"Are you published yet?" and other thoughts on success in the writing profession

A former student messaged me the other day asking: “Is your book out in the market yet?”

I last saw this student in early June, and yes, part of my explanation for leaving my teaching job was wanting to get my manuscript published. By then, I was carrying around a three-ring binder of what appeared to be a complete and printed manuscript (is any manuscript ever complete?). I can imagine some students thought I was a hop, skip, and jump away from the digital shelves of Amazon.

That dear student is not the only one who has asked me if bookstores now carry my narrative from Fiji, just two months after they watched me submit a second draft for grad school.

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I interpret these as supportive and encouraging questions—from people who have been cheering me on through the gestation of this book. But these questions also relate to the self-study of the publishing world that has consumed the “gap year” I just began, an industry and a process that surprises me regularly in its opacity and complexity.

It’s as if I spent years learning to make cheese, and now that I’ve almost decided on my formula, I must learn about an entire industry that produces, packages, markets, and delivers my beloved cheese to consumers. And by “learn” I mean ask others who’ve done it before, scour the internet for sources, for people who can help me navigate this process. Because the process is not clear and not taught to writers.

The barrier of entry for hopeful writers requires knowledge, personal connections, time, and money. It appears, most unfortunately, that entry can also be afforded to some demographics over others, simply because publishing professionals are commonly white females. I doubt any two writers’ paths toward this knowledge are the same.

Most of us are outsiders looking in on the publishing industry. Perhaps you’re a reader, maybe you fancy yourself a potential writer, or you love a good bookstore for its free wifi and coffee shop vibes. I dare say, for most of us, the process of getting a book published appears simultaneously straightforward and mysterious. Ba da bing ba da boom...somehow.

These questions about my own book remind me of one of my own questions I still regret asking at the start of my MFAW. “What happens to our theses when we finish? Do they get published?” I was 30 years-old. I thought the fruit of my grad school labor went straight into the book machine after graduation. Over time I think I managed to gain back a little respect from that advisor, but on that same day I commenced my education of the publishing industry, mainly in relation to the writer’s experience.

Because, I soon learned, the sole objective of writing is not to be published.

There were many moments while at Goddard when the relationship between writing and publishing was identified to me, made distinct from each other. “Writing and publishing are separate things,” my first advisor mentioned casually in a keynote speech. That simple sentence was epiphanic to me. I scribbled it down on my notepad and reviewed it often to the same effect.

Many of my classmates had already submitted to journals and magazines and contests, all while completing our required work and sometimes holding full-time jobs unrelated to their writing lives. It was an outlet they pursued in overtime hours, often with little external or material compensation for days of hard work but a byline. Goddard College brought literary agents and publishing representatives to residency, to let us peek behind the curtain and glimpse how that publishing world worked. And they always made it sound like a foreign country with its own system of government and unique language you’re expected to learn on your own before you go. The manuscript, a hard-earned passport. The proposal, a complicated visa.

I could go on. I love a good analogy.

I would sit in those lectures and wonder: Does everyone else know there are five main publishing houses in America? Was I supposed to as an MFAW candidate? Is everyone else clear on the options of 1.) literary agents → editors → publishing houses or 2.) self-representation → editors → publishing houses or 3.) skipping the refinement process by professionals to self-publish at your own expense? How are we supposed to learn in advance of trial and error that book proposals are what they are, that they require chapter breakdowns and beta reader feedback and genre/demographic specification and competitive title analyses?

I continue to wonder today… How did people ever get books published before the internet? Am I such a millenial for asking that question?

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It’s taken me the last two and a half years to better understand not just that publishing operates the way it does (and I’m still learning) but that publishing should not to be the destination. As writers, so much could be lost or overshadowed if getting published becomes the focal point of one’s tunnel vision. For both writers and those who know and love writers, publishing should not be considered the mark of success of a writer.

I’ve learned that publishing doesn’t pay much, unless your last name is King or Rowling or Cussler. It seems publishing is the commodification of writing, the business side of a creative format, inherently political, in addition to the major way in which writers can make a desired impact on their readers.

And for publishing professionals, books are investments, books are gambles.

As a writer, I find gratification in using words to assemble something that didn’t exist before. And when that assemblage feels like an apt translation of the blips and swirls in my mind, I am satiated as if departing a Michelin-starred restaurant.

And those blips and swirls don't feel trivial. They tend to focus on the things that keep me up at night. Getting them on paper is a success in and of itself.

And as a writer, I have to engage in trickery of the mind in order to produce the story in need of coming out, though it is insistent. It’s more akin to meditation or shedding the ego or staring into the gut of a flame to find its deep, dark core. Publishing is not the carrot at the end of that stick. It’s getting the story right, even though it’s rightness is as specific and elusive as a once-vivid dream.

“Success” can be seen from many perspectives: a writer’s, their readers, anyone invested in the numbers their writing generates (page views, clicks, followers, products sold, dollars earned), former teachers, fellow writers, family members and friends. I guess I’m trying to maintain focus on the only perspective that should matter to me.

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As adults, we don’t often receive the constant validation that makes us feel confident we’re doing good work. Not like we used to as students with grades or percentages (my old students used to lament this silver lining from quantitative assessment, much to my surprise). Often that validation for adults comes in the form of job promotions, pay raises, awards (which could vary greatly depending on your profession). But do these always or often commend the work we are most proud of? Are third party “carrots” more effective than the ones we can create for ourselves?

In this “gap year” of mine, in which I do hope to finish my manuscript, find a literary agent, and make progress toward publishing, I also hope I can maintain a clarity of purpose. To define success in my own terms, through the satisfaction of making words mean something worth saying, worth changing, worth being.

Yes, a simple request for a status update sparks all this inside me every time. Feel free to ask...I appreciate the interest and support :)

But no, I haven’t been published yet, even though every Friday is “Submission Day!” and I have yet to send one query.

No, I haven’t gotten my book published yet because I don’t have an agent.

And no agent, sadly, because I’m deep in the weeds with a machete, shaving down my manuscript to its core. And I’m just starting to get the hang of this world.