Are You Wasting Your Time Trying to Get Published?

Writer's Digest (July/August 2011)

Writer's Digest (July/August 2011)

Don’t you wish someone could tell you if you’re wasting your time trying to be a writer? Or if you’re at all close to getting traditionally published—assuming that’s your goal?

In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest, I have a feature article, “Revising Your Path to Publication,” that attempts to address these (rather) unanswerable questions. It’s a helpful article for writers who feel like they’re banging their head against the wall. In a nutshell, here’s what I advise.

Avoid these 5 time wasters

  1. Submitting manuscripts that aren’t your best work.
  2. Self-publishing when no one is listening.
  3. Distributing your work digitally when your audience wants print—or vice versa.
  4. Seeking New York commercial publishing deals for regional or niche work.
  5. Focusing on publishing when you should be writing.

 The 2 things I find MOST relevant to your publication path

  1. How much time you’ve put into writing. Have you put in enough time to get good at it?
  2. How much time you’ve spent reading quality, published work. This helps you learn how to write better AND understand where you might be on the spectrum of quality.

When is it time to change course?

  1. Honestly assess whether your work is commercially viable. Not all work is.
  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.
  3. Are you getting bitter? 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.

Here’s a little piece of hope: If your immediate thought upon reading this blog post headline was something like: I couldn’t stop trying 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.

If you’d like to read the full-length article (about 2,500 words), then get the Writer’s Digest July/August 2011 issue.

Looking for other posts I’ve written similar to this topic?

Questions? I’m happy to address them in the comments.


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Jane Friedman has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. From 2001–2010 she worked at Writer's Digest, where she ultimately became publisher; more recently, she was an editor at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she led digital strategy. Jane currently teaches writing and publishing at the University of Virginia and is a columnist for Publishers Weekly. The Great Courses just released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (2017). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.
Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Writing Advice.


  1. Fantastic article.  It’s funny how as writers we generally are shy and introverted, yet when we finish the first draft of our first manuscript, we become like “drunk seniors on spring break”!  
    Suddenly, our inhibitions are gone and we think everyone is just waiting to worship our “masterpiece”… uggg… growing pains can suck!  But when we get through them, advice like yours can be priceless.  Thank you

  2. Jane,
    I absolutely love reading your articles. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how I look at it, I am one of those people who “couldn’t stop trying even if someone told me to give up.” Thanks for your words of wisdom, which they always truly are.

  3. Jane, I am curious. There are quite a few people having a remarkable success with self-publishing through e-books. John Locke just sold 1,000,000 copies of a book that he e-published. Why would going that route when no one in the industry seems interested be wasting your time trying to get published? Especially if you have gotten very positive feedback from readers who have looked at the work. (Not necessarily friends, but people you have asked to review the book). I have been waiting three years to get my book published. I have an agent who has only offered me dubious contracts with e-publishing and print on demand houses.

    • There are roughly 900,000 new book titles published every year, and that doesn’t count the many e-books that are also being released.

      Self-publishing isn’t wasting your time as long as you have a strategy for reaching readers through all the noise and competition. If you have no way of making people aware your work exists, it will not sell.

      John Locke now has an e-book available explaining how he was successful e-publishing and how he reached readers. It was not a case of him releasing his book and just watching the money roll in. It was WORK. Amanda Hocking tells a similar story on her blog. I’ve pasted a snippet below, but the full post is here:

      “I don’t think people really grasp how much work I do. I think there is this very big misconception that I was like, “Hey, paranormal is pretty hot right now,” and then I spent a weekend smashing out some words, threw it up online, and woke up the next day with a million dollars in my bank account. 

      This is literally years of work you’re seeing. And hours and hours of work each day. The amount of time and energy I put into marketing is exhausting. I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book. I hardly have time to write anymore, which sucks and terrifies me.”

      • Thank you for your response! I was expecting to do a lot of work marketing either way. Of course I would prefer to get published by a big house, but as a new author that is… impractical. I will have to check out that e-book. 

  4. Jane,

    This is GREAT advice for any professional writer. Thank you. Your tips really made me think, and they actually apply to the professional (i.e. they’re not everyone-in-the-writing-world-knows-this tips).


  5. Good article, and timely.  I am leaning toward self-publishing, but I realize it is a lot of work.  I think a lot of people do not realize it still has to be done professionally to rise above the crowd.  Just reformatting a Word doc to Kindle format doesn’t cut it.  As we used to say in IT, garbage in, garbage out.  If anything, I think the bar is higher since there is no one that has your back.
    Keep up the good work.  Yours is one of the most useful threads I follow!  

  6. I write because I love to share my thoughts; ultimately to encourage others.  Blogging has been a good way to learn whether or not anyone else wants to hear what rattles in my head from day to day.  I think that there will come a time when I will know whether or not my thoughts should be bound in paper, that I might make it into the homes of others.  I enjoy reading your thoughts, advice and other information.  It has shown me in many ways that I am on the right path.  I write first because I love to write.

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  8. This was excellent; from an MFA graduate, aspiring author (I’m waiting for my manuscript to be ready), and creative writing instructor’s viewpoint, it’s completely true. 

  9. Good points, all. I am often asked by friends or relatives to read their work and give them feedback. Most are awful and no, they should not be encourage. They should take a basic English course instead. So, how do you handle such situations when in fact encouraging them would be cruel?

    • Most writers aren’t very good when they first start. I usually tell people, “If this is something you’re passionate about, if you love doing it, then continue!” The great thing about writing is that the longer you do it, the better you get at it. Experienced writers are able to look back on past work and see how “bad” it is.

      If you’re a friend or family member, moral support is important, but as far as critical feedback, avoid it. Writers need critical feedback from people who aren’t pressured to say they “liked” it.

      If all else fails, follow this 4-step process. It works wonders and puts pressure on the writer to ask meaningful questions aside from, “Did you like it?”

  10. Commercially viable… this seems to be defined quite differently for traditional publishing and Indie ebook publishing. I suppose if I spend $3,000 to produce a finished product that cost almost nothing per ebook after initial expense, then the qualifications for commercially viable expand significantly. The stuff I’m writing now I do not believe to be traditional publishing viable. At least I know I wouldn’t be able to get in the door with it. But, I suppose good story is good story. So down the road I can hope.

    • Absolutely! And “commercially viable” differs from publisher to publisher. What’s viable for a Big Six New York house will not be the same as what’s viable for a small press, regional press, or university press.

      Authors need a fairly critical eye to be able to look at their work and ask, “Does this merit national/physical distribution in every single bookstore in the country? Does it have that kind of mainstream appeal?”

      Even publishers argue over the answer to this question, but sometimes an author’s vanity gets in the way of answering this question honestly.

  11. …assuming that’s your goal…

    Ha ha. Thank you so much for saying that!
    It would be so great if somebody with a large following would write an article about how you don’t need much of an audience at all to enjoy writing and get satisfaction from it.

    Five reasons to write without ever having an audience:

    1. Writing is a natural way to improve information processing (ie learning).

    “Telling, retelling, writing, and rewriting stories are fundamental parts of social life and our study of it.” -Patricia Leavy

    2. Writing is a natural way to interact more deeply with the written works we love to read.

    3. Writing satisfies the human need to express creativity.

    4. Writing is a great way to establish an identity as a creative person.

    5. Writing is fun.

    6. Writing is a great way to engage the mind from a wellness perspective, like doing crosswords puzzles, sudoku, etc.

    Did you read the interview with Dana Spiotta in the L.A. Times?

    “People think it’s suspect and self-indulgent to make art, and I don’t
    think that’s true. Some people think you should be busy making
    something that you can sell in the marketplace, and if nobody wants to
    buy it, it must be crap. And that’s not true. There’s lots of things
    that can’t make it in the world that are worth making … There are lots of great writers who
    don’t get published — is it still worthwhile? Aren’t we glad people
    are still doing it?”

    The relationship between the writer and the audience is such rich territory. I don’t think it should go unexamined. 

    If one wanted to take an approach inspired by “The Secret,” one might conclude that dropping the obsessive desire for audience can free up energy to enhance the other benefits of writing.

    I swear there is already a vast number of people who feel the same way (hobby writers), we just haven’t been cultivated into a specific community yet.

    • Nope, but the Big Six publishers look for sales and popularity. It’s important to remember that when you decide you want to get published. Your “good writing” becomes a product to be marketed and sold. 

  12. With so many works coming out every year, just writing good or even brilliant stuff is not going to cut it. I have wasted so much time and effort trying the conventional routes… Now I have my own imprint and am extending it to other good writers. That works; not super-rich yet, but in the black.
    I have decided to concentrate on a niche – sexy short romance – and invite other authors to sell cooperatively with me. Why other authors when writing is such a solitary craft? Because I get the best results when I spend 20% of my time writing, and 80% on marketing activities.
    Even excellent material goes nowhere without marketing, and while the conventional book trade is busy picking lint from its navel, small authors hdd better get together in groups and SELL BOOKS, because without readers, our efforts are wasted.

    • I wonder if you’ve read JA Konrath’s take on how to divide time between writing and marketing? He has an interesting perspective that advocates spending as much time writing as possible, because he makes the most money from selling what he produces.

      Of course, I believe this strategy only works if your name is a known quantity, or a brand—someone who already has a core group of readers. 

      But I imagine the percentage of time spent marketing vs. writing can and does change over the course of a career.

  13. I strongly agree with your 5 time wasters. While I’m still learning as I go, I know I couldn’t have been where I am today if I hadn’t made a move to self-publish my Nigerian romances. But I only went in that direction after my blog became a platform. Thanks for sharing.

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  15. This guide will surely help new writers like me. And yes you are right about self-publishing. But new writers get frustrated when they don’t see success even after they put they best of their ability. Thanks for sharing the info.  

    • Those who are frustrated should ask a few questions:
      1. How were expectations of success determined? Has a reasonable measuring stick been used?
      2. Has enough time passed to see success? Most writers are impatient.
      3. Sometimes “best ability” is not good enough to compete in a very crowded marketplace. Do you have confidence in the quality of the work? What objective indicators do you have that it has the quality to compete?

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