Author Courtney Maum is a publishing business boss. Quite possibly, she is the publishing business boss. I admit to being a huge admirer of her career and ethos. Like me, she is just as fascinated by the business end of publishing as she is the craft. I gobbled up Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book in a day, which is rare for me unless I really love a book. And I really loved this one. Even if you’re thinking about writing a book, even if that thought is: “What’s a book, anyway?”, even if the words “book deal” scare the living daylights out of you. Before and After the Book Deal is a funny, honest take on everything from pitching op eds, to what to do when nobody shows up to your book signing, to why you you should never, ever share your work-in-progress manuscript with your family or loved ones. Courtney is the author of five fiction and non-fiction books, spanning different styles, forms, and genres. Her most recent book, a memoir entitled The Year of the Horses, has received widespread acclaim. In short, she writes what she loves, without conforming. I am so happy to publish her interview on Aspiring Author, and I hope that you take as much away from Courtney’s motivational words as I have.
How did you get into writing?
I was an avid reader first—but once I was able to hold a pencil correctly, I was off to the races, writing and illustrating my own stories, which were basically rip-offs of the Shel Silverstein—poems and drawings I adored. I had a second grade teacher who taught us how to make our own books with wallpaper, a stapler, and cardboard. We were supposed to make one book in class that week: I think I made seven. I still have them—my daughter read them recently.
When did you see your career start to take off?
When I started incorporating humor into my work, things began changing for me. Up until my late twenties, I was aping the short stories I was finding in magazines, and was, accordingly, writing Raymond Carver-esque fiction about alcoholic, unsatisfied people in the Midwest, which honestly, I knew nothing about. Right about the time where I thought that it was never going to happen for me (“it” being having a published book out), I started participating in tons of live reading series and storytelling series, and that’s when I began to put dark humor into my work. It was fun, so it didn’t feel like “work” or “writing.” But in fact, I’d found my voice.
Describe your publishing journey
Well, it started out fortuitously—I don’t have an MFA and I was living in France when I completed my first novel. I basically looked up agents in the yellow pages—I didn’t have any connections or writer friends at that point. But incredibly, I got a good agent fairly quickly, and then we had an interested editor for whom I revised the book all summer. When I was home in the states in September, I was supposed to go in and meet her and (I imagined) sign a contract– but everything fell apart when this editor decided to leave her job, which orphaned my project, a book that I’d been editing for her without the protection of a book contract. That book, which seemed like it was going to hit publishing gold quickly and without too much pain, did not come out for a full ten years later with my third and current agent. I revised it completely from scratch. During that decade, I moved to the countryside of western Mass, supported myself as a freelance copywriter and corporate namer, and wrote fiction and nonfiction on the side.
Before and After the Book Deal is the seminal book on going out on submission to publishers. Why do you think there are so few books out there on this topic?
Thank you! For a long time, there has been this insidious thing going on between publishers and the writers they publish where they’ve been counting on us authors to not discuss the financial particulars of our book deals. The Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe did a lot to dismantle that in 2020 with authors coming out and admitting how much they’d got paid for what. It quickly came to light that white authors were being paid TONS more than their colleagues of color. I think forthrightness is starting to be seen as an act of solidarity and literary citizenship, but while a good amount of people are willing to join conversations around what publishing is really like, not a lot of people want to spearhead them. I did. It’s not that I’m more courageous than other writers—but I’m a white writer who publishes with both big and small publishers, who works outside of academia, all of which is a privilege that—I think—allowed me to feel, for better or for worse, that I could speak out without a career-ending amount of fallout.
What other books on getting published do you recommend?
At this point, I think podcasts are giving incredibly up to date information about the publishing world. “The Shit That No One Tells You About Writing” is a personal and crowd favorite. And of course David Naimon’s “Between the Covers” is just full of gems about what publishing (with all sorts of presses) is like. Otherwise, newsletters: the agent Anna Sproul-Latimer has a great one called “How to Glow in the Dark”, Leigh Stein’s is super helpful, especially when it comes to nailing a book’s hook, and I’ve recently adapted Before and After the Book Deal into a Substack with features like live query and synopsis consults. Poets + Writers recently put out a guidebook on publishing, and Jane Friedman’s website and newsletter is also a literary pot of gold.
Do you think a stigma persists when it comes to writers taking a business-minded approach with their “art”? Why or why not?
Herein lies the rub. It isn’t cool for authors to look like they’re considering the business side of things, when in fact, most of what we are asked for by our publishers is business-related work. We are asked to have newsletters so we can see statistics about our audience; we’re asked to start podcasts to connect with figurative readers; we’re asked to create email blasts and Google contact groups and do all this business admin. But rarely are we asked to take time away from all this stuff and write. So if there is a stigma, it’s a totally unfair one. We’re damned if we do (the hustle can make us look desperate) and damned if we don’t (publishers want and expect authors to do all this bonus marketing stuff for our books.)
How do you separate the business end of writing from the craft?
I assign tasks to different days. Mondays and Tuesdays are for my own creative writing—not editing, not revising, just growing words on the page. Wednesdays and Fridays are for all the other stuff. If I can, I return to my creative writing on Thursday mornings. I don’t try to do everything at once; I don’t keep all the tabs open. I put my phone on airplane mode and when I’m writing, I just write. I use my out-of-office as a weapon and I don’t work on weekends, which helps me recharge and be ready for my Monday writing days.
You talk a lot about fear of failure, jealousy, and rejection. How do writers actively combat these negative emotions and present to the world as “successful”?
It’s called Instagram (ha ha). And it’s a game of smoke and mirrors! The façade of the “successful” writer is something I wanted to look behind in Before and After, and it’s something that my contributors were so generous and brave in helping me to show. I don’t care if you are a number one New York Times bestseller or you just got a box of books in lieu of a book deal from a university press– everyone is rollercoasting in their emotions; everyone thinks they are a genius at one hour and a failure in the next. The difference is only financial, really. The people who are selling a lot of books are making money and tend to be given more money in the form of foreign options, film options, speaking opportunities, and the others are on the hamster wheel desperately trying to make ends meet. Is this fair? Nope. It’s capitalism. But in my experience, at both ends, everyone is hopeful and also scared to death.
Do you think being a creative brand strategist, marketer, and businesswoman in your day job helped set you up for success as a published author?
Absolutely. I have a lot of empathy and on-the-ground experience with what the publicists and marketing execs are trying to do with books, so I’m better positioned to understand why they are asking for something, not asking for something, why they are positioning a book a certain way. I have been in their shoes (I’ve worked in PR and marketing and sales in the past), so I have respect for what they are doing. It’s helped me to see myself as part of a team, but it’s also given me the confidence to weigh in with some authority when I felt it necessary to defend a certain cover or book title, for example.
How did you find your literary agent?
Oh my gosh, on the Facebook spam feed! Rebecca Gradinger is my third agent but forever agent. She’d seen me read somewhere, or had read my work online, and had sent me a Facebook message but because we didn’t have any friends in common, it went to my “other” feed and I found it while I was looking for an email from a terrible ex of mine nearly nine months later.
Describe your relationship
We’re very close. We speak really honestly with each other. She doesn’t use kid gloves with me but she doesn’t need to. She’s like a personal trainer– she makes me work very, very hard (and I’m someone who already works hard!) I’ll present her with a manuscript that I think is stellar and she’ll say, “This is a solid first draft.” She’s also been incredibly loyal to me. I’ve done a rom com, speculative fiction, historical fiction, a publishing guidebook and a memoir– and she has stuck by my side through all of these pivots.
What’s your take on the current state of the publishing industry: overworked and underpaid junior editors, sloth-paced response times, and other woes? Is there hope for debut novelists yet?
Oh, clearly there is hope because new books come out every Tuesday, and so many of them are debuts! I do think that publishing needs some organizational manager gurus to come in and get everything more ship shape—so many talented editors no longer have time to edit because they’re in totally superfluous Zoom meetings every day, and writers aren’t left with a lot of time to write because we’re trying to build our brands on TikTok and YouTube and all these places we’ve been told to engage without really understanding (or being told) why. There is so much wheel-spinning right now, and far too much multitasking. I have over two decades of experience at branding companies, and I have to say—those ships were TIGHT. The departments were really specific (for example, I worked in the Verbal Identity department), and within each department, they took a project as far as it could go, before bringing in the other departments to discuss as a team. Not everybody needed to be on every email and in every single meeting. People throughout the publishing industry need to be given time to work diligently on their talent and their craft, whether that craft is graphic design or wordsmithing. But instead everyone is forced onto Slack.
What does success look like to you?
Maintaining enough joy, inspiration, and financial savings to write a new book after whatever has come before.
What do you think it takes to become a successful author in the current market?
Endurance! Herculean endurance. And a paying side hustle or two.
In The Year of the Horses, you discuss not feeling like you’re rightfully allowed to feel sadness. Why do you think women, especially women writers, feel this guilt more acutely?
Well, I said that in terms of the privileged childhood that is behind me. I was saying that I didn’t feel like I had a right to be depressed, because I had the fundamental things: a job, a roof, I even had a healthy child. Most women I know are not afforded– by their communities, employers or partners– the time, space, and support to fall apart. So I don’t know that it’s “guilt” keeping them from feeling their sadness and owning that sadness, it’s more a lack of time and a lack of people and resources to pick up the slack for them if they mentally and/or emotionally collapse.
Equine therapy—or any therapy with animals—relies on communication beyond verbal language. Why was it necessary for you to break away from words for a while? Did this break make you a better writer?
Absolutely. I didn’t break away from words during that time– it’s just that I was writing really badly. And what I realized was that I absolutely needed nonverbal communication in my life to find my way back to what was true and alive and exciting about both my ideas and the ways that I execute them in writing.
How long does it take you to complete a project?
About two years. But often the project will have been percolating in my mind for many, many years before I actually get down to the researching and the writing.
On the subject of very different books, it seems like you don’t pander to just one genre. Which shelf will your next book sit on?
If I have any control over it, it will absolutely be fiction. I’ve put my family through enough with this memoir for a long time! On the subject of genre switching, it would make life easier for my agent if I stuck to one type of book, but I like challenging myself. I still have a lot of genres that I’m eager to try—I’ve been working on a mystery this summer and that genre is hard as hell.
How important is it for you to tell the truth in your writing?
If I’m not risking something on the page, it’s not interesting for me, and I doubt that it will be interesting for my reader. I love reading work by memoirists such as Alex Marzano Lesnevich or Melissa Febos or Saeed Jones because you just know—you know in your body—that they’re writing with courage and real skin in the game.
What keeps you sane?
Working with my rescue horse, an ex-racehorse named Abuelita! When I’m at the barn, everything else fades away.
What advice do you wish you’d listened to or ignored over the course of your career?
Generally, people gave me really good advice and continue to give me good advice! Any bad decisions were completely my own, and usually came from me being rushed. For example: I hit “send” far too early on basically everything I submitted in my twenties. I wasn’t ready, I was just egocentric and thought I was a “first draft is final draft” kind of girl. (I wasn’t!)
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors looking to get published?
Support the community that you want to support you. In the work I do with writers, time and time again they tell me “I don’t have time to go to reading series; I don’t buy books at independent bookstores because I don’t like to mess up my own style by reading; I’ve never been part of a writing workshop; I don’t subscribe to literary magazines.” Interesting. And yet, you want your book to be sold in a bookshop and for people you don’t know to buy it, and you also want your shorter work to be published in literary magazines? Hmmm.
About Author Courtney Maum
Author of five books, including the game changing publishing guide Before and After the Book Deal and the memoir, The Year of the Horses, (chosen by The Today Show as the best read for mental health awareness), Courtney is a writer and book coach hellbent on preserving the joy of art-making in a culture obsessed with turning artists into brands. A nominee for the Joyce Carol Oates prize and the host of the monthly “Beyond Fiction” conversation series at Edith Wharton’s The Mount, Courtney’s essays and articles on creativity have been widely published in outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, and her short story “This is Not Your Fault” was recently turned into an Audible Original. A frequent interviewer of high-profile writers such as Anne Perry, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Edouard Louis, Courtney is also the founder of the learning collaborative, The Cabins. You can sign up for her publishing newsletter and enroll in her online writing classes at courtneymaum.com.