What Publishing Can and Can’t Do for You
How to deal in an industry built on high hopes and the madness of variables.
As you may have noticed, I talk very little about publishing in these letters for someone who works in the publishing industry. This is by design—there are plenty of excellent publishing resources out there already and I like to focus on the craft and soul care of the writing itself rather than the mechanics of publication.
But today I’m breaking the pattern because there’s too many good takes out there right now on the writer’s experience of publishing, and they are worth your time.
More on that in a moment, but they all distill down to this: publishing has its glories and it has its limitations, and generally, we ask too much of it when it comes to the inherent dignity of ourselves and our work.
For example, author and writing coach Ally Fallon posted recently about the very real appeal of hitting the bestseller lists, and offered a beautiful list of her own of motivations to write, including:
A body of work you can be proud of
A long and happy career as an author
Work that pulls at your soul
Listen, I am over the moon when my authors’ books become bestsellers! It deserves to be celebrated and it’s not wrong to aspire toward! But in the interest of sanity preservation, we do well to recognize that retail whims and algorithms can only do so much to speak to the value of a work. They can recognize value, but they can’t imbue it or take it away.
Publishing Won’t Heal You
Sara Billups of, author of newly released Orphaned Believers (cue the confetti canons!), offered some wonderful reflections on what publishing can and can’t do in her interview with .
She talks about her own process, during her proposal writing, of “working out” what publishing asks of a person and what it can give. And who better to cite here, as Sara does, than Anne Lamott,
“It’s also a miracle to get your work published... just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you. That it will fill the swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t, it won’t. But writing can.”
Come for the Anne Lamott quote, stay for the case for bringing your full, weird self to your work and choosing creative play over performance.
Publishing Can’t Validate You
On a similar theme, Kate McKean ofwrote recently that, “Publishing is not here to validate you.” Ouch, but true.
“You have to divorce your self-worth from publishing. It’s not going to solve that for you. Can you derive pride and a sense of accomplishment from publishing, via either route? Yes. Can you be thrilled your book did a thing/reached a milestone/made X sales? Yes. Can you be sad that it didn’t do whatever thing you were hoping for? Of course. But try not to give it much more power than that. You can’t control it. It’s about as fickle as the weather. It’s like saying I’m only good at my job if it’s sunny outside. I hope you don’t live in Portland, OR or London or some other notoriously rainy place. You have to give publishing up to the fates.’’
You are not a parking ticket. Publishing is far too small a thing to be able to validate the multitudes of you. I find this to be good advice.
Ask any bestselling, award-decorated author and they will tell you: there is rarely a fixed point at which they feel they have “made it.” Rather, there is a lot of talk about the pressure they experience to best their last project, to reach a new threshold, break the next record, or scale the next goal.
It can all feel a little “more, more, more,” But the true call and gift of writing is, “deeper, deeper, deeper.”
I am not one to dichotomize and this is not to say that publishing success sales-wise cannot go hand in hand with a meaningful, personally enriching writing process. I’m in this work because I absolutely know that it can, and have the privilege of witnessing this often. I also know it’s not easy. However, I am of the mind that the tension we experience between two seemingly dissimilar things can be a gift and prompt to stay awake.
You can celebrate the wins without hinging your personal worth on them.
You can promote with gusto the very work you couldn’t not write in the first place.
You can set high goals and put in the work, all while surrendering the outcomes and staying anchored in that proud feeling that you showed up and that’s what matters ultimately.
By all means, when it comes to a message you believe in, go for broke. This is a work to bring your full self to and I say get your hopes up and hold nothing back. But do it for the love. Do it because naming the world as you see it makes you come alive. Do it because you can’t not do it.
One more quote—this one from noveslistwriting for a round-up on book promotion—
“It all takes guts. You have to be prepared to fail. Which makes publishing of any kind a mix of bravery and madness. So take as many risks as you can handle. Swing big, aim high, and forget the rules.”
I find this to be true. Publishing is an industry built on high hopes and the madness of variables, most of which live outside a writer’s control. But this much is yours and always will be: you can show up to the work of the craft that you love.
Learn to love the process—all the jagged twists and turns of it—and you will become a writer who is proud of their work. Let the work be its own reward, and you will not be disappointed. I say let’s get after it, grounded in the belief that the real prize is always interior.
Until next time,
Take heart. Write on. You got this.
If you’ve found something that speaks to you here…
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P.S. // A Blessing for Writers
SLANT LETTER is about both craft + soul care for the creative life. So for each issue, I want to speak this blessing for all of us anxious, ambitious, internet-exhausted writing folk.
Thanks! That's why I self published my first book. The entire point of it was to heal. Less than 1,000 people have read it but I can stand on my own truth. I'm not afraid of grief and have learned what it means to self empty. I do hope to one day find an agent/publisher who sees value in my voice but I think we need value ourselves first. Thank you for care for the writer's soul. Much appreciated.
I often speak in schools, and kids (occasionally teachers, too) ask often about how to get published. I have spent a lifetime publishing myself by choice, and I explain that, then redirect to what drives me, my subject for the talk. My motivator clearly isn't fame or fortune, but having the life of a writer, and engaging the audiences I have. Thanks for this.