Lessons from the Publishing Underbelly by Deb Jenny

If you would like a glimpse into what publishing teaches many writers, click here. I probably don’t need to write anything more, because that about sums it up. But just for fun, here goes…

Publishing has taught me:
to be determined
to be goal-oriented
to be determined
that while I’d be a lousy at selling cogs or widgets because I don’t have any connection with them, I definitely have a latent salesman (hopefully not Willie Loman!) gene in me when it comes to something I do believe in, such as my writing
to be determined
how not to let my spirit be crushed
to be determined

And to be completely fair, publishing has also taught me:
to force myself to be a better writer
to be determined
to reach deep within myself and pull out what I didn’t know was in there, in order to be a better writer
to be determined
to believe in myself
to be determined

Growing up as the lone girl amongst three brothers, I faced plenty of adversity. And I dealt with it by digging in my heels, setting my mind on my goal, and being certain I wasn’t going to let anyone get in my way. I didn’t know what a gift this would be for my future career as a writer. Who’d have known that same stubborn streak that enabled me to hold out for that last remaining serving of Count Chocula would also keep me from succumbing to discouragement as a professional writer and calling it quits. Because the vagaries of the publishing industry are legendary; many an author has been chewed up and thwacked out like a fat wad of tobacco along that potholed highway to publication.

Publishing has also taught me patience. In spades. I remember one time on Dateline NBC, or maybe it was Prime Time, they showed a compelling psychological experiment in which a group of children were tested to see if they could delay gratification. Before each child were placed ten M&Ms . The kids were told if they could refrain from eating the candy for ten minutes, they would be rewarded with an additional ten M&Ms. It was amusing to watch as some children instantly inhaled the candy while others wrestled with the dilemma before caving in to their desires, and others still sat patiently till the timer went off, ultimately enjoying their added bounty, not showing the least sign of having felt deprived. Let me tell you right off–I would be have been in that first greedy group. Patience is a camp in which I seldom pitch my tent.

But in publishing, if you don’t have patience you will go mad with waiting. Nothing comes suddenly. The writing process, the revision process, the agent-solicitation process, the editorial-submission process, back again to revisions, more editing, copy edits, copy editing the copy edits, and then waiting forever for the book to come out. All at a pace several notches slower than that of a dying one-armed no-legged man dragging himself toward an oasis in the desert. I won’t even get into the payment aspect of things–but rest assured that it’s a long, long, long time between when a contract is signed and a royalty payment arrives.

Some other things you might not know about publishing. Unlike with a more remunerative profession–say, trading on Wall Street, where you’re pretty much deciding whether to buy or sell–writers need to refine skills we never knew we had. Such as divining tea leaves. I cannot tell you how many times I have sat at my computer trying to interpret a rejection (or the more optimistic “positive rejection”). Or helping a writer friend interpret a rejection.

“Okay, by ‘no’, did she mean ‘no’? Or would she take another look at it after I revised it?”
“And what exactly does it mean, ‘You have a fabulous voice, but the book doesn’t feel ready yet’?”
“Hmmm…by ‘unsympathetic protagonist’, does she mean the protagonist is beyond redemption? Or does this particular editor not like smart aleck characters?”
“Well, when they say try back in a couple of weeks and you’ve tried back every couple of weeks for eight months, does that mean it’s time to stop trying back?”
“If everyone else is writing about vampires/werewolves/red-headed-stepchildren/teen angst/memoirs/the color of the sky, then maybe I should stop writing what I’m comfortable writing and write about six-headed nymphomaniac-slasher-stalkers…”

The funny thing about this business is that it can be very hormonal. PMS has nothing on the world of a writer navigating the murky waters of publishing. A professional writer is given to extreme highs and lows–it’s the nature of the beast. On a given day a writer can get a hugely insulting rejection (“you’re not cut out to be a writer”) and flattering affirmation (“Your book changed my life, I can’t thank you enough for putting into words what I feel.”) Because of this erratic temperament, there are some days in which I feel like a squirrel in the middle of the road. Headed one way, then back, then back again, and oh, damn, what am I to do? And I guess there are some days I feel like that poor squirrel who ends up flattened along the double-yellow line. Crushed by the inability to move in one direction successfully. But then I have those times when I’ve socked away enough acorns for the winter and I get to be fat and happy, content in the knowledge that I did everything I could, and the rest is up to the fates. Those days make up for all of the roadkill days.

In one of the writing groups to which I belong, we remind ourselves frequently: T-P-T. Talent-Persistence-Timing. It all plays into it. With a lot of hard work, and a lot of good fortune, eventually things will happen. As for the talent part? That comes along with the hard work. And sure, there are those who can’t write very well, for whom a book deal somehow miraculously falls into their lap, but for the most part there are a hell of a lot of terrific writers all competing for that holy grail, and those who give up might even be some of the most gifted, but if they don’t have it in them to tough it out, no one will ever find out. So maybe it’s not so much hormonal as Darwinian. In that case, pass the Peanut M&Ms. Looks like we’ll be needing them in the meantime.

15 Replies to “Lessons from the Publishing Underbelly by Deb Jenny”

  1. The Youtube clip is hysterical!

    And what an excellent post. I love the image of the squirrel on the road and T-P-T may become my mantra.

    And as for determination, yep, that’s the biggest part, isn’t it? When I started writing Falling Under a whole bunch of it came out in second person and I liked it, but then I started asking around: “Does anyone write in second person?” I got very definitive answers! (NO–no one writes in second person, only hacks write in second person, maybe you need to take a writing class so someone can set you straight, etc) I kept going. And through the agent hunt and subsequent submission process, through all the editing, NO ONE has suggested I change those sections and they have actually needed the least editing. I guess that’s a combo of determination and staying true to one’s vision–both things you’re talking about here.

    Sorry to go on so long…off to drink some coffee!

  2. Thanks D!
    That’s so interesting about the 2nd person. A couple of years ago at the Va Festival of the Book there was a literary author there who wrote her entire book in 2nd person–I’ll have to prod my cloudy memory to see if I can remember the name of it. Something like Back When We Were Grown-Ups is coming to mind.
    But you’re so right–you have to know when to stick to your guns and trust your instincts.

  3. Jenny, you could have just written this about me, or any writer, I think, who isn’t blessed with huge luck. I think if nothing else, this industry either eats you up and leaves you a crying, slobbering mess, or you become stronger and MORE determined.

    Remember that song Tubthumping (“I get knocked down, I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down”)? That is my mantra and it loops through my head when I’m feeling particularly beaten down. It must work: I keep at it.

    Great post!

  4. Joanne–you, my dear, most definitely deserve it. You have busted your butt AND been kicked down again and again. But you’ve got the drive, and that counts for sooo much. You want it, you know it’s what you’re meant to be doing, and that is HUGE. Success WILL come your way!

  5. Love it! The indecisive squirrel is such a great simile. And you’re right, sometimes it definitely seems like the lucky writers start out with their dying one-armed no-legged man at the top of a steep hill!

  6. The irony of energetic indecisiveness, marathon-needed determination and seemingly endless time wasted before your writing is published is that your readers can erase most of these away in a matter of hours. Yes, it’s called a page-turner…may you each have one!

  7. I always love it when people assume since I’ve published some novels I must be as rich as Danielle Steele. The phrase “don’t quit your day job” comes to mind LOL. I always cringe when they do an article in the local paper as I hope my dentist doesn’t see it.
    Absolutely fabulous article Deb Jenny, and so right on. I always advise writers to have a side interest- one that gives them warmth and rewards and positive feedback. Because those lovely elements are not contained in the day to day life of a writer. More like hand to hand combat.
    Except of course for the most lovely fan letters ever, which are like the M & M’s of life to me. I lay them out in a line and devour them slowly- the patient way. LOL. Then you get the occasional letter outlining every grammar error in the book. :~) but those are kind of fun too. At least they took the time to write! Suz

  8. Yes, DETERMINATION, that’s the element I left out for too many years and I think it’s probably the key to getting published for most writers! GREAT post. Very thorough… thanks!

  9. The video clip was extremely funny. I needed a laugh today. Thank you for sharing this post. Every aspiring writer needs to be reminded of the importance of determination, and being dedicated to one’s craft. I’m glad I stopped by. But, I’d better hop back to my work in progress. After all, that book isn’t going to write itself. 🙂

  10. I instantly recognized myself as that person who is always trying to determine what exactly is meant by the wildly different feedback provided. I haven’t spent this much time trying to sort out what people meant since junior high school.

  11. Thanks for your comments, Jess, Larramie, Suzanne, Gail, Amy, Samara and Eileen. I’m glad that you all can appreciate the insanity that is writing! And I think Larramie is right–may we all be blessed with page-turners!

  12. Jenny, terrific thoughts on writing. When I started writing my book I had no concept of the challenges in securing an agent (done, phew!) and then the task of getting that book really ready to submit (revisions, ugh!) I am grateful for my ignorance though. I have a bag of dark M&M’s on my fridge. I can smell them from across the room. If you told me I’d get a “significant deal” if I waited until Friday to devour the bag you’d find my manuscript gathering dust under my bed on Saturday! Talent Timing Persistence and the best phrase ever. That’s a great writer’s list we’re in/on. And if the timing doesn’t work out? You still have “TP” at the end and hey, that’s worth something! 😉


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