January is always a time of new beginnings, but that means it’s a time of endings, too. Both of those things make January a time of advice–asking for it and dispensing it. As someone who has run a few laps in publishing, 2018 is feeling like my turn to give advice. What do I do about my agent who no longer returns my phone calls? Should I self-publish this? What happens if my editor doesn’t like my partial? How do I say no to these revisions?
I don’t have the answers to all of the publishing questions. Some of them I couldn’t even answer when I was asking them. Others I’ve never had to ask. Increasingly, though, I’m discovering that all my advice is premised on one belief. The writing is the writing, and everything else is just business. Whenever I’ve struggled to make a decision or to hold it all together in times of publishing difficulty, this is the truth I come back to.
The terrifying reality about publishing–as with so many things in life–is that there is no safety net. There are no guarantees in the business of writing. When I finished writing All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I sent it to my agent. He read the first few chapters and nothing further. We exchanged a few emails about my publishing career, and it became obvious to me that we were about to part ways over what I was convinced was the best book I’d ever written.
It wasn’t just my agent who wasn’t sold on the book. The publisher of my two small press books didn’t want it either. From a business point of view, maybe I should have listened to them. Maybe I should have abandoned that book and started another. Instead I turned my back on both those relationships and kept trying to find a home for the book nobody seemed to want. There was nothing rational in my decision, because over a hundred agents rejected the book. Despite the very low odds of success, I found a new agent, who sold that unwanted book at auction.
Here’s the funny thing about working so hard to achieve my life’s dream: 20 years of failure did not prepare me for success. I didn’t even know what it would be like to have a publishing career, instead of a writing hobby, but by May of 2017, I’d made the New York Times bestseller list and earned out my advance. Everything should have been smooth sailing from there, right?
Feeling like I had turned a corner in my writing career, I sent a partial manuscript to my agent and my editor. Their response was not encouraging. The words “too weird” were used. More importantly, the words “not the right follow up to All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” were used. I came away from the conversation deflated, not knowing what my next steps should be.
Honestly, there was a temptation to follow my heart again. I’m incredibly stubborn, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for me to ignore the advice of both agent and editor. I could have gone on writing a book that nobody but me believed in, but during those days of uncertainty, I reminded myself that writing and publishing are two separate realities.
I only had to choose which rubric I was going to use to make my decision. Was this a writing decision or a business decision? Ultimately, it was a business decision. I loved the book that was too weird and not the right follow up, but it wasn’t the only project I was capable of loving. So I set it aside and chose one that I also felt passionately about, but that was thematically more suitable as a follow up book. As I near completion on that manuscript and prepare to send it to my agent, I feel confident in two things: I put my heart into writing the best book I could and I made the best decision I could under the circumstances.
The important thing, though, is that I know both of these decision processes are valid. Pursuing writing as a business can lead us to pragmatic choices that further our careers and keep rooves over our heads. Writing for the pure joy of writing is also a valid choice that can lead us to take chances on books nobody else believes in. Plus, it’s a good position to fall back to when the business of publishing disappoints you. You don’t need an agent or a book contract to write. Plenty of fantastic books have been written by people with neither.
What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make between business and writing? How do you keep yourself focused on the writing when you’re stressed about your publishing path?