What writers really want
February 12, 2024
If you're a writer who's ever been paid anything for any piece of writing, you know that it's a two-part process. First, there's the enjoyable part: actually producing the work. Then, there's the soul-crushing and often just as time-consuming part: trying to find someone to pay you for the work.
This is the same whether we're talking about a 500-word book review you're pitching an online-only publication, or a 500-page novel you're trying to sell to Penguin. Shopping your own work is — let's be honest here — not a lot of fun. That's why the most successful writers pay agents to do it for them.
(Also, this is not to imply that all an agent does is miserable gruntwork, or to devalue the great and important relationships they build with their authors. It's just an acknowledgement that in the grand ecosystem of society, we all play different roles.)
Anyway. trying to get your work published is hard, it's unpleasant, it's not the reason anyone decides to be a writer. I wasn't a moony teenager all those years ago fantasising about writing query letters. If you had explained to me what was involved in sending a novel out on submission, the endless waiting, the repeated gut punches of those almost-but-not-quite editorial notes... I might have been a lawyer instead. I wanted to be a writer because I liked writing.
On the other hand, part of the enjoyment in writing something is knowing — or at least hoping — that other people will read it and enjoy it. If you do the writing part without the selling-your-writing part, it kind of defeats the purpose. Besides, even if the process of securing publication is a slog, actually being published is a lot of fun. I'm not going to lie, one of the best parts about publishing a novel is the look of sheer surprise and admiration you get when you tell someone that for the first time. And then there are all the other baubles: you get to do interviews — I was on BBC radio! — and you get to go to launch parties, and you get to have all your friends tell you how much they liked your book (even if they're just being polite).
Still, once you break it down into the constituent parts like this, you start to wonder. Are we just keeping conventional publishing around — and hence the need to shop your work — for the status? I mean, these days it's easy enough to do the writing and have other people read it through self-publishing, whether that's a Substack or a Tiny Letter or a blog or whatever, or a print-on-demand book. You can get the highs without the lows. If you're still chasing a colophon, you've got nobody to blame but yourself.
Conventional publishers might object, of course, that a book or a New Yorker credit is a lot more than a status symbol: it's a guarantee of quality, a sign that dozens if not hundreds of people have vetted a piece of writing, have helped improve it, have checked it for accuracy and comprehensibility. And I have a lot of time for that argument. That's why my kid's school teaches him to look stuff up in books instead of on Wikipedia. Status is about a lot more than ego.
But I think it's worth pointing out — even if it's fairly self-evident in this age of fake news and social media scams — that you don't need to have accuracy or comprehensibility in order to have people read your writing. And once you acknowledge that, as a writer, you can be a lot more steely-eyed about what you're actually trying to accomplish.
If you just want people to read you, stop wasting your time writing query letters and sign up for self-publishing. If you want the status, though — and I admit, I do — accept that status is what you're actually going for. Because that requires a very different approach than just writing something — and if you want it, you need to play a very different game.