There is a lot of roadkill in publishing.
We all instinctively know this. We’ve all heard stories, rumored or otherwise. Publishing is a business, and business is about money, not art. We know. We get it.
Except really, we don’t.
Publishing is not a meritocracy. Well, I mean, it is, up to a point. You have to be able to write well enough, but that’s a pretty squishy bar. We all know books that sold buckets that are just…not great. (No, I’m not naming names. People love what they love, and their joy in a book has nothing to do with my personal opinion on its artistic merits.) We have all picked something up, read a few paragraphs, and thought “I write better than that.”
You probably do. You probably write well enough to clear that squishy bar.
Congratulations. It doesn’t matter.
Here’s what you need to do to get a publishing contract: Write a good enough book, find someone to sub it to (agents, or publishers who take unagented subs), and have a whole lot of luck.
Please notice exactly how much control you have over this situation.
Some people, when they fail to get traction on a project, suggest the issue is gatekeepers. (It isn’t, really, unless you’ve written something extremely distasteful or extremely derivative.) Or racism. (Yeah, this one’s real; I’ve met many people in publishing who are working to change that, but it’s going to be a long fight.) Or sexism, or queerphobia. (Ditto, although it’s less of an issue if you’re not a writer of color). Some people need to believe that their book is so big, so different, so grand that it’s just Too Much For Trade Publishing.
Every single explanation there is too personal, because publishing doesn’t care about you. How can it? It’s a business, not an entity. It’s a bunch of businesses, actually, all working in tandem, and sometimes the parts work brilliantly together and sometimes they don’t, and it has nothing to do with you at all.
But, I hear you say. But. If it’s luck, why am I doing this?
I don’t know. But it’s a question worth wrestling with.
The truth is, you might not know yourself. You might be like me, carrying a dream from your childhood, one you’re not even really sure you want to make come true. You might be surrounded by friends who love your tales, and wanting to write them down to share with people you know. You might be Stephen King prolific, looking for fame and fortune. Your why is unique to you.
Be careful of the role publishing takes in that why.
Publishing is a microcosm of the real world, just like every other industry out there. There are people in publishing with powerful talent, drive, and love for books. There are also people who are incompetent, arrogant, genuinely malicious. There are cliques—yes, there are, although they don’t tend to be formed the way some people seem to think they are. They’re not about politics at all, but they’re often about particular workshops or particular cons, and if you fall in with one of them that nudges you a little bit more toward the possibility of being touched by luck. And if they dislike you? Yes, you can disappear, because they won’t ignore you out of anger or spite, they’ll just ignore you. And the luck recedes.
Don’t worship publishing. Don’t hate it, either. It’s not an entity. It has no feelings. It’s a business structure, a particular way of getting written work to readers. It makes a few people rich. It gives many more people a check or two.
It leaves a lot of roadkill.
It misses books. Powerful, brilliant, polished books. I know this for a fact—not because of my own work; I know what I can and can’t do. But I have read multiple books from multiple authors that haven’t been touched by luck, and they are better than most of the work I’ve paid actual money to read. I can’t explain to you why those books didn’t find a home. I don’t know. It’s not logic; it’s luck.
One of the general questions that gets tossed around repeatedly in writing groups is what’s the most important quality a writer must have to get published? The answer is perseverance. Not because it’s important to write a ton of books, but because publishing misses good books all the time, and if you want to maximize your luck, you’ve got to keep going.
Sometimes this is very, very, very, very hard.
I had some luck, and I’m grateful for that, although pretty much everything after subbing the book was a disaster. I’ve had more luck than a lot of people, and maybe that’s all I get, and I try to find ways to make it be enough for me and keep my eyes forward. It’s better these days, but I lost a lot of time to despair. I know what this business can do, how it can destroy. You don’t know how it’ll affect you until it happens.
Yes, I had luck. That will make some people ignore everything I’m saying here, because WTFDIK? My point is, I had luck, and I’m still roadkill.
And yet here I am, still. I’m self-publishing some things, but I’ll sub again when I have something sub-able, because that dream I had is still there, and a piece of that dream involves the not-self-publishing side of things. It may be futile. It may be destructive, again. I suppose I hold out the hope that everything that’s happened to me has given me perspective, and maybe some calluses. And maybe taught me some lessons that will help moving forward.
What do I know that can help anyone else?
Know what you can do. Write and write and read and read and do it all the time. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Work constantly to develop your craft. Writing is a skill that can be learned and developed and improved. Try new things, big things, small things. Make grand gestures. Make mistakes. Write yourself down blind alleys and deus-ex-machina your way out of everything. Make art. Know yourself, and know what you can do.
Know what you’re worth. One of the more excruciating things to watch is how some writers twist themselves into pretzels to get the attention of prospective agents. Agents are people. They are professionals (the good ones). They are not better than you; they are a person with a particular skill set. Yes, they deserve every bit of your courtesy and professionalism. You also deserve theirs.
Know that the failures in publishing are more common than the successes. By about a zillion orders of magnitude. If you are one of them, congratulations—you’re in the company of some of the best writers who’ve ever written.
Know that the failures may be all you get, and understand what that means to you.
That’s the hard one. Because when it comes down to it? You can become phenomenally good. You can persevere like no one has persevered before. And you still might never get touched by luck.
I’d say that’s not fair, but here’s the thing: fair and unfair suggest some kind of cosmic scales that lean toward balance. No such thing exists. Your publishing luck doesn’t have anything to do with the luck of the people around you, or the luck you’ve had in other areas of your life, or some kind of Prosperity Gospel idea that if you behave like you’re a zillion-selling author you’ll magically become one.
Publishing isn’t about fairness. It’s about luck.
One of my favorite books in high school was The Lastborn of Elvinwood, by Linda Haldeman. It was published in 1978, and I almost certainly picked it up cold off the shelves of our local drugstore, where I bought most of my books. I loved the characters, the businesslike relationship the townspeople had with the fairies. I loved the odd, sideways love story. I reread it a few years ago; there’s more horror to the tale than I remember (is it better if the changeling remembers who they were, or if they don’t?), but the prose is lovely and evocative, and the sideways love story still works.
Linda Haldeman wrote three books, as far as I can tell, the last published in 1981. She died young. All her work is out of print now. Terrible, terrible luck.
And I carry her words with me.
I can’t ever tell her this. I don’t know if I would have at the time, if I’d known what her fate was going to be. Even if I’d known how to contact her—I was young, and shy, and couldn’t imagine someone like that would care at all what I thought. But she wrote this thing that I read and read and read, and it changed me, and gave me comfort and happiness. I don’t know what her dreams were, but I carry her words.
Maybe luck doesn’t matter. Maybe knowing whether or not you’ve touched people doesn’t matter. Maybe you can’t see your own ripples as a writer, or as anything else you are in this life. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Publishing is publishing. It’s sales and marketing. It’s a tool—an elite one that’s not offered to everyone. It can be highly effective. It can also be disastrous.
It’s not writing. Writing is independent. Published or not, trade or self—maybe that doesn’t matter.
Maybe all that matters is your words, and the ripples you will never see.