Once you see how the publishing sausage is made—how few books make it all the way through the gauntlet, and that at times it seems there is no rhyme or reason to why certain books succeed and others don’t—you can become disillusioned and quit, or become even more persistent in your efforts. The hard truth, and one I’ve had to come to terms with myself over the last several years, is that if you really want to be a writer, no one is going to make it happen but you.
Staying a writer is perhaps the hardest part of this life we’ve chosen. In August 2019, I arrived at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop. With the blessing of my wife, I’d left our family for ten days to drive to Vermont as I continued to pursue this crazy dream of becoming A Writer. It seemed like the time had come. I’d been working as an editor at various smaller houses for close to a decade. I had turned thirty a few years before and had begun to have a lot more success at publishing short stories instead of just collecting rejections. This dream was finally coming true—I met an agent at Bread Loaf who was very interested in the novel I’d been working on. It was all finally happening. In my head, I was already practicing my National Book Award acceptance speech.
Being a writer was a dream that had already seen much compromise over the past twenty-five years. I began writing in earnest when I was about eight years old. I sent out my stories to a variety of magazines. This was back when submissions were exclusively mailed and required an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope, for those not as old as I am). Some of those rejections included nice notes, some with not much at all. This was my entry point into the broader world of writing and publishing. I was hooked. I kept writing and collecting rejection slips. I eventually specialized in creative writing as an undergrad, taking workshops and studying with other students who shared this same dream of becoming A Writer. It was exhilarating, this experience of being around people who were serious about both their art and putting in the work and time to achieve this goal.
I had always anticipated I’d pursue an MFA at some point. The trajectory of my life seemed to make the most sense inside some sort of insular world of art, but for various reasons this did not happen, and the years began to slip away with the busyness of life. I got married, had kids, began working as an editor—both freelance and on staff with a few smaller houses. I stopped writing for a while as my career grew. It turned out that not writing was a lot easier than writing.
After becoming disillusioned for a few years, I decided I would instead become even more persistent. In the words of Harlan Ellison, “The trick is not becoming a writer. The trick is staying a writer.” I’d started what would become my debut novel perhaps a half-dozen times over about fifteen years before arriving at Bread Loaf, but I decided that this time I would finish it. There was, after all, an agent interested in my book. I would finally be A Writer. And so I got up at 4:30 a.m. each morning to write. I’ve found that the only time I am really able to both focus and write is before my kids are awake. After four or five months, I had a draft that was good enough to share with a few friends and trusted writers who helped me shape the story further. I revised and revised and revised, going through about fifteen drafts over the next six months before it felt like something worth sharing. The book was finally done. I had finished Gloria Patri, a novel about the aftermath of religious extremism and domestic terrorism. I sent it off to the agent I’d met and crossed my fingers. This was the novel I knew I wanted to write.
Some writers will tell you they don’t write for publication; don’t believe them. We all want people to read what we write, otherwise we should stick to a journal. This struggle between creative self-expression and commercial potential is at the heart of publishing. Publishing is a separate beast from writing. The two have different metrics of success. Publishing at its heart is a business—no matter how big or small the publisher, if books aren’t selling enough copies to at least cover costs, then the entire endeavor becomes unsustainable very quickly. Writing—at least creative writing—at its heart is a form of expression, a way to grapple with the world we encounter. To really succeed as a writer, we must clear our minds of thoughts of publishing and focus on the work itself. We want to make sense of our own existences through writing, and we want to see that work out in the world, both widely distributed and widely loved. Publication can lead to compromise. This compromise is not always bad. My Bread Loaf workshop leader told us a story of how his publisher—concerned about a particular character being too recognizable—gave him forty-eight hours to change all identifying factors of the character before they sent the book to print.
Sometimes this compromise would result in the work becoming unrecognizable. There was an agent who read Gloria Patri and asked if I would be willing to significantly change what I consider to be the heart of the book. I declined because if I’d agreed I would no longer truly believe in that book.
Thinking of all the implications and angles of publication can be daunting, and sending a book into the world is a bit like sending a child to school for the first time. You’re excited for them, a little nervous, a little sad, a little scared. All sorts of things could happen, but what’s most likely to happen is nothing. People don’t care nearly as much as you do about your book. There are a lot of things to capture their attention, and it’s unlikely your book will be one of them. It’s a harsh reality, but also a freeing one.
This is partly where the publishing ecosystem can help—not just through the support of other authors, but within the publishing pipeline itself. Your editor and/or publisher will (hopefully) remain your staunchest ally through it all, weathering all manner of storms. Manuscript changes, production issues, cover disagreements—these are all normal. When reviews come out and they are not great. As an editor, I’ve dealt with all of these things—talking authors off the ledge, so to speak. I understand them because I am one of them. As a writer, I know the inherent anxieties that come with the fact that your book—that thing you’ve been working on and thinking about nonstop for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years—is finally, actually going out into the world. When people don’t like your book, it feels like a personal affront.
But the reality is that almost nothing in publishing is personal. By this, I mean that decisions are not made capriciously. The editor or publisher who turns down your book is looking at dozens of proposals or manuscripts a week, with limited slots available within a given calendar year. The agent who doesn’t even respond to your query is looking at far more—perhaps hundreds of submissions—each month. It’s not just an issue of standing out from the crowd; it’s an issue of persistence. I heard once that “luck” is simply preparation plus opportunity. Putting yourself in the position where opportunities may occur and being prepared for when those opportunities present themselves is an enormous part of the writing life. It sounds counterintuitive—you spend all this time thinking and writing and making sure your sentences sing, only to cross your fingers and hope you’re “lucky” enough to catch the eye of an agent. It’s a little like taking a boat out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and casting a single line, hoping to catch something—anything.
But the fact is that an agent will not save you. I’ve written about this before, but I don’t even have one. I still struggle with saying it out loud—it comes with baggage, doesn’t it? It feels like I’m confessing some personal failure. That I should be ashamed, somehow. I came tantalizingly close a handful of times while querying Gloria Patri—the agent I met at Bread Loaf never responded to me again; there was another one who “read eagerly, intrigued by the concept” and said the manuscript was “gorgeous” and had “so much potential” before passing on the book. A few others. You’ll start to lose your mind if you focus too much on rejections. What I’ve learned through my day job is that it’s better to not have an agent at all than to have the wrong one. I’ve worked with authors who are secretly—or sometimes not so secretly—unhappy with their agents because of poor communication, a lack of understanding of the type of book they have written or want to write, or a lack of enthusiastic support for the book as it goes out into the world.
The highs and lows of publishing will drive you mad if you focus too much on them, but there are some beautiful moments along the way too. When something you’ve written connects with another human being? That’s the good stuff. That’s what we’re all looking for, ultimately. In this ephemeral world where books can often seem like they have the shelf life of lettuce, we want to know that something we’ve said matters to others, even for a moment.
By Austin Ross
Published August 22, 2023