It’s never been easier to become a published writer, and it’s also never been more difficult. The double-edged sword of the Internet and digital revolution have opened up channels of communication (agent info! querying guides! email for slush piles!), as well as a wide array of turn-key publishing options, but with that comes the mistaken idea: anyone can be a writer; it’s easy to be a writer!
Writing is HARD. Publishing is weird. And there are a lot of things about being a writer that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. Warning: some doom & gloom (and hopefully some pragmatic advice) follows:
You don’t have to be the best writer ever to sell a book
We all think this when we read a book that, well, just isn’t that good. We go “well, if THAT book can get published, I can!” While poorly written books are the exception, they do get published. Why? Because you don’t have to be the greatest writer in the world to tell a great story. To move a reader. To craft a compelling world. Your hook, characters and how you package your novel are just as important as the actual writing.
…But basic competence at writing is required, and exceptional writing is the norm
Just because Author X wrote something you think sucks doesn’t mean you can plonk out 100,000 words paying no care to spelling, grammar, usage, sentence variation, style, etc. The better your writing is, the better chance you have, so hone the craft. If you are not naturally gifted (some people just are), figure out your key weaknesses (be brutally honest with yourself!), read writing that does those things well and train yourself to be better. And the more you write, and engage with your writing, the better you will get. There’s a reason later novels tend to be better.
It would behoove you to write something commercial
You want other people to read your book. You want a publisher to buy it. Then why are you writing 200K opuses in bloated genres with cliche plots/paper thin characters? Or trotting out a plot/set-up/etc. that other authors have done, and done better? I harp on it all the time, but be pragmatic when choosing your project. Know the marketplace, have a sense of what people actually want to read and write something sellable. And if you don’t write something commercial, own it and be realistic in what publishing options you pursue.
It’s easier for some people to “make it” than others
Whether it’s innate talent, industry connections, privilege (such as being supported financially by another person so you can write), extreme ridiculous luck/happenstance… it will simply be much easier for some people to make it as writers. They’ll do it in half the time, to greater acclaim, etc. etc. This is just the way it is, and it is wise not to compare yourself to others. Oh, you’ll do it anyway (I do), but it’s *wise* not to.
You might be happier if you change your definition of “making it”
If you base your model of success as an author on making X amount of money, or being able to write full time… and support yourself, or being famous, you may be disappointed. These things are nice to aspire to, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the average author to achieve astronomical commercial success, or to simply support themselves on their writing. But there are many ways to achieve success as an author. Reaching readers, period, is a success. Interacting with readers and hearing your work affected them is a success. Being respected by your peers–other authors–or industry professionals (agents, editors) is a huge success. Having a fandom of any kind is a success. Continuing to write–& sell–books is a success.
Gatekeepers exist for a reason
“Traditional” publishing structures (at both large and small presses) exist for a reason–because most of us are poor judges of the relative merits of our own work, and are ill-equipped to don all the hats required to successfully get a book into the hands of readers. Gatekeepers serve as a vetting and quality control measure for work, so the consumer has the assurance that the product doesn’t suck and is worth their time and money. Publishers are a brand the consumer can identify and know they can trust. Sure, gatekeepers can be wrong, but they are professionals for a reason; for the most part, they know what they’re doing.
But some projects, genres are not ideal for the traditional publishing market
The publishing landscape has opened up significantly, and the plus side of this: some projects that just weren’t commercial, or were too weird, or just didn’t make sense for traditional publishing have been self-published or small published and gone on to do great things. These situations are the exception (see above: exceptions!), but it’s good that they exist. Butttttt:
Self-publishing is neither easy, nor a good idea for most people
So if everyone and their mother rejects your work, there is probably a reason, and self-publishing is not a magical solution to “beat the system.” When you self-publish, your book will have whatever problems the gatekeepers saw in it and unless you are a rare exception, your book will not sell well, and you may face some scathing reviews. While self-publishing can work for some, those that succeed at it work incredibly hard, performing all the roles a publisher would (including marketing, which is HARD) and tend to be outliers.
Frankly, if you are: impatient, or bad at handling criticism/feedback and/or unable to write something commercial enough to sell, you are not ready to be a professional author. Self-publishing is not going to help.
You need to have a thick skin
Sensitive snowflakes are not long for this world–generally or in creative, competitive fields like publishing. No one is perfect, no book is perfect, and your writing is NOT precious. Criticism of your writing is not criticism of you. Negative reviews, for the most part, are not personal attacks and your work is not going to be universally loved. Learn to deal with it; don’t throw hissy fits on the Internet, or call people who don’t like your work “bullies.” That said, it is not a good idea to read all your reviews, especially on Goodreads. Every rejection should be a lesson, all feedback an opportunity for reflection and growth. Humility and a thick skin: a great cocktail for a successful writer. (maybe add some vodka to that)
Most writers won’t “make it”
Statistically, most individuals pursuing commercial, creative success will not “make it.” This is true for artists, singers, actors, models, writers, etc. Everyone and their mother wants to write a book, at least half of them will attempt it, a quarter will succeed, and then a minute fraction of those will achieve publication. And then some of those that do “make it” will wash out and be unable to establish a fruitful, long-term, self-sustaining (re: make enough money from writing to do it full time) career. I think I just depressed myself. (also I made up those percentages; sry)
You are probably not the exception
We all think we are the exception to this or that rule or statistic, and some people are, but for the most part, you’re not. This means follow conventional query wisdom, follow agent guidelines, write a commercial, well-written book and ultimately, brace yourself for failure. If you don’t expect to be the exception, it will be a delightful thing to actually be one.
But you also might be the exception!
So don’t give up. Just don’t, you know, assume you’re a sure thing and be a delusional jerkface to other writers, especially on the Internet.
But let’s end on a positive note: if you take all of these things in stride, write because you love it, and approach publishing both pragmatically and positively, good things will likely happen. Good books, good writers, eventually find their way. And if you’re not ready to be a professionally published writer, keep writing! These things come with time, with experience, with research, with leaning on good friends.