Pep Talks for Authors

What to tell yourself while you're on submission

Careful readers of this newsletter will know that I have been in the process of pitching a book of my own—a handbook for scholars on how to write a book proposal—since this summer. While that pitching process has a happy ending (or should have one very shortly, once the contract terms are worked out), I still found most of it utterly miserable and anxiety-provoking. Ok, maybe not “most” of it, but there were a few intense weeks that made me vow never to pitch another book again. Let me be clear: the anxiety was all of my own making. Nothing terrible happened to me, I got constructive feedback on my project from multiple sources, and (almost) everyone involved behaved professionally and fairly. But I still tied my stomach in knots about sending my project out and responding to the reviews of the proposal.

Inspired by literary agent Kate McKean’s subscribers-only post about handling feedback (subscribe to her Agents & Books newsletter—it’s worth it!), I wanted to share how I tried to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty while I was waiting to find out if anyone would be interested enough in my book to make an offer on it. I’m a believer in affirming self-talk as a needed countermeasure against my natural tendency to talk myself out of shooting my professional shot due to self-doubt. So I tried to come up with some true statements that I really believed, which I could repeat to myself when I started to worry about finding a publisher for my book. The really believe thing is key, because you can’t just con yourself into feeling good about your book or its chances of getting published. What you can do is remind yourself why you’re putting yourself through this ordeal in the first place so that you can focus on what really matters, not on the little anxiety and ego trips that will make you wish you’d never even tried.

I came up with three true things I could tell myself. I wrote them down and put them on a sticky note that I stuck to my second monitor, where I would see it every time I sat at my desk. They’re pretty generic, so they might work for you too if you find yourself in a similar situation! Here they are:

  • “It’s my book.”
    I had the idea to write this book, and I decided what I wanted to put in it. If it ultimately gets published, my name will be on it. So no matter what other people think of it or what changes they suggest I make to it, this is still my project. This pep talk helped me when I felt pulled in different directions by editors’ or reviewers’ comments or when I started to spin out on all the changes I imagined I would have to promise to make in order to get an offer. While I made sure to remain open to helpful suggestions (some reviewers really did have great ideas!), I also knew it was important to maintain confidence in my own voice and vision. I knew from my previous experiences with publishing that it’s excruciating to finish a book manuscript when you aren’t passionate about the project or too focused on what you think other people want you to say. So I knew that if I was going to accept an offer on this, my second book, it would have to be in a form that I felt complete ownership over and commitment to. In other words, it would still have to feel like my book.

    This pep talk will work for you even if you’re working on a research monograph (perhaps even more so). No one knows your data or your archive better than you do. And even if they did, no one else would have quite the same take on it or passion for the ultimate takeaway that you’ve landed on in your project. Remaining open to constructive feedback is necessary to make your book the best it can be, and sometimes you have to jump through some hoops to reach your professional goals, but don’t forget that you get to decide what this thing will ultimately be.

  • “I know my audience better than anyone, because I already speak to them every day.”
    This was the pep talk I used to quiet any doubts that I should be the one to write this book and to push back against a few reviewer suggestions that missed the point of what my book is aiming to do. While there are a lot of people out there who have experience and expertise in scholarly book publishing, my literal job is to translate information about scholarly book publishing for people who are actually right now today working on getting their books published. I’ve also learned how to explain to those prospective authors—in concrete, nuts-and-bolts terms—exactly how to shape their book proposals and manuscripts so they have the best chance of reaching editors, reviewers, and readers. And the evidence shows that I’ve been pretty effective at it, considering the books my clients have gotten published and the presses they’ve landed contracts with. So I was able to remind myself that I have a ton of personal knowledge about what connects with the kinds of people I’d be trying to reach with this book.

    If you’re writing a book based on your scholarly research, you too probably know your audience as well as anyone, though you may not yet have thought much about audience when it comes to your book. But if you take some time to figure out who you really want to speak to—scholars who attend the same conferences or read the same journals/books you do? students who take classes like the ones you teach? professionals or community members who move in similar circles to you?—and then make sure you’re actually speaking to and with those people in your daily life, you’ll be the expert not only on your subject matter and argument but also on how to make that argument land with your target readers. Again, you may get helpful suggestions from others that are worth taking, but you can maintain confidence in yourself as the arbiter of what is actually productive for reaching your audience and what is just distraction from what you’re really trying to do.

  • “I’m not looking for approval; I’m looking for the right partner for my book.”
    This is a tough one to internalize, because I think a lot of scholars and writers (and other people who self-identify closely with their occupation) are conditioned to want/need praise for their work to validate their own self-worth. But I had to remember that, ultimately, it did not matter whether a given editor or reviewer liked my project or thought it was super terrific. I mean, that might matter to me on a personal level, but in terms of my professional goal—which was to get this book published and into the hands of lots and lots of scholars working on their own book proposals—the important thing was to find an editor/press who understood what I was trying to do and had their own vision of how they could collaborate with me to do that thing.

    I’m always saying that you should revisit your professional goals for your book, and I’ll say that again here. If your goal is to get tenure, then you need to find a publisher who will be respected by senior colleagues in your field, who will subject your book to rigorous standards of peer review, and who will help you make sure your book’s publication is registered by enough people that it effectively enhances your scholarly reputation as the expert on your topic. If your goal is to have a crossover book that puts your ideas in front of a broader public, you might be looking for a different kind of publishing partner. If your goal is to get a book out that students and researchers can find in university libraries and that you can maybe send a copy of to your mom, you might be looking for a different kind of publisher still. Revisiting your own goals—beyond just “get a book published by any means necessary”—is empowering, because it helps you to keep in mind that you’re evaluating publishers just as much as they’re evaluating your project. They should be demonstrating throughout the submission and review process that they can and will do what is necessary to publish the book you want to publish, whatever that happens to be.

Maybe you have your own author self-pep-talks or want to come up with some alternative ones that make more sense for your particular alchemy of anxiety and insecurity. Please share them with me, if you do. Maybe you’re just lucky and the submission and review process doesn’t bother you at all. If that’s you, I envy you and I think you should start your own newsletter and let the rest of us know how you do it. For everybody else, I hope seeing my personal pep talks helps you feel a little better about your own journey to publication, which can be emotionally difficult even in the best of circumstances.

If you’re working on a scholarly book proposal of your own right now and could use some help (or a pep talk!), get in touch! I’m currently offering Quick Proposal Evals and Book Proposal Brainstorm Sessions to new clients. And there’s another session of my Book Proposal Accelerator starting up in January, if you’re ready to start from scratch and finish a draft in one month’s time!