My debut novel, “The Moon Always Rising,” (a work-in-progress for decades) launched in April 2020. It wasn’t much of a launch, given COVID lockdown; it was more like a sprinkling of saltwater and a lot of waiting to see if anyone would care. The Island community embraced my work with encouraging reviews. Cronig’s Market and Alley’s General Store carried it when bookstores everywhere were closed, and even Amazon had stopped shipping books in favor of COVID supplies.In celebrating the book’s second book-birthday this month, I’ve had a chance to reflect on my publishing experience so far.
I will be sharing what I’ve learned as a first-time novelist trying to get published at this summer’s Islanders Write. The workshop I’ll be giving will focus on what happens after you’ve “finished” your writing a novel. I say “finished,” because it’s hard to know if you’ve reached that point, and it may take far longer than you anticipate to truly finish. That was certainly true for me.
Pandemic wrinkles aside, many of the lessons I learned the hard way should pertain to future publishing hopefuls. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is the importance of understanding your audience, and what that means for your marketing approach long before you think your manuscript is “ready.” We’re talking long before you start looking for an agent. While you’re wondering if you’ll ever finish your manuscript. You might squirm at thinking about marketing before you have a manuscript, but it’s never too early to explore what your target audience is reading, and how those books are described and promoted. Consider what makes you want to read them and why. It will help you craft your argument for “why my book” that you’ll use with agents, publishers, and eventually readers.
Even as you’re writing that first draft. From the very beginning of your novel noodling, you need to be thinking about your reader — who are you writing for, what does that reader expect and enjoy? You need to be visiting your local library and bookstores, and exploring the books that appeal to you, the books that feel like what you hope yours will become. Where are they shelved? What other books are nearby? You need to read those books and think about how they make you feel. Conjuring an accurate image of your reader will help you navigate both writing and publishing hurdles.
You will also need to be able to describe your book clearly, succinctly, and invitingly. You’d be surprised how hard this can be. “What is your book about?” is the question you’ll get. All. The. Time. You’ll find yourself researching agents. You should try to find out which ones are seeking books like yours, which will save you wasted effort and avoidable rejection and heartache.
If you decide to self-publish, you will probably want to evaluate the numerous types of companies working with authors to see which ones are most likely to create the physical book you envision and set it on its course. It is important to slot your book where it belongs, assign it keywords, and let those algorithms work to your benefit. (If these terms are befuddling, please come to my workshop, and I’ll explain.) This will set you on a course toward building a community of writers with audiences that overlap yours — who can share tips and leads, become your early readers, give you blurbs, or commiserate when you need it most.
When I wrote “The Moon Always Rising,” I didn’t consider my book’s audience soon enough. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, partly to see if I could, and never tried to articulate who my readers might be until I began seeking an agent (prematurely — revision wasn’t over). What I failed to realize fully is that if you want to publish, sell, and be read, you can’t have an audience of one.
I’m not suggesting you do anything but write your book, the one only you can write, or that you try to write for the market. Tastes are so fickle and the gestation time for a novel so protracted that you might aim for a trend that’s long faded before your manuscript is polished. Instead, I’m saying that knowing your reader — one who will become immersed in your story and will hand your book to a friend with the recommendation, “I think you’ll love this” — is how a book succeeds. That understanding shapes your writing and governs your marketing.
Books with staying power, I believe, resonate with readers over time because they deal with shared, if not universal, human dilemmas in a memorable way. They inform, comfort, amuse, entertain, surprise, and change their readers. You can bet their authors had readers in mind through the whole process.
I’m excited that Islanders Write will return this summer, and that I can contribute as a workshop leader. Since I began writing fiction in earnest, Islanders Write has been special to me because it’s a gathering of writerly neighbors, from aspirants to superstars, who care about thoughtful discourse (often hilarious) and helping other writers. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned, and hope participants will bring their questions. While I’ve titled the workshop “Debut Authors: A Survival Guide,” I hope both experienced and aspiring writers will come. We will discuss everyone’s questions, and share insights and lessons learned.
Alice Early, a recovering international business workaholic, is a writer, singer, and avid cook, whose first novel, “The Moon Always Rising,” was published in April 2020. Early will facilitate a workshop called “Debut Authors: A Survival Guide” at this summer’s Islanders Write. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.