Getting an agent and then a book deal are dreams shared by writers the world over. But the years leading up to those moments—and which inevitably come after—are just as significant and difficult to navigate. Most writers know this, but it was Courtney Maum, author of three novels, who decided to offer a road map.
With Before and After the Book Deal, Maum sheds light on the early years of a writing career: she parses the pros and cons of enrolling in an MFA program, talks about managing finances, and offers invaluable advice on how to manage your time so the writing actually gets done. Then she switches gears to the book deal itself—how to get an agent, what to expect from editors, how to predict your advance (spoiler: you can’t)—before talking about the weeks that follow your first book tour, and the unavoidable let down that comes after a whirlwind experience. Taken together, the chapters presented here are some of the most comprehensive and helpful pieces of advice on how to be a working writer that I’ve ever read.
In the interview below, Maum and I discuss why she decided to cover so much ground in her latest book, her advice for writers looking for agents, and what she sees as the biggest misunderstandings about the post-publication process.
[Editor’s note: I recently signed a book contract myself at Catapult, the press that published Before and After the Book Deal. No money was exchanged for this interview, but I did score an early review copy of the book.]
Let’s start at the beginning. Your book starts at the very beginning of a writer’s professional life with sections like “Making time to write (and then actually writing)” and “Learning to Revise,” and then ends with life after a book deal and the book’s debut. Why cover so much ground in one book?
I wanted to create a truly comprehensive resource for the simple reason that no such book existed. I knew it was going to take me a tremendous amount of work to put this book together, so I thought, well, I might as well really go for it, make it as exhaustive as possible, answer all the questions a writer could dream up. It was important to me to cover lighter fare—like what one should wear to book events—as well as taboo topics like envy and money, because these are the roller coaster dips that writers’ minds are taking when they are worried about their forthcoming or recently published books. We are worried about the big, we are worried about the little, we are worried about it all. I thought it would make people feel good to acknowledge these worries with respect and with compassion. Also, I think it makes for good reading to pivot from “How do I ask for blurbs” to “What if I die before my book comes out?”
I especially appreciated the section called “Getting Paid.” Here you discuss everything from getting paid for writing to managing your finances and finding affordable health insurance while trying to build a writing career. This is practical advice I never got in graduate school. Why is it, do you think, that questions (and answers) about money are so often left out of conversations about becoming a writer?
I think about this all the time. It’s one of the biggest disservices educators are showing aspiring writers. I didn’t get an MFA myself, but I do have the impression that students are being led to believe that if they work hard in their MFA programs, they’ll come out with a “big” book deal and get a decent teaching job, when the reality is that I have friends with two books to their names who are still adjuncting for less than $3,000 a semester and they are getting book deals (sometimes two-book deals!) for under $10K. Do the exceptions exist? The million dollar and half-million dollar book deal getters who can quit their day jobs just to write? Sure! But I hardly have enough fingers to count the number of writers who were so torn up by the attention (both negative and positive) that their “big advance” books got that they haven’t been able to turn in their second book, or their second book flopped….This is an industry where upward mobility can not be counted on, ever.
I think that is why money isn’t discussed by the gatekeepers, because people don’t know what to say about it! There isn’t a tremendous amount of logic behind the giving of advances, and in terms of who gets which teaching jobs, that’s a minefield, too. No teacher wants to stand in front of a class and say “I have no idea how you’re going to manage, it’s going to be really hard,” so I suppose they choose optimism and tell their students if they work diligently, they can get a book deal, and let the students dream about the number of that advance. Of course, we also need to blame the media for furthering the perception that every writer out there is this fresh faced 26 year-old who is getting a half-million advance for their debut, selling translation rights in 30 countries, and executive producing the adaption of their work for a limited series on Netflix. You don’t see stories in Vulture or Entertainment Weekly about the 53 year-old assistant poetry professor who sold their second poetry collection for $500 to Milkweed Editions, but those stories deserve our attention because they are the most common, and they are impressive stories. These are the stories of writers who are writing despite the fact that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them financially.
Not that I’m trying to glorify artistic struggle or anything, but the worst thing a writer can do is imagine that there is a massive book advance coming their way. Better to assume there is a five thousand dollar book advance coming their way and be pleasantly surprised if it turns out to be more.
If you could give an emerging writer just one piece of advice about finding an agent, what would it be?
My advice would be to hire a business partner, not a friend. I’m on my third agent, and the mistake I made with my first two is that I loved that we shared the same sense of humor, had the same references and pet peeves. They were great people to grab a beer with, but they couldn’t sell my work. This is an incredibly tough industry. You need someone who is a dealmaker, someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for what they think you deserve in terms of money, someone who will actually read the contracts you send, someone who can go to bat for you if you don’t like your cover, if you want a marketing budget, reimbursement for travel and so forth. Most writers are terrible at these kinds of negotiations so it will really help you in the long term if you have an agent with metaphorical cojones. You also want someone that you are friendly with of course, you need to share common ground and an aesthetic sensibility, but your agent’s potential to be your BFF shouldn’t be front of mind.
As someone who recently got a book deal (I really could have used your book!), I especially appreciated the sections on publicizing and marketing your book. What are one or two misunderstandings debut authors have about the post-publication process?
First of all, congratulations! Goodness, there are so many misunderstandings. I suppose that the first one is the assumption that you will automatically get more for your second book than you did for your first. Alas, this isn’t true. You could get less, if your book underperformed. You could get less if your editor has moved on and you are put with an editor who doesn’t believe in the value of your work like your former editor. You could get nothing because your first publisher doesn’t feel like they can market you again. I think the second misunderstanding is that spending all your time on social media, re-sharing every post and interview that has to do with your book will somehow help your second project come into fruition.
There is something to be said for keeping your first book in the public eye, but the writers who succeed move onto their second projects with some seriousness say three months after their book launches. The baffling thing about second books is that they don’t write themselves. Even if you got an advance for a second book, even if your first book was a bestseller, you still have to get off of Instagram and write that second book yourself. This comes as a surprise to some people, that you have to do the entire thing over: write the book, revise the book, get your agent’s feedback, revise the book again, shop the book and so forth. Publishing requires an emotional stamina that is Herculean.
Your book is often very funny. Did you always know what tone you were going to strike with this book?
I did. When I was on tour for my first book, I Am Having So Much Here Without You, I published an essay about the debut experience in BuzzFeed that was in a similar tone, and people responded to it positively. It was essential to me that this book be funny, even when we were tackling difficult topics. Maintaining a sense of humor about the publishing industry is a tool that will help you survive it. I wanted to communicate that in both the content and the tone of the book.
You quote a jaw-dropping number of published authors. I can only imagine the groundwork you had to do to gather so many great quotes. How eager were these authors to share their tidbits of knowledge with you and your readers?
Oh my gosh, it was amazing—the response, the candor, the generosity of these professionals. I have to say, it was the most celebrated authors who were the quickest to respond, who stayed on the phone with me the longest—they were so incredibly generous and a delight to talk to. I think the veterans truly want to spare the newbies from some of the hurt and confusion they experienced themselves. Another memorable thing was that I gave everyone a chance to review what they had said in case they wanted to alter or redact something. There were a few people where I thought, oh shoot, I just know they’re going to pull this, but they didn’t. The bravery of our contributors is what makes this book so special. I’m endlessly grateful to each and every one of them.
What’s next for you? Any projects (or book tours!) that you’d like our readers to look forward to?
I’m going on tour for Before and After the Book Deal—I’ll be giving lectures and teaching all across the country. Readers can check CourtneyMaum.com for dates, and also sign up for my newsletter Maumalog where I interview some of my contributors in greater depth. I’m currently revising a memoir about depression and getting ready to run my collaborative retreat, The Cabins, in June. Applications for that retreat are open until March 15, 2020. It’s an interdisciplinary program—it isn’t just for writers!
Before and After the Book Deal
By Courtney Maum
Published January 7, 2020
Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.