How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?

Knocking on doors of traditional publishers

Flickr / arteolite

Note: I wrote the following article for Writer’s Digest magazine last year (July/August 2011) about how to get published; I’ve lightly updated it for distribution here. If you’re interested in more advice about how to get traditionally published, read my comprehensive post on the topic.


Don’t you wish someone could tell you how close you are to getting traditionally published? Don’t you wish someone could say, “If you just keep at it for three more years, you’re certain to make it!”

Or, even if it would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it be nice to be told that you’re wasting your time, so that you can move on, try another tack (like self-publishing), or perhaps even change course entirely to produce some other creative work?

I’ve counseled thousands of writers over the years, and even if it’s not possible for me to read their work, I can usually say something definitive about what their next steps should be. I often see when they’re wasting their time. No matter where you are in your own publishing path, you should periodically take stock of where you’re headed, and revise as necessary.

Recognizing Steps That Don’t Help You Get Published

Let’s start with four common time-wasting behaviors. You may be guilty of one or more. Most writers have been guilty of the first.

1. Submitting manuscripts that aren’t your best work

Let’s be honest. We all secretly hope that some editor or agent will read our work, drop everything, and call us to say: This is a work of genius! YOU are a genius!

Few writers give up on this dream entirely, but to increase the chances of this happening, you have to give each manuscript everything you’ve got, with nothing held back. Too many writers save their best effort for some future work, as if they were going to run out of good material.

You can’t operate like that.

Every single piece of greatness must go into your current project. Be confident that your well is going to be refilled. Make your book better than you ever thought possible—that’s what it needs to compete. It can’t be good.

“Good” gets rejected. Your work has to be the best. How do you know when it’s ready, when it’s your best? I like how Writer’s Digest editor and author Chuck Sambuchino answers this question at writing conferences: “If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready.”

It’s common for a new writer who doesn’t know any better to send off his manuscript without realizing how much work is left to do. But experienced writers are usually most guilty of sending out work that is not ready. Stop wasting your time.

2. Self-publishing when no one is listening

There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, but the most common one is the inability to land an agent or a traditional publisher.

Fortunately, it’s more viable than ever for a writer to be successful without a traditional publisher or agent. However, when writers chase self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing, they often have a nasty surprise in store:

No one is listening. They don’t have an audience.

Bowker reports that in 2011, more than 148,000 new print books were self-published, and more than 87,000 e-books were self-published. (See more about the report here.) Since Bowker only counts books that have ISBNs, that means thousands more titles go uncounted, since Amazon doesn’t require an ISBN for authors to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.

3. Looking for major publication of regional or niche work

The cookbook memoir that your local church ladies produced this year is probably not appropriate for one of the major New York publishers.

That may seem obvious when stated, but every year agents receive thousands of submissions for work that does not have national appeal, and does not deserve shelf space at every chain bookstore in the country. (And that’s typically why you get an agent: to sell your work to the big publishers, who specialize in national bookstore distribution and mass-media marketing.)

Now, if those church ladies were notorious for producing the award-winning Betty Crocker recipe 20 years in a row, we’d be onto something with a national market. But few regional works have that kind of broader angle.

As a writer, one of the most difficult tasks you face is having sufficient distance from your work to understand how a publishing professional would view the market for it, or to determine if there’s a commercial angle to be exploited. You have to view your work not as something precious to you, but as a product to be positioned and sold. That means pitching your work only to the most appropriate publishing houses, even if they’re in your own backyard rather than New York City.

4. Focusing on publishing when you should be writing

Some new writers are far too concerned with queries, agents, marketing or conference-going, instead of first producing the best work possible.

Don’t get me wrong—for some types of nonfiction, it’s essential to have a platform in place before you write the book. The fact that nonfiction authors don’t typically write the full manuscript until after acceptance of their proposal (with the exception of memoir and creative nonfiction) is indicative of how much platform means to their publication.

But for everyone else—those of us who are not selling a book based solely on the proposal—don’t get consumed with finding an agent until you’re a writer ready for publication. While I’m not advocating reclusive behavior—writers need to socialize and start developing relationships with other writers and authors—I see too many writers developing anxiety about the publishing process before they’ve even demonstrated to themselves that they can commit to writing and revising thousands and thousands of words—before they put in the amount of work that creates a publication-ready manuscript.

And now we come to that tricky matter again. How do you know when you’ve written and revised enough? How do you know when the work is ready?

Evaluating Your Place on the Publication Path

Whenever I sit down for a critique session with a writer, I ask three questions early on:

  1. How long have you been working on this manuscript, and who has seen it?
  2. Is this the first manuscript you’ve ever completed?
  3. How long have you been actively writing?

These questions help me evaluate where the writer might be on the publication path. Here are a few generalizations I can often make.

  • Many first manuscript attempts are not publishable, even after revision, yet they are necessary and vital for a writer’s growth. A writer who’s just finished her first manuscript probably doesn’t realize this, and will likely take the rejection process very hard. Some writers can’t move past this rejection. You’ve probably heard experts advise that you should always start working on the next manuscript, rather than waiting to publish the first. That’s because you need to move on, and not get stuck on publishing your first attempt.
  • A writer who has been working on the same manuscript for years and years—and has written nothing else—might be tragically stuck. There isn’t usually much valuable learning going on when someone tinkers with the same pages over a decade.
  • Writers who have been actively writing for many years, have produced multiple full-length manuscripts, have one or two trusted critique partners (or mentors), and have attended a couple major writing conferences are often well positioned for publication. They probably know their strengths and weaknesses, and have a structured revision process. Many such people require only luck to meet preparedness.
  • Writers who have extensive experience in one medium, then attempt to tackle another (e.g., journalists tackling the novel) may overestimate their abilities to produce a publishable manuscript on the first try. That doesn’t mean their effort won’t be good, but it might not be good enough. Fortunately, any writer with professional experience will probably approach the process with more of a business mindset, a good network of contacts to help him understand next steps, and a range of tools to overcome the challenges.

Notice I have not mentioned talent. I have not mentioned creative writing classes or degrees. I have not mentioned online presence. These factors are usually less relevant in determining how close you are to publishing a book-length work.

The two things that are relevant:

  1. How much time you’ve put into writing. I agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule in Outliers: The key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
  2. Whether you’re reading enough to understand where you lie on the spectrum of quality. In his series on storytelling (available on YouTube), Ira Glass says:

The first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambitions, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point quit. … Most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste [and] they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be.

If you can’t perceive the gap—or if you haven’t gone through the “phase”—you probably aren’t reading enough. How do you develop good taste? You read. How do you understand what quality work is? You read. What’s the best way to improve your skills aside from writing more? You read. You write, and you read, and you begin to close the gap between the quality you want to achieve, and the quality you can achieve. In short: You’ve got to produce a lot of crap before you can produce something publishable by traditional Big Six standards.

Signs You’re Getting Closer to Publication

  • You start receiving personalized, “encouraging” rejections.
  • Agents or editors reject the manuscript you submitted, but ask you to send your next work. (They can see that you’re on the verge of producing something great.)
  • Your mentor (or published author friend) tells you to contact his agent, without you asking for a referral.
  • An agent or editor proactively contacts you because she spotted your quality writing somewhere online or in print.
  • Looking back, you understand why your work was rejected, and see that it deserved rejection. You probably even feel embarrassed by earlier work.

Knowing When It’s Time to Change Course

I used to believe that great work would eventually get noticed—you know, that old theory that quality bubbles to the top?

I don’t believe that any more.

Great work is overlooked every day, for a million reasons. Business concerns outweigh artistic concerns. Some people are just perpetually unlucky.

To avoid beating your head against the wall, here are some questions that can help you understand when and how to change course.

1. Is your work commercially viable?

Indicators will eventually surface if your work isn’t suited for commercial publication. You’ll hear things like: “Your work is too quirky or eccentric.” “It has narrow appeal.” “It’s experimental.” “It doesn’t fit the model.” Possibly: “It’s too intellectual, too demanding.” These are signs that you may need to consider self-publishing—which will also require you to find the niche audience you appeal to.

2. Are readers responding to something you didn’t expect?

I see this happen all the time: A writer is working on a manuscript that no one seems interested in, but has fabulous success on some side project. Perhaps you really want to push your memoir, but it’s a humorous tip series on your blog that everyone loves. Sometimes it’s better to pursue what’s working, and what people express interest in, especially if you take enjoyment in it. Use it as a steppingstone to other things if necessary.

3. Are you getting bitter?

You can’t play poor, victimized writer and expect to get published. As it is in romantic relationships, pursuing an agent or editor with an air of desperation, or with an Eeyore complex, will not endear you to them. Embittered writers carry a huge sign with them that screams, “I’m unhappy, and I’m going to make you unhappy, too.”

If you find yourself demonizing people in the publishing industry, taking rejections very personally, feeling as if you’re owed something, and/or complaining whenever you get together with other writers, it’s time to find the refresh button. Return to what made you feel joy and excitement about writing in the first place. Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on getting published, and you’ve forgotten to cherish the other aspects. Which brings me to the overall theory of how you should, at various stages of your career, revisit and revise your publication strategy.

Revising Your Publishing Plan

No matter how the publishing world changes, consider these three timeless factors as you make decisions about your next steps forward:

1. What makes you happy

This is the reason you got into writing in the first place. Even if you put this on the back burner in order to advance other aspects of your writing and publishing career, don’t leave it out of the equation for very long. Otherwise your efforts can come off as mechanistic or uninspired, and you’ll eventually burn out.

2. What earns you money

Not everyone cares about earning money from writing—and I believe that anyone in it for the coin should find some other field—but as you gain experience, the choices you make in this regard become more important. The more professional you become, the more you have to pay attention to what brings the most return on your investment of time and energy. As you succeed, you don’t have time to pursue every opportunity. You have to STOP doing some things.

3. What reaches readers or grows your audience

Growing readership is just as valuable as earning money. It’s like putting a bit of money in the bank and making an investment that pays off as time passes. Sometimes you’ll want to make trade-offs that involve earning less money in order to grow readership, because it invests in your future. (E.g., for a time you might focus on building a blog or a site, rather than writing for print publication, to grow a more direct line to your fans.)

It is rare that every piece of writing you do, or every opportunity presented, can involve all three elements at once. Commonly you can get two of the three. Sometimes you’ll pursue certain projects with only one of these factors in play. You get to decide based on your priorities at any given point in time.

At the very beginning of this post, I suggested that it might be nice if someone could tell us if we’re wasting our time trying to get traditionally published.

Here’s a little piece of hope: If your immediate thought was, I couldn’t stop writing even if someone told me to give up, then you’re much closer to publication than someone who is easily discouraged. The battle is far more psychological than you might think. Those who can’t be dissuaded are more likely to reach their goals, regardless of the path they ultimately choose.

 

 

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Getting Published.

114 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? | Jane Friedman | book publishing | Scoop.it

  2. Thanks for this, Jane.
    This certainly described me six months ago. I’d written and networked and conferenced and blogged and built my platform for over two years. I’d pitched agents in person and via email. A few thought I should broaden the (nonfiction) topic, but I knew that would dilute what I was trying to do.
    Every single one of the two dozen plus agents I pitched (there were more but I mean those who actually responded to my queries) said the same thing: “I don’t know how to market this.” While I appreciated their honesty, I was confused. I knew very well how to market it. That’s what led me to self-publishing.
    Also, my decision to break the book down into six smaller books (around 10,000 words each) pretty much ensured I’d be locked out of traditional publishing. Each book approaches my topic from a different perspective or niche, and I know how to market them all.
    I felt initially that my decision was based on my inability to interest an agent, but I know now that it was based on marketing. And I think a lot of self-publishing authors are way ahead of traditional publishers and agents when it comes to marketing.
    As far as the writing: the first two books will come out in January/February of 2013. The writing in the second one is much stronger than the first, and that was a pleasant surprise to me. I’m hoping that trend continues.
    Viki

  3. Thanks, Jane – for this and another great year of advice! Double dittos on the Malcolm “Outliers” reference and the race to publication so many new writers have. It’s often the first question people ask me before they have even finished a first draft. Always makes me cringe. I’m sharing this over on my Buzz Books page. And I love this line, “Sometimes it’s better to pursue what’s working, and what people express interest in, especially if you take enjoyment in it. Use it as a steppingstone to other things if necessary.” Even though fiction is my first love, I’m interested to see where a couple of non-fiction books take me in the new year.

  4. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post on many different levels. Writing proficiency–in one or several different areas of writing–can make it even harder to gauge where you are and becomes an additional factors on the road to publication. Everyone has different strengths. Being a good writer doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good storyteller. Agents can show interest in the writing, or in the story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire package is ready for publication yet.

  5. Thank you so much for this great advice! I am a published author, who took a step back to study the market the last 2 years and work on my writing more and network. I found a lot of things in here that are motivating I’m on the right track, and a few things I may need to focus more on. :-) Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  6. How timely! I’m sitting at my computer wondering about my next step. From what you’ve said in this article, I believe I am close to publication. I am carrying on with my next novel ( an excerpt from which has already been published), but at the same time trying to figure out how to navigate the new publishing sphere. There are more choices out there,so that’s encouraging. Still, self-publishing is not an easy one, given the demands on one’s creative time to market and market some more. Thanks again for your perspective. And happy new year, Jane.

  7. As usual, Jane, your advice is so clear, compassionate, and wise. I feel fortunate that I found a publisher who is a good fit for my book (memoir) and that I was able to use a book proposal and write to contracted deadlines. It kept me going through my 10,000 hours, which started when I first wrote and published personal essays in the 1990’s. This approach is just a variation on the theme and might not be possible for those whose sights are set on mainstream publishing.

  8. Really helpful article! I’ve been working on my novel for quite a while; after two lots of feedback for literary agencies and being short listed for an award, I decided to e-publish and set up a blog to chronicle my journey. I know my manuscript needs changes for it to be really good, but I’ve been stalling. So thanks, this has definitely increased my motivation!

  9. Jane, 50 years after I wrote in my diary (December 28, 1962) that I got my first college A for a course (in psychology), you stated in the concluding paragraph of your post, “The [publication] battle is far more psychological than you might think.” Thank you for this. I remain encouraged. Best wishes for a productive 2013.

  10. I could tell I was getting bitter, so I took a two year break. I now feel refreshed and ready to re-tackle the novel with fresh eyes. This is a great article. Thank you.

  11. Jane, Thank you for this insightful and realistic gauge by which to measure our work. It is so important to be able to get a broader picture of the road map – sometimes I get so focused on where I am in one particular moment, that I can’t see how far I’ve come or even far enough ahead to take the next step.

    Blessings – Happy New Year!

  12. Thanks, Jane. Clear and helpful, as always. It’s good to remember that like any craft, writers must pass through an apprenticeship, graduate to the status of journeyman, and, hopefully, achieve mastery. The time it takes to get there varies considerably. Here’s to a productive 2013!

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  16. This was an excellent post Ms. Friedman. Very honest with loads of helpful tips & direction for us while on our journey. While reading it, we guaged where we are while standing on the plank. Thank you for this, and we look forward to reading more of your blog, as well as taking one of your classes very soon.

  17. Pingback: Amazing article on writing and publishing... - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums

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  19. Jane, Thank you for your frank insights. I appreciate your practical perspective. Wishing you all good things (like time to ponder, a contract or two, and a brilliant new idea for a novel) in the coming year!

  20. Pingback: How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? | The Passive Voice

  21. If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s
    a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you
    haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote
    it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your
    career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.

    Wow. I don’t think you updated your article enough. Times have changed and Amanda Hocking isn’t the only indie out there who discovered readers ARE listening—if your story is any good.

      • Work becomes visible at 10 books. I have done not a smidge of promotion for my pen names and they sell better than this one. And I’m not the only one. The key is keep writing and publishing. While I’ll gladly say there are those who want to go trad pub, there is no guaranteed non-results from self-publishing without marketing. In fact, if you keep doing it, it’s thus far created the most working writers, many unheard of but still making a living. I stand by my statement: You seriously did not update this article enough. It’s a year old and it shows. Badly.

        • Perhaps you can let us know your pen names and book titles, so we can look at your success as a case study. I think many readers here would love to know more about how you gained momentum: when did you start writing, when did you start publishing your work, and how long did it take you to make a living wage? If you’re unwilling to offer this information, then could you give us links to case studies of unheard-of authors (without a traditional publishing history) who have opened up about their process and show how they did it without marketing and promotion?

          I’m also wondering what you think of the self-pub authors who reach the Kindle bestseller list, then sign with traditional publishers? That was the case for nearly all Kindle bestselling authors in 2012 who weren’t already traditionally published. I imagine they do it because they can make more money, and/or want additional marketing and promotion for their work. What do you think?

          • I’ll take this in pieces. 1. I will not list my bestselling pen names because they are pen names for a reason. My open pen name is Pearl Wise. I am not earning a living wage yet because I have at most 14 titles under a single pen name and they’re all shorts. At 10 titles, my works started selling more than coffee money. At 12 months, I started seeing momentum when my sales doubled. At about 2 years (now), I sold more in the last two quarters than the rest of how long I’d been published. I have published nothing new since July. Promotion = nada.

          • 2. Most of the living wage writers I know comment at places like Dean Wesley Smith’s blog and The Passive Voice. Annie Bellet is one of the only one’s whose work I love. Camille Leguire does well, but I don’t know if she’s making a living wage yet. I’ve seen quite a handful mention that they are doing fine as full-time writers in the definitively midlist category, but they don’t write the kind of stuff I read, so can’t name better than browse those forums for a while. These people’s idea of promotion is have a website and post a single announcement when they make a release. Keep writing. Repeat ad nauseum.

          • 3. KDP’s announcements are nice and all but hardly representative. More than 50% of my sales are not from Amazon and most indies are wisely putting their eggs in every basket they can get in. Print editions through Createspace, Lightning Source, etc. also add up. These aren’t in your numbers and therefore render your math useless.

          • Don’t know. Don’t care. I write, they find one story and eventually move on to another. I find the stories I read so many different ways that I don’t see any reason to try to guess which way my readers find mine. The people who find my Liana Mir work clearly prefer free reads. Not surprising. I do myself and I’m firmly steeped in the fandom world where that’s common enough. The people who find my other pen name seem to do so only after it’s sat there for a while and I’m really not sure how. I do know that every time I publish something new, I get a huge boost in sales, across more than just that title. Which is why my focus this next year is to produce, not to promote. Just keep a nice website up-to-date, which I need to improve on, and publish more books.

        • More food for thought: In April 2012, Amazon released the following statement: “Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale—more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club.”

          Let’s do a bit of math based on Amazon’s numbers:
          “More than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month” x 70% royalties on $2.99 list price =

          $2 per copy

          That means that there are more than 1,000 authors who are getting 1000 * $2, or $2,000/month. Or $24,000/year. Living wage? Maybe.

          But that’s just for 1,000 authors or so. There are tens of thousands of books out there earning much less. Most likely this is a Pareto curve: there are probably about 200 authors who are really making a good living using Amazon KDP. Yes, there are other e-retailers, but Amazon is the best reference point, since they sell 50-70% of all ebooks in the U.S. market.

        • I’m sure the more you have, the better, but it’s quite possible to do well even with less 10. I had three books through most of 2012, not adding the fourth until mid-October. I averaged about $2500/month and I am nobody. (some months were great, others only okay, but that was the average). As far as platform goes, I don’t really have too much of one–nobody has heard of me. Even most of the people I work with on my day job don’t know about my books. I have a blog with a few hundred followers and a FB page that has just over 350 likes. The hardest part is visibility–I will agree with Jane on that. When my first book in my series is visible through a Select promo, it goes on to do well with sales and reviews but when that dies down, sales slow too.

          Maintaining that visibility is the hardest challenge with self-publishing–however, I have to wonder if that isn’t the challenge for all authors? Do self-publishers have that much more difficulty? Barring the perennial bestselling authors like King, Koontz, etc, how do trade published mid-list authors achieve and maintain visibility? From what I’ve seen and heard, it is no easier for them.

  22. Very interesting and useful article – thank you. I went “indie” when my backlist was dropped in the UK. It is a decision I have not regretted, but I do occasionally find it difficult to “go it alone” especially where marketing is concerned. I write good books – but how do you get that across to potential readers when there are hundreds (thousands) or other authors writing good books? Creating buzz about your books without boring the pants off people is not easy, and what little you can do is time consuming. Worth it though!

  23. I’ve decided to self-publish my first book. While the marketing process will be especially challenging for me – considering I’m such an introvert – I believe strongly in my writing and will make it work. I think most book agents and publishers really don’t have the writer’s best interests in mind. Self-publishing puts power back into the hands of the people who deserve it: the writers.

  24. I think your advice on self publishing is woefully out of date. Yes, you won’t build an audience if you simply put something up on Kindle Select and hope that the masses discover your genius, but there is success for those willing to put in the marketing and business work required to make such an enterprise a success.
    Unfortunately, too many writers tell me, “I went into writing to write, not to worry about that nasty business stuff. That’s why I want an agent or a traditional publisher.” Such an attitude is why most of them fail.

    • I agree, RD. There is success in store for those willing to put in the marketing and business work required to make such an enterprise a success.

      And the reason that I warn against self-publishing is EXACTLY for the reason you’ve stated: Too many writers don’t want to worry about that nasty business stuff, so they fail.

  25. Hmm. I can listen to you, who makes her living telling writers how they should write, but has no significant commercial success actually writing, or I can listen to people like Robert Heinlein, Dean Wesley Smith, and Kris Rusch, who have had major and sustained commercial success and whose principles have sustained writers for generations.

    Decisions, decisions.

    • Marc, I have tremendous respect for the authors you mention, and many others who are doing remarkable work on both traditional and self-publishing sides of the industry, such as CJ Lyons.

      My commercial success is on the industry side, as an editorial director, publisher, and digital content strategist at traditional publications—someone who acquires material and edits writers for publication across a variety of channels. Working in the publishing industry is how I’ve made my living since I graduated college.

  26. This is so absolutely amazing! You have a way of telling it like it is, without hammering too hard at people. In my new-ish experience as a published author, I’m amazed by the number of people who really, genuinely want to write a really great book. But when you ask them a few clarifying questions, they really haven’t taken even the most basic of steps. The steps you outlined and experiences you shared are parallel to my own experience. This post is so, so true! Thanks!

  27. Pingback: Writerly Links that Made Our Hearts Sing (Happy New Year!) | Writers In The Storm Blog

  28. Pingback: How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? | Jane Friedman | Freelance translation and writing | Scoop.it

  29. The admonition about writers “working on the same manuscript for years and years” made me wince. I’ve been working on a manuscript for, well, a while … it’s not my first, and not the only thing I’ve written or published during the time, but it’s been agonizingly slow. Revision, which has taken up about 80% of the time, has been deliberate and steady, and I’m at last reaching the point where the returns in improved quality for the time spent on the MS are truly diminishing.

    One needs to produce as polished and perfect a manuscript as possible, yet one needs also to have more than one MS in circulation in order to increase the already-meager odds of landing an agent and getting published. For those of us who have to earn our living full time in a field that has little or nothing to do with writing, editing, or teaching the same, and whose writing time is limited to between 30 min to 2 hrs a day, this poses something of a conundrum.

    I trust that I’m not the only one here that struggles with this.

    • 1) You must write.
      2) You must finish what you write.
      3) You must not rewrite except to editorial order.
      4) You must keep what you write in front of people who can buy it until it is sold.

  30. Thanks Jane, for excellent advice. Contrary to some commenters here, I think it’s very timely and up-to-date. Too much hype around self-publishing and it can lure newbies into making the wrong decisions. Just because the likes of Amanda Hocking made it doesn’t mean that this performance can be easily replicated. It can’t. And no matter what anyone tells you, it requires LOTS of marketing. I checked on Pearl Wise: no author page on Amazon, just a few short stories and even in one case at least, she used a title (The Alchemist) that is the exact same title as one famous best-selling author (Coelho) – an obvious marketing ploy that requires no further comment. Of course, titles are not copyrighted and one is free to use any title one wants… I think my next book is going to be called Romeo and Juliet (sick!) and we’ll see how it sells…

    Book discoverability is the number one obstacle for any newly published writer but if you don’t have a Big Five (soon Big Four) name behind you, you’re nobody. Sure, you can get some buzz going in the blogosphere if you’re very good at manoeuvering on FB, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, StumbleUpon etc etc plus blogging (natch), but there it stops. The hard thing is to step into the real physical world and that’s where a traditional publisher can make all the difference…

    Plus there’s something you didn’t mention but is worth saying: when you self-publish, your sales numbers are in the open, public, anyone can see them. You’re selling two copies a month? Everybody knows it! And I mean everyone who counts in the industry, literary agents, editors, publishers, critics. What does that do to one’s career prospects? I think it probably kills them! Am I right or wrong, what do you think?

    • I think that the statement that using a title that someone else has already used comprising the definite article and a common noun is “an obvious marketing ploy” is so ludicrous that I have a very hard time taking anything in your comment seriously.

      • Incidentally, if you do your little Nancy Drew number on me, you may see that B&N has conflated my book “The Reunion” with one by Meg Cabot which has a very similar tiitle. Before you get all gotcha-y, PubIt did that, I have been screaming at them for weeks to fix it, and if it WAS a marketing ploy, it would be a really bad one, as the book has not sold well on B&N anyway. I THINK it’s fixed now.

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  33. Wonderful article. It’s a shame that so many people have found a taste of honesty so bitter, but such is life, I suppose. I think more people are benefiting from this article than the comment numbers are reflecting, pride is just a funny, funny thing. Thanks for taking the time to do this. It was very refreshing.

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  36. “If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.”

    I think that I’m the target market for this advice, a well-meaning counter to Amazon’s bullish homepage promotions of KDP. I was getting “personalized, ‘encouraging’ rejections” from top (Pulitzer-winner-repping) agents, for example, when I decided to self-publish. What I think Jane misses, and what ultimately tipped the scales for me, was being just as clear-eyed about traditional publishing’s success rates as Jane is about self-publishing here. Did I want poor chances in a shrinking market (with several B&N stores closing last year, I think this is fair and not snarky)? Or poor chances in a market with double- to triple-digit growth every year?

    Also, building a platform, for many people, is starting to come after the work is out there. This is certainly what both Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey did. Since it comes down to the writing even in our imperfect world, actually publishing the book is the first real step in building a platform based on one’s ability to write long-form prose.

    • Well stated and true in my experience. It’s often said (whether correctly or not) that most self-pub books don’t sell more than 100 copies, but a similar adage applies to traditionally published books.

      Undoubtedly a platform can be built after the fact, and (as has been expressed elsewhere in this comment thread), it’s proven that having more work on the market is a key part of building that platform. So you see many first self-pub books breaking out with good sales about 12-18-24 months after they were initially released—a very different model than the traditional one, where you have 3 months to sink or swim.

      What I observe with many new writers who go down the indie path, at least those with misplaced expectations, is that if they don’t see lift-off quickly, they soon give up. And some don’t have another book in them to publish, or it might take them years to produce another book. (This is true mostly of the more literary author or nonfiction author who spends many months or years on research.)

      But for genre authors, especially those who can produce work in high volume? What you’re saying rings absolutely true to me. Thank you, Stephanie, for the thoughtful comment.

  37. Wow, some of these people are heinously mean. Thanks, Jane, for the sound advice. I followed Pat Rothfuss’ link over here. Honestly, I trust his opinion quite a bit, and if he’s directing traffic over here, I believe you have something worthwhile to say. Moreover, I then read the post, and it makes both dollars and cents to me. Thanks for putting it out there for those of us with ears, rather than just a mouth.

    Also: I bet none of these sarcastic-y commenters would say half of what they wrote in person. Just saying…the pointy-heads talk tough, then quickly retreat to the library ; )

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  40. This is one of the most helpful blog posts I’ve ever read. It contains so much useful information — but perhaps even more importantly, offers the best advice I’ve seen for self assessment. Thank you for helping me start the new year out right.

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  42. Thanks for writing this, it is very helpful to see things from a perspective other than those dreams frolicking around in my head. One thing that I took from this was also something not even said. More or less, you never know if you don’t try. I’ve been writing seriously for about ten years now and I haven’t even attempted to get anything published. Maybe it’s time I crawl out from under my rock. Thanks again.

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  46. A great article, thank you. I especially enjoyed this refreshingly honest acknowledgement of a truth I have long suspected:

    “I used to believe that great work would eventually get noticed—you know, that old theory that quality bubbles to the top?
    I don’t believe that any more.
    Great work is overlooked every day, for a million reasons.”

  47. I appreciate many of the points in this article. Writing is damned hard work!

    I also want to say that the term ‘good’ in relation to publishing can be hurtful for those struggling to be trade-published. ‘Good’ in terms of sales means a book with mass appeal. The writing of such a book certainly may not need this: “Every single piece of greatness must go into your current project.”

    ‘Good’ and ‘great’ are subjective. In the eyes of a reader, sometimes ‘great’ is a fluffy beach read.

    We all know that many have their very first book trade-published – because the publisher thought it would have mass-appeal, especially in the YA market.

    I am a self-publisher in my first year and extremely happy with my decision to self-publish. I realise that my $2000 per month (give or take) may not seem like viable income, But I see it this way. Over five years, it might be $120,000 in my pocket (besides my regular income). Hopefully, with more books out than the three I have currently, I can make a great deal more. (Although, nothing is certain and I’m not counting on it.)

    I know a trade-published YA author who has put out two books in a series, yet has made a little over $2000 in three years. She has spent a lot of money on attending book fairs and doing her own publicity. And she has no guarantee that her publisher will publish any of her future books.

    I think we need balanced discussion when it comes to ‘good books’ versus ‘commercial books’ and trade-publishing versus self-publishing.

    Although I must admit, I do prefer that writers are discouraged from taking up self-publishing as a viable option–there are far, far too many quality self-published books coming onto the market for my liking! ;)

    • Great point about proper definitions.

      I’ve been pondering lately the distinction that needs to be made between writing books as a consumable product or commodity (where the work needs only be good in the sense the reader has a next satisfying book to read as soon as possible), and those who are writing for rather different purposes—let’s say a “literary” novelist like Jonathan Franzen or an investigative journalist like Katherine Boo—who do not treat their writing like a commodity or product. Yet we know how legacy publishers act—they very much have to see ALL these things as products even if they got into the business for the art.

      These thoughts are still percolating—will write a post soon, I hope, diving in.

      • Totally in agreement–in relation to sales, a book is a product and a consumable. I look forward to seeing your post on this.

  48. Great, great spot on article, Jane, I think a lot of people decide to write a book based on a blog or a traumatic experience without taking the time to study the craft of writing. When I got started, I took a number of classes and joined a writing group-I really worked hard.Two different agents tried to place my book, but in the end, I self-published (fairly successfully-sold 7000 books). The greatest challenge has been balancing my marketing brain with my writing brain!

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  50. If writers had your audacity to be this honest, take it on the chin, and keep going, we’d have a lot more excellent writing out there for readers. Kudos. You’ve demonstrated your point in handling these comments and shown us all how it’s done.

    You’ve touched on some points I feel are critical. More time reading and writing than marketing; are you doing what you enjoy; and if you’re in this for the coin, think again. Since moving to rural Arkansas, I’ve had a great awakening about the arts. Believe it or not, people have been working at a fever pitch of creativity for generations without a single thought of fame or fortune. Their creativity isn’t even part of their survival equation. They do it because it feels good, brings them pleasure, and gives them something to share with others. It’s surprising how mind-blowing the product of their creativity can be and how many of them say they just love it, they sit and do what they do all day from sun up to sun down. For many of these people, it’s been very recent that someone has finally talked them into putting their work for sale at festivals and such. Their writing, weaving, painting, music, poetry, you-name-it is incredibly good. Nay, great. And the price of what they offer keeps going up as they test the market from one county fair to the next. They’re working, unknowingly, on the philosophy of love it or leave it because if you don’t love it you’re going to get bitter, burnt out, and disappointed. I’ll write until the day I die, but only because it’s what I enjoy and what I’ve done since I was a kid. I don’t mind if it takes forever getting published in the right places for the right reasons, if I ever stop experimenting and seek publication. I’m over the instant gratification thing.

    Especially now when I’m wondering if we’re in a publishing bubble. Before all this started, reading was declining, and it was estimated that only 10% of the people who purchased books actually finished them. Now indie authors are getting thousands of downloads, but how many of those are indie authors supporting other indie authors? I know I’ve done it plenty, bought their books to support their efforts but never read them. I’m running low on cash after a year of doing this and not buying as much. I don’t even want the free stuff. I’ve got a Kindle full of those already.

    I think everybody’s fooling themselves all the way around. I hope I’m wrong.

  51. I”m just discovering this post now. A very good post. I did self-published wanting to find out what the fuss was all about after years of submitting. I did make sure I had the novel in book form (Createspace) and have treated it like a traditional pub book as far as marketing goes. I’m not making a lot of money, but interest in the book is growing. It’s in libraries, sells out at my local indie and has been selected by numerous book clubs. Historical fiction, I’ve been invited to speak at museums and libraries. There is definitely a lot of self-pub books out there. I’m still querying for other novels, but this particular novel is just right for this approach.

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  59. I’ve read this three times in the past week, mostly because I’m at the “encouraging rejections” phase and have been coming perilously close to getting embittered. Your words have been helpful, and I’m glad to have them to return to as things progress. Cheers, Jane!

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  61. This is excellent advice. Many thanks. On a side note, I notice that your “critics” in these comments sound desperate and deeply insecure about how they’ve managed their careers. I think this only bolsters what you’re saying, as do your cogent replies to their shrill misgivings.

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  68. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I found this article really discouraging. It made me feel like, just because this is my first manuscript, and I’ve only been pursuing professional writing for about four years, then my book automatically is not worth trying to get published. It doesn’t take into account how hard you might have worked to edit and revise, if you’ve work-shopped it with other people or not, if you’ve built a platform with an audience for your book while writing it, or if your book is on a topic that is timely and could help people, if it’s written well.

    Also, I was kind of hoping for something that said, “If X number of months have passed and you haven’t gotten a ‘bite’ then give up”, or “If you’ve sent X number of queries and no one has requested your full manuscript” or, “If X number of agents have requested your manuscript, but none offered you a contract,” or something like that.

    That’s where I am. I’ve been submitting for five months, have sent a little over 50 queries, and have gotten my manuscript requested by one agent and publisher so far. Does that mean I should give up?

    • In most cases, if you’ve spent a full year actively trying to sell a project (meaning you’ve queried just about everyone you respect who might be a potential agent or editor), without success, then it’s time to think about starting your next project, embarking on the self-publishing path, or fundamentally changing the nature of the project.

      My answer might be different depending on whether we’re talking about a narrative (a novel or memoir) or information-based nonfiction. If it’s narrative, then I’m more confident you need to move on to the next project or self-publish if that’s appealing to you. If it’s nonfiction, then you might be able to change your fortunes by building a better platform or fundamentally changing the nature of the project (to make it more marketable).

      Also, if you’ve been shopping your project cold (cold queries to people who don’t know you), then maybe it’s time to invest in a writers conference where you can meet agents & editors, and find out why you’re not getting more requests. It sounds like your query isn’t doing its job well, or you have a tremendously unmarketable concept/hook.

      • It’s a non-fiction memoir dealing with homosexuality and the church, from a straight ally perspective. And the full year thing was the time I was going to give myself to get traditionally published, before going down the self-publishing route, so I’m glad to hear that was not just an arbitrary length of time. I’m far from reaching my goal of querying “everyone” though, I think once I hit about 100 I’ll know to stop.

        My problem seems to be the exact opposite of what you said, I’ve been told by a few people that my concept/hook is very marketable, so marketable in fact, that right around the time I first tried to get published, half a dozen books with my concept came out from publishers I was querying. So my problem could be bad timing. Which seems terribly, horribly, unfair.

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  72. Self maturity and patience is a given to be successful, yes, that’s a given to most professionals. However, you keep coming back to the point of acquiring a network of trusted writers, authors, mentors, etc. That’s not something that’s normally readily available for an average Joe. How do you do it without devoting a fortune in time and money to looking instead of writing?

    • 1. Writing conferences, writing groups, critique groups, etc.

      2. Online networking through writer communities — and there are thousands! Some of the ones I know about: Wattpad, BookCountry, WriterUnboxed … And of course there is Twitter and other social media that’s very helpful.

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  76. Have written
    since 1996, producing ten novels, found no one interested in my work (they did
    not even ask me for a synopsis), made 2 novels in POD format, publisher gone
    broke (not my fault). Now I’m working on my last one, after that it’s over, no
    more chimera, can’t bear it anymore. I’ll try to pick up the loss of time in a more
    useful manner. However, it was not all wasted time. It illustrates that hard
    working, dedication and perseverance do not necessarily lead to success. I
    should have married an agent or a publisher as Dan Brown and JK Rowling have
    done.

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