Don’t Miss Your Deadlines: A Great Big Cautionary Tale

With thriller writer friend Shane Gericke, 2009. Photo by Judy Douglas Knauer via Facebook

This pic with my dear friend, Shane Gericke, was taken at the now-defunct Love Is Murder conference back in 2009, near Chicago. It was February, and I was promoting my second novel, which had come out in the once dead zone between Christmas (2008) and New Year’s Day (now a pretty good time to be published). Why the dead zone? Primarily my own fault because I made the sophomore mistake of being more than a month late getting the book turned in. If I’d been the professional I am now, I would’ve gotten it in on time, published in October, and the book probably would’ve been in paperback as well. Though my #sophomorefail wasn’t helped by the publishing industry’s January 2009 implosion. Everyone in the business was either deeply distracted by waves of bad news, or their hair was on fire.

That winter, I was way too green to realize my novel had been published “dead,” as the description goes. If a book is published dead, nothing happens. I mean nothing. Oh, my book was on library shelves, and made it into bookstores, and there were reviews. (Joe Hartlaub loved it, which is everything to me.) But it was not pushed by marketing, and not embraced by readers. The publicist still took my calls, but my editor was harder to reach. I don’t think I had another conversation with him until an awkward New York cocktail party a couple of years later. As I mentioned above, there was no paperback.

When it came time for the house to review my next book’s proposal and chapters, per my contract, my agent was the contact. The rejection was so swift that I hardly had time to get anxious about the proposal being out. I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised. I wish I could say I wasn’t hurt. I wish I could say I didn’t take it personally. Now, I find myself embarrassed at my naiveté.

Why am I telling you this cautionary tale–aside from the fact that I have an odd confessional streak? A public service announcement about meeting deadlines never goes amiss. Seriously, don’t miss your deadlines! The entire trajectory of my career was (possibly, probably) changed because I screwed up so badly.

Five years ago, maybe even two years ago I wouldn’t have shared this story with you. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to. Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Also, it’s a bad idea to mess with your professional reputation online. You never know what potential editors might think. Potential readers. Then there’s that ego thing. I got the once-in-a-lifetime debut, two book contract. And lost the plot. Nobody wants to be fodder for the Writer Schadenfreude Gossip Machine.

Except that ten years have passed already. I’m what you might call a mid-career author. (Okay, if I die tomorrow, then today I actually would’ve been an end-of-career author. Huh.) These days, I find little value in being opaque. I’m a writer, and I’m human, and I make mistakes. Still.

This whole mid-career thing has taken me a bit by surprise. It feels like no time at all has passed since I sat so nervously in that hotel lobby with Shane. Steve Berry was also there. In fact, I was so nervous about being in public, and around writers and readers whom I didn’t know, that I would go hide in my hotel my room and practically hyperventilate several times a day. But as with so many other things, time brings perspective.

As a writer and human, you will screw up. Accept it, then move on.

If I hadn’t screwed up so badly, I never would’ve taken my rejected novel and started my own little press with my husband. I wouldn’t have learned about self-publishing in the early days, been able to teach my writer friends about it, or gotten to a place where I understand that readers don’t really care who published a book, but mostly just care about the story, and–very occasionally–the author. I might not have pushed myself to come up with a story concept that got me a three book series with a traditional publisher. Or a chance to publish with a truly brilliant young editor. And so on.

You never know.

(And don’t miss your deadlines!)

 

Dear TKZers–Do you have a cautionary writer’s tale to share?

 

 

 

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

20 thoughts on “Don’t Miss Your Deadlines: A Great Big Cautionary Tale

  1. Great post, Laura. Thanks for writing this.

    I’ve always believed sharing our failures and dumb moves as well as our successes helps other writers and establishes credibility. And you even included a great quote: “[R]eaders don’t really care who published a book, but mostly just care about the story….”

    I wonder, are you still publishing (also) independently as well as traditional?

    • Thanks, Harvey. I have done a couple short stories and anthologies, but nothing in the last year. Have been procrastinating on a short story collection.

  2. I doubt there’s anyone who goes into a bookstore and says, “Where’s your Random House section?”
    I’ve embraced indie publishing. Having started writing late in life, it’s a better bet for me now. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as I’ve learned both the craft and the publishing side. My advice, for what it’s worth? Patience, especially with self-publishing being so easy.

    • I agree about readers and bookstores, Terry. I think we writers often get more concerned about the difference. The success of so many self-published books at online stores would demonstrate that.

      Patience in all things!

  3. Laura, your insight is so important b/c it speaks to what it means to be a *professional*. We don’t learn from what we do right; we learn from our mistakes. Thanks for your courage to admit to an epic fail.

    My break in magazine writing occurred b/c a much more accomplished author knew she couldn’t meet a deadline and graciously recommended me to her editor. Although I was a real newbie, a business background instilled in me the requirement to always perform on time. I turned in a story that filled the editor’s gaping hole in that issue. Soon, other editors began to call me. There were many writers more gifted than I but I was dependable. That carried me a long way.

    Right now, there may be a writer reading this post who’s wondering if s/he can fudge a deadline. Your experience may convince him/her that it does matter.

    • P.S. Deadlines may seem less critical when self-pubbing but they remain important in a different way. If an indie author announces a new book will be released on X date but then misses that date, readers will be disappointed. Letting down your readers is never good.

    • Thanks so much, Debbie.

      What a great origin story. Showing up is so important. And I’m sure you’re being modest about your talent back then. 😊

  4. I remind writers all the time that while the act of storytelling may be “art”, the selling of same is 100% business. You’ve got to respect other people’s schedules and expectations. When an author is late, that disrupts the schedules of many people at the publishing house. At Kensington, my books are 1/300th of their total catalog. With limited staff, everyone from the editor to the proofreader to the cover designer (and, and, and . . .) depend on everybody in the chain doing their jobs. It all starts with the author.

    Also, it’s important to remember that the publishing world is like a small town. Everybody is only two degrees of separation from everyone else, and word travels fast. Nobody wants to deal with a difficult author.

    • Great reminders, John. We have a huge responsibility. Other people’s jobs, businesses, families are no joke.

      You’re so right. It’s a tiny town where word spreads like wildfire.

  5. Boy oh boy. This one hit home with me. Early in our career, we came *this close* to blowing a deadline. We were naive (read: dumb) in those days about the business part of being a professional writer (See John’s comment above), and we thought, well, what’s a couple weeks late gonna matter?

    Luckily, our agent at the time set us straight and said get the MS in on time or die. She then educated us on the tight schedule under which publishers work (remember, this was pre-eBook, Amazon, self-publishing). And like John, we were but one of many of Kensington authors, whose books were all sluicing through our editor’s pipeline.

    So we turned in the manuscript two days late. We weren’t happy with it. But we got a second whack at it after our editor did his first input letter. We pulled it out okay. Big {{whew.}}

    Once you sign a contract — with a MS delivery deadline — you are “slotted.” This sets in motion a strict schedule that includes many people working on behalf of your book — line editors, copy editors, cover designers, promotion and marketing folks. If you miss your deadline, you lose your place in line. If you lose your place in line, no one stops and waits for you. Your book is stillborn.

    Is there a lesson here for self-pubbers? I think so. Because you are your own CEO, editor, chief financial officer, marketing guru, printer, maybe designer and formatter. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it. Because yeah…you can take as long as you want to finish and publish that FIRST book. But once you do that, you put in motion a CAREER publishing schedule and to be a success, you have to publish well and often. No one wants a one-trick pony. And no one’s going to be there to kick you in the butt, like they did for me.

    • Your agent at the time was worth her weight in gold, just for that advice, Kris.

      I hope everyone reads your comment thoroughly–especially for this:

      “If you miss your deadline, you lose your place in line. If you lose your place in line, no one stops and waits for you. Your book is stillborn.”

      There’s nothing worse in publishing.

    • Kristy, you wrote “”Is there a lesson here for self-pubbers? … to be a success, you have to publish well and often.”

      Excellent. This will be my quote of the day (attributed, of course) in my Daily Journal on writing.

  6. Wise words, Laura. When I signed with Globe Pequot, they set two deadlines: the first to see x-amount of chapters, photographs (per contract requirements), and any other design features (some they’ll keep, some they won’t), then the full manuscript deadline. The first deadline is for them to layout the book months in advance of receiving the final MS. If I miss it (which I won’t), a chain reaction would throw several departments off the rails, resulting in the final product either falling flat with no marketing or another author stepping in to take my place.

    And that’s another cautionary tale: if you, the author, can’t make the deadline, nonfiction trad. publishers will find someone who will. The publisher expects the product they paid for, which they’ve slated for slots in catalogues, bulletins, marketing material for wholesalers and retailers, etc. That book will be published on time. Whether your name is on the cover is up to you. No pressure. 😉

      • On a serious note, the pressure of making a yearly or even 8-month deadline to publish every year is driving some of my writer friends, after long careers, into retirement. It’s not for the faint of heart. It also partly explains why some popular authors now employ co-writers.

    • Thanks for the view into the process, Sue. “if you, the author, can’t make the deadline, nonfiction trad. publishers will find someone who will.” Wow, is that ever the case. And there are lots of those someones reading this blog right now!

      • Hahaha. Right? Love the “I get to do this” mindset, Laura. That’s exactly how I feel. Some day the excitement might wear off, but I can’t see that far in advance. I’m too busy having a blast, lovin’ every step of this amazing adventure.

        “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

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