Substack Writers at Work
Substack Writers at Work Podcast
Need to Know: An Interview with Author and Book Coach Courtney Maum

Need to Know: An Interview with Author and Book Coach Courtney Maum

Publishing on Substack and beyond

Happy Tuesday!

Please read the intro as I forgot to record one!

This interview is a concise rundown of the realities of being an author in a publicity-driven world. Courtney Maum is quite possibly the only person who could bring it to us.

You might think of there being two eras: BCM (before

) and ACM (after Courtney Maum). Before Courtney and her game-changing publishing guide, Before and After the Book Deal, authors and writers were pretty much left in the dark as to what to expect when they went to sell a book and what would happen during and after. Courtney changed that. Her book and her amazing Substack have changed writers’ lives and empowered us all.

Courtney is also a stunning novelist and memoirist. She’s the author of The Year of the Horses, which was chosen by The Today Show as the best read for mental health awareness. 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.

I’m so happy to be able to interview her for you and (I hope) ask her some of the questions you have about writing and publishing on Substack and beyond.

Listen or read the transcript below and enjoy!

Opportunities to Meet!

If you want to focus your Substack, excel as a writer on this platform, and attract subscribers, book a meeting!

Each 30-minute Zoom meeting gives you extra guidance and an expert set of eyes on your Substack, including a clear understanding of

  • your writing and Substack goals,

  • the effectiveness of your Substack, and

  • how to offer value to paid subscribers.

You’ll leave with

  • a clear content strategy,

  • ways to publicize your Substack and draw subscribers,

  • meticulous notes of our meeting,

  • a step-by-step action plan, and

  • tips on how to improve your writing.

>> Serializers can also receive feedback on your novel or memoir.

I mentor you as you figure out who you are as a writer and how your talents and expertise can work on this platform to leverage your writing career.

Book a 3-meeting package for $25 off:

Book a discounted 3-meeting package

Or book a single meeting:

Book a meeting with Writers at Work

Schedule a meeting

Here’s what Substack writers who’ve met with me say about the experience:

“Within 24 hours of executing Sarah’s suggestions, my subscription base expanded to include countless new readers who not only pressed the “subscribe” button but also took the time to engage with the material and write encouraging and insightful comments on the posts. Sarah helped me see a more holistic, comprehensive vision of my work on Substack. She provided clear, actionable steps to bring this expanded vision into reality.” —

Kimberly Warner - Unfixed

“Sarah is an expert coach, sounding board, and cheerleader all in one! She has a sharp eye, tons of practical advice, real insight from the Substack team and dozens of examples to inspire. She helped me see my newsletter with renewed clarity and gusto!” —

Madeleine Dore, On Things

What qualifies me to do this?

(You should always ask this of anyone you work with.) My experience as

  • an author at HarperCollins;

  • the creator of two bestselling, featured Substack publications;

  • a former advisory editor at The Paris Review;

  • a creative writing professor at Northwestern University; and, most importantly,

  • someone who specializes in Substack and shares the advice they’ve given me with you.


Sarah Fay

 Courtney, thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited to have you.

Courtney Maum

Thank you for having me. I’m very grateful to be here.  


I mentioned to you that I found your book before and after the book deal as my book was already past production and it was coming out in two months. I was walking and it was late at night in Chicago. I had been reading your book, and it explained so much. I talk about your book all the time and that every writer should read it. There was so much I didn't know and I was in the literary world. What made you decide to write it and what brought you to it and how did that all take place?


Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you. Thank you for finding my book and for giving it this kind of platform. I didn't come through an MFA system. I went to college, but I did not study English in college. I didn't take any creative writing workshops. It wouldn't be fair to say I DIY’d this because I had a really good education and I had good teachers, but I definitely was a reader and a writer before anything else. And professionally, I actually came up in marketing and branding.  When I had my first book deal, when I had my first book coming out, all I knew was that I had put my whole heart into the writing. I knew I had a good agent who had really helped me edit it. I knew I had a great editor that I liked a lot, and that was it, right?

I didn't know what any of the steps were. And it was, especially—it sounds weird to use the word daunting because I started to have food things happen around that book—but I didn't even know like, are these good? How good are they? Are they like, you don't know. I was sent on a national tour, which of course I was like, I guess everyone gets toured.

No one explains these things to you. It was somewhere around day four maybe of my tour, which was a national tour. And I had a driver. I had really nice hotel rooms and yet I was probably selling maybe four hard covers a night at my event, maybe more if I had friends there. But I was being sent to places with no friends.

I think I waited a week and I called my agent. I think I was in Chicago, and I said, “Rebecca, I have to tell you the truth. They're going to fire me. I'm not selling enough books to pay for the hotel and the driver and the plane—how many books am I supposed to sell?” And she's like, “Oh, honey, that's not what you're there for. You're just supposed to be making contacts with the booksellers so that for your future books, they'll hand sell your books.” And I'm like, what? Well, what really? Like what? Nobody told me that.

And then, you know, little by little I realized no one was telling me anything, anything. I had no idea like, how many books do they actually want me to sell? These were questions that mattered to me. Partly because I'm a hard worker, but also, I guess I was coming from marketing and branding where when you're writing an advertising copy, you're hoping for a certain amount of sales. Sales were something that made sense to me. It took me a while to even make writer friends because I didn't come out of the MFA program. So when I started to make the writer friends, I would ask them questions.

The awkward questions took me a while—to get up to asking questions about money. But I'd say, “Have you— do you have a lot of people come to your events?” And I started hearing these answers where I realized that no one else had any idea what to expect either. I mean, absolutely flailing. Can you imagine a job interview where you get the job and then they just don't tell you what your job consists of?

While I was on that book tour, I wrote an article that ended up being published in Buzzfeed. They gave it a clickbait title, something like being a debut author’s not all it's cracked up to be, but it was an essay that was like, Okay, I get that this is a great privilege and this is been my dream, but this is really hard and it makes no sense.

I got a lot of positive feedback from that and little by little, book by book, the more I published, not just books, but also big op-eds in the big places or even just being on Twitter, [I realized] this is the wild, wild west. I saw people making lots of mistakes, bad mistakes that could hurt your career, whether it’s signing with the wrong agent or signing a terrible contract or paying too much for a developmental editor, whatever the heck was.

And I thought there needs to be a guidebook to this. And then I thought, I could write a guidebook and I could interview hundreds of people, so that it’s not just the journey of a white woman.

Originally, the gatekeepers in my life were really reticent. They did not think that this was a good idea, which to me, reinforced the fact that it was a good idea because even my agent was like, People don't need this.

And I was like, you agents and editors think that we get a book deal and the user manual is downloaded into our heads, right? I really believe that they think that. I do not think that they’re bad people. I just think that they know so much about the industry they assume that it comes to us via osmosis, and it absolutely does not.

So that’s my long answer about the genesis of this book. But it’s a book that I was living for quite a long time because I'm someone that came from an outsider trajectory. How do you make it into this elite world of publishing if you don't have an MFA, if you didn’t do the workshop world, and how do you recover if you’ve done it.

My agent now will say like, that, that book was the best thing I ever did. And she's very proud that she was wrong. We laugh about it all the time.

It’s a funny thing, the writing thing. It’s really treated like such a privilege, such an elite privilege that we should just shut up and be grateful. But probably more than any industry— I've worked at Starbucks and I had a very thorough couple of days where they showed me how to use the machine and how not to get burnt and what to do if a customer came in with dry cleaning that they’d spilled coffee on. They showed me the ropes.

And I've been doing this for how long now? At a pretty long time, and I still, almost every week, there are things where I think, Oh my gosh. I remember right before we went to press with the book, my own editor for that book said something about the co-op for doing events or something. I learned that often publishers have to pay bookstores for you to even have an event there, which I did not know. I was like, they're selling your books. Maybe they put out one bottle of wine, but I learned that there's a co-op for a lot of these events and they actually have to pay the bookstore to have you there.

Every week you learn. The price of hardcovers is going to be higher. What that means for authors and people trying to get their first book deal is something pretty significant. I think that this quest to empower writers and authors with knowledge and insight is probably going to be the remaining work of my life because the work will never run out.


Shouldn't there be an onboarding week for an author that just got their right, their first book deal? It is so weird and you kind of wonder if that's why books aren't selling. We aren't even doing our jobs because no one’s told us what our job is. No one even told me how many copies of the hardcover they printed.  No one ever mentioned it. I didn't even know.


Well, you don’t know to ask, and then they're not necessarily going to tell you. I mean, we don't even get to do our jobs anymore because somehow the industry has decided that the best use of our time is for us to be on Twitter and TikTok and the newsletter. Once you have to start interacting with people in the comments, that leaves no time for the writing. So the whole thing is pretty backwards right now.


I want go to how you started the Before and After the Book Deal newsletter. You had two different newsletters, and you moved this one over from— Was it MailChimp?


Yes, MailChimp. Even though I work in marketing and branding and so I understand what a brand is and that you do one thing, I don’t like homogenizing myself. So with my old MailChimp, I had it divided into two sections, and one was called Mama Log, and I would write about my life, my daughter, my husband, my grass, my…I don't know, whatever. And then I had a section called, I think Get Published, Stay Published, where I gave like straight-up writing advice, which was fine, except my dad liked to receive Mama Log but didn’t need advice on how to write a novel. I did that for a while and people somehow held on and I had an okay amount of subscribers or whatever they’re called at MailChimp.

Then my agent, bless her, around this time last year, maybe a little more than a year ago, she called me. I love her for this. She calls me like once or twice a week with these sorts of missives, and then she just kind of hangs up. And so she called me, and she said, “What the hell are you doing on MailChimp? I have a client who made $15,000 last year on Substack. Get your ass on Substack.” Over and out, basically. I tried to do that migration myself, and I think I ended up just sending thousands of people an email that said Test, so I hired someone amazing. For anyone listening or reading this, Miller at Bellflower Media.

I think it was Miller who said, Well wait, you have this published book. Why don’t you just name it the same thing as your publishing book, right? So you have like title recognition. And I thought, Oh, shit. Yeah, that's a pretty good idea. And of course, it encapsulates everything I’m about.

For that newsletter, I think part of the reason that it’s successful is I just doubled down. There’s no more stuff about my grass. I mean, once in a while I’ll write about my daughter, but it’s very much publishing, writing, and mental health advice and time management. It’s speaking to a very specific audience. I don't think my dad receives it anymore. There are certain people who read my newsletter. They hold on, but they don't pay. I’ve made it a brand, I guess.


The way you talk about your agent— your relationship with her is amazing and the fact that she edits you.


Yeah, we’ve worked very closely that way. I’m a very good editor of my own work, but when it comes to a certain type of writing, like what I think of as page-turning writing with a plot, I really need her. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think, Oh my God, what if she retired or something happened to her? I’ll probably never write another book. Because , she can lead me out of the muck, you know, in a way that no one else has been able to.


What’s your writing process on Substack? So how do you handle that?


I try to be really regimented about it. Generally, I do a paid subscriber post every Wednesday, almost every Wednesday and then maybe two Fridays a month I do free posts that might be reading, recommend, like tomorrow I’m doing reading recommendations for dads. Or I do job posts or feedback on paid subscribers’ pages, just some sort of fun thing that’s not prescriptive advice. I keep a long Word doc of possible topics so that I’m not searching for things to write about.

And then I sometimes do enter into intensives—I think I call them intensives. Mm-hmm. We spent six weeks working on just open pages and I’m about to launch another intensive where I’m going to take people behind the scenes of me helping someone write a book proposal, so you’ll actually get to see week-by-week how we’re developing that together. I like to take people on journeys. Maybe once a season or something, we’ll have a very specific journey. Otherwise, general advice. I don’t try to weigh in necessarily on the hot topics.

Monday afternoons I start penning away at a first draft, and then Tuesday afternoon I'll tinker with it and then read it really early in the morning Wednesday before it goes live.

I do tend to write them pretty close to the release date though, because I just find in these marvelous times in which we’re living, if you write things and schedule them for too many weeks down the road, you can’t read the room.


You have a great post on five things to consider before starting a Substack. From your perspective, inside publishing, what are the attitudes about Substack right now? What is your sense of it?


Well, everyone wants the writers on Substack. Everyone wants the writers on Substack, but, it’s sort of like these reality shows, like America’s Next Top Model or whatever. You have 3000 people in the beginning, but only nine are going to make the cut.

Is it reaching a saturation point? I don’t know. I don't know what the numbers are, but certainly so many people joined at a similar time.

They’re also joining prematurely because I think agents and editors are saying, Oh, my God. Start a Substack. Or even writers are saying to other people, Start a Substack—again, without the user manual. You have people starting a Substack, but they’re not building their subscription base. They haven’t really done the work to develop a content strategy or just a reason for being there.

That’s what Facebook’s for. It’s still that, you know, you don’t really know what you want to write about. Facebook is great. You write about my dog looks so cute today or I’m really upset with the fact that DeSantis is alive. You can kind of go all over the place, but on Substack you have to pick one: You’re angry about DeSantis or you're writing about your dog. You, it's not a place where you can do everything.

It's the same thing with social media. You have a new writer, and [the gatekeepers] are going to be like, Get on social media. But that’s useless advice. Which social media? Which platform is going to be not just the most effective but enjoyable for this particular writer and especially in terms of whatever their book is about it? It’s not actually beneficial to be in all the places. Again, it removes time that you could be spending on your own writing.

Substack is a tremendous amount of work. It’s not the place to just go and once in a while, write about writing or writing about what you're reading. You’ll just be, go completely unnoticed.

MailChimp is better for that, or Open Contact or whatever the heck. There are lots of other places, even Squarespace,, you know, through your own author website, you can have a seasonal newsletter that’s fine and just keep people up to date or just send out email blasts. But Substack is the AP level of newslettering and you have to work really, really hard.

I've seen so many friends who have much higher subscriber rates than I do, but they can’t keep up with the content calendar that they initially set for themselves. And so they’re constantly sending out these emails like, I’m so sorry to write yet again this month. Like, I just can't get there.

It is just lots of the posts are apologetic, which is fine, but you know, I think it’s a place where you shouldn't over-promise. People have lives. I don't think they’re going to die because so and so didn’t get their weekly newsletter to them. But just so that you yourself don’t feel bad, just set a content calendar you can produce without going crazy.

This is a major problem we have in publishing. I’m speaking as someone who’s been in branding agencies and pitched major companies and things like that, and we’d never say to a client, a competitor, Kellogg’s or whatever, we would never be like, Get on social media, Kellogg’s. You would be very particular with your advice. We think that you should be this realm of TikTok because of this. And you give them very specific reasons. I think that the gatekeepers need to learn more about what these different islands of social media are so that when they’re telling people, Oh, get on Substack, get on TikTok [they know].

Substack and TikTok, to me, are the hardest places to succeed. People are really doubling down with what they’re POV is, and it’s not haphazard at all. Just like the best Substacks are not haphazard at all.

Again, if you want to be all over the place, I think that Facebook is great for that. Twitter. I mean, Twitter does still seem like a place where you can just be like, I had tuna for lunch. Tuna’s weird. And then five hours later write like, Yay, Barbara Kingsolver. Congratulations. You just write stupid stuff. But Substack and TikTok are not like that. It just won't work.


In one of your posts, you make this really interesting point and I wanted to get more from you on it because it made me stop. But you basically say, if you want to write memoirs, you should be buying memoirs. If you want to write for the New Yorker, you should be subscribing. What is that training a writer to do? What does it do to us mentally to actually be purchasing it?


Yeah, that's a very good question. I think it is super important for people to buy books. Not all the time because books are expensive, but there are books you’re excited to read this summer you have to go out and buy them, some of them at full cost, so you understand what that feels like because when you become a debut author and you have people come to your event and they seem like they had an awesome time and they ask you a great question and they come up afterward and they thank you and they don't buy your book. If you don't buy other people's books, you won't get it. You'll be like, Oh, why couldn’t you buy my book? But if you're someone who starts to buy books at independent bookstores, then you become actually more sympathetic. Then you become a person who understands, okay, with tax that’s almost 30 bucks and maybe this person then is going out to dinner. And I've been that person.

I went to a bookstore recently and I wanted to buy five books. And I bought one and what happens to those four other books? You just start to forgive people, I think. And you also realize in a much keener manner how hard it is to get someone who doesn’t know you to buy a book. It is so hard.

I think, again, with publishers not telling us how much they expect us to sell, you just come up with these bonker numbers in your head, like, I want to sell 10,000 or 50,000 copies. Or you make up numbers about how much you think bestselling authors are selling, and, and it’s all just made up.

But then if you sit down and ask yourself, Well, what was the last book I bought in a bookstore? Maybe there’s a pretty large amount of time that's gone by. That’s not to guilt people, but it’s just to get you in a frame of mind that you do have a product that you’re asking people to buy.

You’re basically at a lifelong farmer's market, peddling your wares, and it’s going to be harder to sell books than you think, right? You hear about all these authors who just.

Gosh, I was just working with someone the other day who has 25,000 followers on Instagram, and she was going to self-publish her book because she was like, well, it will sell 25,000 copies. I was like, okay, so what I hear you saying is that you think that every one of your followers is going to buy your book. And she said, Well, yeah, because when I posted about it, everyone was like, where can I order it? I said, Yeah, but they didn’t click the buy button because you don’t have one yet.

I excerpt a hilarious essay in Before and After the Book Deal. I’m going to forget the author, but someone very funny wrote something about how he was just sure that his initial print run was going to run out because his friends and family would sell through the original print run.

And he said that to his publisher and he was like, This print run is too low because my friends and family are going to buy through the whole thing. And they were like, Oh, sweet writer. That’s so fun that you think that. Let’s just wait and see how it goes. And then if we need to re-up, you know, we, we can do that pretty quickly.

And he was like, I'm gonna show these people. And of course, no, it was the opposite. His friends didn’t buy it. They were like, Oh, I'll get it from Sandra. I know she has a copy and I’ll borrow it.


Well, thank you so much. This was so great. This is wonderful. I hope all of my subscribers will buy Before and After the Book Deal because it’s so amazing. Thank you for writing that. It’s such a service to all of us.


Well, thank you. Thank you so much for inviting me and good luck with this awesome project.

Substack Writers at Work
Substack Writers at Work Podcast
The Expert Guide to Substack—get subscribers, earn an income, build the career you want, and produce your best work. ✦ A bestselling, Featured Substack community of 13,000+ members ✦ ✨Top 10 Substacks in literature