In Praise of the “Starter Book”

Recently, in a networking group I’m part of, a woman posted in a panic. She was about to publish her first book with a small press, and she was lost. She didn’t know which way to turn, what to do next. She couldn’t stop wishing she was on the best-of lists, had the support of a Big 5 publisher behind her. She didn’t know how to market herself. In short, she was crying, “Help!” Reading her post, I went back three years in time. When I published my first book, it was with a small press where I felt that one or two people really understood what I was going for, but the rest were baffled by my weird, not-quite-genre genre-fiction. The editor who had chosen the book for publication got switched off it as my editor at the last minute. In one of the few acts of support I got from my in-house publicist, she promoted my book, an acid western largely concerned with the genocide of Native American people, as a “beach read.” Every bit of press the book got was a hard-won victory that I could trace back to my own work. Sometimes I felt like this publisher was actively working against me, giving me a terrible book cover and refusing to relent when I objected to it, handing the blurbers I found without their assitance the pub date instead of the date the book was being printed as their deadline, leaving my book blurbless. I cried the day I realized I’d “won” a scam book award contest that the press had entered me into, that I’d found out was a scam simply by Googling the name of the contest. At the time, I felt like a failure. I looked at the best-of lists and felt like crying. But three years later, having learned how to market a book with little support, how to look at the issue of getting your book into the world as one with creative solutions, having spun that work into a graduate assistantship and freelance work in marketing, having set up my own reading series, having built connections to other writers and publishers, I look fondly back on my first book as my “starter book.” Maybe you’ve heard of a “starter home,” or a “starter marriage,” the short-lived or what-I-can-do-at-the-moment solutions to building a future. The starter home is often a small, older place that a family is expected to grow out of eventually, but which is where they start learning to care for a home and begin building their family. A starter marriage is a first, short-lived, endeavor that serves as a learning experience for a later marriage that is hoped to last much longer. The “starter book” is really no different. Even when I was just starting out with trying to publish my first book, I knew that it wasn’t going to make me a million dollars. I looked at it as a beginning to something I was invested in for life. And now, after the sting of selling 200 copies in three years has passed a bit, looking back fondly on my little “starter book,” I’m able to say that even though I didn’t write something that changed lives, even though I didn’t hit a home run on the first pitch, I learned lessons that were invaluable to building a career as a writer. I learned how to market your book when it doesn’t seem anyone else cares. I learned to make spreadsheets and contact lists and do outreach. I learned to take every opportunity, no matter how small it may seem at the time. I learned to take interest and care in the careers of other writers who were at early levels, and to cheer them on and support them the way I wished to be supported—and which I now am beginning to be. I learned that the answer when someone offers you a way to promote your book is always “yes,” except when that “yes” would truly not serve you or your project. Even when “yes” has to be creative. Even when “yes” means you’ll be eating peanut butter and jelly for two weeks because of the train ticket you had to buy. Even when “yes” means doing a Skype session because you can’t be there. Even when “yes” means “do I have a couch in the area I can sleep on?” Even when “yes” means renting a car with terrible steering and fearing for your life the whole way to the opportunity. [millions_ad] I learned that I had to get my writing out there in every way possible. I called PR agents I pretended I had the money to hire, just to pick their brains. I implemented everything I learned from them, even when it wasn’t comfortable for me. When I published my “starter book,” I was a total fiction snob, someone who felt they didn’t have time for writing that wouldn’t further that goal. But what good is your fiction if no one can find it? While promoting my starter book, I learned to take every writing opportunity I could. I wrote personal essays and blog posts and articles, I learned how to do storytelling events when the idea of being on stage had previously frozen me with fear. I learned that when people made a connection to me, often though my personal essays and stories, they were much more likely to want to make a connection to my fiction. I learned to have confidence in myself, even when it seemed like the whole world was indifferent. I had always believed my voice should be out there, but now it was, so what was I going to do about it? Lament that it wasn’t with a Big 5 publisher, or a dream press that backed me up every step of the way? No. I was going to push to get it recognized in every way that I could. Even when I stepped into a small, independent bookshop in Queens and had their owner look me up and down and tell me that I’d have to have my publicist contact her if I wished to work with them on book events (crushing! humiliating!), I didn’t lose faith in what I was doing. None of this is to say that my first book was a mistake, or I didn’t love it, or put all my heart into it. I did love it, it meant the world to me. But it didn’t go very far. And that’s okay, too. The way that it crushes you when that marriage that lasts a year ends, I was hurt by this for a while. But as time went on, I was able to look back more and more fondly on the experience I’d had, and all I learned. I was able to treasure every time a random transgender person found my novel and sent me fan-mail telling me that they’d forgotten that trans people could write anything outside the realm of words about gender identity. I was able to look at my first, largely-failed baby as a “starter book.” Not a mistake. Not something I wish I’d never done. But something that built the groundwork for what I was going to go on to do. I have two more books coming out next spring, from an indie press and a mid-sized one. I feel excited and supported, but mostly I feel confident. I’ve been here before. I’m not going in brand new to the experience. I’ve learned so much from having my work out in the world, even in the form of a “starter book,” that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Image Credit: Flickr/Kelly Taylor.