This post, by Jane Friedman, originally appeared on her blog on 12/29/12.
Note: I wrote the following article for Writer’s Digest magazine last year (July/August 2011) about how to get published; I’ve lightly updated it for distribution here. If you’re interested in more advice about how to get traditionally published, consider my online class with Writer’s Digest on Jan. 3, or read my comprehensive post on the topic.
Don’t you wish someone could tell you how close you are to getting traditionally published? Don’t you wish someone could say, “If you just keep at it for three more years, you’re certain to make it!”
Or, even if it would be heartbreaking, wouldn’t it be nice to be told that you’re wasting your time, so that you can move on, try another tack (like self-publishing), or perhaps even change course entirely to produce some other creative work?
I’ve counseled thousands of writers over the years, and even if it’s not possible for me to read their work, I can usually say something definitive about what their next steps should be. I often see when they’re wasting their time. No matter where you are in your own publishing path, you should periodically take stock of where you’re headed, and revise as necessary.
Recognizing Steps That Don’t Help You Get Published
Let’s start with four common time-wasting behaviors. You may be guilty of one or more. Most writers have been guilty of the first.
1. Submitting manuscripts that aren’t your best work
Let’s be honest. We all secretly hope that some editor or agent will read our work, drop everything, and call us to say: This is a work of genius! YOU are a genius!
Few writers give up on this dream entirely, but to increase the chances of this happening, you have to give each manuscript everything you’ve got, with nothing held back. Too many writers save their best effort for some future work, as if they were going to run out of good material.
You can’t operate like that.
Every single piece of greatness must go into your current project. Be confident that your well is going to be refilled. Make your book better than you ever thought possible—that’s what it needs to compete. It can’t be good.
“Good” gets rejected. Your work has to be the best. How do you know when it’s ready, when it’s your best? I like how Writer’s Digest editor and author Chuck Sambuchino answers this question at writing conferences: “If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready.”
It’s common for a new writer who doesn’t know any better to send off his manuscript without realizing how much work is left to do. But experienced writers are usually most guilty of sending out work that is not ready. Stop wasting your time.
2. Self-publishing when no one is listening
There are many reasons writers choose to self-publish, but the most common one is the inability to land an agent or a traditional publisher.
Fortunately, it’s more viable than ever for a writer to be successful without a traditional publisher or agent. However, when writers chase self-publishing as an alternative to traditional publishing, they often have a nasty surprise in store:
No one is listening. They don’t have an audience.
Bowker reports that in 2011, more than 148,000 new print books were self-published, and more than 87,000 e-books were self-published. (See more about the report here.) Since Bowker only counts books that have ISBNs, that means thousands more titles go uncounted, since Amazon doesn’t require an ISBN for authors to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.
If your goal is to bring your work successfully to the marketplace, it’s a waste of time to self-publish that work, regardless of format, if you haven’t yet cultivated an audience for it, or can’t market and promote it effectively through your network. Doing so will not likely harm your career in the long run, but it won’t move it forward, either.
3. Looking for major publication of regional or niche work