Is That All There Is?

November 15, 2022 § 39 Comments

What if publication isn’t your best goal?

By Allison K Williams

An author friend realized something while working on her memoir: faithfully rendering the stories of her life and preserving her experiences for her family was important. Quality writing, ideally at a publishable level, was also important. Actually publishing? Not so much.

Another author friend recently told me she’d just landed her dream job. Based on a similar previous job, she’d written a novel, a snarky, hilarious send-up of the manners and mores in her business world. Now she needed to set her work aside—publishing it, perhaps even working on it, could jeopardize her career.

Writing for personal satisfaction, or family tradition, or balancing the value of the job or life you love against the publicity of publishing, doesn’t get much respect. Often, we see the pursuit itself of publishing as a validator—that anyone who doesn’t seek shelf space isn’t “serious” about their work. As self-publishers advocate side-stepping the gatekeepers, we think, well, maybe you didn’t stick it out long enough for “real” publishing. Maybe your work wasn’t good enough. Sometimes we’re right. Sometimes we’re on the outside of a sharp, considered business decision. Sometimes we’re desperately needing validation for our own position in the queue, telling ourselves we’re “real” for sticking it out even as the process stretches on.

“Everyone has a story worth telling,” says publishing expert Jane Friedman. “Not everyone’s story is a good fit for a commercial publishing deal.”

You can take Friedman’s meaning as, “Sure, write your story, but it might not be good enough.” But there’s an equally strong case for “Sure, write your story, but explore your goals—is a traditional publishing deal actually your best path? Or will getting your words into the world another way be more satisfying?”

Traditional publishing is often seen as the “top” goal. Big Five, literary or university presses offer us validation, a stamp of approval from the publishing establishment. But even then, book sales can depend on how much time and effort the author is able to spend on marketing and promotions. After a long slog to find an agent, publisher or both, the author may have little control over the cover, title, or how the book is presented to the market.

Self-publishing can be a giant money pit—or a source of steady income for authors willing to self-educate and able to self-promote. It’s easy to be taken in by scammers, choose a terrible cover design, or get snowed under while learning how to run Amazon ads, write press releases and recruit a launch team. For authors who want to see their work on physical shelves, it’s discouraging and disheartening how many indie bookstores want nothing to do with self-published work.

Hybrid services can be a fast, easy way to get one’s book into the world, combining the control of self-publishing with the assistance of traditional publishing—or it can be heartbreakingly bad and massively expensive. Authors using a hybrid press often forget that they are not signing a “publishing contract” but purchasing a package of publishing services, and no matter how many times the press says “partner” or “contribution,” their entire profit comes from the author’s pocket. (And “royalties” means, “you already paid to publish your book and now we’ll be taking some more money.”)

We have all seen plenty of success stories in all three venues. We’ve all watched low-profile books capture the public imagination and shoot up bestseller lists. We’ve seen self-publishers make bank in book sales and generate enormous subsidiary businesses. And eyes-open hybrid packages can be a strong option for people with more money than time who need a guiding hand.  

Here’s what I rarely see—authors who say, “I was happy just to have a book in my hand; I used Amazon to print ten copies for my friends.” Or, “It was enough to tell the story in my head and type ‘the end’.” Or even, “I enjoy writing, but I love my day job more.”

I spent ten years on a memoir that didn’t sell. I’m glad I wrote it, because it taught me how to write a book. I probably needed to go through getting an agent and lots of publisher rejections for the lesson to hit home: this book wasn’t good enough. Self-publishing Get Published in Literary Magazines was exactly the right choice when I needed a product to sell at writing conferences to offset my travel costs; I’m looking forward to bringing out the third edition with co-author (and Brevity Blog co-editor) Andrea Firth. And having Seven Drafts traditionally published has been a credential I needed to advance in my life’s work.

As you write, consider your goals. “Work real hard for a long time and feel like a failure if you don’t get a traditional deal” is not actually a goal. But “feel good about what I created and know I’ve done my best” is. As our own Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore says in another Brevity Blog,

Don’t let others dictate to you what “success” means in book publishing.  Decide for yourself what makes it worth your while–and then celebrate your efforts.

I’m about to send a final draft of a novel—another 10-year book—to my agent. It might not be good enough. If she wants edits, I’ll make them. But if this book isn’t ready, I’m probably done with it. I’ll print a few copies for my friends. Because I don’t need this book in the whole world—I just need to tell this story, writing at a publishable level. Writing that sentence makes me cry. But it doesn’t make me sad. I’ve put the best of my craft into finishing this manuscript. People whose opinions matter to me think it’s good. And sometimes, that’s enough.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her mailing list here (that’s publishing, too).

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§ 39 Responses to Is That All There Is?

  • Dear Allison,
    This is a courageous and clear-eyed reminder to all writers that writing matters. The rest? Maybe. Maybe not. I cannot help but think of friends who, after publishing for the first (or fourth) time, confessed disappointment. In the laborious process of gaining publication, they lost sight of what mattered most to them: the writing.

  • Julie Holston says:

    I loved reading this and needed to hear it. Thanks for the thoughtful perspective.

  • Polly Hansen says:

    I have a book that’s too painful to publish and too difficult to read–two of them as a matter of fact. The writing in them is really good. I sweat blood making it so. But they may never be published. I’m coming to terms with that in my own slow way. It’s heartening to hear others have done the same and make some kind of painful peace with that reckoning. Thanks for this article. For someone of your stature and success to share this experience confirms to me that writing these memoirs was important and that I am in no way a failure. Thank you.

    • Friends have favorite poems (yes, I know, not remotely the same, but…) they will never publish and only read in small groups because they reveal too much.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      The memoir I didn’t sell is now something I don’t want in the world and will probably never read again—I’m glad I’m not that person anymore.

  • Polly Hansen says:

    Jan–Yep. I get it. Even though one of my memoirs won a prize and a journal published a chapter, I find it difficult to promote it to friends and family. I find it easier, calmer to let it lie. After so many agent rejections I began to think perhaps it’s better this way. But still there’s that itch sometimes, you know? This is who I am, this is who I’ve become? Time will tell I suppose. It is fraught. Hence the letting it lie for now, maybe forever. Thanks for your reply.

  • Allison, I’m going to print this and read it every single day. Your sensitivity, kindness, and amazing ability to value and uplift others inspires me whenever I hear you or read your posts. Thanks for the permission to “just write” if that’s our goal. Thanks for the kick in the tush when we need to push on. Thanks for the encouragement to muck hrough rejection. And thanks for holding hands when we just need to let go. I’m guessing I’m not alone in these thoughts. You have people sitting on the other side of the zoom screen cheering you on, too.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You are so very welcome – and thank you, hearing this makes me feel great about the work I’m doing ❤️

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks so much for this, Allison. It comes at just the right time for me–I am working hard to get my book into “publishable” shape. Then I want to decide whether to try to publish it. It helps to have your perspective on the many options to consider.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You’re so welcome – and it’s absolutely worth making the best book you can, whether or not publishing is the destination!

  • dreliasonwriter says:

    Once again, thank you for your wisdom. 😊

  • Joanne says:

    I admire the honesty and wisdom in your perspective, and the validation of perfectly respectable choices when it comes to what one does with one’s “of publishable quality” writing. And, as you note, even good writing isn’t always picked up by publishers or readers. So much depends on so many different factors. It’s good to remember, and to let go of to focus on the writing and the meaning-making itself.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thank you Joanne – and I feel like your teaching is so strong for both publishing-pursuing and meaning-making!

  • Anne van Etten says:

    Thank you, Allison, for your wise and honest words. I put my finished (?) memoir aside two years ago when my husband became very sick. It seemed more important to take care of him than to spend a lot of time and energy trying to publish my memoir. But people who have read it keep asking “when will you publish your book? ” Clearly, there is always an expectation of publishing. My reply: When the time is right.

  • gsajid817 says:

    very good

  • kim4true says:

    Allison, you said this so perfectly! I feel like I repeat these things everywhere I go. And I interrogate every manuscript that comes across my desk. Is it a story for family and friends, or does it have some entertainment or educational value for the world at large. There are great writers out there, most of them, in fact, whose first novels were crap. And sometimes you just need to move on to the next story–if you have any story left in you.

  • youngv2015 says:

    Hi Allison, when is the 3rd edition of Get Published in Literary Magazines coming out? I love your classes, and I’d like to buy the newest edition of your book. Thanks!

  • sbarnett99comcastnet says:

    Thanks for these wise words, Allison. In my writers group, we meet monthly at a local restaurant to share brief stories on previously announced topics. About 90 people come to listen. I’m happy my work has been published in several journals, but when people offer comments after a reading–“that was funny,” or “I cried”–I find it much more rewarding to have this instant feedback.

  • bearcee says:

    I always appreciate your ability to understand the writing life and to offer us uncommon sense. I did the hybrid thing with my first collection of essays but never again. Now I’m trying to land a collection of poems with publishers, so far without success. Maybe I’ll print a few copies for friends who have been enthusiastic and supportive. It’s the writing that gives me the most pleasure anyway!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Know thyself 🙂 And yeah – sometimes the hassle isn’t worth it when you can share with people who matter.

  • Thank you for this Allison. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am determined to believe that even if I don’t get my memoir published, it will have been a valuable experience. I have given it to 20 beta readers including family and friends: if they are the only people who end up reading it, I can honestly say, that has been kind of amazing.

  • nagneberg48 says:

    Thanks for walking around this maze of writing-publishing-not publishing and on an on.

  • chattykerry says:

    I was finally glad to sell my memoir on Kindle – a perfect hybrid for me. It’s more sustainable and every so often I still sell a book. There is not much money in writing but it felt like an achievement. My blog has been much more satisfying with the ability to change or delete a post that is not well written!

  • I am bookmarking this essay. Thank you so much, Allison! Right now I’m revising a novel that I started around 2008 (I can’t even remember the exact year anymore). And right now it feels like an albatross because I made a goal to get it published, one way or another. Focusing on the publishing part is taking all the fun out of writing for me.

    My biggest hurdle, though, is not just myself. It’s my family and friends (none of them writers) who think the only reason for me to write is to be published, preferably by a traditional publisher. Yes, it would be deeply validating to be published, but I don’t want to feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen. I mean, this would be my first novel. My firstborn, if you will, and I’m thinking that’s pretty special it and of itself.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    No words written are ever wasted. They teach us something or lead us to another place even if they are not published.

  • Thank you so much for saying this. There are essays that I may polish up but won’t publish. You’re right about hybrid publishers taking your royalties. I am proud of the book I published. But no longer have the drive to publish or promote my work etc. Substack helps satisfy my need to meet my audience, which is very small. Thank you again.

  • charwilkins75 says:

    I’m glad you wrote a memoir that didn’t sell because I’m the beneficiary of that experience.:) Our best will have to be enough. And it is.

  • […] “‘Often, we see the pursuit itself of publishing as a validator—that anyone who doesn’t seek shelf space isn’t ‘serious’ about their work.” But is publication really the end-all/be-all? From a must-read post by Allison K. Williams on the Brevity blog. […]

  • Liz Wade says:

    Thank you, Allison, for articulating what I have felt for a very long time. I have been a little worried about arriving in Portugal this May for the writing retreat, inspired to improve my writing, uninspired to publish.

  • Rita Sloan says:

    Thank you for reminding me what I am pursuing. Publishing would be wonderful, but the creative process of the work is the reward.

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