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The Truth about Publishing Your Novel (From the Perspective of the Unpublished)

Stephen King
The only truly fool-proof way to get published: be Stephen King
I am immensely grateful for a large collection of friends and family members who are supportive of my unfortunate affliction of being a novelist. While I hope they will all read this, I don't want them to take it the wrong way, because their praise, constructive criticism, and ideas are appreciated. However, any writer who has spent any significant amount of time trying to publish his or her work can attest to how difficult it can be to deal with the advice about publishing that comes from people who don't really understand how the industry works. I've had multiple people ask me if I've ever considered self-publishing, getting my foot in the door with a children's book, seeking the advice of published writers, etc., as if they were the first person in the world to think of these things. Again, I'm not ungrateful, and I usually thank them for their advice, tell them I have considered their idea already, and hope I don't have to explain why they're being naïve about publishing.

I don't mean to denigrate, because truth be told, when I first set out to get my work on bookstore shelves, I was no less naïve about the process. Indeed, if I hadn't had foolish assumptions about how it all worked, I might not have gotten as far as I have. The truth, from the perspective of somebody who has been trying for over a decade without success, is disheartening, soul-crushing, and depressing. This is why it's difficult to deal with all the advice, because it's hard to keep describing the abyss to everyone you know. I'm going to lay it all out for my readers here. I'll spend some deeply therapeutic time looking into the terrible depths for you, so that, the next time somebody tells me it might be a good idea to look into Internet or digital publishing and won't take no for an answer, I'll have something I can point them towards instead of having to go over it all again.

Keep in mind, though, that this is coming from the point of view of somebody who has, despite his best efforts not to succomb to bitterness, become rather cynical about the whole thing. I have certainly not given up on my dream of being published, but facing the Sisyphean juggernaut for so long has made me a jaded, disillusioned realist. If you want somebody to tell you it's not so bad and make you feel like you could get your words out there with a little faith, hard work, and plucky determination, go read what a successful, published writer has to say about publishing. However, if you really want to know why the vast majority of aspiring writers will never get published in this day and age--even the extremely talented ones--then please, read on.

NOTE: This essay is about trying to publish books, primarily novels. Though the rules are relatively universal in the publishing industry, there are differences for people trying to freelance for magazines or newspapers, write non-fiction books, sell screenplays or short stories, write professional blogs, etc.



Self-Publishing is Career Abortion

Pro-life rally
But hey, it's your choice
If all you want is to see your name on the binding of a book, put it on your shelf, give a copy to your friends and family, and have absolutely no aspirations beyond that ever, then feel free to go ahead and self-publish. More power to you. Just be aware that it's an expensive process, and chances are, your book won't look as nice or last as long as a professionally published one. However, if you think self-publishing is a way to launch your career, please pay attention and hear what I have to testify.

People have this romantic idea of a starving artist selling copies of his book out of his trunk on the side of the road when a publisher or agent just happens to drive by, pick up a copy, and discover one of the greatest literary talents in the modern world. In this romantic dream, the writer becomes hugely, ridiculously famous, maybe even rich. He winds up on Oprah*, goes on the talk-show circuit, gets interviewed by The New York Times, and has blockbuster movies made out of his book that star George Clooney, Johnny Depp, and Angelina Jolie and are directed by some artsy director who calls up the writer every day of production to discuss the script.

I'm not going to say this is impossible. However, the odds of it happening are astronomically low, much lower than getting published the traditional way (the odds of which are described below). There are multiple reasons for this, but sufficed to say, real publishers don't respect self-publishers. To understand why, you have to look at things from a business perspective, something I'm going to be asking of you quite a bit today. Publishers don't actually care how talented a writer is or how interesting his stories are; what's important to the people who decide what gets published and what doesn't is money. I'm not making any judgement about the value of a capitalist system here, but this is the reality you must face if you want to get published.

Flushing money down the toilet
How publishers see self-publishers
When publishers look at untested writers, the main concern is which writers will make money and which won't. This is why most careers are made or broken by the very first published book (more on that later). From this perspective, the self-published author has already proved that he can't make money, because there is no such thing in the modern world as a self-published writer who makes a profit selling his work. Therefore, the self-published writer is less attractive to potential publishers than somebody who's never been published. More than that, there is a stigma surrounding self-published writers as people who have failed and aren't skilled enough to succeed. Publishers want to know that a writer can handle himself, publicize himself, be savvy and business-minded, persevere if things get tough, etc., and by self-publishing, a writer gives evidence that he just doesn't possess those qualities. Besides, have you read many self-published books? If you have, you'll know how many of them are any good.

Much of this also applies to writers who publish online or through digital media. It's easy to think this is just the jealousy of an industry that refuses to embrace new paradigms, but that's not the way it is. In fact, publishing companies these days are eagerly utilizing the Internet and digital media, pumping money and effort into it with enthusiasm that should be an example for the music industry and any other business that faces new technologies. However, this is all rolled up in the same package as the printed word. While there are a handful of new agencies and companies who work exclusively with these new paradigms, they are far outshone by the big publishers. Therefore, getting your work published through the Internet or a digital device without going through the professionals is, in essence, no different than self-publishing.

*I have no ambition to ever appear on Oprah, and even if I did, I've already made sure it won't happen.



Talent can be the Enemy

A paper bag and a pen
Pop quiz: what do you do? What do you do?!
Let me address the giant elephant (or is it a gorilla?) in the room, just to get it out of the way: writing skills are far less important than you think. If I had to give a percentage score to the things you need to succeed, I'd give talent a generous 5%. It is important at a particular stage in the gauntlet of getting published, but that stage happens so late in the game that it is almost immaterial; by that point, all the really hard parts of getting published for the first time will be behind you. And, as for the difficult parts after that, writing skill again isn't much of a factor. Besides, as any bitterly unpublished author will happily point out, there are dozens of successful, published writers who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag. (Incidentally, writing your way out of a paper bag is a good writer's block exercise.)

It's an unfortunate reality, but it's still a fact: your talent as a writer just doesn't make that much of a dent on people. It's not just the publishers, either; it's the reading public. It's you and me. There are writers I like who, frankly, aren't that talented. It doesn't take much talent to write something entertaining, and for writers who are skilled enough to write something artistically profound and unique, their work usually isn't as sellable as the rest of the entertaining pulp. For example, though I respect his writing talent, I don't enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy books and haven't bought more than one. By the same token, I don't much respect Dean Koontz's literary skills (aside from his prolificacy), but I've bought and read dozens of his books.

Looked at that way, talent is worse than just unimportant; it can even be counter-productive to getting published. As I explained above, publishers want to make money, and the really talented writers out there don't make as much as the guys who can pump out cheesy, derivative entertainment. Even the most refined publisher out there would probably rather be putting out trashy romance novellas than deep, long-winded literary fiction. Again I stress that this isn't necessarily their fault.



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-e. magill 3/8/2011








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