The Novelist’s New Clothes?

Photo © 2006 Volker Neumann CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

They say that novelists write millions of manuscripts each year. I’m not sure what the exact number is. But I might believe any number between 1,000,000 and 25,000,000. Of these millions, less than 100,000 will make it to print.

That’s when the real fun starts. Of those, only a fraction will end up on the shelves of the local book superstore. And out of those, only a portion will sell enough copies to make any money. And out of those, only a handful of authors will be able to sustain a writing career. And those who do, they spend years working to push their books, for the privilege of handing over their copyrights to the publisher.

Given the odds, you are more likely to die from a lightning strike than to “make it” as a published author.

Why, then, does just about every writing book, resource, author, and coach out there promise to help you “get published”?

That’s like promising to help me “get naked, drenched in honey, and sit my bare butt down on an anthill.”

The Standard Excuses

Again, almost every writing resource and coach will tell you that you have to “improve” your writing if you want to get published. They say that only “good” books get published. I myself even used to believe this.

Then a certain book was published that changed my entire point of view. This novel did more for my self-esteem than any other published book ever has. It began with the scintillating intro: “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue.” This book bolstered my self-esteem, because no way would I ever have started a story with a line that boring.

It gets even better. This novel uses the word angrily no fewer than 10 times, and the word beautiful 33 times. And clearly 35 times, certainly 13 times, perfect 30 times, obviously 17 times. And really 114 times, and very 168 times. (And no, I’m not making any of those numbers up. you can check them all out with Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book” once I tell you what the title is, if you haven’t figured it out yet.)

This novel also contains spellbinding, vibrant, heart-wrenching, randomly-chosen gems like:

We exchanged a few more comments on the weather, which was wet…

It was hard to believe that someone so beautiful could be real… I waited for him to say something that made sense.

His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.

Her cold, stone grasp was just as I expected… It was like meeting a fairy tale—Snow White, in the flesh.

Their walk was catlike, a gait that seemed constantly on the edge of shifting into a crouch.

There was a point of pressure against my head. It hurt.

A howl of rage strangled on the angel’s lips. I felt a sharp stab in my side. This couldn’t be heaven, could it? There was too much pain for that.

I was distracted then by the sound of a phone ringing.

I swear, I found these just by flipping through the book at random and looking for any snippet written poorly enough to make me laugh. The exercise required no planning whatsoever. You can try it yourself.

Not only was this book published by a major publisher, it became a best-seller. And it is adored by many young women, whom I can only hope in 20 or 30 years will look back on it the same way I look back on Lost in Space: “I can’t believe I used to like that. Boy we were silly when we were kids, weren’t we?”

The novel is, of course, the best-seller Twilight, a title to which I owe an unbounded debt of gratitude, because it has proven once and for all, beyond all reasonable doubt, that whether or not your novel gets published has nothing to do with how “good” a writer you are.

Why We Seek to “Get Published”

We writers tell each other that we need to develop our writing skills until our work is “publishable.” All the while, we freely admit the big myths of publishing. Why?

We all need a sense of status, social recognition of our achievements. We all want others to think well of us. And in the world of novelists, “getting published” is the accepted means.

In the words of psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, in their book Human Givens: A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking, “We can [even] be greedy for status… and this can develop into an aggressive drive to dominate others in order to extract status through power.” Like what baboons do to establish their social hierarchy… what some published writers do to assert their worth over their “unpublished” fellows.

And we humans often collect symbols of our status: jewelry, an expensive car or suit, and— publishing contracts?

If you doubt this, consider Mike Duran’s question: “Does traditional publishing validate an author?” He didn’t think of the question himself. Rather, he was echoing reader responses to Rachelle Garnder’s post, “Why are you pursuing traditional publishing?”

Fascinating. As you know, both traditional and indie publishing are valid ways to go, depending on your values and your skills and what you want to accomplish. Traditional publishing, for example, has made an art out of targeting the least common denominator, the mass market, and chain bookstores. On the other hand, some impressive indie authors have made their name by writing alternative works that a traditional publisher would never touch. Neither indie nor traditional is intrinsically easier or better than the other; they’re just different.

So asking a bunch of authors and aspiring authors why they’re pursuing traditional publishing, you’d expect answers involving words like “business model” and “marketing contacts” and “target reader” and “trendy” and “Twilight.” Indeed, there were some such responses to Rachelle’s query:

J. Koyanagi said…

I want the chance at wider print distribution than what I’d be able achieve on my own, professional cover art and design (that I wouldn’t be able to afford on my own), to work with an experienced editor (again, that I wouldn’t be able to afford on my own), and whatever marketing support the house will offer, even if it’s not much…

Malin said…

I wouldn’t try my hand at start up a building business on my own just because I’m good at making doors. I’d love to work for a building business, but not run it. I understand that some want that, but it’s not for me.

Publishing is a trade – and I don’t have time or interest to become an EXPERT in it…

magolla said…

Editors and agents simply weren’t interested. Most thought it had ‘potential’ (std query rejection lingo), but it wasn’t post-apocalyptic, vampire, “boy”, (insert current ‘must have’) book.

Far outnumbering them, however, were—and this is just the tip of the iceberg—comments like:

… I want the affirmation from publishing professionals that my novel is good…

… I still don’t respect the self-pub industry. The books aren’t written well…

… Besides once you been published traditionally you know you’ve accomplished something big. At least that’s how I see it…

… The heft of the publishing house name–whatever it might be–would also help sell books on its own…

… Traditional publishing brings credibility, distribution, and promotion that self-publishing doesn’t…

… an editor looking over my work, challenging me to make it even better…

… traditional publishing is an acknowledgment that you have actually crafted something worth reading. Who else is going to tell me that my book is ready for the general public? …

… validation, for lack of a better term, from professionals in the industry. The stamp of approval from people who have given that same stamp to others I respect…

… I don’t just want to be published, I want to be published well…

… I’m pursuing traditional publishing for the legitimacy that it would give me and my book. I believe in standards…

… for my first novel next year. As a fiction writer with sights set on a writing career, I want the legitimacy of acceptance into the traditional publishing industry…

Oh poor, naïve, unpublished first-novelist, remember Twilight.

A Call to Action

In Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two charlatans prey on the desires of a vain emperor. They claim to have invented a fabric so finely woven, that “it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.”

He gives them a bag of gold coins, and silk and gold thread, so that they’ll weave him a garment of this fine fabric. And one by one, each member of the court—including the Emperor himself—proclaims their admiration of the non-existent garment, because they all fear being branded as stupid and incompetent.

The Emperor displays his new clothes in a grand parade to all the people. And they too all admire the fine garment. Until finally a small child remarks, as children are wont, “The Emperor is naked!”

“Fool!” his father reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed his child and took him away. But the boy’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried: “The boy is right! The Emperor is naked! It’s true!”

The Emperor realized that the people were right but could not admit to that. He though it better to continue the procession under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his clothes was either stupid or incompetent. And he stood stiffly on his carriage, while behind him a page held his imaginary mantle.

Fellow writers, the emperor is naked.

Ask any group of writers why they write, and they’ll tell you it’s because they feel a deep need to express themselves—which is a spiritual need. In other words, they are the stories they write, and those stories reflect part of themselves.

Ask the same group of writers why they want to be published, and they’ll say it’s because they want to try on the Emperor’s new clothes.

Please stop it already.

The most valuable exhortation I can give, uncomfortable and controversial and painful. But I believe it must be given.

Telling stories has value on its own merit, value to each of us and value to the world around us. But only if we share those stories with the world around us. You don’t have to “get published” in order to contribute to society. You just have to write your heart. Now, if you truly believe that a traditional publishing contract is the best way to get those stories to the world, you should go for it! But for most of us, not even close.

Give up any hope of becoming the next Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling, because you’re not. Uncomfortable and controversial and painful, but infinitely liberating. Imagine what you could accomplish if you didn’t have to worry about seeking the validation of the publishing industry?

Instead, write the stories that reflect what is in your heart to show the world. And share your stories with the world around you.

Keep writing!


2 responses to “The Novelist’s New Clothes?”

  1. charlotte abel Avatar

    Awesome post, Tim.

    I cut the heart out of my current WIP to meet the demands of an agent I met at a conference. She loved my pitch, but said my word count was too high. She handed me her card, told me to cut about thirty thousand words and “get in touch.”

    I just finished rewriting it and am happy to say the story is alive and well with a beating heart. I’m not about to go through that again.

    Indie forever!

  2. J. Timothy King Avatar

    Thanks for the kind words, Charlotte. Glad the piece spoke to your heart. -TimK

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