Home » The Business of Writing » How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?

How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?

31 December 2012

From Jane Friedman:

Don’t you wish someone could tell you how close you are to getting traditionally published? Don’t you wish someone could say, “If you just keep at it for three more years, you’re certain to make it!”

Or, even if it would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it be nice to be told that you’re wasting your time, so that you can move on, try another tack (like self-publishing), or perhaps even change course entirely to produce some other creative work?

. . . .

Recognizing Steps That Don’t Help You Get Published

Let’s start with four common time-wasting behaviors. You may be guilty of one or more. Most writers have been guilty of the first.

. . . .

2. Self-publishing when no one is listening

There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, but the most common one is the inability to land an agent or a traditional publisher.

Fortunately, it’s more viable than ever for a writer to be successful without a traditional publisher or agent. However, when writers chase self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing, they often have a nasty surprise in store:

No one is listening. They don’t have an audience.

Bowker reports that in 2011, more than 148,000 new print books were self-published, and more than 87,000 e-books were self-published. . . . Since Bowker only counts books that have ISBNs, that means thousands more titles go uncounted, since Amazon doesn’t require an ISBN for authors to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.

. . . .

  • Many first manuscript attempts are not publishable, even after revision, yet they are necessary and vital for a writer’s growth. A writer who’s just finished her first manuscript probably doesn’t realize this, and will likely take the rejection process very hard. Some writers can’t move past this rejection. You’ve probably heard experts advise that you should always start working on the next manuscript, rather than waiting to publish the first. That’s because you need to move on, and not get stuck on publishing your first attempt.
  • A writer who has been working on the same manuscript for years and years—and has writtennothing else—might be tragically stuck. There isn’t usually much valuable learning going on when someone tinkers with the same pages over a decade.
  • Writers who have been actively writing for many years, have produced multiple full-length manuscripts, have one or two trusted critique partners (or mentors), and have attended a couple major writing conferences are often well positioned for publication. They probably know their strengths and weaknesses, and have a structured revision process. Many such people require only luck to meet preparedness.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Business of Writing

67 Comments to “How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published?”

  1. Submit books while writing until you’ve written five, then self-publish starting with the fifth book and working backwards.

    …you’re welcome.

    I figure anybody who can write five books can’t suck that much.

  2. “If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network.”

    Sigh,

    • “Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.”

      Yeah, that whole paragraph is what I like to call bass-ackwards.

      • The only way to build a network is to publish.

        I feel she’s missed the entire point of DIY publishing. Which doesn’t surprise me, if I recall some of her posting in the past.

        I’d rather go with DWS and KKR’s advice. Makes MUCH more sense to me.

    • She has negated her own argument against self-publishing by offering this “revelation”: If you publish a book and then do absolutely nothing to let readers know it exists, then that book is probably going to fail. DUH.

      One of the methods of promotion I liked was offering books for free on Amazon. That used to be very effective for me and many other authors. Now, not so much.

      I have decided that giving away thousands of books on Amazon no longer pays off for me. But limited giveaways, particularly of paperbacks, in return for the promise of a review will be effective, I believe, in promoting my new book, DREAM TUNNEL. It will probably take many months for the book’s sales to take off, but I’m determined to be patient–unlike I did with my previous seven books. ;)

      Here are the lessons I’ve learned over the past six years of writing fiction and self-publishing:
      1. an author’s first book or two (or three or four) probably should not be published at all, or should be published under a pen name in case they bomb, which is quite likely since he is just learning how to write
      2. all books must be copy edited by a professional editor, and the cover design must be professional and appropriate for the genre
      3. the title of the book must be intriguing and relevant
      4. the description must be near perfect in describing the story and enticing the reader

      How many of the above rules have I broken? All of them. But I don’t break them anymore because now I’m older and wiser. ;)

      So, a writer can do what Jane Friedman advises, and just keep writing and waiting to hit the publishing lottery, or he can take matters into his own hands and give himself a real chance at success.

      Robert Burton Robinson, aka Arby Robbins

      • “All books must be copy edited by a professional editor” – actually, some writers are capable of copy editing their own work.

        I’d accept “most books”.

        • I agree with you Lexi. I run my work through several of my own copyedits in between creatve spurts. Write on chap 10, edit chap 4 which has been sitting for a month, rinse repeat. Once I get nauseated at looking at it I send it off to my editor and beta readers, they send it back with corrections and we repeat the process once or twice more depending on how confident we feel. THEN, I load to creatspace and print a proof copy (since everything always looks different in paperback) then send it off to editor and beta readers again, which means I have to be mega patient for a couple of weeks. Back to me for the last round of typo corrections and hopefully it’s ready for final printing. Assuming there’s no Mayan Apocalypse that week.

          I’m also fortunate to have many artist firsts and my Photoshop skills are quickly improving as I transfer my traditional art skills to digital.

          As for having written several manuscripts…been there done that years ago and they’re moldering in my closet as we type. I can’t toss them, but no one will ever, EVER read them. *shudder* Though one of my last works wasn’t half bad. The writing was juvenile but the idea was golden. I was able to rescue that short story, completely rewriting it and it’s now my best selling short on Amazon, B&N, Kobo and Smashwords. Go figure! I’ve decided to pull a Hugh Howley (lol) and expand it. I’m working on the next on now.

    • Her advice only applies to those who are unwilling to put in the grunt work required to build an audience. She seems to have the same condescending attitude of “Self publish? Pshaw, that’s for losers.”

  3. *slides off couch to lay gently on the floor*

  4. Good advice for the most part. I do have to disagree with the paragraph on self-publishing, because it assumes that everyone’s going in with the exact same game plan. It also assumes that everyone purchases books the exact same way.

    I don’t really do much marketing right now–or before now–because I’ve decided to wait to devote time to marketing until I have a backlist of 8-10 books up. I’m doing this for the possibility of a larger return on my time investment than if I started marketing *before* I had anything up.

    There isn’t *one* right way to do this. From the author of this post’s perspective, her approach with self-publishing makes sense. But the beauty of self-publishing is that you *don’t* have to start selling right out of the gate or else. There’s room to do things differently and to experiment. There are some advantages to selling well right away, but there are also disadvantages to heavily marketing when you only have one book available.

  5. Some interesting views in the article.

    Jane Friedman believes that if a writer can’t get published, then he has a problem he needs to fix. I would say it’s often the agent or the publisher who has a problem recognizing what readers would buy, given the chance.

  6. First, her comment section is ridiculous. You can’t read anything, it’s all squished together. I suspect she doesn’t really want comments….?

    Some of what she says about focusing on writing, etc. I agree with. Some of it is the usual “lines” told to writers to get them to accept being treated terribly in the Publishing World.

    The stuff about self-publishing is (obviously) ridiculous, leaving out the fact that traditional publishing does not give you any more visibility than self-publishing. How many thousands and thousands of mid-list books languish on the shelves because of the lack of marketing support? Publishers nowadays tell the author to market. Might as well market yourself and keep the control (and the money) yourself.

    She also conveniently avoids mentioning that if you sign with Traditional Publishers, you are signing a contract that will screw you over in more ways than anyone can count.

    Such a shame that people will listen to her.

  7. My neck hurt after reading this from all the shaking and nodding. I had to keep telling myself the article was over a year old.

    She almost lost me here;

    If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.

    But got me back here;

    How do you develop good taste? You read. How do you understand what quality work is? You read. What’s the best way to improve your skills aside from writing more? You read. You write, and you read, and you begin to close the gap between the quality you want to achieve, and the quality you can achieve.

    Had me nodding and shaking at the same time for awhile after that, but I decided to like her when she finished with this;

    Here’s a little piece of hope: If your immediate thought was, I couldn’t stop writing even if someone told me to give up, then you’re much closer to publication than someone who is easily discouraged.

    If you keep the age of the post in mind, it’s actually a good article (IMHO) Kinda hard to write something that remains even somewhat relevant in such a rapidly changing world.

  8. I have a simpler answer to her question. How long should you keep trying to get published? Until trying to get published no longer makes you happy.

  9. As long as you have something to say.

  10. “I am a late-sleeping, bourbon-drinking editor, at least mostly sane. I live life forward, even though you can only understand it backward.

    I don’t have hobbies, unless drinking is a hobby.”

    You know what they say about drunk blogging. Don’t drink and blog.

    PS–Where’s the list of novels this BFA in Creative Writing has published?

    • ROFL Thanks, Barbara. I needed that this morning.

    • +10, excellent point!

    • She’s published fiction – I think – in a few magazines, but they all seem to follow the general trend of being magazines by literary writers, for literary writers. I see absolutely nothing in her bibliography that indicates she knows anything whatsoever about how to write commercially successful fiction. When her advice is good, is is obvious, and where it is not obvious, it is not good. I’m sure she’s a very intelligent, thoughtful, motivated person with a fine education. I just cant’t figure out any reason why I should pay any attention to her on this particular topic.

  11. In terms of generalities Friedman is correct, but one can come up with exceptions to almost every one of her rules.

    For example, does anyone seriously think Shakespeare wrote for 10,000 hours before his first play was produced? Chris Marlowe’s second play, “Tamburlaine the Great”, was the big hit of the Elizabethan stage when he was 23, the same year he received his Master’s & left Cambridge; I doubt he spent much time practicing his craft before making it big.

    The only safe answer to the question she posed is that one should keep trying to be published as long as one believes in her/his ability. That means many — perhaps too many — unskilled writers will continue long after they should have stopped, & it means many — again, perhaps too many — good writers will stop before they should have. Every other answer is clearly based on other people’s experiences, which may not be relevant.

    • For example, does anyone seriously think Shakespeare wrote for 10,000 hours before his first play was produced?

      It’s highly unlikely. On the other hand, I’ll bet you he spent a minimum of 10,000 hours working in the theatre before his first play was produced, learning the medium and figuring out how to please an audience.

      People have this silly idea that theatre is all about writing. Mostly, I suspect, because they were required to read Shakespeare in school. Shakespeare himself knew better.

      • “I’ll bet you he spent a minimum of 10,000 hours working in the theatre before his first play was produced, learning the medium and figuring out how to please an audience.”

        Hmm. He was in Bradford for the birth of his son & daughter in February 1585, & made his reputation by 1592 when Robert Greene made a well-known snide remark about him. 10,000 hours translates to either 5 years (assuming a modern work week of 40 hours) or 3 years (assuming a contemporary work week of 60 hours), either of which could have been fit into the space of the “lost years”.

        But on closer inspection, believing this was the case becomes problematic. Such as an early story that he got his start minding the horses of theatre patrons (so just how many of those hours were spent usefully learning from the stage). Or the fact some scholars think he arrived in London with a copy in hand of his first play, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, based on its lack of skill.

        On the other hand, the evidence is ambiguous over who invented the historical drama: the novice Shakespeare or his slightly more experienced peer Christopher Marlowe.

        “People have this silly idea that theatre is all about writing. Mostly, I suspect, because they were required to read Shakespeare in school. Shakespeare himself knew better.”

        It is a point that gets overlooked. Which is why I mentioned Kit Marlowe, who appears to have been told the Elizabethan equivalent of “Start the play with an earthquake, & build up to a climax” — & did exactly that in his first play for the London stage, “Tamburlaine”. It is chock full of spectacle, extravagance, & all the goodies the audience wanted — with almost a cynical precision — while demonstrating a precocious mastery of blank verse.

        Some people don’t need those 10,000 hours. Not many (& I won;t claim to be one of them), but enough to show that even that is not a hard & fast rule. After all, 10,000 of bad practice will only ingrain bad habits which need to be unlearned. :-/

        • But on closer inspection, believing this was the case becomes problematic. Such as an early story that he got his start minding the horses of theatre patrons (so just how many of those hours were spent usefully learning from the stage). Or the fact some scholars think he arrived in London with a copy in hand of his first play, “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, based on its lack of skill.

          The first story doesn’t necessarily make the timeline not work, because that’s the sort of job that anyone might have temporarily while breaking into a new field (or a new town). When we have seven years of space to work with and only need three, there’s time for him to have spent minding horses.

          The second story, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t impress me as rising to the dignity of evidence: chiefly because there is almost no statement too silly to be accurate when prefaced by ‘some scholars say’ — especially about Shakespeare. Some scholars say that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Francis Bacon. Some scholars say Shakespeare was a pen name for the Earl of X or the Marquis of Y. Some scholars say Shakespeare was a cuckoo clock. Some scholars say Shakespeare never existed and his plays are a collective hallucination. (This last is disturbingly close to Tolstoy’s actual belief about Shakespeare.)

          I suspect the scholars who think Shakespeare was a yokel from the country who showed up with straw behind his ears and a shoddy play in his hand, and got it produced, have never had any actual involvement with the theatre.

          Marlowe, I grant you, was a phenomenon. On the other hand, he also got his B.A. from Cambridge at 20, three years before Tamburlaine the Great appeared, and I would be surprised if he hadn’t scribbled a lot of verses as an undergraduate. Probably not 10,000 hours’ worth, but it would be a mistake to suppose that he emerged full-grown from the brow of Zeus in 1587.

  12. I have written a lot of books, many for young readers and increasingly for YA and crossover/adult.

    How books are delivered, promoted, winnowed, sold, viewed/read…all that will change again and again. It always has. We all have to keep up with it, and I try. But for me it is secondary.

    The real goal is to make people forget they are reading. When I pull that off, everything else works out.
    So far, anyway….!

  13. This piece chooses to ignore the simple but devastating fact that any career as a writer (for all but a handful of the mega successful – and they are such a select band that you could count them fairly easily) is not a long crawl towards publication, after which everything is bliss. It’s a switchback. A game of snakes and ladders. Some years you make a reasonable living. Some years are disastrous. The theme or even whole genre which was rejected as unfashionable will be flavour of the decade a few years later. You find an agent, you find a publisher, then everything changes and you can be out on your ear. And this can happen more than once, usually for reasons way beyond your control. I know far too many excellent and well published writers who have found themselves in this position over the years. It has happened to me. Self publishing has restored not just a measure of control and self respect – but my joy in the actual work. I thought it had disappeared in the misery of trying to second guess an ever-changing market at the behest of people who never seemed to know as much as they pretended they did.

  14. I see the entire article as a plug for her on-line class which is $79.00.

    • Kinda gives the phrase “she’s talking her book” a whole new layer, dunnit?

      Not to mention “those who cannot do, teach.”

      • At first I got a little worked up about the article, but then, I realized that it really is an infomercial. Then it make total sense why she had “updated it a bit” and reposted it. I actually may even take the class just to find out what she has to share. I have not completely dismissed traditional publishing, and I think it is important to understand that world. However, to me the entire article was a carefully crafted infomercial. I am not going to war with an infomercial.

      • As my friend Jack Douglas (Those old enough to remember Jack and Reiko from their appearances on the Tonight Show with Carson) used to quip
        “Those who can–do
        Those who can’t–don’t.”

  15. Guys, Jane Friedman is not anti self publishing. Go back through her blog and her body of work. I remember reading some posts from her that were really supportive of self publishing even before it became mainstream. She posts a lot on disruptive forces in publishing, and she left her job at Writer’s Digest because she disagreed with them forming a partnership with Author Solutions.

    Her comment about self pubbing being a waste of time only refers to people who don’t know how to cultivate an audience and/or don’t know how to market. If you have a solid plan and are willing to work hard, this does not apply to you. She’s speaking to the people who think self pub is an easy way out.

    • “Her comment about self pubbing being a waste of time only refers to people who don’t know how to cultivate an audience and/or don’t know how to market. If you have a solid plan and are willing to work hard, this does not apply to you. She’s speaking to the people who think self pub is an easy way out.”

      I don’t disagree with this but neither do I think it is completely correct. Hard work may get you somewhere, it may not. Better to write good books and let your audience find you, or more pointedly, write books that people want to read. 50 Shades of Grey is such an example. It may not be a good book in many people’s eyes, but it is certainly a book people wanted to read. An in E.L. James’ case, she did little or no marketing herself. She just allowed word of mouth to sell it for her.

      In some respects the author of the article is right in that self-pubbing can be futile, but then as she also admits, it won’t do any harm. So why not? In my view it is better to have a bad book out there that makes just $10 for a handful of sales than one sitting gathering dust in a drawer and not being read. And you never know, it may just catch a zeitgeist or be read by that one person that makes something happen.

      I know many writers don’t like to admit it, but luck probably plays as much of a role in success as hard work. Always has. It wasn’t hard work or quality of their books that made EL James, Rowling or James Patterson the runaway successes they are today. I’ve just finished reading Frankenstein, and my copy is prefaced with a little history of the book. The original print sold less than 500 copies, but fortunately for Shelley, one of the people who bought was a theater producer who, a couple of years later, turned it into a play – the effect of which turned the novel into a bestseller that is still widely read today. If it wasn’t for luck and that one person, we’d probably have never heard of Frankenstein, or have many of the sub genres it spawned.

      • It’s fine to disagree with her. I’m just perceiving a tendency sometimes in this forum to take any mention of self publishing being hard or perhaps not for anyone as a grevious insult that gets everyone up in arms. The article in this case isn’t even about self publishing, or even choosing between self pub and traditional pub. It’s about how best to get publishing traditionally, for those authors who have already decided to do so.

        And seems like a lot of people here skipped right past the sentences saying that there are many good reasons to self publish, and the part that addressed her self publishing thoughts to people who were doing it because purely they couldn’t land an agent or publisher, and skipped right to the “waste of time” phrase and picked up their sling shots.

        • I read those sentences. I just didn’t think they justified her perpetuation of the myth that promotion, promotion, promotion is the ONLY way to make self-pub worthwhile.

          • Ah. I tend to see an audience building strategy as essential for any publishing path, self or traditional.

            • Hugh Howey has said he didn’t promote Wool at all – he was busy marketing his full length novels, when enthusiastic readers started forum discussions and made Wool a huge best seller.

              I often say some books turn out to be covered in fairy dust. Impossible to predict which ones, and nothing to do with promotion.

              • Audience building strategy is more than just marketing. It includes making decisions about distribution (ebook? print? bookstores?), and deciding whether to spend time on marketing or just to write more books. I’m actually of the opinion that writing more books is a better strategy then endless marketing.

                And yes, also fairy dust.

                • I’m with you there. Marketing in this new world best consists of writing more books, something she seemed to disagree with being sufficient.

                  • Keep in mind though, that writing the next book is a slow growth strategy with very little return at first, and this article is about how to get a traditional book deal. In order for self pubbing to help you get a puglisher, you need high volume sales in a short period of time, and the slow growth marketing plan is less well suited for that.

        • Livia,

          I could be wrong, but I’m afraid I don’t agree that we picked up our sling shots without reason. You’re right that the article is about how to publish traditionally, but when it includes misinformation about self-publishing, I think it deserves to be dissected.

          I’m afraid I didn’t see anything in this article acknowledging the good reasons to self-publish. Maybe I missed them…? What I did see was a nod to the fact that self-publishing is easier than ever, and a fairly strong statement that it is a waste of time, and your book will lie dormant and unseen.

          One of the purposes of this particular blog, imho, is to hold people accountable by bringing what they are saying out into the spotlight. That means holding those who support traditional publishing – or make money off seminars telling writers how to publish traditionally – accountable for being accurate in their presentation of indie publishing – and not using a subtle spin to try to steer writers away from indie publishing.

          I think you’re right, we do tend to be alittle knee jerk here – well, I know I do, I shouldn’t speak for others, but I did read this article carefully, and I feel fairly sure there is spin here.

          Of course, I could be wrong, but that’s my impression.

          • Mira –

            Well, I’m sure my view is also colored by my past impressions of Jane’s blog. I remember being impressed by how open she was to self pubbing back in the day, and I also have bookmarked some posts from her that list helpful epublishing tools. So I admit I have a tendency to interpret her posts in a less anti-self-publishing kind of way. Looking through some of her other posts now, I see that she does take a very cautious approach toward self publishing — (ie, it’s very hard, takes a lot of work, you need to know your goals), which I’m sure most self pubbers would agree with, but they might not agree with just how strongly she emphasizes those downsides, compared to the downsides of traditional publishing.

            And my mistake about the reasons to self publish. She says there are “many reasons”, but doesn’t actually say there are”good reasons.” (I’m putting words in her mouth! :-P) She does say “Fortunately, it’s more viable than ever for a writer to be successful without a traditional publisher or agent.” Which I interpreted as a sincere acknowledgment of self publishing as a viable path, but other people might have a different interpretation if all they see are the snippits here.

            I guess overall, this article didn’t strike me as egregious because the self pubbing advice was in the fairly narrow context of self pubbing in order to get a traditional book deal. And I certainly agree with you that there are many pitfalls in traditional contracts. I’m just of the opinion that it would be a topic for a different article.

            I do see your point though on the importance of keeping people accountable and educating people though, and agree that it’s really important to educate writers.

            • Livia – I love debating with you; you are very fair and measured in your responses. You’re a good role model for me. :)

              I hadn’t read her advice about indie publishing in the context of trying to get a traditional contract; if she meant it that way, it does put what she said in a different light.

              On a more general note, I know that alot of folks who work for traditional publishing are good people, and Jane is probably one of them, and helpful to boot. But I do tend to give anyone who recommends a traditional publishing path a hard time if they don’t also mention that those who take that path, at least with the Big Six, will be treated terribly and most likely be cheated in their contracts. I find that is rarely mentioned, and so it’s not hard for me to find fault.

              That’s a perspective I will defend. If someone is leading authors to an end result that may be hurtful to them, I think it is important to speak out a warning.

              • Aww, thanks Mira! It’s much easier to be polite and balanced in discussions with you, because you yourself are so friendly. :-) I’m totally with you on author education about contracts and stuff, and making sure writers go into deals with their eyes open.

  16. “Don’t you wish someone could tell you how close you are to getting traditionally published?”

    No, because I’ve never had any desire to be “traditionally published”. I’ve also never had a desire to be mugged.

    • LOL! You know, I kinda felt the same way. Though I wanted to be traditionally published twenty years ago, now I couldn’t care less. I also care more about my freedom to write what I want and keep publishing until I’m sick of writing. Maybe it’s futile, but then I’m not expecting to get rich. I would love it, wouldn’t turn it down, but not counting the days ’til my ship ‘sales’ in . I figure if I’m getting read and people are liking it and giving me money… well that’s perdy darn awesome.

  17. Her first what-not-to-do is in direct contradiction with one of Heinlein’s rules. Evaluate both accordingly.

  18. Simple observation of the market refutes her.

  19. My ex-agent used to say thing like this, and they made me see red. Things like, “You got so close with this one,” and “You’re a great writer, you just need to write something else.”

    No, I don’t and didn’t need to know how close I got. What I did need to know was that these were mere platitudes and designed mainly to start me writing stuff she personally liked.

    Which is why she’s my ex-agent. I have 5 books with a small press, 2 more coming out in ’13, and my first indie will release this year as well. Guess I’m “that close.”

    • This is good to hear — both for your own success and as a refutation of, well, the kinds of things people’s ex-agents tend to say.

      (Come to think of it, ex-agents, as portrayed by their former clients, rather remind me of all the aunts in P. G. Wodehouse’s stories. At one time or another, Bertie Wooster made a remark about how for every man who’s in the soup, you’ll find an aunt who pushed him in. Substitute ‘writer’ for ‘man’ and ‘ex-agent’ for ‘aunt’, and there you are.)

  20. BTW, Jane recently started compiling good business posts for writers, which I find valuable. There’s some good ones for indie authors in the most recent installment.

    http://janefriedman.com/2013/01/02/best-business-advice-for-writers-december-2012/

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Page optimized by WP Minify WordPress Plugin