Guest Post: Submit, Quit, or Self-Publish It?

by Randy Henderson

Randy Henderson PhotoThe way to become a published writer is to write (and to submit what you write).  Seems obvious, yet so many would-be writers produce that one story or novel and then rework it endlessly, or submit a story or three, get rejected once (or a hundred times), and decide to give up.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life, does a wonderful job of explaining the reasons we creative types set out to create our particular art, and why so many become disappointed and quit.

I would add for writers specifically that the writers who are published are the ones who continued to write NEW stories, and submit those stories, and move past the rejections, until they were published.

Of course, today we have a wonderful short cut — self-publication!

I have repeatedly been asked for advice from writers who have written one story, or been rejected a few times, wanting to know how to proceed, how to become published.  And sometimes as part of my response I make the mistake of mentioning self-publication as a possible future option.

Don’t get me wrong, self-publication is a very valid alternative IF your writing is worth reading, and IF you believe you have what it takes to stand out from the sea of other self-published works.

But too often, the would be writer latches onto that option as the answer, because the rest of my advice — to write and submit and be rejected until you are good enough to actually be published — requires work, and a lot of rejection, and letting many of your stories die an anonymous and unnoticed death.

And often the amateur writer believes their writing to be perfectly wonderful and worthy of being read.  Unfortunately, it is hard to be objective about one’s own work.  I certainly see how bad my early stories are now, though at the time I thought they were completely awesome.  I would have self-published them if I’d had the option.  And now I am so glad I did not, that they were rejected and I was driven to try again, to try harder, to do better.

So please, if you want to be a writer, then write, and submit, and keep doing that until you are good enough that somebody other than yourself and your mother thinks it is ready for the world to read.  Persevere, and become a good writer, not just a “wroter” (someone who wrote that one thing and just keeps reworking that same one thing), or a self-published amateur, and someday you will have something published that is worthy of being read.

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Randy’s fiction has recently been spotted frolicking in places like Escape Pod, Realms of Fantasy, Every Day Fiction, and the anthology “2020 Visions”.  He is a Clarion West graduate, a relapsed sarcasm addict, member of SFWA and CODEX, and a milkshake connoisseur.  You can find him at: www.randy-henderson.com where this post first appeared.

11 Responses

  1. Steve

    I understand the advice and agree, submit, submit, submit…but a lot of writers have an attachment to that which they write, especially if they manage to be prolific. I have always felt that I wrote because I had stories to tell for years and years (and it was true) and I wanted people to read my adventures and experience the characters. Publishing is a way to do that but I dont view it as a status symbol that some writers seem to feel about it. You know, the old, if you arent published you must not be any good…

    I have read some great scifi that didnt get published and how many times have we seen hollywood (publishers?) get a hold of something great and neuter it into oblivion. Sometimes butchering your writing to fit into someones elses idea of what you should be writing is reason enough to quit, or self-publish due to short-sighted or narrow minded publishers.

    Sure, you might get published editing your writing into a vastly different, but profitable, version of what you wanted…but many famous authors would tell you how much they regret letting someone else tell them what their vision should be.

  2. Steve

    “So please, if you want to be a writer, then write, and submit, and keep doing that until you are good enough that somebody other than yourself and your mother thinks it is ready for the world to read.”

    You know, because unless a big publisher tells you your writing is good…you pretty much suck, no matter who tells you its good.

    Plus, who references someones mother in their writing, how condescending.

  3. David

    We all have our own goals. Whenever I post/talk about publishing, I try to frame my comments in relation to that.

    My goal is to become a professional writer, so I write, finish, edit, and submit. Not my short stories have sold yet, but I love it. Those rejection letters motivate me. Plus, it’s free wallpaper for my future bathroom. Okay, not really.

    If they want to be published, I often mention that it costs nothing to submit shorts to magazines or novels to agents that take esubmissions. If you think you’re piece is good, why not take a chance and submit it to one of them first? If it gets rejected, you’ve at least tried. How many people don’t even get that far?

    All you’ll loose is a little time. Time you should be working on something else and away from the submitted piece. This way when it comes back you can edit it with fresh eyes. Then you can submit it again or put it out there yourself. No matter what, best of luck.

    Write. Finish. Edit. Submit.

    That’s my take from this article. You have to keep writing. You have to keep trying no matter what your goal is. If one story fails, write another. Keep at it. Since I just watched Galaxy Quest, “Never give up… Never Surrender!”

  4. Pingback: Submit, Quit, or Self-Publish It? | The Passive Voice

  5. Randy Henderson

    Great comments. As I note in my post, self-publishing is a valid option for some people.

    I would further add that self-publishing IS easy. Getting people to BUY your self-published works is not.

    Word of mouth and repeat customers are the absolute top drivers of book and story sales, FAR more so than ads, or self-promoting tweets and posts and schemes, etc.

    And while some people may decide to buy a story because it is cheap (or free) and has an interesting title or opening line, if it is in fact a horrible or even just not-great story (poorly written, no plot or cliche’ plot, etc.) then odds are they are not going to buy the next thing the same writer self-publishes, not when there is so much more out there to choose from.

    And in that case, the writer often blames the marketing, or the competition, or anything but their writing, and they have invested a lot of energy into trying to make a bad story successful that they could have spent instead on writing a slightly better story.

    Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, some people’s first ever piece of fiction is amazing. Yes, some people get seven figure deals as a result of some bit of fan fic or self-published work that catches a wave of buzz. But for every one of those, there are thousands upon thousands of beginning and emerging writers who really would benefit from writing that million words of prose before self-publishing. And that benefits the readers, because there is less risk and disappointment in buying self-published works if fewer of them are horrible.

    Certainly, many good stories get rejected. And some really awful but sparkly stories get published. But even if you receive a personalized rejection from a pro market or publisher that says “close, but just not for us, I liked X”, that tells you that you have reached a level in your writing that is more likely to be successful with readers. Again, it is hard to be objective about one’s own writing. So you do you turn to as an external, objective judge? I used your mother because that is the common short-hand joke for anyone who will always say your stuff is great, or you can self-publish and let the world decide, sure, but if the story is bad then you’ve just added one more bad story to the sea of bad stories, and you may have turned off readers from even checking out your future, better stories. Even your mother may start avoiding your emails.

    This is not because these writers are untalented or anything like that. It is because writing, just like playing guitar, or painting, or martial arts, or anything else, is something that usually requires lots of practice to get gooder at’er.

    As for the stories sitting on my hard drive that have been rejected by every market, I may self-publish them someday after a bit of polishing and reworking (using my gained experience and hopefully improved skill), and I keep my eyes open for new markets, and anthology opportunities. In the meantime, I continue to write, and to submit what I write, and occasionally I sell something. Having a bio of published works (hopefully soon to include a novel) can only help when I DO decide to self-publish all those trunk stories. And having a good collection of great stories will also help, as the person who enjoys one of my stories will be able to immediately buy the rest, and recommend them to their friends, rather than wishing they’d spent their dollar elsewhere.

    But that is my path, and it is certainly true there is no single “correct” path to becoming a successful writer.

  6. Randy Henderson

    I responded to a comment about this post elsewhere, and wanted to share my response here as well:

    Regarding self-publishing and using reader responses and the failure to sell as a means of improving (rather than submitting to pro markets or publishers): the feedback you do receive is hit and miss — the people who bother to respond are a subset of those few who even read it (many of your ideal target readers may have just passed on it altogether), and you have no idea how useful their feedback will be in actually improving your writing or making the next one a story they would like. They might just enjoy complaining. They might have terrible taste and thought your story would be something completely different than what you wanted it to be. They may just not be equipped or have the ability to express what it is that really needs improving.

    While it is true that most rejections from magazines and publishers are generic rejections, an acceptance for publication or even a personalized rejection are “as good as you can get” indicators that your work is reaching a professional level (other than huge sales of a self-published work). Not a perfect indicator, but a pretty good one.

    And when it comes to feedback, whether you self-publish OR submit to pro markets, you are better off seeking feedback via writing and critique groups, preferably from writers and editors who are in advance of you in their writing careers, and readers who know how to provide useful and critical feedback. You can meet such folks by attending writing workshops or conventions, or find writing groups using Meetup.com or similar methods. There are also online writing groups. Critters is a popular one, but OWW (http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/) has the benefit of a very small membership fee and having pro editors and writers as members, which may ensure a higher quality critique.

    Really, either path CAN work. I just feel that the “self-publish your bad writing and learn from the failure and criticism” method has perhaps more opportunities for self-sabotage or distraction, and also is making readers who are looking for a good read instead unwilling test subjects tricked into paying for and reading something bad. It also, again, just adds to the sea of bad stories that a potential reader has to wade through to find the gems. Think of it as paying it forward — when you are ready to publish something that is good and worthy of being read, wouldn’t it be nice if it wasn’t lost as one little diamond in a field of broken glass?

  7. KS 'Kaz' Augustin

    “Self-publishing is easy”

    Only if you’ve never done it seriously.

    1) Why assume that every writer writes short stories and that that’s the bridge to longer works? That’s not true. The short story and the novel are two completely different forms, as any serious writer knows.

    2) Why assume that “traditional publishing” is automatically an imprimatur of quality when we all know that the Sales and Marketing departments of a publisher has a bigger say in what gets bought than the over-worked, underpaid editor?

    When it comes to feedback, I don’t go to writing or critique groups. I PAY two professional editors to tell me where I’m going wrong. I PAY for professional cover art. And don’t say, “Oh that’s great, Kaz, but I’m sure there are a lot of writers out there who don’t do that”. Because then I know you haven’t done ANY research on the topic of self-publishing at all. There are a lot of us who are serious about this and, as a group, we’re getting ignored by writers like you, and it’s starting to make us tetchy.

    Sure, you want someone to do the hand-holding, go traditional. But please don’t insult those of us who’ve done that, have even had some trad deals, but then decided to go it alone because we believe in our product. And please don’t bring the “quality” element into the equation. We all know that modern commerce, in every field, is driven by other factors.

  8. T.K. Marnell

    This post seems to be taking some heat here and elsewhere from the die-hard self-publishers, and I don’t think it’s entirely fair. I think you have a balanced perspective and make some great points, even though my own conclusions are different.

    I chose to self-publish my first novel and a couple of short stories not because traditional publishers wouldn’t want it, but because I don’t trust traditional publishers for two reasons:

    (1) I’m frightened by the devious clauses they slip in contracts about owning all rights to the title in any format possibly invented in the future, and the accounting games they can play, and their frequent insistence to retain the exclusive right to publish your next work and to sue you if you write anything else (i.e. control not just the work they bought, but your career itself). Their power and money makes them nice to work for, but impossible to fight should you disagree after signing on the dotted line.

    And (2) what a publishing house considers “good” is based on a single question: “Will it make money?” Being of a basically acceptable quality is the first criteria, but they can’t afford to take risks on material that might offend or strike a wrong nerve in the public mind. The negative feedback I’ve received from that novel has had nothing to do with quality at all; it just made people uncomfortable. They note, in passing, that it’s “well-written,” but rate it down and insist the main character should be “edited” into being “likeable.” The entire point of the book is that this girl is a selfish, spoiled teen who needs to learn that she is not a fairy tale princess. But people don’t like that–they like clear, bold lines between their heroines and villains. Hence, the book will not sell. I can’t even give copies away.

    But does that mean it shouldn’t have been published? No. What people want to hear and what should be said are rarely one and the same. If a publishing house had gotten their hands on it, they probably would have told me the same thing: wrangle all of that annoying adolescence into sweetness and we’ll talk. I believe in my work, and I’m not going to compromise it for money.

    I know, of course, that in the future I will be immeasurably better at writing than I am now, as a natural consequence of constant practice. I already feel twice as fluent as I did when I dropped out of respectable society a half year ago. I will certainly read my first novel and cringe to think that I was once proud of that drivel. But no one can help that, unless they’re a prodigy who tops out at 18 (which I would consider a pretty sad existence). Just because it’s not the best I will ever produce does not mean that it’s not good enough for others to read now.

    One final note: my primary judge of quality was, indeed, my mother. But I hope her PhD in English cancelled out the partiality somewhat :p

  9. Randy Henderson

    As I said previously, there is no one perfect solution to determine whether your work is “good” or not, nor is there one path that works for every writer. I simply offer the opinion that self-publication is not, for MOST BEGINNING AND DEVELOPING writers, the best solution or path.

    Once again, I am speaking broadly, and of course there will be people who can point to their individual experience, or can provide examples of other writers or experiences, that differ. Because (again), yes, there are people for whom self-publishing IS a valid and perhaps even better path.

    These are writers who can produce something worth reading, and yes, in some cases, writers who do not fit neatly within the traditional publishing niches (although, with the rise of so many independent, local, and specialty publishers, I think there are still plenty of opportunities for the non-traditional author to get published by a publisher.)

    But (again), for every one writer who has the skill and the discipline and dedication it takes to create a novel worth reading, AND to do all the work required to self-publish and promote it (including formatting, cover art, editing it or getting it edited properly, organizing sales pushes, promoting it across blogs and reader sites, etc.) or who are lucky enough to have the money for professional editing services and see that as worth their investment and know how to avoid all the editing and self-publishing scams out there, there are simply MANY more who are at the stage in their writing evolution where their writing is just not at a level that most readers would pay money to read and be happy that they did. Period.

    And in these cases, 1) self-publication is one but not the BEST path they could take in order to improve as writers, in my opinion, and 2) they are, again, making it that much harder for readers to find good self-published works or trust in self-published works, when the gems are lost in a sea of really bad writing.

    For such writers, I think self-publication is not only bad for the readers, but a distraction for the writer, and all too often a false milestone that, from my observations, leeches some of the motivation to try harder, to improve, to write something new and better. Nor does it give those who do want to improve the best info necessary to do so. This is not true in all cases, but in many.

    Or self-publication becomes the end unto itself. Nobody wanted to read the novel, but that doesn’t matter, because the goal was to get published, and the writer did. But what is really the point of doing so? What is the difference between self-publishing it to three sales, and simply emailing the manuscript to three friends? That being said, writing involves a lot of work, and a lot of isolation, and a lot of rejection, and so sometimes we just need something positive to keep us going, to believe in our own writing, that all this work is worth it. I’m just not convinced self-publication of something that is not going to sell should be used as a self-motivation tool. It is kind of a mixed bag of motivation and further rejection. And there are sites where you can share your work for feedback, or to commune with other writers, that may be a better choice than self-publication for the sake of self-publication.

    I also agree that writing short stories before novels is not the only path there is. I did not mean to imply it was, though I can see where that could be inferred from my examples and I apologize for not considering that. I certainly think it is a good path to take for many reasons IF you have the skill and ability to write short stories, but writing short fiction and long fiction are two different skill sets, and while there are overlaps, and while short stories allow you to practice the various aspects of storytelling over and over again in a more compressed timeline, it is not necessarily the best option for all writers. And it is not what this post was about, regardless. :)

    In the end, the right thing to do is whatever gets your words on the page, and ideally to the most readers possible (and of course meets your other goals as a writer, whether it be financial success, or critical success, or education and enlightenment of your readers, or whatever).

    And in that, I wish everyone success, whatever path you take.

  10. Randy Henderson

    Kaz, I am sorry that that one line in my comments obviously hit a sore spot with you. I hope you will consider it in the context of everything I wrote around it, and I certainly applaud and am happy for your success as a self-published author. As I have said multiple times, self-publishing is a great and valid path, and people like you are helping to prove that and establish a network of support and education around it. I certainly intend to self-publish works in the future. However, I still do not believe it is the best option for all writers at all stages of their career, for all the reasons I’ve previously stated, no more than I believe that traditional publishing is the best option for all writers of all kinds at all stages. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, and each has their time and place in a writer’s evolution, depending on the individual writer, their skill, their goals, and the nature of their work.

    Happy writing.

  11. Nigel Read

    I think this post may be taking some unnecessary heat.

    The author’s comments are pretty much spot on. Very few authors start out by writing fiction of publishable quality. Writing is a craft to be learnt over time.

    A novice writer self-publishing comes across as attempting to short-cut this and achieve ‘instant fame’. It bugs me when I see the various talent shows on TV encouraging this attitude — I would be distraught if something similar started occurring to writing.

    In other words, self-publishing is a valid option for experienced authors who want to publish something quirky and ‘out of the box’ that mainstream publishers aren’t interested in. Novice writers need to learn patience and develop a thick skin, and have faith that if they have talent and take the time to learn their craft they will eventually become a superb writer.