No one is more surprised than me to find that, after 20 years of STRIVING, I don’t care about traditional publishing anymore.
I’m not sure if I can describe the shift succinctly, mostly because I think I’m still in the middle of processing it. I mean, after working toward something for two decades, moving away from it mentally, emotionally, and physically doesn’t exactly happen overnight.
But I’ll try my best.
I started to notice the change about a year ago when my last book, The Secret Next Door, was about to release. Here it was, my second book to publish with a traditional press. It was an Apple Book of the Month Pick and Target was carrying it in stores all over the United States. This was, for sure, the MOST success I had ever had with anything I’d ever written.
It was like finally being invited inside. Here I was, on the other side of those pesky publishing gates. Finally! This was damn near everything I had ever wanted. I was so happy.
Yes, so very grateful.
So I stood in my moment, reveling in the ‘making it’ and looking around at what my life was like now I was on the inside. Because surely, this was life-changing. Right?
Turns out, the view from the other side of those publishing gates was damn near exactly the same as the outside. What? Why? Whatever does this mean, you may ask.
Okay, some specifics. But before I list them out, know this, I’m not complaining. This industry had been this industry long before I even considered scaling its walls. It’s an institution that many: authors, editors, and marketing professionals, both inside and out, have shaken their fist at, cursed about, and cried over in the bathroom (mostly in private, lest they be perceived as biting the hand that tosses them scraps.) But if you, like me, have imagined that if only you could: land an agent, lure an editor, see your book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, you would finally be: happy, self-assured, confident in your writing…content? Know this, traditional publishing is not the Xanadu you’ve imagined.
Why I’ve decided to let go:
- The waiting never ends. Never. You are always and forever waiting in this industry. Now for sure, this is not the case for authors whose publishing houses and agents are TERRIFIED of losing them. It’s true, those authors probably never wait more than a weekend to hear back about anything. And maybe you are THIS author. You could very well be–what do I know? But for the rest of us, we still wait. I’m not talking days, or even weeks. I have waited MONTHS. Others close to a year. Sometimes we don’t hear anything at all–and this is from people you already have an established professional relationship with.
- You still need to get a blessing from a whole committee of people, most of whom don’t even know you, before you continue to get published. You often hear the lament among published authors: The only thing harder than getting published is staying published. This is a fact.
- You spend a lot of time in the name of your writing career not writing. You spend oodles of time writing things for other publications, blogs, online whatsits that will make you wonder about the validity of spending time doing such things. Does anyone read this? What is the point in doing this? Does this really help me sell more books? I don’t have an answer to this because the other thing about this industry is that…
- A lot of time and energy is spent throwing spaghetti at walls with very little quantifiable data regarding the outcomes. And this spaghetti can run the spectrum from the people they hire to the books they acquire–and certainly, marketing, in general, is little better than a crap shoot (and you’re going to be taking most of those shots yourself). I’ve spent hours and hours working on marketing for my book that maybe influenced 100 people to check out my book or 0 people. I don’t know. And I’m pretty sure my publisher didn’t know either. Anything short of a celebrity endorsement, big box store placement, big book club placement, or the ever elusive, completely unpredictable WORD OF MOUTH groundswell that everyone is always praying for–it seems that no one really knows how to sell a book by an unknown author to anyone aside from the community that the author has already cultivated for themselves. So unless you personally know Reese Witherspoon, or you’ve mastered the art of creating non-cringy TikTok videos AND you just LOVE to do it…be prepared to make your own spaghetti and start flinging it. Hopefully, some of it will stick!
- Unless you are already independently wealthy, have a partner or parents that will support you, or have figured out how to live happily below the poverty line–you’re not quitting that day job any time soon. And if by the grace of the publishing committee you’ve signed with, your agent managed to garner you one of those six-figure advances (CONGRATULATIONS!! By the way!) realize you must…
- EARN OUT. (If you find you need help figuring out how to earn out, refer to the aforementioned spaghetti in #4) Big advances are wonderful. Nothing better signals to the rest of the publishing world that your book is expected to be BIG than your publisher laying some fat cash out at your feet. However, that book better WORK. And by WORK, I mean SELL. Because, in all likelihood, you have the sales cycle of this one book (maybe two or three if your agent convinced the house to sign you under a multibook contract) to sell enough copies of that book to pay for that advance. So what if you don’t? Of course, every case is individual and somewhat predicated on how much LOVE your editor has for your work and how much POWER they wield at their particular house–but for most authors, not earning out can equal the kiss of death. Low sales numbers can hang on an author like a shitty GPA–the Ivy Leagues aren’t going to come knocking anymore (unless you’re winning some HUGE awards–one of the few situations where extreme talent and gravitas will supersede the need to earn money.)
- All of this may make you feel tired, sad, depressed, jealous, fed up, powerless, and the worst…like you don’t even want to write books anymore.
And here’s where we return to my personal processing: #7 is where I was hanging out for a while. I loved writing and had always dreamed of a traditional publishing career. So how horrible that obtaining that dream was the demise of the thing I loved to do most–create books. For months I spun my wheels, unable to decide if it was worse for me to keep trying to stay in the publishing ring or throw in the towel. Neither decision felt right, good, or motivated me to set my fingers flying on my current work in progress.
I missed writing, so much. But knowing what I know about the business end of this thing I love, I didn’t know how, or even if, I could return to it.
That is until I started thinking about publishing my future books myself. After all, I had done it before (my first six books, mostly young adult, were self-published.) I knew it was hard. I knew you didn’t generally sell many books. I knew I would probably be throwing away any chance of ever traditionally publishing again.
But the more I thought about it, the more excited I felt about returning to the thing I loved–creating books. And that excitement grew and felt more positive and self-fulfilling than anything I had encountered throughout this last year in traditional publishing. So I made the decision, for better or worse, to handle my own work from now on.
Maybe it doesn’t sound like it, but I really am grateful to every individual I’ve worked with over these past few years in the traditional swimming pool. This post is not about my former publisher or the amazing people there that work really hard. This is simply the nature of this industry. Some people are made for it.
Some of us are not.