Welcome to Writer’s Hell

Say you’re a writer. You’ve been a small-town journalist or had a freelance article or two published in one of the big metro newspapers. Or maybe you’ve made a living as a lawyer or a short-order cook or a surgeon or a car salesman, but at heart you’re a writer, and always have been: you’ve been writing since you could hold a crayon, because that’s what you’re best at.

You’ve written something that took a long time and a lot of hard work and a significant excavation of your soul, and you’re immensely proud of it, because you think it’s good.  You think it’s good with good reason: because you’re highly-educated and have read widely and thoughtfully and are in touch with the zeitgeist and are not self-delusional (you’re certain); it’s gone through countless drafts and you may have even had a few of your most honest, least-toadying friends read it, and in comparing this thing you’ve written – let’s say it’s a novel — to what’s out there and getting published on a daily basis, it’s good.  It’s very good.  And you’d like to see it published.  In print.  By someone other than yourself.  Who would pay you for it, edit it, and market it.

What do you do?

You can be realistic, realize that you are one of hundreds of thousands of people with the same wish, save your excellent novel to its cozy file on your computer, and return to more rewarding pursuits, like your day job or playing the tri-state lottery.

Or you can be a hopelessly narcissistic dreamer and follow the current rules of traditional publishing, which we will now review. These are hard and fast rules, mind you, not subject to evasion or elision, unless of course you happen to be a recent immigrant from Pakistan, hold an advanced degree in mathematics from Cambridge, dabble in high-frequency trading on the side, and your ex-roommate’s father is on the board at Hachette:

  1. Get a platform.  If you don’t know what a platform is, or don’t already have one, save your excellent novel to its cozy file on your computer, and return to more rewarding pursuits.  If you do have one, make sure it has at least 10,000 followers.
  1. Identify your genre.  If you don’t know what genre your novel falls into (or don’t know what a genre is), save your excellent novel, etc. There are approximately 112 genres and hybrid genres, so your book must fit one of them (preferably, Dystopian Young Adult).  If your novel has the word “Girl” in the title, forget this and proceed immediately to the next step.
  1. Identify an agent. It’s impossible to address publishers directly these days; they are like blue-footed boobies – so close to extinction that it’s illegal to disturb them.  But there are thousands of agents; much of Manhattan is occupied by them. So buy a copy of the current Guide to Literary Agents, further enriching the Writer’s Digest subsidiary of F+W Media, Inc., and cross-reference your genre (see above) to the agents who specialize in it.  You can shorten this process somewhat by using online agent databases such as QueryTracker, but this is considered cheating.  You like books; use them.
  1. Prepare a query letter.  These are sent as the text of an email, not as an attachment or, God forbid, via snail mail, and must be no more than one page long.  No cheating with the font. The query letter must, within that one page, describe your novel in a way that will prevent an agent from hitting the “delete” button over which his or her finger is impatiently hovering.  This should require no less than two months of careful revisions. It must be cute, but not too cute.  Engaging but not cloying.  Deferential but not groveling.  Enthusiastic but not bragging.  In lieu of sending out dozens of query letters (less than 100 is considered slacking), it’s far more authentic and no less effective to attend a pitch-slam at a Writer’s Digest conference in some distant city, along with the graduates of the last 10 years of Iowa Writers’ Workshops.
  1. Wait. Some few agents will respond to your query letter within a day or so. Others within two or three months.  Most, never.  They’re too busy, overwhelmed by the sea of queries that washes against their bulwarks daily, and doing their real jobs, which is to try to find publishing homes for the writers they already represent.  Or they’re out looking for other work.  In any event, you won’t know which will respond and which will maintain a stony, aloof silence, as though you were the narcissistic, self-deluded dreamer you’re beginning to suspect you are. There isn’t a law firm in the country that would treat prospective clients like this, but then not nearly as many people want a lawyer as want to see their first novel published, and there are even more lawyers than there are literary agents.
  1. Provide sample pages.  A handful of the hundred or so agents you contact may be sufficiently intrigued by your query, or sufficiently unoccupied with other matters, that they will ask to see the first ten or 20 or 50 pages of your novel, the premise being that if in that span of pages your writing manages to penetrate the carapace of jaded cynicism that has built up over their years of reading fragments of manuscripts, you must be onto something.  And if not, not. Never mind that this a little like looking at the bottom left square foot of Guernica to determine whether it’s worth anything; these are professionals you’re dealing with.
  1. Sign a contract with the agent.  Should an agent want to take you on, you will be presented with a legal document assigning to them a significant portion of whatever earnings accrue from your novel. Needless to say you should read this carefully, and perhaps also have it reviewed by one of those aforementioned law firms, who will be much more interested in your call than the literary agencies you’ve been slavishly stalking.
  1. Wait.  (See item 5 above, substituting your agent for yourself, and publishers for agents.  Adjust probabilities for the fact that the average agent agrees to represent a tiny fraction of books queried, and a major publisher agrees to publish an even tinier fraction of the books whose proposals it receives from agents.)
  1. Sign a contract with a publisher.  Having reached the promised land, you will be presented with a contract with the publisher, granting them extensive rights to your work in exchange for a piteously small amount of money.  Needless to say, the law firm referenced in items 5 and  7 should again be consulted.
  1. Go on a book tour.  You know all about this; you’ve been fantasizing about it for years.
  1. Hear from the publisher that your book was bought by only 7000 of your 10,000 followers, and that it’s been remaindered.

If all this strikes you as bitterly absurd or even insulting, if the industry that exploits the ambitions of aspiring writers strikes you as borderline fraudulent, it might be the time to examine why you want to have your book published in the first place. The writer’s vocation has always been a dicey proposition, in which the odds against making a living were long and the chance of fame vanishingly slim.  But the current state of traditional print publishing, disfigured by a disastrous confluence of academic writing programs (too many students who have been encouraged to believe themselves to be writers), the internet (too many avenues of expression for this belief), the cult of celebrity (J.K. Rowling-like rags-to-riches stories), and corporate consolidation (too few publishers), has made those odds much longer and the prospect much meaner.

Maybe your motivation is purely commercial; it was either write that novel, or open a pop-up cupcake shop, and the novel required less capital and has a bigger upside (assuming you become the next Hugh Howey).  But if you want fame, or to make a lot of money, there are far, far more efficient, less time-consuming, and more probable ways to achieve those things than pursuing print publication.  If you presented the above steps to a bunch of venture capitalists as your business plan, they’d throw you out of the room.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re the exception to the rule.  You’re the one who will win the publishing lottery against all odds.  I know you’re thinking this because I think the same thing, and that is the essence of the reason there is no hope for either one of us.

If we stubbornly insist that, no, we really want affirmation as writers, we’re probably in the grip of a mythology about being an artist that, if we want to get serious about it, would be much better served by a cultivated indifference to fame and money – and to mainstream publishing.

If we write for the sheer joy of writing, let’s be writers.  Let’s be real writers – which is to say artists — and not fodder for an ossified commercial machine that has no reliable means of detecting when and where real art happens, and could care less. Let’s take back what was originally ours, which is the joy of self-expression, or of simple storytelling, and forget the business angle. Let’s work on improving our craft, not on increasing the followers of our “platforms.”

If our lifetime as ardent readers has taught us anything, it’s that because something got published means next to nothing about its quality; utter junk is published every day. Our work is no less worthy because it is rejected (or, more likely, never really evaluated), and would be no more worthy if by wild chance you or I won the publishing lottery and it saw print.

How do other artists find expression in the face of their obscurity?  Visual artists get their work shown in local galleries, in their friends homes, or on the street.  Singers and songwriters perform in local coffee shops and bars, print their own CDs, and find outlets on the internet.  What is it about writing that makes us think that only if our work is physically published by a corporation in New York have we achieved anything?

Writers, be artists.  Take back your art and treat it as the inherently valuable work that you believe it to be.

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