(Warning: Rant ahead. If you have a fragile ego or otherwise still buy into your mommy’s “special snowflake” story, you’ll probably want to avert your gaze. Like now.)
People who know me likely think that I have no respect for self-publishing. In truth, I am very excited and optimistic about the many avenues that professional writers have to publish and promote their work.
Did you notice the qualifying adjective ?
I agree that creativity belongs in the public domain. We do not, nor should we, live in a world where certain individuals are pulled aside and blessed with the divine right to write songs, stories, and poems, while all the other drudges need to resign themselves to digging ditches, entering data, and attending meetings.
Today, anyone can preserve their creative writing efforts in either digital or printed form to share with family and friends. This is a good thing.
As a reader, however, I do not appreciate having to slog through the ever-growing deluge of self-published excrement clogging the virtual bookshelves. And if you are one of the many “authors” who decided to “put their work out there” when they got tired of listening to criticism or sending query letters to agents and editors who never responded beyond the automated “I-received-your-email-if-you-don’t-hear-otherwise-in-six-weeks-the-answer-is-no,” then you are part of the problem.
Ten Years of Practice
A number of writers and editors report that it takes roughly 10 years for the average writer to start producing publishable work. Ray Bradbury started writing at least 1,000 words a day at the age of 12 and produced his first “really fine story” at 22.
Many writers seem to think that this 10-year average comes from the navel-gazing agents and editors of the traditional publishing industry, those close-minded gatekeepers who lack the vision to recognize new writing talent. Hence, these aspiring authors rush to self-publish, designing their book covers with great care, and often at great expense, grateful that their burgeoning literary careers no longer depend upon the approval of these antiquated cliques in their ivory publishing towers.
These same writers then get discouraged and angry when their literary darlings are ignored and immediately buried by 10,000 other books in the same sub-genre (bondage-loving she-wolves and Navy SEALs, anyone?) of the same writing caliber.
No one wants to hear it, but it’s not the publishing process itself that occupies the bulk of the time. It’s learning to write something of publishable quality (i.e., something that people will actually want to read).
Indirect Experience Counts
I didn’t write much fiction in my twenties. I was busting my fanny as a corporate writer. Finally, I wrote a novella that was actually a short story gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Even while writing that awful novella, however, I could see my writing had improved since my previous attempts at fiction. Writing for a living—even newsletter articles and corporate scripts—had made me a better writer, period. And even though I hadn’t done much fiction writing, I continued to devour fiction in many genres.
My professional writing practice and my personal passion for reading fiction paid off a few years later, when a friend invited me to submit a short story to a noir anthology that she was editing. I wrote (and rewrote) the story, and it was accepted for publication.
A few years after that, I wrote a novel draft in nine months and went through the querying process. The first agent I contacted—the only agent who seemed like a perfect fit—replied within five minutes, asking for the full manuscript.
Based on personal experience, and the experiences of other writers I know, the traditional publishing industry is not dead-set on blocking new writers. They do, however, focus on writers who have already achieved a certain level of mastery. (So far, I’ve heard of one agent who invested time in an unpublished author because she loved his concept.) Typically, you have to have a buttoned-up, completed manuscript that shows you have your shit together.
Getting one’s shit together is what typically takes a decade or so.
Spoiler Alert: No Shortcuts
Once you’ve been at this writing thing for a while and, instead of silence or form rejections, you start receiving notes that say “not a good fit, but send us other work” or “market appeal is too small,” then you might consider self-publishing. Maybe the work itself is fine but simply doesn’t have the built-in audience that a traditional publisher is looking for.
But if you’re frustrated because you’ve been slaving over your manuscript for two or three years and still receive harsh feedback from editors or peer review groups . . . I’m sorry. While you’re no doubt improving your writing skills, you probably aren’t ready to go public. It’s nothing personal; it’s just part of the writing process.