Before you Publish that Book

You can throw a bucket of water at a roomful of people and hit 30 who want to be writers. Few ever move past showing their stories to Aunty Moira. T.S. Eliot said that writers don’t write because they want to but because they need to. That aching need that draws out the 10 000 hours of hard work needed to turn talent into skill is rare, so when I see so many self-published books coming out on Fetlife, I worry for those writers.

My mentor refused to let me get published for three years after I began writing. He said journals would accept my work, but that didn’t make it good. He wanted me to wait till my writing could support the reputation I would eventually build decades later. I’m still grateful for that guidance because looking back on the stuff I was putting out in those days is horrifying.

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I waited till he said I was ready to publish my poetry, but I was a bit more impatient with my prose. Again, he was right: Those first publications stick to you like ticks. People were still coming across those magazines almost 20 years later. And it was humiliating.

Writers who need, instead of want, to use their pens tend to immerse themselves in their local writing communities: poetry readings, workshops, those snobbish launches that serve ungodly wine. Even with all that input, it took me 15 years to learn the precision that my first editors had gracefully forgiven.

When your average Joe can make a living writing non-academic books there will be a drastic incline in the number of weekday beach-with-laptop crowds. In other words, no, that self-published book is not likely to make you much of an income. It’s your party. Be a victim if you want to.

Sadly, it’s vanity publishing that is likely to hurt you most, not because there is anything wrong with the medium, but because it lacks a filter–that one editor with a great eye who knows that book is ready for the market. With self-publishing, you can get a book printed if you think you’re good enough, which is a flaw that could murder your writing career.

Once it’s online, that work can prevent you from earning in the future if you have any grand hopes of writing professionally or making a name for yourself. If you think your book is worth publishing, it probably isn’t, Dunning-Kruger being the flavour of the day. Unless you’ve spent at least two years editing the shit out of that book with the help of professionals, it isn’t ready for readers beyond a basic blog.

For a writer to walk upright in the digisphere, they must learn how to overcome the fact that writing is a soap opera: Characters disappear and are reborn, drama winds around and about for months, and sometimes you cry. Those are just the ad breaks, though. The main event feels like champagne air and Belgian chocolate. I have no single answer for the soapie bits, no abracadabra, only this advice: Work hard and learn humility. Don’t rush it. Like spilled ink on a blank page, writer dropouts are chaotically prevalent because they want, but don’t need to write.

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