How to publish a book when you're not famous
It's a click-worthy title, though.
These are the types of things you do when you're trying to publish a book and you're not famous. You write click-bait-y titles of blogposts at 6 a.m. and you tweet at news media and actual famous people with some connection to the topic of your book, because when you aren't famous - they don't allow you to direct-message them.
You spend a lot of time staring at an email inbox full of "nudges" from countless emails you've sent to people asking them to a) read and b) potentially comment on the contents of your book.
Then, your husband finds galleys of your book on eBay.
I think I should clarify what I mean here by "not famous." I mean not famous at all. I mean when I got my first book contract I had like 300 Twitter followers, half of which were follows-back from obscure businesses outside Chicago, when I joined Twitter as Pastor of a small church there.
Some of the followers I had were from when I first joined Twitter, when I also had a special account just for my sportswriting at a Florida newspaper, where I covered pro hockey.
Needless to say most of those followers, with names like Puck4Life, were not super interested in my first not-famous book project, which deals with politics and religion and hardly any sports: no hockey at all.
I will say that I didn't buy any of my Twitter followers, which is apparently a thing and also kind of disturbing.
When you're not-famous and you're publishing a book, and you're also not independently wealthy, you spend most of your time writing your book and also doing things to try and replace the money you aren't making while you're writing your book. You take part-time jobs, even though no one really wants to hire you because they know you're writing a book, which takes lots of time and passion, which you subsequently won't have for your job, they think.
Because most people writing books are a) somewhat famous and b) somewhat wealthy - the ways for not-famous not-rich book writers to make money are limited. You can find many of us at coffeeshops making your coffee, at restaurants refilling your water glass or - in my case - filling in as a preacher at various churches on Sunday mornings, and writing articles for a few hundred bucks each, if I'm lucky.
Writing a book when you're not famous requires a disgusting amount of self-promotion, which is sort of a vicious cycle. If you're not promoting enough, you're ignored and no one buys your book. If you're promoting enough to be noticed, someone will inevitably say: "You have no shame."
Someone said this to me on Twitter a few weeks ago when I commented and shared my book link with yet another media person in my topic area who had ignored my emails and messages. I haven't done that for awhile now because geez who wants to have no shame?
When you're publishing a book and you're not famous you don't get to have shame, though. You need to pay the bills, which have been languishing while you work for a year on a book advance of a couple thousand - tops - if you even get a book advance.
For perspective, famous people, even unpopular famous people, like recent Trump White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, can expect a book advance of at least six figures, probably seven. This continues a trend in American society where we give the most money and perks to people who need it the least (see: regressive tax system), but I'll save that for another blog.
When you're not-famous and you're trying to publish a book, you have to act a little bit like my 3-year-old son, and constantly do things to try and get people to notice you. If you're an introvert, like most authors are, this feels consistently uncomfortable and awkward. If you're a high achiever and slightly neurotic, like most authors are, you will force yourself to keep doing it anyway, especially because many of us count on at least some early book sales to pay the debt we incurred while writing it - sort of like farmers who must go into debt each planting season and hope to pay it off and survive come harvest time.
Fortunately, farmers do not have to also beg the corn stalks to follow them on Twitter.
My book, which comes out in less than a month and is currently available on Amazon, in case you were wondering, is in a category and topic area with two other authors who are significantly "more famous" than me. One of them has 33,900 more Twitter followers than me (and counting). The other one has 78,200 more Twitter followers than me (and counting).
They both have multiple book versions available and got starred reviews on a major publishing site. I had to scrape and bow and hustle to even get the same publishing site to realize my book exists, and just getting a review at all was a huge accomplishment. Fortunately, it was also a really positive review - arguably more positive than the other two books - but no star. Not-famous authors do not typically get reviews, so if you also want a star, then you're just greedy. And also not sufficiently shameful.
I hope you know I'm not writing this for pity or even as a sort of confession, though maybe it is that. I am so glad I got to write a book, it feels like a crazy dream come true most of the time, and most of the time I also don't even realize the fact that I wrote a real book, because I'm busy sending follow-up emails to people who could help me get the book exposure in a real way, while also writing unrelated articles and conducting interviews to pay the bills.
Sometimes I hear about popular authors or thought-leaders who aren't on social media and I am so jealous. But also a little suspicious. If I was not on social media I literally would not have a book. It's possible that 95 percent of the reason I have a book is because I happened to write an article for the Washington Post in 2017 that went semi-viral (on social media). The backstory behind this article is that I wrote it (for free and unsolicited) several weeks before it was published. It was ignored by several editors, which is typical but also frustrating for someone with legitimate journalism education, experience, and publishing clips (but a not-famous number of followers on social media).
A few weeks later, the topic of my article was brought to the forefront of national dialogue by President Trump, who many writers love to hate but who also has an uncanny way of making space in national dialogue for previously unknown persons to share their point of view.
I spent the morning being rejected from a job opportunity and, sulking in a chair, decided to resubmit my article on a whim to the editor who had ignored several previous emails from me. Remember the part where I said as a non-famous author you don't have the luxury of shame? Yep. If I had a normal level of shame, I would not keep resubmitting things to someone who clearly wasn't interested. But here we are.
I resubmitted the article, she responded and published it, the article went kind of viral - and I ended up on national Canadian TV and eventually got a book deal.
By the way, I also got the book deal in a very non-famous way. I had submitted a proposal months ago through a publishing executive (at a small local religious publisher) who I had messaged cold on social media months before. She was gracious enough to respond kindly, unlike a myriad of other slightly-more-famous-than-me people in publishing.
When I didn't hear back on that proposal - and the proposal I'd been requested to do from the same publisher for a small devotional book was unceremoniously rejected - I found myself again feeling down after being rejected from another part-time church position I had been promised (but suddenly vanished after my somewhat controversial somewhat viral article was published).
I decided to send another unsolicited, un-shameful follow-up email to someone who had not responded to my proposal. Surprisingly, he followed up - and we discussed the proposal in person over beers at a neighborhood bar. The scope of the book changed significantly, I secured a tiny advance but generous amount of money for research travel, and Red State Christians was born.
Maybe it's not smart to give everyone a behind-the-scenes peek at publishing a book while not-famous while in the process of trying to make my book famous, and less than a month before it launches. But the truth is that I'm a person who just can't pretend the publishing industry doesn't have problems of access and justice. There are so many barriers to unknown authors, and social media is that double-edged sword that can vault you into relevancy but also bar you from sitting at the "big kids" table.
There's also the reality of the terrible pay currently for freelance writing. In 2006 I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated and was paid $2/word. Today, several outlets advertise freelance opportunities for 10 cents/word or less. Writers are encouraged to take unpaid internships and write for "exposure." I was on partial scholarship in college and living in a cheap Southern town where I could rent an apartment with a roommate for $180/month. I still couldn't afford to work for free, so I took a local newspaper job for $6.70/hour and supplemented my summer internship pay by umpiring softball games. I was fortunate to be part of a program for minority voices in sports journalism for my last newspaper internship and was paid well, but those programs are rare.
By perpetuating entry-level opportunities in publishing that are open only to those who can afford to work for free (see: those whose parents have Manhattan apartments where they can live; those who are already connected to the rich and famous) - publishing perpetuates a culture where the voices who are heard are invariably wealthy and connected. It skews the kind of writing Americans are able to read and the perspectives we have access to. Journalism is an unparalleled equalizer in democratic societies, but when many of the national journalists join the same in-club as wealthy politicians and pundits, you lose perspective. I like CNN's Don Lemon, but when he ends his news program joking about crashing his boat in the Hamptons over the weekend, most Americans can't quite relate.
If you don't believe me, peruse the biographies of most of the bestselling authors Americans read. Look for buzzwords like Ivy League degrees (occasionally open to the qualified but dramatically slanted to the rich) and parents who were in the publishing industry. Many women in publishing keep their maiden names when they get married. Optimistically I think this is a reflection of egalitarianism. Cynically I think it's because they want people to know the family they come from, which is usually wealthy and connected.
My family name is Busch, and my married name is Denker. First, those sound terrible together. Second, my parents weren't in publishing or much related to my career. They were instead the best parents I could have ever had. They gave me access to experiences that stretched my mind, they coached my sports teams and were always there when I needed them. My parents did everything to give me the chance to be a writer: my mom signed me up for library writing contests and elementary school writing workshops. But because neither of my parents are particularly wealthy or connected, the publishing industry doesn't particularly care who they are or what they did.
I want to be clear that I don't disdain the opportunities given to those more wealthy and famous than me. Many writers with huge followings now were once doing the "shameful" things I'm currently doing: following up to ghosted emails, spending too much time on Twitter, pitching articles over and over again, praying for a lucky chance. They've put in much blood, sweat and tears to get to the place where they are today, including the two authors in my topic area I mentioned above.
But maybe I do disdain a little bit that simply because you're famous (like Sarah Sanders-level) you should automatically get a six-figure advance for a book that you will have someone else write in your name. It feels a little gross to me.
And so much of this thing, for us not-rich and not-famous but passionate and talented writers - does come down to timing and luck. Hundreds of authors have put in the blood, sweat and tears - and their books don't take off. Not because they're not good books, necessarily - but because the timing was wrong or something happened in world news on their release date or, whatever.
Life will never be fair. Those of us fortunate enough to get to write a book are already breathing incredibly rarified air. In writing this, though, I guess I just want to pull back the curtain a bit on an industry full of improbable success stories that are - behind the scenes - littered with wealth and family connections.
I want to pull back the curtain and encourage reviewers and book buyers and event schedulers to look beyond the typical names and typical publishers to consider books from authors who may not be wealthy or connected but may have an important story to tell that America needs to hear.
I am trying to do my tiny little insignificant part by lifting up some of those authors who I am aware of on my social media and in my newsletter. Because I'm not-famous, my impact is limited - but I'm trying.
And if you are-famous and you're reading this: 1) yes! We broke the seal. 2) Please respond to my email that I inevitably sent you about my book, possibly multiple times. 3) Please don't ignore people or authors just because they aren't yet connected or popular or don't know your secret inner circle handshake. Give people a chance. Engage outside your comfort zone. If people hadn't done this for me, Red State Christians would never exist, and I'm just hoping that someday I get to pay it forward.