help of an agent is critical. When I hired a new agent (Scott Mendel), he did far more than just negotiate the contract. His help was essential at every stage.
3. You really should listen to your editor. When I first pitched the book, the working title I came up with was not Found in Translation but rather Wordsmiths. Just like blacksmiths led society into the industrial age, I hoped to show that translators (wordsmiths) were leading us into a new age. Thank heavens my editor came up with a better title. Not only that, but she came up with the idea to sprinkle sidebars with entertaining facts, mistranslations, and anecdotes throughout the book. In every city I visited on the book tour, people told me that the sidebars were by far their favorite part of the book. Authors can be tempted to let their ego get in the way of following an editor's suggestions, even though a professional book editor knows far more about how to publish a book than authors generally do.
4. You will likely spend more time promoting than writing. A good book is no guarantee of success. Imagine the futility of serving an exquisite dinner at an empty table and hoping to be named an award-winning chef. Who will know if you don't tell them? Writing the book is only a tiny part of the work that goes into making it successful. It surprised me to learn that speaking skills are perhaps more important in some ways than writing skills when it comes to book promotion. If you can't present about your topic with confidence and conviction, or if you aren't able to joust with radio hosts and journalists, your ability to get your book into people's hands will be limited. Also, your ability to relate the book's subject matter to current events through blogging, other writing, and social media activity is critical.
5. It might take you years, decades, or even a lifetime to write a book. Some of the stories in Found in Translation were gathered many years earlier. However, the amount of time leading up to a book involves more than just the writing. The relationships, contacts, and stories in the book reflect not just years, but decades of my co-author's and my own experiences and work in the translation and interpreting professions. For anyone who dreams of publishing a book, the blog post you write today or the bookstore owner you talk with tomorrow may very well make guest appearances in your book publishing experience a few years from now. Every contact you make is valuable, which is why cultivating a good reputation is essential. Case in point: the success of Found in Translation is largely owed to an enormous network of translators and interpreters who helped spread the word about it.
6. Platform matters, but passion matters more. Nowadays, it is next to impossible to get a major publisher interested in a book without an established platform -- that is, a built-in audience of people who already know your work and ways to reach them. Publishers put up money, take a risk, and make an investment when they offer an advance and escort an author down the traditional publishing path. They hope that investment will pay off -- some do, some don't. The author's platform is an indicator of reduced risk, plain and simple. That said, passion is even more important, for that is really what builds a platform to begin with. Take away the passion, and the platform fades or stagnates. Enduring passion for your topic is what shows a publisher that your platform has staying power too.
These are just a few of the many things I learned about the publishing process that rarely grace the pages of books about publishing. Granted, the world of publishing is evolving each day, so surely there are more lessons out there to be shared. If you're an author with something to share that surprised you, or if you have questions or other suggestions, please post them in the comment section below.