Confessions of a Former Pinhead
A long time ago, ducklings, I had an oddball friend who wanted to be a bestselling author.
Lest you suspect this ‘friend’ is going to turn out to be ‘me’ in an explosive revelation at the bottom of this post, be reassured. We were indeed two separate people, who met in college, bonded over a love of books, and stayed in touch for a year or two after graduation. I was substitute teaching and writing; she was living off a small inheritance and contemplating what she wanted to do for a career once the money ran out. And what she chose was bestselling author. With her debut novel, she was certain that she was going to explode onto the world stage and leave a mark on literature that lasted centuries after she turned to dust.
You were going to know her name, children. All of us were.
We were in our early twenties. I had just finished editing my second book and was earnestly studying The Process of how one arrived at publication. My free time was eaten up in selecting prospective agents and publishing houses, writing a third book, and adding rejection letters to an ever swelling file. There was only one way to make this happen, and I was giving it all I had.
She also wanted to make it happen, but much faster. Having scribbled three chapters of a novel in an afternoon, she was leaping ahead to querying publishing houses. I implored her to follow The Process as I was, but to no avail. She declared that they were going to be so amazed at the brilliance of her sample that they would call her up, offer her a massive advance to complete it, and then rush her book to shelves at Barnes & Noble for eager readers to snatch up. Her apartment would turn into a mansion, her rattletrap into a racecar. There would be book signings and interviews and articles, fawning fans and awards and movies. It was going to be glorious.
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. For either of us.
Despite her overabundant confidence in her future success, no one was amazed at her three hastily written, unedited chapters and a query comparing herself to the American Greats. Soundly rejected from all quarters, she decided in outrage and bafflement to pursue another career. And I? I followed The Process doggedly. I knew it would work eventually if I just kept at it, and I did. I only lost if I gave up, and I wasn’t ever going to do that.
I wrote more books and got better at it. I searched and searched for the perfect agent or publishing house and sent off reams of queries. Although I got many nibbles, I never made it to a chomp. When I was 23, a top agent signed me on and then never sent out my work anywhere. When I was 25, one of the Big 6 burst with enthusiasm over a YA novel I had written, and then the editorial staff got culled and my book went with it. When I was 27, a small publishing house accepted that YA novel – and then filed for bankruptcy immediately after publishing it. The books were lost.
I was 30 by then. Heartbroken to have to explain to excited family and friends that The Book was not to be. And I was back to square one.
I turned 31, 32, 33, 34, and 35. Still writing more books. Still looking for agents and publishing houses. Still getting nibbles that never panned out. I had countless frustrating experiences that I will not relate here, except for my favorite of the acquisitions editor at a famous agency (which I won’t name, but if you’ve ever searched for an agent, you would recognize it). One day, he called me up to rave about my book. He grew more and more excited until he was fairly spitting with glee. Rambling that we had something amazing on our hands here, something different, something new, something incredible, he wanted us to get this show on the road.
It was everything a writer wanted to hear. And then . . . nothing. I found out why later. A heavy drinker even at work, he had landed himself in rehab. The book was passed on to a junior paper-shuffler, who sent it back with a complaint that she didn’t like big words or science fiction.
It had been fifteen years now, and I wasn’t any closer than when I had started. I was tired. Bone-crushingly tired of The Process. My old friend from college had done it all wrong and lost; I had done it right but was losing just the same. Self-publishing had never, ever been an option along the way. It meant I wasn’t ever going to get into the club. It meant I had no talent. It meant I had given up. But after a decade and a half of going nowhere fast, I was at the breaking point. Something had to give.
So I gave up and self-published.
I’m not writing this guest post from a lovely cherrywood desk in my seaside mansion. In my first year of self-publishing, I made only $170. In my second year, $1700. In my third year, $5000. I don’t have a story to tell you about my wild, runaway success. I wish I did. I love those stories. But mine is quieter.
I want to do better, yet at the very least, I’m doing. The Process, the painful, painstaking, and ultimately fruitless process, has ended. My books – albeit in small amounts – are being read. Some people love them. Some people hate them. But they are no longer collecting virtual dust within my computer. They are out there and that is an inexpressible relief. My only regret is in not self-publishing them sooner.
But I wanted to join the club so badly. I wanted that stamp of validation that comes with traditional publishing. If they chose me, it was proof that I was a good writer. I was holding out for that pat on the head, and I had a hard time accepting that it was never going to happen. It made perfect sense back then to just keep waiting for someone (anyone) to ask me to dance, and now I wonder what that younger me was thinking. I get validation every month when Amazon sends a check. It’s small, but it pays for the gas and some groceries. It’s more than I earned while running desperately on the query-mill, and I get occasional fan mail to boot.
If any of you reading this is at that point of giving up, I encourage you to do so. Give up and self-publish. What you’re giving up are things you don’t need. The cover art? I hired someone off the Smashwords list and can get a good cover for less than a hundred bucks. The editing? I’m lucky to have several people in my life willing to edit my work for free, and they aren’t kind about my sensitive writer feelings. The promotion? You were going to be doing that for yourself anyway if you published traditionally.
The pat on the head? Oh, darling. Here you go.
I grew up being told that self-publishing was for losers, but I was losing in all that time I chased traditional publishing. In the months (and often years) I waited to hear back about fulls; in the stacks of queries where so many went unanswered (still waiting on a few from 1999); in frustration and aggravation, and devastation to finally have a book published the traditional way only to have no one be able to buy it. As the stigma around self-publishing gradually faded out in the world, I clung to it with a death grip in my own head. One way. There was one way to do this right. Even if it wasn’t working for me.
Hold the Salt, a Jack Daniels/Cassandra Salter thriller on Kindle Worlds. So I’m busy, very busy, and loving it.
Giving up on traditional publishing turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever done. It may be the best thing you’ve ever done, too. Even if you’re not ready to make a move as drastic as this one, just keep it bobbing about in the back of your mind. To me, pressing publish on Amazon for the first time felt like the end of the world. It was raising the white flag. Career suicide. I could never hold my head high again when people asked what I did.
*mumble self-publish mumble*
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I have people asking when the next book is coming out, and writing fan fiction based on my Zombies series. I can go out for a steak dinner once a month that my books have paid for. I’m moving forward, with very tiny steps, but forward all the same. After so long spent running in place, that is a magical feeling indeed. I don’t need a pat on my head.
I just need to write.
Joe sez: This is a realistic, even-headed approach to reaching readers. It doesn't happen over night, or even over decade. It's slow, steady, and methodical. Learn your craft, make mistakes, improve, keep trying, focus on the positive, never give up.
For the moment, big publishing houses still exist as an alternative to self-publishing. If you write a gigantic bestseller, they'll come calling. But it doesn't make any sense to waste time trying to catch an agent's ear, or submitting to one of the Big 5, unless you've already mastered your craft and shown some reasonable success.
How much success?
Enough for them to come to you.
Back in my day, there was no choice. You submitted to agents and waited.
Things have changes. Now, readers can discover you on their own. If enough of them do, agents and publishers will start sniffing around.
You don't have control over that. You don't have control over readers, either. But you do have control over writing as many great books as you're able to, marketing them to the best of your ability, and keeping at it until you can quit your day job.
This isn't a sprint. It's a marathon.
Buy Macaulay's book, and keep at it.