It’s been a busy couple of days around here. We’ve switched our Internet Service Provider from Comcast to AT&T, which meant that I’ve had to change e-mail addresses for various services. Life is returning to normal, which is good, because I am behind on both my reading and my writing. I welcome back my friends on Facebook today: for some reason, my WordPress connection to Facebook drops out occasionally and my posts on Books Here And There don’t show up on Facebook as they should, but the problem’s been fixed.
I did run across an article this morning on self-publishing, one that you ought to read if you are thinking about going in that direction with your finished work. In fact, Ros Barber’s essay is quite the best argument against self-publishing that I have ever read. So bleak is the outlook for those who self-publish (and for those who are represented by agents) that one wonders why any of us are trying to write at all.
My answer is adapted from something George Will says in Statecraft as Soulcraft: “Absent good moral argument, bad moral argument will have the field to itself.” Putting that statement in our terms, absent good writing, bad writing will have the market all to itself. One of the first things any decent writer learns is that he’s not nearly as good a writer as he thinks he is. (That’s why we have editors.) But darlin’, I can tell you this: bad books get published every year, and your work is or can be better than any of those bad books.
In simplest terms, books get rejected because they just aren’t good enough: the plot has holes or the dialogue isn’t believable, or the setting isn’t vivid enough. If a non-fiction book gets rejected, it’s because the conclusions don’t match the evidence or the prose sounds like IBM’s Watson wrote it instead of a human being. If the book is rejected (and it may well be), work on it some more. Every writer–including the famous ones–has been rejected hundreds of times. If your book gets rejected, keep going for as long as you can. Eventually, that good book will find a niche somewhere, and displace one of those wretched books that a publisher probably regretted putting on the market.
And if the thought of dying as an impoverished author doesn’t appeal to you, take to heart the cliche: don’t quit your day job. Think of any money you make from writing as a supplement to whatever money you make that actually pays the bills. If holding down two jobs reduces your writing output, so be it. Make that output the best you can make it. If you ever become solvent enough or good enough to write full time, trust me: you’ll know it. Someone (a publisher or an agent) will tell you.
My own advice (to both you and me) is do the work then find an agent. Do the work first, and make it good. Then, go hunting. Remember, the question to ask the agent is not “Is this book any good?” but rather, “Can you sell this book?” The agent is not an editor; he or she represents an author who has completed a work. That’s all. If the work can’t be sold, keep working on it until it can be, or work on something else. Think of Harper Lee recasting Go Set A Watchman years ago into To Kill A Mockingbird. How hard it must have been to take her publisher’s advice back then! But how wise they both were in offering it and taking it. Until the end of her life, Lee had had only one book published–only one–but what a book it was, and how happy she must have been to have written it.
If the aim of writing is to contribute to the happiness of our lives and the happiness of others’ lives, then payment–money, fame, reputation–can’t be the sole criterion of success. If it were, it would drive us crazy. If you produce one or two or three works of which you can say, “Yeah, that one was pretty good; that one turned out well,” you’ve done enough, and you will be remembered as what you are: a writer, a craftsman. And you will have earned your place within that rather large ring of writers who have done the same over all of their careers. Such an end may not sound like much but, truthfully, it’s the best ending that any of us ought to hope for.