Publishing, A Writer’s Biggest Headache

Unsurprisingly, the issues surrounding publishing and our sense of ourselves as writers have provoked the longest discussion of the whole writing course. It seems to me that at no point in the past has publishing ever been such a problem to writers. If you were mad – or educated – enough to want to write, then publication was something that eventually happened down the line. It strikes me (and I may be wrong) that writers were a much more self-selecting band, and publishers were a much more adventurous bunch.

Nowadays you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the world writes and harbours some secret dream of superstardom. And publishers seem (and this may be an illusion) to have become more and more cagey and restrictive about what they will put out. Rather than simply accept these barriers to self-expression, those Darwinian technology types gave us the digital world. And paradoxically, the more platforms that appear for writers to publish on, the more problematic it all becomes. There are people out there drawing flow charts now to account for all the different choices that can be made. And still the question remains: who will actually read us?

It seems to me that the basic problem is that publishing is way too emotive a subject for writers to be allowed near. You say the ‘P’ word in authorial company and suddenly everyone is rushing to declare their practised speeches, composed during the small hours of the afternoon when writing is hard and recognition distant and somehow morale must be maintained. The other basic problem is that many writers talk about publishing before they have actually experienced it. In the same way that newly-formed partnerships fantasise romantically about having children, and university students imagine being rich, writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomenon – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.

Most of my publishing experience has been academic. I’ve published four books and about 20 articles and chapters, and I did this over the space of about 12 years. Which strikes me as quite a lot in hindsight, throwing my son and chronic fatigue into the mix. I rarely got paid for it (£200 was the only advance I was ever given), and my writings disappeared with the tiniest splash into the great ocean of academic tracts. Academics only read for what they’re researching – you don’t go and read someone’s book about Rabelais just because it’s supposed to be good – which to my mind is why academic writing has become so insular and unattractive to general readers. Everyone writes to be clever. Not everyone writes to be stylish, although the field of academic research even in my small literary corner is vast, and it makes no sense to either celebrate or condemn it. It has been formed by the forces of necessity and good intention.

So why did I take it upon myself to add to the trillions of words? It clearly wasn’t for fame or fortune. I didn’t do it ‘for myself’, whatever that really means. When the boxes of advance copies arrived I felt pleased for about two minutes, and then I found the immediate issues of the day more pressing. No, I did it because it was, for me, the root of my work as a literary critic. Everything grew out of that quiet moment when I thought about a book and shaped those thoughts into words. That was the beating heart of my discipline. How could I teach students about essay writing if I weren’t engaged with that process myself? How could I put good lectures together unless I had thought long and hard about the books I was discussing? I had to write about the book to get to the bottom of my reaction to it. And once I had written down to my satisfaction an interpretation of a book, I wanted to share it with my community, to contribute to the ongoing discussion and because (rightly or wrongly) I felt I had something to say.

It was always important for me to know whom I was writing for, not least because I could then be assured of saying something that might feasibly be useful. Essentially, the reason I write at all is to get my message across. I want to make people think about things they generally try to avoid thinking about. So I have to strategise a lot with regard to the audience if I have any hope of achieving that goal. What I learned pretty fast through teaching (and living) is that human beings make dreadful listeners. On the whole they hear only what they want to hear, or what they are afraid they will hear. It’s always seemed to me the most intriguing challenge to get readers to put their prejudices, their hopes, their anxieties aside and hear instead what I want them to.

So I have never been someone who writes ‘for myself’. I do not want, as one of my classmates brilliantly put it, to be engaged in nothing more than a monologue. I want to be talking to someone and not as a party bore who has importuned them in a corner, but as a voice saying something they might find illuminating to hear. Our course instructor said that he found the whole publishing malarkey much easier when he thought of his writing as a gift that he bestowed regularly on the world, without expectation of reward. This sounds to me like a convenient solution to a knotty problem, and one that makes us all look pretty. It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? This idea of the author writing in an isolated cell, then sending her work out into the world with never a glance to see where it lands, indifferent to its fate. Yeah, well, dream on. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t long for praise and popularity. And I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t hurt by rejection. Writers do what they do because they feel close to the human predicament – we can’t suddenly turn around and become angels or saints. It’s better to face up to the large and ugly emotions that are part of the process.

I think the consolatory fantasy of self-fulfillment has risen in proportion to the difficulties encountered in actually getting published. Because so few of us are ever likely to have the bonus of an audience for our writing, we have to work our way around that emotionally. And whether we publish traditionally or independently, an audience remains the most elusive commodity. As I said, it’s only once you’ve published and realised that it does not suddenly make your work desirable and praiseworthy, that you live in cold, hard clarity. I don’t pretend to have any solutions to this muddle and I’m not sure there are any. I think perhaps writers have to accept they are a kind of modern-day Sisyphus, condemned to roll the rock to the top of the mountain and watch it fall back down again, but enraged when it does so and longing every time for that rock finally to stay in place and become a monument to endeavour.


24 thoughts on “Publishing, A Writer’s Biggest Headache

  1. You make some interesting points Victoria. I think my perspective is a little different, though I recognise that I may not be typical. It does worry me that there is so much focus (on the internet in particular) in the process of publication rather than the process of writing, as if there is some kind of magic key to unlock the gatekeepers’ gate. Of course, it is nice to be published, to gain a readership and positive feedback, for it validates all the effort you’ve been putting in. But I would say that the desire to write and the desire to publish are two rather separate things that should be kept at a safe distance from one another. I fear that for some the desire to be a published author exceeds their love of learning to perfect their craft to the best of their ability. When I am writing I do try to write for its own sake rather than thinking about an audience or a market, and in fact my most recent little book was written for myself without any expectation that it would ever be published. It just happened to be sitting there homeless on my hard drive when a publisher came knocking. 🙂

    • Neil, I do know what you mean, and think that you are quite right that fantasies of publication can impede and obstruct the business of writing. You are very lucky to be able to have something sitting finished on your hard drive without the need for deadlines or incentives, but then I often think of you as a very pure kind of writer. But I worry that in an already solipsistic world, the idea of writing for oneself can also become mangled and tainted with egotism. I think there has to be an ‘imagined reader’, even if that person is a different part of the self.

      • That’s a fair point – I think it’s true that when I am writing ‘for myself’ I am still conscious of writing in a way that I think others might appreciate, and saying things that I would be happy to share with the world. Of course, I write memoir, which is arguably the most solipsistic of forms, yet I am not really writing about myself, I am writing about what I have observed of the world outside my own self. Looking outwards rather than inwards.

      • And that is probably WHY you are a published memoir writer! I don’t feel I managed to nail what I wanted to say in this post, despite it’s immense length. But it’s something about how the ideal experience of publishing (rarely available in the real world) needs still to accompany the writing (even though few of us will publish traditionally). Looking outwards to the world is a fundamental part of the creative process, perhaps one of the most important parts, as far as I can see.

  2. “writers think about publication as a joyous event, and quite possibly one that will solve all their problems – financial, moral, existential. Whereas most of us who have published limp bloodied from the arena, humiliated by having failed to make the crowd go wild. My premise in this post is that – like so many modern phenomenon – publishing is an awful experience and yet still we want it beyond all reason.”

    You have said it eloquently. If only the legions of desperately wannabe authors were actually listening!

    I’ve published (so far) two non-fiction books with major American commercial houses. It is a deeply instructive experience, and all the gauzy fantasies evaporate very, very quickly when they send you the contract and offer you an advance (yes, really) whose final payment is 12 months after publication.

    In what parallel universe does the word “advance” mean a year later?! When it fits their P & L statement (profit and loss), not your wistful notions of a mansion by the sea…

    I really wonder why becoming an author of a published work is seen as such extraordinary validation of one’s worth that people long for it with such fervor. I’m proud of my books, (well-reviewed, decent sales for the second one) and don’t (much) regret the personal savings I spent on the first one to support myself, in effect subsidizing Simon & Schuster.

    But I write books for a variety of reasons. My moral, financial and existential problems — annoyingly! — remain as yet unsolved by this specific channel.

    Well said and very much in need of saying.

    • An advance paid twelve months after publication??? Oh that’s a brilliant example of the madness. It IS a really weird, puzzling business this publishing thing, isn’t it? I feel very much like you do, that I’m proud of the things I’ve published, but (and maybe you feel the same) the writing of them really was the best part. Your penultimate paragraph really made me laugh, and nod my head in agreement….

      • Crazy! (That 4-part payment? Penguin books, caveat author…)

        I do love writing books and hope to produce more. But all the other stuff, esp. including the endless costs and energy of promoting and marketing them…not so much.

  3. I’m probably coming at this from a totally different perspective and perhaps not a valid one from your point of view, but as a teacher I found there had to be a separation between writing for yourself and writing for an audience. I gave the children time to write for themselves everyday. They had what they called their reflective writing book and it was a time and space where they could use writing as a means of exploring what the day had brought and how they felt about it. Much to my colleagues’ distress I never had those books in (But how do you mark them? AGHHH!!!!!) and only read what had been written if invited to. However, we also did a great deal of writing for an audience because it was only when they knew that their work was going to be read and by whom that I had a valid reason for discussing things like structure, characterisation, clarity of thought and what we called the politenesses of writing, spelling, punctuation and handwriting. This was the children’s equivalent of being published and I think it does make a difference to the way in which you write.

    Where academic publication is concerned I agree with all you have to say about the motivation behind your own work but I’m afraid that these days you also have to add the spectre of the REF requirements. If you don’t have the necessary publications at the specified standard to be entered into the REF you probably don’t have a job. What that does to the quality of the work is regrettable to say the least.

    • Well I am right behind what you were doing with your class because I also think that learning how to do something should be kept separate from practising it in public. And in fact, I feel that it’s a beautiful example of what I’m sort of groping towards saying – that we do write for ourselves (and need to, it’s immense solace) and we do write for others, and it turns out there are subtle but important differences in the experience of those two processes. As for academic writing, did I hear right that ‘impact’ is now supposed to be the great be-all and end-all? Sigh. I would have told academics never to compromise on their message, but to write in a way that’s fully inclusive, to invite as many as are willing into the debate. Testing for popularity doesn’t sound like a great move to me, because being popular usually means saying what people want to hear.

      • Oh yes, ‘impact’ is definitely the buzz word of the moment. And it can’t be impact on your peer group; it has to impact on the outside community, especially those elements of the outside community who might then be prepared to throw money at whatever you’re researching. You could call me cynical but it wouldn’t be strong enough.

  4. I wish I knew why we want to keep rolling those rocks. Having enjoyed the short thrill of being published, I am now messing about with rocks at the bottom of the hill again, well aware that there are no guarantees that these will stick. It’s some form of crazy hope, some kind of madness.

    • Oh my friend, I do love this comment. It still seems wrong to me that there is no immediate development to be had after publication, no one supporting you and training your gifts as you move into the second book (or perhaps there is? I’d love that to be so). There really should be a bit of a rest between rock rolling, or some sort of pulley system that would make the job just a tad more pleasant.

  5. Litlove, interesting post, and I’ll be sending it around. Thanks for your thoughts.

    If it’s of interest, I write to communicate with others (though how many and what they look like are rarely my concern), and to hear rebuttals, refinements, engagement of some sort with what has been said. Since my first (and only, so far) published book was written in 1995 and didn’t come out until 2010 (and might have come out in 2006 if the then-publisher hadn’t cancelled things in galley stage), I don’t have any rosy visions about getting published. But I do believe what I say is worth considering and am confident in its worth, and there is a validation in seeing that an editor, and then a publisher and a marketing team, see worth in one’s words and ideas.

    When I write I don’t think, “Will this please X or Y type of publisher, and then an audience?” We’re all aware that there are readers out there; some may have to work harder than they want or are used to with this or that book, and if they don’t like doing that, then they’ll move on to another. And some will read it and dislike it or like it.

    Again, writing is an act of reaching out to others, and we use publishers to lengthen our arms.

    • Jeff, I know you to be a sane and rational and very wise person, and this is a very sane and rational and wise perspective on the matter. But I also know the whole process has driven you mad at times, and caused a lot of unnecessary heartache. I don’t believe that publishers take as much care and trouble over their authors as they should. I think a writer like you should be fostered and developed. The success you’ve had with your first novel should be built upon. I really hate the way that artistic talent is undervalued and considered expendable in this business. And although publishers do supposedly lengthen our arms (which is a fabulous image, btw), most authors I know have to do practically all their publicity themselves, which still seems wrong to me. Publishers are the business people, they should do the business side. I’m confident too in the worth of your writing, as I was confident in the value of my academic criticism, but did our publishers do everything they could to put us in front of our audience? You see I’m not sure that they did (certainly not in my case!). If publishers aren’t capable of finding audiences for authors, what on earth happens next?

      • In my case, Enfield & Wizenty, a small publishing firm, have helped publicize the book through from its launch to the most recent public readings. They can only help so far, as they operate with a small budget, and must each year pay attention (as is expected) to the new books they publish; I must also help by seeing (and seizing) opportunities they wouldn’t know of or look for. I’d have liked them to have taken the next book so I could build my so-called reputation and career, but their answer, that it was too unconventional for their list, hasn’t affected our relationship regarding the book they did publish. That’s how it is, and I need to work with the reality.
        Is that easy all the time? Not at all, and of course I would prefer otherwise (that’s when I’m not sane or rational!), but in the end there’s nothing I can do but work towards another book deal.
        I don’t know any publisher who can guarantee they can find an audience for any book they publish.

  6. An interesting article, Litlove.

    When I was younger I dreamed – to my embarrassment now – of being a “famous” writer. I’d been told by teachers and university tutors that I had talent, and it took a long while for me to realise that in the publishing world, talent is only one consideration among many as to whether one is “publishable” – and not necessarily the most important one.

    If you want to get published, you need two things: (i) basic competence; (ii) drive – a willingness to expend more energy on publicising your work and cultivating contacts than actually writing.

    As far as creative writing is concerned, poetry is my “thing”, and I started out convinced that since so much rubbish was published in “Poetry Review”, I was bound to get a look-in. My first rejections crushed me… But gradually I came to see that (at least in the poetry world) editors sometimes get where they are through sheer ambition rather than literary judgment or editorial integrity.

    In the end, I got poems published in little magazines with readerships in the dozens rather than the thousands or even the hundreds. But I was heartened by how many of the /other/ poems in these magazines I really liked, and thought better than a lot of what appeared in more prestigious places.

    Simply to know that /someone/ thought that what I wrote was worth reading, and that a tiny number of people whom I didn’t know would read my stuff and be able to form a judgment of it, came to satisfy me.

    I write book reviews on my Web site and simply to know that a few dozen people will come across them – if only friends and family! – pleases me.

    On an egotistical note, I like to re-read things I’ve written and get satisfaction from feeling that I have expressed myself well. Isn’t it true that a sense of one’s self-worth – artistic or more general – resides, ultimately, entirely inside one’s own head? However famous a writer you are, the fame you enjoy is always a /sense/ of success in your own mind, not anything that can be quantified. Is it better to be a Dan Brown, i.e. to receive fame, wealth and adulation out of all proportion to one’s talent; or to enjoy the sincere praise of a small number of people who can tell good writing from bad?

    We have to accept the terms of the age we live in. There’s no question that talented writers found it easier to be published 50 years ago than they do today… But in the course of history, most ages have been grossly unfair to the deserving. I wonder how many potential literary geniuses in the Middle Ages wasted their lives doing back-breaking work fields, their potential not only unrealised but unguessed at even by themselves.

    Perhaps we have been spoiled in the post-war period by the insistence, coming from all directions, that creative (or material) self-realisation is the only real measure of success in life. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just in denial about my own bitterness at not having achieved the success I wanted!

  7. Litlove,

    I think what you’ve described here could well be why I didn’t go ‘all the way’ to a doctorate program. I’d ‘published’ two Master’s theses, one in the 70’s another in the 90’s. How many people have read either of them? My guess is none other than those in my thesis committee. And then, in the last six years, I began blogging. The gratification here is, I actually get people coming to my blog, ‘follow’, and read my posts. Even though the number is not high (Strangely, the no. was much higher in the earlier years), at least there are still those clicking and viewing. Sorry, so much about myself, but I can fully feel your sentiments. As you’ve mentioned, with tech. and the Internet, all the e thingy being ubiquitous, I feel the very concept of ‘publishing’ has changed over the recent years, together with the notion of ‘reading’. Whatever and wherever we’re heading, our mindset and emotions just might need to get on course as well. But you’re right of course, things aren’t as simple and clear as they seem. And the destination all these trends are pointing to isn’t that clear either. Again, I’ve appreciated your candid sharing.

    • My immediate response was very similar to yours, Arti, about the enjoyment of someone reading what I have blogged. I love getting someone respond intelligently to something I have written. It doesn’t have to be many people. I don’t want to give a gift to the world, but I do want to give a gift to someone who wants to receive what I have to give. I don’t get nearly enough time to do it but one day I want to write something that I know is good and to have the people whose opinions I respect respect it in return.

      I used to be so jealous of people who were able to say they had published something in academic circles. It used to make me wish I had taken a different route in life. It’s interesting to see your point of view, Victoria, from inside that academic life. And I always love to read your posts.

  8. That comment from your tutor about sending a gift to the world is rather idealistic isn’t it. Sounds almost like a defence mechanism against the feeling of disappointment when yet again a piece of writing is rejected. Sure there are some people who enjoy the process of writing and never really think about getting published but I suspect they are very much in the minority because seeing your work in print is a validation of how good a writer you are. Self publishing makes it easier – you can still claim you are a published author even if you paid for it yourself.

  9. I wanted to come and say something similar to Andi’s comment – obviously it is a very different medium and different content, but I think blogging is a wonderful way to write something and have an immediate audience, and engage with that audience. We’re all lucky!

  10. I just wanted to say that I really like your personal / memoir writing. I understand that publishing is a terrible business and that it makes the process of writing that much more difficult. Just thinking about writing for yourself, for various others and also for the publishers is a mind-boggling idea. But I love seeing you and others grappling with it. And one day when I have more time I also want to be able to write something that I’m really proud of. The trouble is, I guess, that I might only be really proud of it if others think that it’s really worthwhile.

  11. I write, I realized some time ago, because if I don’t I end up carrying all the stories and ideas I have around with me and in some weird way they literally make me feel toxic…I feel terrible when I can’t exercise, and I feel terrible when I don’t write. And so, i write. I’ve been a lot happier since I released myself from any obligation of making a living this way and just accepted it’s a part of me. I’m not trying for publication right now but if and when I do, it’s nice to recognize anymore that it’s mostly madness, and not to worry too much about it.

  12. Pingback: Writers, beware: 10 caveats before you publish your book | Broadside

  13. Most of what I was thinking as I read your thoughtful and heartfelt post has been said in the replies/comments already … but I just wanted to add – and perhaps this proves that I am quite mad – that while I was writing and re-re-re-re-rewriting my first and second novels and now beginning my third it never occurred/occurs to me to stop writing, despite many mishaps along the path to publication: my first’s publisher went out of business and my second was rejected so many times that the pool of possible publishers became a puny puddle. And I expect there will be other difficulties when it’s the third’s turn to leave my desk. But all the time I never lost faith in my writing – or, more to the point, rewriting – and I am still writing. It wasn’t that I was ludicrously (or even sanely) confident that things would turn out well in terms of eventually publication/republication (they have) but just that, as Jeanette Winterson once said, ‘Writing is what I’m for.’ And so, perhaps, something of that writing-is-what-I’m-for-ness helps my work when it’s time for it to make that journey out into the real world?

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