Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Defining Writing Success by Publishing?

There were some fascinating responses to yesterday's blog, mostly on Facebook here (just scroll down past the cool pic of Mercury). Some people, and successful professional writers at that, began as daydreamers with no thought of becoming published. Whether they wrote fanfic or invented their own worlds, they went through a long period of writing just for themselves. I want to cry when I think of some of the wonderful writers who had to hide their work because of parental disapproval or other reasons. I think that's one reason I'm so encouraging of people in those early never know where those early Mary/Gary Sue stories might lead.

Other people knew early on that they wanted to be published. I don't know if there's a correlation between this goal-setting and preference for working on invitation and under contract (versus "on spec," where you don't know if there's a market for what you're working on, you just fly with it anyway). On the one hand, having such a goal can focus our efforts, perhaps boot us into serious critique groups, workshops, classes, earlier than we might if left to our own inclinations, because we're going about learning to write in a professional manner. That's a thought--being a professional writer even before we've sold anything, measured by how we go about learning to write.

The down side is that (until the internet made self-publishing so easy) defining ourselves as writers by whether we are published relies on something beyond our control. Are we then setting ourselves up to feel like failures if the market does not cooperate on our timetable? Or does it serve us to have an objective measurement of the quality of our work so that we are held to higher standards, so we don't have an out of saying we don't care, what do editors know, they're all against us...the usual whiny excuses. It's a bit like weight lifting...the numbers don't lie.

One form of "numbers" is the value the marketplace assigns to our work. In the past, it's been the size of an advance, and to a lesser extent the prestige of the market. Add to that, the sales figures, assuming we can decipher those amazingly baroque royalty statements. Self-publishing adds both positive and negative aspects. There's no longer a gatekeeper editor/publisher to say "This book is worth this much in sales." We can prove them wrong...and know we're doing it. We can have direct access to our own sales figures. So, quality aside, we can define success as so many copies actually sold (not what the publisher thinks will sell).

Let me advance an argument, perhaps not all that well thought-out but worth saying. If the (or one) source of pleasure and satisfaction in writing is doing it well, does it do us a disservice to set our goals by copies sold? This assumes we aren't one the edge of homelessness and financial considerations trump everything else, just looking at how we maximize the joy and sense of achievement from our work. If we take editorial feedback out of the equation, how do we measure our growth as writers? Professional reviews, growing fewer all the time? Reader reviews, which can be meaningless? Critique groups? Trusted beta readers? Book doctors?

Some experienced writers seem to have a strong inner critical sense, an ability to evaluate their own work by their own standards. It's a little like coming full circle from when we wrote only to please ourselves, only having slogged through the threshold criteria of professional publication. Speaking for myself, as I've grown as a writer, there have been more times when I know I've produced something good, but I always have blind spots. I get enamored of the most awful drek because I see what I intended, not what actually ends up on the page. Turning out flawed drafts does not mean I'm a poor writer...but leaving the work that way is a sure ticket to never improving!


  1. One of the falacies of is that even professional editors admit that they can't always tell what will go big and what will fail in spite if its merits (paraphrasing Gordon Van Gelder at World Fantasy Con 2010). Yet another stumbling block in whether or not a writer is published by a given professional market depends on things that have nothing to do with quality of writing. Budget, openings in publishing schedules, etc.

    Still. As you pointed out - persistence never hurts.

    Thanks for this post. It made me think!

  2. Hi, Sara!

    It's absolutely true that editors and publishers, no matter how experienced, do not have a crystal ball about what will sell and what will bomb.

    I call those "no-fault" rejections, and my favorite is that your protagonist has the same name as the editor's ex! (Or that the editor just bought a story with the same theme from Harlan Ellison.)