June 22nd, 2020

Fairy Tale vs Reality: A Candid Conversation about Publication

by Tasha Seegmiller

Once upon a time, I thought that publishing was a thing where you learn your craft really well, do the work, and then navigate the query trenches.

Once upon a time, I thought that once someone got an agent, the two of them would work together to make the manuscript better and then have conversations about how to submit manuscripts.

Once upon a time, I thought if an editor liked a book, it was like an agent liking a book, wherein they worked out the details of the contract and then proceeded to make the book better until it was publication-ready.

I have since learned that all this is as likely as Cinderella’s fairy godmother, as likely as Prince Phillip winning a battle with an enchanted sword flung toward a raging dragon, as likely as an ogre ending up with a princess who is also an ogre.

This post is not meant to be a downer. I promise.

It is meant to help people align their expectations of writing a little better. Because though I have a very vivid imagination (writer on purpose people), I don’t think I’m the only person who thinks publishing works that way. I don’t think I’m the only one who has been shocked that people change agents, that publishing houses can sell two books fairly well and then have a gazillion reasons for not resigning.

It wasn’t until I started knocking on the door of the publishing arena that I noticed many – MANY – of my favorite authors had several books by one publishing house, and then others with another.

There are a lot of people who think getting an MFA is the way to cure that. That having someone dedicate their time to helping you become a better writer is the way to skip ahead in the line a bit.

While I am currently in an MFA program, while I have loved being in my MFA program, I will say that I have had more than one advisor let us know that 3% of people in such programs go on to be published. In fact, amid the advisors in my particular program, only the ones old enough to have retired are those not also working another job, generally at a different university.

What’s an aspiring author to do?

The easiest answer is quit. (Wait, wait, hear me out.)

If every time you sit down to write, you dread trying to get words on a page, if the thought of creating stories and revising and editing and promoting and talking about your work gives you a longing to chew on broken glass instead, maybe you should quit. You don’t have to tell anyone. Just quit.

I have quit a few times. I was done with the mucky, murky, miserable middles. I was done thinking about character arcs and their interactions and everything. I was done.

So far, the longest I’ve been able to quit has been about three weeks. And then, when I’m folding the never-ending pile of clothes or making dinner or washing my hair or even just hanging out in the hours between wake and sleep, a way to advance the story I’m working on moves across my mind like a breeze.

I will be sitting somewhere and see someone who makes me wonder, who makes me interested, who makes me want to consider their story. It’s generally nothing brighter than a candle-sized flame at the end of a massive, dark cave, but it’s enough that I want to get closer to it, to see what’s going on there, to play a little in that light.

And then I’m making up names and backstories and other characters, breaking through the struggles characters and I were having about where a story needs to go next, and before I realize it, I’ve thrown 500 or 1000 words on a page for a story, and I want to write again. 

If quitting doesn't work, what does?

Since quitting hasn’t really seemed to work for me, and since the odds are really not in a writer’s favor, what’s an aspiring author to do? I recommend the following.

1. Education

Yes, I know I already told you the reality of MFA programs. And while I do not regret for one single second the work and money and time I have put into my program, I’m not necessarily talking about that kind of education.

I’m talking about taking the time to really look at what has happened to an author’s publishing careers. You can do this via a website like Goodreads, and just scan through. How often have they published books? Who published them?

Pay attention to the acknowledgments pages of books you read, especially by the same author. Most won’t make an announcement that they have left a relationship with an agent publicly, so you want to see who they are thanking for helping bring their work forward.

Read books that really talk about the writing industry. I recommend Before and After the Book Deal by Courtney Maum and The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman. Follow these people on social media, take time to understand the content in their newsletters, really look at what is going on in the world around publishing.

Read lots and lots and lots. Read the kinds of books you want to publish. Read the kinds of books that break what you thought you might consider your genre. Pay attention to what is being published NOW (Harry Potter and Eat, Pray, Love are great books. They are not current. You need to be aware of the current).

2. Talk

Make friends with authors and then engage in conversations.

  • How many of them got an agent with their first book?
  • How many of them signed with a publisher with their first book?
  • If they went the self-publishing route, what did they pay to editors and cover designers?

All authors need to learn what is involved in marketing in a saturated market? What does a publisher/publicity person do and what is the author expected to do?

Recently, there have been conversations on Twitter about how many jobs agents have to work in order to make things work. Did you know that?

There was also a serious conversation about what authors made up front with their books. Go see #publishingpaidme to get insights. It’s not awesome, so keep some comfort food nearby, but know that most authors are working other jobs for a good amount of time into their publishing careers. They often talk about this candidly.

3. Write for You.

Okay, a caveat. If you decide to do a story about aliens and vampires secretly conspiring and it’s all in a dystopian setting, you likely aren’t going to get very far. There are some rules within genres and a smart writer will be aware of those (see Education above).

But you need to write stories that speak to your heart. You need to craft characters that reflect what you want to say about life and the world and society and whatever else is driving you. You are going to put a lot of time into writing that story.

A LOT.

Make sure you start out writing something you love because you will hit a point where it is not as fun as you thought it would be. Don’t go chasing markets, trends, bestseller lists, or try to create a story your mom/ dad/ boss/ cousin/ dog/ neighbor/ cat/ spouse has always wanted you to write because it’s not going to work.

In the quiet of the night, in the solitude when it is you and your story, what rings true?

Keep writing that.

What are lessons about publication you have recently learned? Any resources you think help give a better idea of what aspiring authors can expect?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

Top Graphic by K Maze

41 responses to “Fairy Tale vs Reality: A Candid Conversation about Publication”

  1. LauraDrake says:

    True, true, true, Tasha. I'd also add that getting published (not counting indie) is hard to the 5th power now. NY publishers are looking for best sellers. If you're not, you're out. Good luck getting back in. They're buying debut authors, with the hope that they'll be best-sellers. If you're not, you're out.

    Hey, I get it. This is a business. But it'd be easier to take if they weren't spending $ on showplace Manhattan offices...but the writer has no control over that, either.

    Yes, I have a sore nerve. But this isn't meant to be a downer either.

    Remember writer: YOU have the power. This is your business - you get to decide.

    • I think you will find that the New York showcase offices will become a thing of the past! How the coronavirus will impact the publishing industry is yet to be seen, but commercial real estate in every major city is taking a huge hit.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      It's so hard. And I think each method has plusses and minuses, but the most important thing is to be aware of the nuances of each method.

    • Wendy Allott says:

      I'm going to be honest. I don't feel like I have the power. I write for children. I don't know what it's like in the US but here in Australia every second children's book seems to either be written by the authors I loved as a child (which is great. If you're timeless, you're timeless) or well known comedians. I mean, if you already have multiple TV shows, your own radio show, a podcast and you endorse a line of underwear, do you really need to be writing children's books as well? But obviously, if your well know that is something that can be leveraged. And I know that is the reality of business...but sometimes it just gets me down.

  2. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Good article, Tasha! I'd add two points. One is to find smart, skilled mentors who can help you make your book as good as it can and ought to be. That likely means paying a professional. Don't send a manuscript out that hasn't gone through that tough-love process. The other is that there is a middle-ground between snagging a super publishing deal and giving up, which is the ever-growing world of hybrid publishing. Nope, that's not a synonym for self-publishing. It's not for everyone; it depends on your temperament, time available, personal comfort zone, and pocketbook. But for some, it's ideal. Here's a balanced overview: https://blog.reedsy.com/hybrid-publishers/

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Mentors really are the key. People who are in the industry at different places who are willing and eager to talk about the work that really happened.

      • I had a mentor, sponsored by Scottish Book Trust, Carl MacDougal. He had been on telly and edited a book of the best Scottish writers (The Devil and the Giro) but his short-story collection tanked. His agent was ignoring his calls and...I couldn't find a publisher. As you say, there are tens of thousands of us, perhaps even millions. You nailed it, when I write I'm a writer. When I don't write, well, I'm a reader.

  3. Claire Gem says:

    Tasha, great advice and surely a wake-up call to those who are still floundering Cinderellas in the publishing world. The problem is the publishing world is changing so fast now, it's hard to navigate no matter what route you choose. Write the book that's in your heart and if you love it, there are others who will love it too.

  4. I've quit a few times, too, Tasha, and my writing improved when I returned. Thanks for all your tips- as an unpublished author, it helps to manage my expectations.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      I really think it's all about honoring the person doing the creating as much as the work we are creating. Keep at it!

  5. carolynmcb says:

    Great article! I thought for a long time that agents were as easy to find as typos. That wake-up call was disappointing. I foolishly believed that finding a publisher interested in one's work was easy. And I had higher opinions of my own work. While it's been an education, I have also learned that I love writing, sharing the stories inside me, sharing my made-up friends and their lives. I wouldn't change any of it for all the chocolate I could carry.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I'm so happy to hear that you have found a love of the creation more than anything else.

  6. An awesome summary, Tasha, and fully on-target. Like you, I've generally only lasted about three weeks each time I've 'quit,' and nowadays I just forge ahead through the rough patches. But you're correct in highlighting every one of these challenges. It's best to go into this business with eyes wide open. .

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      I'm at about three weeks too. Sometimes pushing through makes the most sense, sometimes resting and refueling makes the most sense. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  7. This is a good post, very helpful.
    Except now I'm intrigued at the thought of aliens and vampires forming a conspiracy in a Dystopian society...

  8. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Tasha,
    I'm glad you talked about getting an MFA and how it is a great experience, but not necessarily the game changer writers expect. I enjoyed your tongue-in-cheek approach to what writers anticipate and the reality they will face. Thanks for the reality check!

  9. Jenny Hansen says:

    A reality check is ALWAYS a good thing. Thanks for sharing this, Tasha. I see the difficulties in publishing like Laura's brick wall quote from Randy Pausch. If you want it bad enough you will climb the wall or knock it down. If you don't, it doesn't mean a character judgement on you. I think writers have to assess what is truly important to them, and go on from there.

  10. vanderso says:

    A long time ago, in another publishing universe, my then-agent walked with me into a New York bookstore, looked around us at the piles and piles of recently published books, and said, "I don't see how anybody can bring themselves to write another book." Then she looked at me and said, "But you just can't help it, can you?" So that's why my blog is called Just Can't Help Writing.

    The monster in the corner is marketing. Even if you do get a contract, no one is really going to sell that mid-list book but you. Figuring out how to do that is more of a challenge to me than actually writing the darn things.

    A thought on those MFAs: For 17 years, I was one of the "writing program administrators" at a local campus of a major midwestern university. I can't tell you how many MFAs applied to teach writing at adjunct wages (not how to write a great novel, but, e.g., rather how to research and write a decent research paper, and at something less than $6000 a year). Almost none of them had ever taught anything. We couldn't hire them. An MFA is not a trustworthy qualification for that tide-me-over-till-I'm-famous college teaching job.

    What's sad is the number of people who want to publish but haven't educated themselves as you urge. Just today I saw someone on a self-help FB page who wanted to know if she should get an author web site when she self-published her book. Yesterday someone wanted to know if an agent would fix her grammar. Anyone who has found this blog is likely to already know the answers to those.

    Thanks for a great column.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      There have to be reasons for someone to get an MFA that extend beyond "get a job" - and yet, the investment in honing one's craft cannot be denied. It will be very interesting to see if the academic viewpoint of MFAs changes as the viewpoint of PhDs continues to morph.

  11. Rick George says:

    Know the rules, know the odds, keep writing, and dare to risk.

  12. tracybrody says:

    Great article. I've found it interesting to hear from friends who started indie and done well who then got big $ trad deals but were so let down by the trads when it came to marketing or covers that they want to get out of deals. I keep that in mind when I long for the affirmation of a trad deal. I like having covers I love and writing stories that I love on my own timeline even if it means more work. I get to shoulder blame of not marketing (yet) and the credit for books that readers love. Because, as you've pointed out, you have to do it for love and not $ if you don't want to live in disappointment.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      So many great points in this comment, Tracy!

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Yes, and you have brought up many great points. The other thing I totally didn't even want to get near was the whole "how might readers gravitate toward your writing." If you aren't in this business because you love, love, love writing, it can wear on a person very quickly.

  13. John Peragine says:

    My personal view: trad publishing is the throes of death. The scenery is changing and so many houses are either being sold off, or they are laying off their editors. Its a new world and the future looks bright- but it is a much different view. I say: Be NETFLIX not BLOCKBUSTER.

  14. dholcomb1 says:

    Some of the big publishing houses have imprints which don't require an agent or are digital-to-print. That's an alternate option. There are smaller, boutique publishers--don't discount them--which have bestselling books in their catalogs and award winning books. You have to do the research for your genre.

    denise

  15. Nearly 20 years ago, I got my fourth agent and finally got that contract with a big New York Publisher. Thought I'd made it. After six books in the series that was far from over, they dumped me. I was fortunate to get the series picked up by a medium size publisher, but it's been a long row to hoe for any other series I write. New York is skittish unless you have a stellar track record. But do, DO try to get traditionally published before clicking the self-publish button. If a long-term career is what you're looking for, indie isn't the way to go out of the gate. There are advantages to having the imprimatur of a publisher for earlier work. It's not the ticket it used to be, but it's far better money. But even though I have been a full time author for some eleven years (with 27 books in print), I don't make a decent living.

  16. Colleen Story says:

    So nice when authors talk straight, Tasha. Thanks for a great post, and good luck to everyone. We are lucky to have each other's support as we all do our best out there.

  17. Lisa says:

    Hey all, reality check! And as a recent MFA grad, I can say it's sadly all true!
    Can't get hired to teach, and all my writing's been for free so far, (think internships, guest blogging, anthology stories, and the like.)
    Working at a copy shop to keep $$ coming in...

    Anyone looking for a pen for hire?? Let me know!
    😎

  18. Fantastic article, Tasha. I'm linking to it and profiling Writers in the Storm in my newsletter tomorrow. (Which refers to my own twisty, turny publishing journey...13 years pre-pub, now about to have my 5th novel released..Happy to talk if you have any Q's sometime).

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