Publishing is Not a Meritocracy

Diane Vanaskie Mulligan
Jul 7 · 5 min read
“Desk at night” by El Villano is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I was doing that most time-sucking of all activities earlier today — scrolling through Facebook — and I saw a post about self-publishing in one of my groups. The poster wondered what the group thought about self-publishing. She confessed that she hasn’t made any attempt to find an agent or land a deal at a small press, perhaps for fear of rejection.

As a self-published novelist, I was curious to see how the group responded. One reply stood out. A responder wrote that she believes that if the work is good, someone will publish it, and that if a traditional publishing path doesn’t happen, then the work probably isn’t good enough.

Please tell that to Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, and Andy Weir, author of The Martian. Both of these authors began in self-publishing. I could name a whole bunch of self-pub-to-superstar names (Beatrix Potter, FYI!), but I won’t because I understand that these examples, Genova and Weir included, are outliers in the world of self-publishing. I know that the average self-published novel sells only around 250 copies. I also understand that some self-publishing success stories are truly crappy novels. I honestly don’t know how anyone got through the first fifty miserable pages of Fifty Shades of Grey.

My point, in a nutshell, is that you can write a great book, but that doesn’t mean someone will publish it for you. Agents and publishers consider a lot of factors when taking on a book, and quality is only one small part of that. Publishing, sadly, is not a meritocracy. To believe that it is, one must be incredibly naive. Talent and hard work are essential, but they are no guarantees.

Do you have a network that puts you within a few degrees of separation from an agent? That might open a door for you.

Do you have a massive social media following due to your online awesomeness? That probably will help you more than talent.

Do you have a credential like an MFA or a serious publication history at recognized sources? That helps, but then again, to get those pub credits, you need either a network or an MFA or both, so, we’re caught in a vicious cycle here.

Are you really, really lucky? Because luck is a more significant factor than most people care to admit. Your manuscript needs to land in the right place at the right time. If yours is the fifth vampire novel in the slush pile, that’s bad. If the agent you queried had a fight with her/his spouse right before reading your email that’s bad. If you committed some grammatical pet-peeve sin of your reader on page one, that’s bad. You can’t control these things, not even the grammatical pet-peeve, because many grammar pet-peeves are subjective and not based on actual rules.

To make matters even more unfair, bad books get big money deals all the time. What matters more than the quality of a piece of literature? Marketability and timing, just to name two factors. Someone with connections and thousands of twitter followers and a dose of good luck can become a New York Times Bestseller by publishing the kind of schlock that gets people laughed out the room at writing workshops.

What’s a writer to do? We each have to answer that question for ourselves, but here’s my thought: Fear of rejection is a bad reason not to try a traditional path to publication. Don’t let fear get in your way. You want to give your book a fighting shot in this world, so it is worth attempting to get an agent or publisher. If no one bites, you are actually no worse off than you were before submitting.

Just remember this: A pile of rejections, even a very big pile, is not proof that your work is bad. It might be proof that other people have bad taste. Lots of people do.

If you work hard at an agent/publisher search and it doesn’t pay off, but you know in your heart your story has value and is worth sharing, then go ahead and self-publish. Even if it only reaches 250 readers, isn’t that better than moldering in a drawer? I’ve written about this before, and I’m sure I will again, but it’s all about goals. What are yours? That’s what you must consider before any route to publication.

The most dangerous mistake any writer can make is letting other people decide that value of his or her work. You are the only person who can decide the worth of your writing.

In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

Portrait of Rilke, 18 September 1900

“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You’re looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within….

Therefore, my dear friend, I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth. At its source you will find the answer to the question….”

***

I am the author of the three self-published novels, most recently What She Inherits (2017), which was named an honorable mention in the mainstream fiction category of the 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. You can read more about my path to publication and how I found myself in self-publishing on my website.

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