Publish and Punish

Why do so many people think they can write? I’m not talking about text messages here, but novels, poetry or memoirs. My own theory is that writing is one of the few areas where lack of talent isn’t immediately obvious, as it is in singing, dancing and sports. If you don’t have the looks to be a model or the coordination and musculature for sports, there isn’t much you can do about it. But writing — anyone can string words together in the privacy of their own home. Successful writers can become celebrities, or at least rich. And now that self-publishing is so easy, almost everyone has found the writer within and is busy cranking out stuff.

But by what standard should success be judged, especially by the writer him- or herself? Right now it seems there is only one standard — number of copies sold. Million-copy sellers are unquestionably successful. Every other situation has a “but,” as in, “Yes, my sales are small, but I’ve had some really good reviews.” Or, “I’ve sold hardly any books, but as soon as readers discover them, that will change.”

How many of us self-published authors are willing to reveal our sales figures?

Maybe we need a different standard: the amateur writer, like the beer-league hockey player or community theater actor. Instead of judging all writers by one standard, which makes 99.999% of us abject failures, some of us can be respectable amateurs.

I don’t expect this to happen soon, if at all. It’s that magical, delicious word “publish.” To most, it means acceptance by the established league of experts, who will take you under their wing, polish your work and promote your brand to stardom (never mind that this is rarely the case  with most first-time authors). Any other kind of publication is qualified (the big BUT) — it’s self-publishing, or vanity publishing or print-on-demand publishing. Not the real thing. If a self-published author manages to sell large numbers of copies, the  big door may open, but only then. The rest of us come to realize that the real challenge is self-promotion, to which most of us gave no thought while in the throes of creation.

So here’s the question I’ve lived with for the past three years, while watching my less-than-stellar sales numbers:  Is my writing deficient, or my ability to sell it? I can live with the latter, but may also have to live with the uncertainty.

Why Do You Write?

The other evening, poet and creativity mentor Ahava Shira, speaking to the Victoria Writers’ Society about writing and performing poetry, mentioned that one of her clients needed advice on what to do with her poems. She also spoke of her own experiences with self-publishing a collection of her poems and producing a recording of herself performing her works.

Last week, out of curiosity, I peered into a book by Mike Nappa with the rather cumbersome title 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected {and how to be sure it won’t happen again!}. Mr. Nappa, as we are informed on the cover of his book, is the “founder and chief literary agent of Nappaland Literary,” and knows a good deal about rejections.

These encounters, one with a self-published poet, the other with a book of advice for writers, led me to today’s topic. Many writers are driven to write by an irresistible impulse, even obsession. Once that first act of creation is completed and the chaotic and glorious adventure is over, the writer has to decide what to do with the results. Many writers think they must get their works published by a “real” publishing company. Then they will go on a book tour, do readings and signings and be interviewed by the CBC. If they can’t accomplish this, they will be failed writers. The thing that was a source of joy becomes a burden and a source of disappointment, shame and bitterness.

Mike Nappa’s book lays out the facts about what a writer needs to do in order to have a chance at being published by a large corporate publisher, or represented by the agents who work with these publishers. The writer who really wants a shot at this would benefit by reading the book and jumping through the hoops so thoroughly described by Mike Nappa. (Hint: take a marketing course or become a celebrity).

Financial planners ask their clients about their risk tolerance when presenting investment options; writers should honestly assess their rejection tolerance. Perfectionists and people who have a tendency to beat themselves up have a hard time with rejections.

So what about the writer who has no interest in jumping the hoops? Or the one who has given their best shot at the submission process, received rejections and doesn’t know what to do next? It used to be the case that there were only two categories of writers: published and not published, with the self-published in an unmentionable category labelled “vanity.”

Things have changed. Any writer can now be published, and is free to market their work as much or as little as they please — or not at all. The crucial thing is to adjust expectations accordingly.

Don’t consider yourself a failed writer if you don’t meet the criteria of the industrial publishing machine. As Mr. Nappa emphasizes in 77 Reasons…  there is only one reason a book gets published — profit. If an author measures success or failure only by that criterion, fine. But there are so many more possibilities.

First, learn to write well. This is an absolute requirement, no matter how, or even whether, you publish. Take courses if you find them helpful. Read books about how to write, or (even better) just read. Read as much as you can and pay attention to how it’s done. Then write, write, write.

Find a group of writers who will read your stuff and offer good criticism. By good criticism I don’t mean unconditional admiration, but sincere suggestions that may help to improve your work. Aside from actual criticism, such readers will reflect your work back to you, helping you to see it from unexpected angles.

Find congenial opportunities to bring your work out into the world, however limited their scope. Self-publish in e-book form, in print or both, depending on how much money you want to commit to the project. Read to friends, family members, fellow writers or the general public. Record your book and turn it into a podcast. Make a video of yourself (or someone else) reading from your book and post it online. Create your own book trailer. Make a video of a friend or fellow writer interviewing you about your book, and post that online. All of this is doable at low or no cost, and without a degree in marketing.

Above all, write. The only failed writers are those who give up and kill the creative part of themselves because its creations did not meet the harsh criterion of profit.