Nicole Zelniker on what happens after you publish your first book


Publishing my first book, Mixed, was nothing if not surreal. I’ve been writing – sometimes well, often badly – for nearly 20 years now, and it’s an incredible feeling when a publisher recognizes that your work is worth putting out into the world. In my case, what started as my thesis on race and mixed-race families at the Columbia Journalism School is now available through Barnes & Noble, also known as my happy place.

My second book, Last Dance, is a collection of short stories due out in spring 2020. With most of the editing done, I’m taking the time to reflect on what I’ve learned about publishing a book – and what happens after.

Before I published Mixed, everyone had advice for how to get a book published. One tidbit I heard more than once was to send excerpts to literary magazines before sending the book off to a publisher to prove that there will be some interest in my work. It just so happened for me that one of those magazines, The Nasiona, was also publishing books.

I also learned a lot about what the pre-publishing process entails. I got advance copies for the first time and went through the often uncomfortable process of re-reading what I had written over and over again.

On the flip side, no one seems to talk about what happens after. So, for everyone who finds themselves about to publish a book with no idea about the next steps, here are some of the things you can expect:

  1. First, it’s not life-changing. Publishing a book is a wonderful experience, but it won’t lead to a sudden windfall or a movie deal, especially if you’re publishing nonfiction, literary fiction, or poetry. Most likely, your biggest book sales will come from relatives forcing the book on friends who will never read it. I know mine did. And my biggest fan is still my mom.
  2. That said, people will take you more seriously once you’ve published a book. People ask for my opinion on race in a way they never have on any article or essay topics I’ve covered. I spoke on a panel in Missoula, Montana, in September and was surprised to find that people actually had questions for me at the end.
  3. At that same panel, I was also surprised to find that I could answer audience questions in a coherent and intelligent way (with only the occasional “um” thrown in). After spending so much time with a subject, you will become somewhat of an expert, or at least more knowledgeable about a subject than people who haven’t studied it for hours on end.
  4. Just because you have a book out in the world doesn’t mean you’ll be able to publish a second one. At least, it will still take a lot of effort. My first publisher, The Nasiona, was wonderful to work with, but they also only published nonfiction and poetry. When I realized I wanted to publish a short story collection, I had to start from square one. Luckily, Atmosphere Press took a chance on me.
  5. You will have to promote your book. For an introvert like me, part of the joy of writing is spending time in my own head. After publishing a book, that is no longer an option. Especially since The Nasiona is a small publisher, I had to reach out to bookstores, events, and individuals on my own.
  6. Along those same lines, people will want to talk about your book. This is a good thing, even if it seems scary. Engage with them. That way they’ll (1) learn about a cool new thing and (2) perhaps want to talk to other people about your book.
  7. Even if you reach someone about promoting or selling your book, don’t get too excited just yet. Book Culture in Long Island City was kind enough to stock three copies of Mixed. They’ve sold one. It happens, and it’s not the end of the world.
  8. Additionally, most of your sales will come from online. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get your books into physical spaces, but don’t be disappointed if you have a hard time selling your book in brick and mortar stores.
  9. If you have a day job, tell your employers. I wouldn’t have even considered talking to my boss about publishing my book if it hadn’t been part of my contract (I work at The Conversation US), but the whole organization has been nothing but supportive. Plus, it looks good for them, too.
  10. Keep writing. Yes, take time to celebrate your book and yes, you’ll need time to promote it. But clearly, your writing is worth something, so keep doing it. It might be hard to get out of editing-mode at first, but once you do, just write.

Nicole Zelniker is an editor at The Conversation US. A creative writer as well as a journalist, she has had several pieces of poetry and short stories published. Nicole is also the author of Mixed, a non-fiction book about race and mixed-race families, and Last Dance, a collection of short stories. Check out the rest of her work at nicolezelniker.com.

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