I’m excited to be featuring my dear friend and onetime colleague Lucy Silag on the Girl Friday Blog today! Lucy and I go way back to our assistant days in the publicity department of Doubleday. Since that time, Lucy’s career has taken all kinds of fantastic turns, including getting an MFA from none other than the uber-prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and publishing her delicious, compulsively readable Beautiful Americans trilogy. Now she’s back in New York working as the community and engagement manager at Penguin’s innovative new venture, Book Country, and she’s here to drop some knowledge on you about what it means to be an author in publishing’s brave new world.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in publishing?
In college I worked as a bookseller and events assistant at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I was often the person who hung out with the author before a reading began. Then I moved to New York to work as a publicity assistant at Doubleday, which was a great place to launch my career because the list of authors they publish is big, diverse, and very mainstream. Again, I spent much of my day talking to authors. I started writing a novel(which ended up becoming the Beautiful Americans series for young adults) on a whim when I was twenty-three—by that time, writers were so commonplace in my life that I thought if they could do it, I could do it. Now I know it’s a lot harder than that, and in my job as the community and engagement manager at Book Country, I never underestimate just what a big deal it is to write a book. Thousands and thousands of people do it, obviously, but it’s still a big deal. You need a lot of help even before you get to the publishing part.
Why do you think community matters so much to writers? Do you think it's more important now than ever?
When I was a junior publicist, I worked with many debut authors. We’d give them an author questionnaire to fill out and in it they would list every possible literary connection they had: teachers, writing groups, media contacts, booksellers, librarians, friends, online buddies. This list helps the publisher launch your book—they are the people who will like and share your social-media content, show up at readings, invite you to speak in their classes, put your book in window displays. Every single debut author we worked with had a long list of connections, which shows how your network is an important part of even getting to the acquisition process.
What are some of the things you've learned as an author that inform the work you do now?
As an author, I’ve learned of another reason that writers need a community—this one more to do with the writing process itself (as opposed to publication and promotion). Without a writing community, it’s really easy to fall down a book-concept rabbit hole. I’m always coming up with book ideas. But it’s not until I start telling people about my ideas that I realize how oddball they are. Even just getting practice describing your work-in-progress can really show you whether or not you’re onto something that’s going to click with readers. For example, at Book Country, a writer will hear from the community right away if they feel the book is not categorized in the right genre. Categorizing your book according to genre conventions matters a lot in terms of readers finding your book, so you want to be getting feedback about this early in the process. If you can’t succinctly describe your book and who your reader is, how is anyone else (an agent, an editor, a bookseller) going to do it for you?
What's your best advice for aspiring authors?
Getting published isn’t like getting discovered to be a model: no one is going to approach you at a McDonald’s and say, “Hey! I think you have what it takes to be an author.” The first thing you have to do is actually write, of course, but let’s say you have that part figured out. You also have to put yourself out there; you have to get feedback on the hard work you’ve already done, and then more feedback, and then more; you have to put yourself in situations where you can learn how to get better and to connect with people who can teach you more about writing; and then you have to learn how to present yourself and your writing well. This is what I love about Book Country. For years, when people found out that I worked in book publishing or that I had published books, they would e-mail me and say, “I want to publish a book. Help me!” Now I have a place to send them that I know will help them further their writing goals.
My other advice for aspiring authors is to BE KIND. Publishing is a small world with a high retention rate—people love this business and find ways to stay in it no matter how much the landscape changes. As a writer or author, you are going to be working with people who have long memories—it’s a big part of what makes them good at their jobs. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether you’re trying to get another writer to blurb your book or if you’re asking a local bookstore to stock your book. But if people say no or ignore you, accept that gracefully. Be cheerful, especially to people who take the time to read your work. Say thank you as often as you can. What if you lose opportunities in the future because someone remembers that you had a bad attitude? Don’t forsake your hard work like that. Honor your writing by representing it well.
What are you are you working on now?
Right now I am working on a novel that keeps changing genres. It’s about friendship, sex, and California. I’m doing the Summer Writers Club on Book Country to try to write fifty thousand words by Labor Day—and hopefully finish the first draft!