Guest Post: Kate Messner on The Secrets to Writing Lots of Books, Promoting Them, and Still Having a Life

By Kate Messner

I’ll start this post with a confession. I don’t really have any secrets.

Bloomsbury, 2009

The truth is, when my first novel came out in 2009, I made all of the same overeager mistakes other debut writers make when that first book is released–over-promoting and dragging my wonderfully supportive family to book event after book event for an entire season.

(My daughter was nine then. She’s eighteen now and can still recite parts of my presentation by heart.)

But at some point during that wild year leading up to publication and the months that followed, I reached out to my agent, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary, to ask if I was doing enough. Shouldn’t I be…I dunno…doing more blog tours or traveling to more bookstores or maybe crafting little gold-plated leaf bookmarks to go along with the theme of my book and sending them to Oprah and Ellen?

“Nope,” she said. “You’re fine. Now relax and write your next book.”

So that’s what I did. Since then, I’ve published another thirty-five books (and written others that didn’t get published).

They range from picture books and easy readers to chapter book series, novels, and nonfiction. Some of them have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Some of them have sold less than ten thousand. These numbers were not linked to the hours I personally put into promoting them.

I have twelve new books coming out this year, so I’ve been reminding myself every day that I can only do so much and need to find that balance.

Illustrated by Adam Rex (Chronicle, 2020)

Here are a few not-really-secrets that have helped me through the past decade as my writing career has grown. They relate to the whole picture – writing, promoting, and life.

Spend time on things that you can control. The truth is – and I’ve heard it from a lot of publishing professionals – authors can do little on their own to move the needle as far as book sales.

As frustrating as this may seem, the good news is that it takes the pressure off. Once you’ve written the very best book you can, it’s not really your job to worry about sales numbers a whole lot. Just write the next book. Make it one that brings you joy and energy to create. Which brings me to another tip…

Choose projects that energize you. Writing can be exhausting sometimes, and the business of publishing can occasionally be downright soul-crushing.

Given all that, you really want to choose projects where the joy, curiosity, and passion will make up for anything that goes wrong. Don’t chase trends. Chase passion and curiosity.

The books will end up being better, and you’ll be a happier writer.

Find the balance. It’s not always easy to juggle a writing life with a family and/or another job, but it’s possible with realistic expectations. I got a lot less writing done when my kids were young and I was teaching full time, but short-changing my family or my students wasn’t going to work for any of us, most of all, me.

Circumstances change over time, and during some chapters in your life, writing may be a smaller part of the puzzle. That’s okay. The kids are going to grow up faster than you can imagine. And the words will be there later.

That said, one thing that was great fun for us was making some of my research trips a family affair. My kids spent hours at museums and historical sites, sometimes helping me scour through research libraries to find primary sources. They stuck “signed copy” stickers on books at bookstore events, served as research helpers, and took photos for me.

Kate says, “My daughter takes time out from a history tour to check out the rocks on one of the Normandy beaches where Allied soldiers came ashore on D-Day.”

Our kids are grown now but still come along on research trips when it works out. Fun fact: both Messner kids have photo credits in my 2020 book, Tracking Pythons (Millbrook, 2020).

And finally, in the words of Elsa… Let it go. There’s so much we can’t control in publishing. The rejections, the delays, the marketing or lack of it, the sales….

The best thing we can do as writers is always, always to focus on our job. Writing the books. Chasing curiority. Telling stories and sharing them with kids. And doing all of that with passion and joy.

Kate’s neighbor’s cat, who visits her writing-room window sometimes. Kate says, “She’s telling me to get back to work!”

Cynsational Notes

Kate Messner’s 2020 releases are Chrip (Bloomsbury, 2/4/20); Ranger in Time: Escape from the Twin Towers, illustrated by Kelley McMorris (Scholastic, 2/4/20); Tracking Pythons (Millbrook, 3/3/20); Solve This: Forensics, co-authored by Anne Ruppert (National Geographic Kids, 3/17/20); The Next President, illustrated by Adam Rex (Chronicle, 3/24/20); Fergus and Zeke and The Field Day Challenge, illustrated by Heather Ross (Candlewick, 4/14/20); History Smashers: Mayflower, illustrated by Dylan Meconis (Random House, 7/7/20); History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote, illustrated by Dylan Meconis (Random House, 7/7/20); How to Write a Story, illustrated by Mark Siegel (Chronicle, 7/7/20); Ranger in Time: Attack on Pearl Harbor, illustrated by Kelley McMorris (Scholastic, 7/21/20); Over and Under the Rainforest, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal (Chronicle, 8/11/20); History Smashers: Pearl Harbor, illustrated by Dylan Meconis (Random House, 10/24/20).