My friend Adam McHugh, whose first (very good) book is about to be published, wrote me asking if I had any advice. He was going through the roller coaster of excitement, nervousness, anxiety, and eagerness of a first-time author. It’s a common experience (and not just for authors), and with his permission I thought I’d share what I wrote in reply.
Well, first of all, congratulations! Enjoy opening the first box of books—it’s pretty fun.
It is good to keep in mind Mark Twain’s admittedly harsh dictum, “Most books come into the world with all the fanfare of a stillborn child.” The truth is that unlike, say, your wedding day, there will be a great and utter lack of excitement about your book the day it is published. And the day after. And most days after that. Believe me. My book has done well, perhaps embarrassingly so, and the truth is it just is not that big a deal. Considering that “doing well” in these latter days means that maybe 25,000 people read a book over the course of its first year—that would be
0.1% 0.01% of the American population—it’s not surprising that it just doesn’t rise to the level of a big event for anyone except the author. (The foregoing does not apply, at least not entirely, if you are Bill Clinton, Dan Brown, or Donald Miller. But you are not, so no worries!)
What Absolutely Does Not Matter and Should Be Ignored If At All Possible is the Amazon rank of your book. It means nothing. (There are whole Web pages documenting this.) If your book is doing well enough for the Amazon rank to provide any meaningful information (say, less than 250 or so) you will know that anyway, because people will be calling to say they saw you on Oprah. If it is among the vast majority of books, including very good, solidly selling, important, and influential books, the number will fluctuate maddeningly and inscrutably, providing you with periodic endorphin rushes that will get you hooked but will tell you nothing about the success, let alone the worth, of the book. So I recommend never checking it. But of course you will. At least know that you’re basically just feeding your endorphin needs, nothing else.
What will be a big deal, hopefully, over the coming months, are individual letters, emails, conversations and even (we hope!) reviews from grateful readers. This is what makes it worth doing, in my opinion—the amazing chance to meet people for whom your words were genuinely, even dramatically, helpful. And then further down the road, to hear stories about people who actually created something or started something or persevered in something because you wrote the book. But of course by definition, all these truly worthwhile outcomes will happen months or years from the date of publication. We authors play a long game, which is a very good thing.
The other big deal will be the opportunities, whether few or many, that come to speak to groups and find that for some strange reason, they actually listen to you now that you have published a book, even though you are basically saying the same things you said before you published a book and basically have the same gifts and limitations you did before you published a book. It is a truly mysterious thing, and in many ways a bit absurd, but you will find yourself with an additional quantum of cultural power. I knew about this in the abstract when I wrote Culture Making (the importance of concrete cultural artifacts rather than disembodied ideas) but I must confess I still find myself surprised at how true it is.
So, as with all events that confer additional power and also expose insecurities and fears, this is mostly an opportunity to deepen your own prayer life, entrusting both the elation (assuming there is any—see first few paragraphs above) and the deflation to God. I have found John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer to be incredibly useful in turbulent times like these.
Oh, one other thing: I highly recommend never responding to critical comments (in reviews, blog posts, comment threads, etc.) online. I have done so a handful of times and regretted it every time. You are very unlikely to be able to respond to criticism in a constructive way in the heat of the online moment, and once the moment has passed you will realize it is faintly ridiculous to respond to things that were written after half a moment’s thought and most likely not even based on the slightest serious engagement with what you have written. You’ve had the great privilege of being able to spend a great deal of time shaping and polishing your ideas, then interacting with editors and early readers to refine them further. Why throw that all away with a hastily (and probably angrily/nervously/defensively/imprudently) composed reply? And furthermore, a hastily composed reply that, unlike your carefully written book, will be instantly accessible via a Google search for your name for ever and ever? I highly recommend simply taking online criticism as a chance to pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer again.
I hope these thoughts are in some way helpful! Godspeed and I hope to see you somewhere in person soon!