Getting Published Is Not the Be-All

Should writers worry about getting a book published in this day and age? Ever the contrarian, Luke Edley makes a counter-argument.

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Let’s face it, every writer has dreams of bagging a book publishing deal. And yet, it’s arguably the best of times and the worst of times to want to be an author. On the one hand, thanks to the internet, the explosion of self-publishing outlets (Createspace, Lulu) and other online platforms (blogging sites, Wattpad) have opened up more opportunities to actually get your work in front of an audience than there have been in the past. However, on the other hand, this also means that traditional publishing models have taken a real hammering, to the point where the old-fashioned notion of quality control risks becoming an outdated concept as the online space is flooded with excitable amateurs.

Of course, it’s easy for writers to fool ourselves into believing we live in a world where cream rises to the top, but that can hardly be true if E.L. James can become a multi-millionaire off the back of Fifty Shades of Grey. Initially a self-published Twilight-derived fan-fic knock-off, Fifty Shades somehow became a best-seller despite the fact it was terribly written—the fact that E.L James even got a legitimate publishing deal in the wake of her viral success proves that publishers can indeed be complicit in peddling dross if there’s money to be made, and this can make it hard for genuine talent to thrive.

With this in mind, I have developed a more pragmatic way of looking at the idea of getting published. After all, should it be so important in this day and age? Most writers regard getting published as the Holy Grail, but I would like to argue the idea that it’s really not all it’s cracked up to be. A recent study of writers in the UK revealed that the bottom 50% of authors made less than £10,500 per year, so this fanciful notion of becoming a ‘full-time writer’ won’t necessarily pay the bills or give a boost to your salary, so it’s not exactly a career choice paved with gold now, is it?

If Random House came knocking at your door and offered you the job of a full-time writer, what would you do? Presumably, if you’re anything like me, you’d take it, most likely, but can you say with total honesty that you’d enjoy your new career? For you, would writing become just another job? Factor in the whole promotional circus that goes with it—interviews, book signings, etc.—and there is always a slim chance that your love of writing will begin to suffer. The death of every hobby begins the moment it becomes a chore, or an obligation, so that’s a down side I’d argue many writers don’t like to think about.

If, as I do, you work full-time and writing is a hobby for you, then perhaps you should define success on your own terms. The internet means everybody (for better and for worse) can use it as a self-promotional tool and publish their work, in some form at least, so if you get recognised enough to grab the attention of a publishing house or a literary agent, so be it. You can cross that bridge when you come to it. However, actively chasing a book publishing deal seems like a fools errand to me, especially given that most large publishers won’t court writers unless they have a large social media following anyway.

Let’s be realistic: We’re living in a time where artists and musicians of all stripes are expected to whore their wares online for free, and writing is no different. The guardians of taste—literary agents, publishers—aren’t always motivated to represent work which is genuinely worth reading. You’ll find that a lot of cloying, pretentious and overrated mainstream literature has only really been published because it appeals to genteel, Guardian-reading sensibilities—pap for the middle-class housewife—or that it fits the literati’s prevailing intellectual agenda (multiculturalism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, etc.).

Then there’s trashy airport lit for the mass market—commercial, accessible and entertaining genre fiction—which ultimately is formulaic and written more to be read quickly and then discarded than it is to be remembered, least of all change someone’s life. Most books released by the major publishing companies, by virtue of the industry’s checks and balances, are likely to be well-written, sure, but they have not necessarily been published because they are the best.

They’re published either because a) they’re fashionable or b) they’re deemed to be profitable. If your work doesn’t fit into either one of those camps, you’re in for a rough ride. It’s all very well being true to yourself as a writer, but I doubt all editors lose too much sleep about your artistic credibility. In the end, they want to turn stories into money, to win awards, or to fill column inches in the press. So, be careful what you wish for—if you’re in a secure job and you enjoy writing in your spare time, it may be wiser to think of alternative ways of finding an audience for your work.

These days, writers can’t just sit on their creativity like they had to in the last century, waiting for some magical gatekeeper to grant them the keys to the world. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try and get your work published the old-fashioned way, of course. But try to remind yourself that getting published is not the be-all and end-all. It’s down to you whether you’re open to self-publishing or not, or how much you want to commit to publishing your work online, but when it comes down to it, I don’t want to waste my life sitting on a lifetime of work being rejected, if that’s what it comes to.

If I can’t get a literary agent or a publisher to see the value in what I do as a writer, then I’m quite prepared to invest in a freelance editor, self-publish it, and then move onto the next project. It honestly doesn’t bother me whether I’m a proper published author or a full-time writer or not. To worry about success in those terms is the path to madness. As long as I have a collection of stories I’ve written over the course of my lifetime by the time I’m old, then that’d be an achievement enough.

The only option for writers then, in my opinion, is to enjoy what you do and hope you find an online audience who appreciates it. It’s not worth chasing the dream of being a full time writer just to roll in bank notes—it’ll never happen. Just write for the joy of doing it, and don’t be guided by the delusion that your life will change for the better if things take a turn for the J.K. Rowling. The best artists, I’d like to think, are recognised and rewarded for their passions—let that be your barometer, not your career ambitions—and that’s all writers can really hope for.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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  • A painter aims to sell their paintings, which is done through a gallery. A musician works to release an album through a record label. An actor wishes to perform on stage or in film, facilitated by a larger organisation. Authors are the same: we write to have our work read, and that is done through publication.

    • Luke Edley says:

      I agree – I’m not saying writers should actively avoid getting published. I just feel to write and not do anything with it is a waste – if a publisher or a literary agent doesn’t see merit in the work, then self-publish and be damned. Then move on. In the end I just wanted to voice how the emergence of new publishing models contrasts with the traditional option (the idea of resting on one’s laurels, waiting for a book deal) and how this has eroded what success means to me really. I hope that came across.

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