Saturday, 8 December 2012

What If You Never Got Published?

Writers love high-concept "What If" scenarios, so here's a challenging one. Imagine you're a promising unpublished writer (not unlike myself), who has been learning your craft and persevering with it. You have good contacts and a profile in the industry, so publication must be only a matter of time, right? But through some amazing crystal ball/time-travel MacGuffin you uncover a horrifying truth – you will never be traditionally published. What do you do?

When I came to ask myself this question, I found the answer kept slipping away from me. I started writing this part of the post and found myself saying things like "you could do this" or "you could do that." Now I wouldn't presume to know what you would do, so let me know in the comments. The most important question for me is what would I do?

Hmm. It's a tricky thing to have all hope taken away at a stroke. I've been writing for ten years now, and it was always with the presumption that my books would find both a publisher and an audience. In that time, I've seen things become steadily tougher for writers, as the small financial certainties have drained away and publishers have focused on an ever narrowing list of lead titles. In this climate, even as your own skills as a writer improve, so the goalposts seem to move farther away.

Would I self-publish? It would be the logical thing to do, but I worry about reaching a sufficient audience, particularly amongst pre-teen children. I've also long since hitched my wagon to publishing's star, defending the system of gatekeepers and editorial oversight that has ushered in the so-called "golden age of children's publishing." So going it alone would still feel weird to me. And there are some aspects of publishing - particularly the distribution, sales and accounting parts – that I have zero interest in and would really rather have someone else do for me. Maybe if I'm selling electronically, then Amazon or whoever can handle this, but if my target market wants print books (which they mostly do) then there's going to be a lot of driving around with a boot-full of novels. And I can't drive.

There is another option, which is just to give up writing. There's a certain freedom to that idea, a weight that lifts from my shoulders. But is that just because it's the easy thing to do, to walk away? Nothing worthwhile was ever easy, I'm certain of that. The thought of submission and publication is something that pushes me towards the end of a novel or encourages me to go through one more draft to perfect things further. What happens if that is taken away?

One positive thing that comes from the knowledge of never being published, would be the removal of the need to satisfy the market. I could write whatever I wanted with no concern for how the gatekeepers might view it, and satisfy my artistic aspirations, rather than my commercial ones. Perhaps I might even stop writing books altogether and throw my energies into digital-only projects. I have to admit that the idea of so much creative freedom worries me a little – would I start everything and finish nothing?

It's definitely a tough scenario and one that I hope won't come to pass. Because hope, I now realise, is a very important force in my creative life.



  1. Before I got published this question was a source of much torment. Self publishing was definitely a serious consideration. (Though self publishing also means going into a level of selling and marketing that I'm simply not willing to do). If I knew for sure I wouldn't get published I don't think I could stop writing. But I might allow myself to try other kinds of writing that have always interested me like screenplays and radio. One idea I had was to take my stories and characters and create multi media narratives online. For my own experimental pleasure.

  2. Every writer, published or not, faces great uncertainty. Maybe it will never happen, or maybe it won't happen a second (or third, or fourth...)time. I think writing will always be what I do, whether or not the "market" gives a damn about my work. You have been writing for ten years, Nick, and have had your talents validated. The right door will open for you eventually. Just keep knocking!

  3. Hi Nick, a very honest and provocative blog post. Most writers wouldn't even let the thought cross their mind, so commendations on being brave enough to post it for discussion.

    As you might expect, I would urge you not to give up -- but at the same time embrace your second-to-last paragraph now. Not necessarily the digital part, although that could be interesting, but the not writing to the market, and letting go and writing whatever you want.

    So so so many writers are writing to the market; there is so much of the same stuff coming through my inbox. If you can ignore all of that and write something only YOU can write, something that breaks all the rules and defies all the trends, you would have a good chance of standing out -- which you need both in the submissions pile and on the shelves.

    Sara OC

  4. Oh Nick, I empathise completely - it's a question I often think about because, like you, I've also been writing for ten years - honing my craft, improving my storytelling skills while watching the goal posts move further and further away.

    One of the things I've come to realise in the last year or so is that I write because I love to write, writing (and photography) gives me the most satisfaction and joy. I've always been a storyteller in some way, since I was a child. I would never stop writing even if I knew I'd never get published. Because while being published remains the dream and a goal, I've also realised that if it doesn't happen my world won't come to end. I'll write for me, I'll write the stories I want to write and I'll have great fun and get lots of pleasure doing it.

    I guess, in many ways I've actually come to terms with the possibility of never being published, and in doing so, I've afforded myself huge creative freedom to do exactly as I please. It's incredibly liberating and empowering.

  5. Like Linda said this morning on the yahoo group (well I read it this morning) it's the affirmation and I do long for that.
    Sometimes I think it would be much simpler if i did stop writing. I could do all the other makey things i love doing without a care. But a bit like being pregnant, when you've got a story it's got to come out somehow. I really like the idea of being experimental anyway and maybe it's because I'm writing with little concern for what the gatekeepers say they want, that I'm still languishing on the slushpile.

    (I'd still do Words & Pictures tho ;o)

  6. Oh boy, didn't you just touch a nerve! I'm in a similar position and right now trying to earn a living has to take precedence - so I'm leaving the scripts I've written with my agent, tidying up the ones that are nearly there and then that's it - I'm not starting anything new while I concentrate on the farm - I know it won't last long but it's strangely liberating for a bit ;o)

  7. I can do this is reverse. I always wanted to write, but for various reasons of time constraints and loosing my nerve I stopped. I stopped for 10 years and they were pretty miserable years in many ways.

    Then life gave me the kick start I needed to write again. Yes I am working in the hope of publication like everyone else, but I do it in the knowledge, that to write is better than not writing. To stop again would mean to stop being me, so I know that I am going to keep writing whether I am published or not.

    I also think that Sara is right. Don't write for the market, everyone is doing that. Write what you want to, and hopefully you will stand out from the crowd. Your love of what you are writing will shine through and make it far more appealing.

  8. One thing is certain - if you stop writing you won't be published. I'm glad I didn't stop at 10 years, or 20, or 30...

  9. I don't think it would bother me particularly if I never got published and I'm too idle to self publish. I do write with the hope of publication, but it isn't the goal. I actually do write what I want to write, regardless of market and gatekeepers, so I do have that freedom. Interesting post. It's certainly made me think, but I've written and ditched so many novels now that I think I will just keep on going whatever happens.

  10. I asked myself the same thing a while back - it stopped me dead in my tracks (I was on my way to a SCBWI event). Then I realised that nothing would change. I'd still write, I'd still go to SCBWI events, writing would still be my life.

  11. Wow. Thank you all for taking the time to comment. This post was hard for me to write and I think your response validates the fact that hard things are worth persevering with, if you find your way to an emotional truth. Rather than try to craft individual responses, I'm clearly going to have to write a follow-up post!


  12. Well, this is a timely post! After talking to lots of friends at the conference and listening avidly to the industry panels I've made the decision to self publish my Florence and the Meanies series as ebooks. Like you and Kathryn I've been close to publication for a number of years and it just seems like I've been on a permanent job interview. I've had my nose pressed so close to the window of the publishers that it looks permanently squashed which is not a good look for me.
    So, I'm giving myself a break and finding the fun of writing again through The funEverse and self-publishing.
    I'm going to carry on submitting my picture book texts but anything for older is going on the kindle. I used to worry about quality but I have a very experienced editor on the team now (husband) and a very talented illustrator (daughter) so my advice is - train up your family.

  13. Hi Nick,

    I was on my death bed with man-flu last week so completely missed this post.

    Firstly tanks for sharing, I would never have the courage to share (well with out a glass or two of wine first!)

    Secondly, like every one that's writing I empathise completely. Although I don't think I could ever give up writing. Maybe I could decide that publication is not my goal, but like George, if I don't write then I'm not so happy.

    Lastly, I believe that we all write because we love it. So keep writing! :)

  14. I've just stumbled across this. Great post Nick and thank you for being so honest! I always dreamed of writing novels but I have just published my first non-fiction health book (Oh Sugar!). This isn't what I expected or planned but it's dawning on me that non-fiction books are more likely to pay the bills. I still dream of publishing my children's book, of course, but I've come to the conclusion that as along as write my children's novel and finish it, that's good enough for me. I'm focusing on enjoying the process and not worrying about the end result (easier said than done, I know). Thank you for writing such a thought-provoking post.