The Catch-22 of Getting Traditionally Published

It’s been two years since I left traditional publishing, but I’m still very much in it in my day-to-day. First, my wife is a publisher at a traditional house—so there’s that. In my coaching practice, some 60%-70% of my clients come to me because they want to get traditionally published—and I support them whole-heartedly to pursue that path. Then there are the aspiring authors who think they want to try their hand at alternative publishing, but they’re still not sure because they really really really want the legitimacy of the traditional publishing world telling them their work is good enough. So they’re spinning their wheels and keeping other options on the backburner. (I support this wheel-spinning only to a certain point—see golden rules below.)


Last week, just as I do every week, I had a conversation with one of my coaching clients (always prompted by them toward the end of our work together) that went something like this:


Client: “Do you think my book is good?”


Me: “Yes, you’ve worked so hard on this project. It’s very good.”

Client: “Do you think my book will get published?” [When posing this question, the implication is always “traditionally published.”]


Me: “Ten years ago, your manuscript would get a publisher behind it, but today’s emphasis on author platform means you have an uphill battle ahead of you.”


Client: “Yeah, you’ve said that before.”


Me: “So we’ll still try, and see what happens. And then, if you don’t get an agent or an editor, maybe you’ll consider other options.”


Client: “Yeah, maybe.”


Sometimes a client responds more enthusiastically than this. Sometimes it’s a “Hell, yeah!” But for most it takes a while to come around to the idea that they’ll have to green-light themselves, and it’s an understandable letdown when agents and editors don't bite, when they’re left to decide for themselves whether they think (or believe) that their work is worthy of being published.


I recently had a conversation with a friend, an executive editor at a medium-size house, who told me that she can no longer acquire any authors who don’t bring a national platform to the table. Yes folks, she said NATIONAL. A national platform means radio (beyond local), network television, speaking engagements across the country, major social media numbers, a website that drives major traffic, and a solid database of followers. A national platform is not easy to build, and it’s impossible to build without—yes, you guessed it—a book.


A lot of my clients think they’re paying me to get them out of this conundrum faced by this Catch-22, but they’re not. I can’t convince someone to publish their work outside traditional channels, and I don’t even want to. Writers must come to a decision on their own. All I can do is provide the evidence that it works, and try to support writers to have a back-up plan. I don’t hide, however, that one of the greatest travesties I witness on a regular basis is writers who put not only their blood, sweat, and tears but their time, money, and resources into a manuscript that they personally love, and then put it in a drawer (or, more aptly, a folder on their computer) to be forgotten after it gets rejected. Only it’s not forgotten, because I meet these people all the time and their projects are nagging at them—begging to be published, to see the light of day, to be read.


The Catch-22 you face if you’ve been rejected by the traditional world (and I assure you, this is most writers—and many of you have beautiful, well-written, and smart books-to-be) is that you cannot build the kind of platform you’re supposed to have if you don’t publish. But you can’t get published unless you have this big platform. While this is crazy-making, I selfishly see myself and She Writes Press as being wonderfully positioned to catch all of you in your downward spiral and save you from yourselves. Do not despair if you do not get agented, or if your agent can’t sell your book. There is another way!


Here are my golden rules, and you can feel free to adopt them as your own:

  1. Do not wait longer than six months on any given agent or editor to say yes.
  2. Do not sit in limbo with your manuscript for longer than one year.
  3. Know that you become an author as soon as you publish a book—no matter how you publish it or what restrictions other people want to put on authorship.
  4. Get feedback in order to form an accurate opinion about the state of your manuscript, but don't wait for others to give you permission to publish.
  5. Don’t be afraid to green-light yourself.


A national platform is daunting, but becoming an author doesn’t have to be. It’s a not-so-secret secret that you can work toward your long-term goal of getting traditionally published by publishing—and you might just discover once you’re on the other side that you no longer need that validation because you’re doing just fine, thank you very much.

*Book platform staircase image courtesy of

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Comment by Brooke Warner on March 27, 2014 at 3:48pm

Good for you, Darlene. That's what I like to hear!

Comment by Darlene Deluca on March 24, 2014 at 2:55pm

I've always had a problem with the catch-22 of building a platform before publishing. It just didn't make sense to me to go out and promote myself without having a real product in hand. I've started down the traditional path, and have received some great feedback, but still no agent. So I decided to self-publish. My fourth novel releases this week. Sometimes I feel as though I'm just plodding along without much success, but I've decided it's better than sitting around waiting for phone calls and emails. I just don't have the patience (or the years) for it!

Comment by Brooke Warner on March 22, 2014 at 4:14pm

@Pamela, I like that traditional publishers charge more for their ebooks. We are charging $9.95 for ours, though the authors can experiment. I'm seeing a lot more authors charge more for ebooks, and I think this is a good thing. Amazon has largely encouraged authors to undervalue their intellectual property by pricing their books so low. One thing is if you have an ebook (maybe 20K-30K words) and charging $2.99-$3.99, but I think a full-length 80K-word novel or memoir should be priced at $9.95, and I personally am happy to pay that price point, and I think a lot of others are too. I'd like to see more self-pub authors charge more for their ebooks too.

Comment by Brenda McClain on March 20, 2014 at 11:48am

Oh my -- I do love these words, "...they’ll have to green-light themselves."  That is so awesome.  Like many of writers here, I have been pursuing the traditional route with my debut novel.  I'll chase that rabbit another little bit, but if I have to -- and I'll borrow your words -- I'll green-light myself.  Thanks, Brooke!

Comment by Pamela Olson on March 19, 2014 at 9:29pm

Self-publishing was the best thing I ever did. After two years of incredibly hard work touring and speaking and publicizing my first book, I ended up with a new agent and a traditional publishing deal. I took the deal in large part because I wanted my book to be in libraries and brick-and-mortar stores where it would more discoverable (my main goal for the book is not to make money, but to let as many people read it as possible), and so that it would be used in more college classrooms (though the self-published version was also used in college classrooms).

I'm working on two more books now, and I'm on the fence about even trying for a traditional publisher for them. The freedom of publishing yourself is absolutely wonderful (creative control is like oxygen), and the royalties can't even be compared. Plus I hate that most publishers price their ebooks at $9.99. I almost never spend that much for an electronic file, and I don't expect my readers to! $2.99 is much more reasonable, in my opinion. And if you self-publish, you get $2 out of the $2.99. If you traditionally publish, you get about $1 out of the $9.99. Kind of a bum deal. Not to mention, even if you are traditionally published, you are still very likely to be expected to do the vast majority of the publicity yourself!

It is indeed a wonderful time to be a writer. For the first time in history, we have incredible opportunities to reach worldwide audiences right at our very own fingertips.

Comment by Brooke Warner on March 19, 2014 at 3:52pm

Yes, Karen!!!

Comment by Brooke Warner on March 19, 2014 at 3:52pm

Sheila, it's cool that now that you've been through this process that you can help and inform others. I love that.

Comment by Sheila K. Collins on March 19, 2014 at 1:13pm

Thanks Brooke for your golden rules. I'm just back from lunch with a lovely women who's written her first book, though it's her fourth career and she had lots of questions to ask me. But what I noticed is that she, and most people don't know the right questions to ask. Even once you chose to be bank role your own book, there are many pitfalls people don't know enough to look out for. I hope I helped her with at least some questions to ask.

Comment by Karen Szklany Gault on March 19, 2014 at 11:07am

Thank you, Brooke, for this encouraging blog. Right now I have had to stop working on a MS because I need to work lots of hours at a job that will pay bills in a more immediate fashion, around home-schooling....but it is a MS I am committed to, so when the season ends for my "seasonal" job, I'll be right back to the MS. ~:0)

Comment by Brooke Warner on March 19, 2014 at 9:52am

So awesome, Kristin. Thanks for sharing your personal story with us! I'm going to check out that article. I love the title. Good for you. It's so nice when something lands at just the right time and in just the right way to open up a new way of thinking about something. Very cool.


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