Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived most happily in her world of stories. She read under the covers late at night, scribbled in her notebook at recess. When she asked her father if she could be a writer when she grew up, he told her, no. He said that it wasn’t a real job. She believed him. After college, instead of becoming a writer, she went into publishing. Surprise, surprise, that girl was me. As my 20th novel is about to publish, there are a few things I know for sure about writing and publishing.
Writing is a real job. It took me 10 years in publishing, a secret writer, to figure this out. As in any other career, most writers enter on the ground floor and work our way up. We start with small advances, tiny print runs, little notice. If we’re lucky, we grow, book by book. Of course, there’s the anomalous bestseller, the book that comes out of the gate from an unknown writer and races to the top. But it’s not the norm. Most of us start with book signings populated by family and friends, a smattering of online reviews, and maybe a contract to write the next book. That first publishing deal is not always a windfall. But it can be an open door to the writing life. To walk through and succeed means you’re willing to check your ego at that door and get to work.
Writing is not a real job. It’s a vocation. Most of us, writers and publishing folks, came to this work from love. We were bookish kids who came alive in reading and writing stories. And when we discovered that there was an industry devoted to books, we were powerfully drawn to it. This is an industry founded on passion, dreams, romantic notions, and the magic of storytelling. No one devoted to a world of letters punches a clock. You don’t stop being a writer or editor or bookseller at the end of the day. We are all devoted readers first, in love with what we do.
The publishing industry is a living entity that evolves. Almost everything about publishing has changed since I walked through the doors of Avon Morrow in—gulp—1992. E-books were the stuff of science fiction. The Amazon was a river in South America. I have witnessed all facets—from publicity to marketing, distribution to format—change radically. Today, we’re being asked to grow, to open our hearts and our doors to new voices, different perspectives. And so we are. This ability to evolve is precisely our strength. Because one thing has stayed the same: people read. They want story, character, to be moved, to be transported, to learn. Books are little slices of life that illuminate our own, opening doorways to places we might not otherwise visit. As we include all voices, welcome new ways to put books in the hands of readers, the stronger and truer to our vocation we become.
You’re a writer, not an influencer. Gather round, kids. Back in the olden days when I was first published there was—wait for it—no social media. Really, not even MySpace, when those five copies of my first novel hit the shelves in 2002. Today, social media is a huge force in the industry, with bookstagrammers and BookTokkers spreading love for books in a new way. It’s a joy to see (with my reading glasses) that passion for story alive, well, and evolving. But as a writer, it’s still your first and most important job to write. It might be career making if the right bookstagrammer takes notice of your book. But if you have some time to write and instead you spend it creating the perfect reel, bringing less of your creativity to your novel, then you’ve forgotten why you wanted to write in the first place.
In the writing life, you control little except what you do on the page. I have had—well, I am still having—a long career. I started with a microscopic print run and a don’t-quit-your-day-job advance. There have been dizzying highs: rave reviews, bestseller lists, awards. There have also been crushing lows: books rejected, a trusted editor leaving, an imprint folding. My beloved longtime agent grew ill and died. Through the tumult one thing is constant: I write. Every day I believe I can be a better writer than I was yesterday. I cannot control how or if the work will be received when it leaves my desk. All I know for sure is that I bring the best of myself to the page. Every day. And for the girl who only ever wanted to write, that’s everything.
Lisa Unger is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of 20 novels, including Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six.