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The Long and Winding Road to Publishing

Whenever people find out I am a writer, they ask what I write, and then — if the genre tickles their interest — another question follows: “Where can I buy your book?”

Now, this is the kind of enthusiastic response every writer dreams of. Except, I am not published. Not yet.

Why not? you may ask. It stands to reason, if you’re reading this blog, you find my writing pleasant enough, perhaps in style, or content, or both. So why don’t I just get on with being published? Surely, if my books will make for enjoyable reading, they should be on the shelves, waiting to be purchased and savored? Sadly, the reality is far more complicated. Bear with me, then, as I reveal the long and winding road to publishing.

Let us begin with the actual book. We are going to assume the writer in question has real talent. He or she is a good writer. And that, right there, is the first stumbling block. In the last few decades, literally millions of new titles have been published worldwide every year, with many millions more being rejected. With such an enormous base to draw from, publishers can afford to be exceptionally picky with the projects they choose to sign on. Agents, knowing this, are similarly choosy. So, being a good writer is not enough. You have to be exceptional.

Or do you? Why do some books seem to get away with a lower standard of writing? This brings us to our second hurdle: marketability. Let us say a publisher sees a good sales response to stories about cowboys in space. An author writes an OK book about alien-cowboy hybrids, and the project is snapped up by a publisher. At about the same time, along comes another author with a very similar idea, and even better writing. Sorry! That slot in the market is taken. Even if the second book is more worthy of being published, it simply won’t be. Timing can be devastating.

So, let’s imagine you’ve managed to write a really good book with a novel (pardon the pun) idea. Nope, still not enough. Did you write it within a fixed number of words associated with its specific genre? Does it fit the market trends for that genre? If cowboys in space were popular when you started writing your book, are they still all the rage now? By the time you’ve written your first draft, edited it multiple times, spent months having it critiqued by your writers’ group and beta readers, revised it again and again, — is the trending theme still trending? Or did you just put your heart and soul, and years of your life, into something that publishers now won’t touch? Are you starting to see what a tangled mess the publishing process is?

Right, you’ve jumped through all the hoops. You’re praying that there is still an audience for your literary love-child. Now, at last, you begin to approach agents for representation. There are thousands of agents in the United States alone, but each has what is known as a MSWL (manuscript wish list). In other words, once you have whittled down that endless list to agents who would actually be intrigued by your book, you have a short-list of less than a hundred, maybe only thirty. Each agency has different submission guidelines, which means you can’t just copy your query and forward it to everyone. You have to adjust it to each individual agent/agency you approach. And then your query ends up in something rather dishearteningly called a “slush pile,” which refers to the hundreds of unsolicited queries they receive each week. They do eventually get to each one. Eventually. And then, most likely, they won’t read past the first page because … see earlier statement about being exceptionally picky. If you’re lucky, you will receive what is called a form rejection, in other words a standard statement saying thanks, but no thanks. Mostly, though, each agency declares a time limit for responses on their submissions page, meaning that a non-response after that period is an assumed rejection. Not even a written reply to add to your growing collection. No feedback to let you know where you went wrong.

Add to this the basic fact that agents are just human beings. They are, by their own admission, subjective. They need to be madly excited about your manuscript on a personal level to persist in promoting it and revising it with you for months on end. So, when you receive no feedback, was the rejection simply a matter of personal preference, in which case you plough on, approaching the next agent with your query? Or is there a fundamental flaw in your writing or your query letter, meaning you will unwittingly repeat that error with every single agent because nobody is setting you straight? It’s about here where writers begin to pull out their hair in frustration and consider self-publishing as an alternative.

Simple, yes? It is, if you are using a vanity press, where you pay a company to physically print your book, which you then hawk to your nearest and dearest. You won’t actually make any money, but you have a hard copy of your published book to show for your troubles.

If you decide to use Amazon or Kindle to try to make an actual profit, you will need to have the book formatted and a cover designed at your own expense, or figure out the technicalities of doing this yourself (badly). You will need to learn all the legal and financial language that an agent would have handled for you. And then you get to market the book yourself, which is a nightmare considering many authors are introverts. You need to create a platform and a tribe of followers on social media, run promotions and launches, and contact bookstores, libraries, etc. about stocking your book. At this point you wonder if you’re ever going to have time to do any actual writing ever again.

Finally, you take the leap and self-publish. But, despite your best efforts, the book just doesn’t gain any sales traction. Life is fickle, after all. So you start a new project, and when it’s ready, you tackle the querying process again because self-publishing didn’t work out before. But wait, say the agents and publishers, we have no interest in representing anyone with an existing bad track record. Your name is already out there, and it doesn’t look good. All you can do now is to write under a pseudonym and start afresh. And you do, because writing is in your DNA and you just can’t give up.

So, dear reader, take pity upon the beleaguered writers who are, as yet, unpublished. We really are doing our best. Success may be imminent or many years away. But goodness knows, we will keep at it, zealous optimists that we are.

Meanwhile, it is the nugget of encouragement and enthusiasm that you, our readers, place in our upturned and hopeful palms, that make it easier for us to believe in ourselves. You are the reason we persevere against the odds. Certainly, we would write anyway, even if only for ourselves, because the yearning to tell stories, to create through words, is overwhelming. But, to persist in the struggle to be published, we must believe there is an audience for our words. You are that audience. You are my motivation. And for that, you have my heartfelt thanks.

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Jan 25, 2021

What a brilliant description of the realities of the road to publishing. It really is a twisty, turny road full of potholes!

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