This blog was featured on 07/21/2016
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.

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

  • Darlene Deluca

    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!

  • @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.

  • Brenda McClain

    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!

  • Pamela Olson

    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.

  • Yes, Karen!!!

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

  • Sheila K. Collins

    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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • Brooke,

    This is a great piece, and one that really resonates with me as I almost let my first book just die in a drawer.  After pitching it to 7 major publishing houses who passed, my agent said, "If they won't publish it, no one will.  So write another book and get back to me."  I was extremely discouraged, but then a friend and my Mother, who don't know each other, both sent me a link to an article called "Don't Take No from Someone Who May not Even be Qualified to give you Yes."  It changed my life!  I used Createspace to launch my book about five months later, and although the learning curve as a newbie author without a big house behind me has been huge, my book has done beautifully well, and was even selected as one of the best Indie Reads of 2013.  I am so grateful that I recovered from this idea that I needed permission to make my dream come true.  Its an amazing time to be a writer!


  • Patricia, yes. the unfortunate truth is that editors are overwhelmed, and if there's no one pressuring, there's no huge fire under them to say yes or no. But I feel that an editor should be excited about a project and that a few months is really more than enough time for them to be sitting on something. I acquired for 8 years and this is still my philosophy on this topic. Not cutting the editors any slack.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Jennifer, what I've been told is that one of the best ways to market one book is another  book.

  • Patricia Robertson

    I appreciate your golden rules. I have waited well over 6 months many times on editors. It used to be if they were going to reject you, you get a quick response. If they kept manuscript for at least six months it meant it was being considered so I often waited a year or more. I'm waiting on some manuscripts now that have been at publishers for nine months. Thinking  it might be time to pull them.

  • Kaye Linden

    For me, the beauty of writing is in the passion and the process of my writing.  After that, I share it with the world.  If they enjoy the writing and learn from it that's great.  If not, I'm ok with that too.  Either traditional or self published is fine.  Let's take our power back as writers and do what we want to do, not what we think we are expected to do.  Kaye Linden

  • Hi Jennifer—keep us posted and good luck with what you're working on here. I think the most important thing is to remember that it's a marathon. There are so many ways to work on platform—and the work is to pursue all leads. I think reviews DO drive book sales, but the problem is that you have to start that process early, some three to four months pre-publication. A lot of authors learn this the hard way, and so they do it differently (better) the next time around.

  • Thanks for another post filled with hard truths about the publishing industry, Brooke. Zane, Omar Tyree, Michael Baisden, Maria Murnane and other authors have successfully translated their self-published titles into thriving, profitable mainstream prominence, but the details of their journeys reinforce everything you've shared. Reminding myself that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance got a 100+ rejections encourages me to keep chugging along until my preparation meets my opportunity.

  • Christine Keleny

    My thoughts exactly, Brooke!

  • Jennifer Boire

    I don't know whether to be terribly discouraged or encouraged by your informaton Brooke. I have self-published a non-fiction book, done the local publicity myself and gotten TV and Radio interviews, newspaper review/article, and though it's not national, I thought it was a good start. But even with a great website, and facebook pages, and connected blog, I can't drive traffic by myself to my site. So recently I hired a Book Marketing service to do a book blog tour. It was only last week, so it's too soon to say what may come of that, but so far, only a blip in book sales, and 150 or so more Facebook likes. My secret thought was that magazine review or article would get me more exposure but I'm not sure how to even send in a manuscript or query pitch. Getting a piece of the book published as an article might be a way to go? What do you suggest to your clients?