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Debut Stress, or: How I learned to stop kind-of worrying and start REALLY worrying about publishing

I was only twelve when I wrote my first novel. It started as an attempt to call my mother’s bluff. I had been whining to her that I ran out of books to read (Nancy Drew? Read them twice; Babysitter’s Club? Check.) and she, very rightly, told me I should write my own. Was it possible? Could I be like the famous authors I idolized? Like any kid, I didn’t think small. I wanted to be the next Ann M. Martin, Louis Sachar, or James Howe.

When I got older, and gave publishing a try, I had a different mindset. I was nearly forty, with a few books under my belt, and a much better understanding about what life would be like if I were an actual overnight success. As an introvert, it didn’t sound great. A lot of the authors I looked up to were also frequently subject to online harassment and harmful expectations. That being said, I did want to publish a lot of books. I told myself that I would never hope for that level of success, because it might just eat me alive.

I made myself a set of rules:

1) Don’t think about sales

2) Don’t think about best seller lists

3) Don’t overdo social media

4) Write books

Reader, I managed just one of those. Somehow, against all odds, I kept writing books. But the rest? The rest had somehow been swallowed up by a new version of my lizard brain: debut stress. Even though I had prepared myself to not focus on things like sales, bestseller status, and likes/retweets, I’d somehow managed to expect that of myself.

After the book came out, people started asking me about sales. I don’t blame them at all—friends and family were just trying to find a meaningful thing to ask me about. But the question made me freeze in terror:

How ARE sales?

Is my publisher disappointed?

Is nobody buying the book?

Why isn’t my book on that list?

Why does that bookstore display feature all my debut friends and not me?

My publisher must be disappointed.

Does this mean I’ll never sell a book again?

Maybe I should just stop writing.

Like I said, it was a simple question. How are sales? It’s probably considered a pleasantry when you’re asking an author about their book. But, readers, the spiraling is REAL. It’s just a few short steps from “Hey, I published a book!” to “My life is over and I’ll never write a book again!” because authors are creatives. We’re sensitive. It’s part of the whole package.

As a result of this stress I was putting myself under, nothing was good enough. Despite both my editor and agent telling me things were going fine, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. I was a monster feeding on good news. But even when I got good news (in the form of making many awesome lists, getting selected for events, and getting not one but TWO starred reviews) it was never enough. Soon, I would see someone else’s good news and, rapidly, I would deflate. When was the next piece of good news coming?

This goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: none of this is about feeling resentful of other authors or not wishing them success. I’m filled with a joy I can’t quite explain when I see a friend make an award list or get a great review. Thing is, my lizard brain doesn’t care. Self-doubt creeps in whether you have something to compare yourself to or not. Toxic comparison can get bananas even without you being a green-eyed monster.

By the time it had been a month since my book release, I was a mess. Despite the many, many awesome things that happened, I still felt like a failure. I finally reached out to my agent to let her know how I was feeling. First, I must point out that she was out sick that day. I figured it would take her a few days to get back to me. Instead, she wrote me an impassioned three-page email at 8pm on her sick day to help me feel better about all of this. (Note: please don’t expect agents to respond at 8pm on their sick days, this was an above and beyond situation). Within that email was so much good advice, but one piece stood out to me. She asked me why I kept moving the goalpost on myself.

My mind was blown. That was exactly what I’d been doing. It wasn't enough that I’d gotten five agent offers on a manuscript. Then, it wasn’t good enough that I sold two books. Then, it wasn’t enough that I got a fantastic review from Kirkus. Then, it wasn’t enough that I had one starred review. Then two. And so on. I kept moving the goalpost on myself and, in doing so, I was failing myself.

A few weeks after this, I’ve managed to make myself a new set of rules. It isn’t enough to tell myself not to stress about publishing. I will find a way to do that. Instead, there needs to be a series of workarounds. I need to set very specific limitations on social media so that it doesn’t consume me. It may inevitably impact my relationship with my fellow authors. However, I’m hoping that I can continue to make amazing connections in my community and share their work with the world, while also protecting my mental health and my heart.

My goal is that, by writing this, I can make another new author feel less alone. Even with a fantastically supportive editor and agent, a realistic outlook, and a well-received book this common pitfall somehow found me. I’m still finding out the best way for me to be in this new career and in this space. If I find the perfect workaround, I promise I’ll come back around to let you all know. In the meantime, be kind to yourself. You deserve it.

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