Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why I need Publishers to Approve my Work

I’d recently commented on Michelle D. Argyle’s blog, on a post about whether publishing is the end all (or something like that). I mentioned that publishing is a must for me because I need the publisher to validate my work. Michelle had made a post about validation some time back, I think, and in her answer to me she also mentioned the same viewpoint. She says that it is not a good idea to rely on publishers (and agents) for ALL your validation. Because they are financially orientated and might have other goals than to publish great fiction(namely, to publish SELLABLE fiction). Either way, I decided to expand my comment into this post and explain why I think SOME writers need to get a publisher’s approval.

I don’t trust my own judgement.
I am a very subjective person (as most humans are). When I was younger, I used to draw a lot. When I was happy with it, I would proudly show it to everyone in my family. If I go back now, I can see that whatever I drew was pretty much trash. To put it mildly, I sucked at drawing. But my younger self thought it was brilliant. Maybe this is being over analytical, but I don’t trust my own opinion about something I made. I don’t want to look back after five years and see that this piece of fiction I thought was amazing actually sucks. Therefore, I rely on the opinion of a completely objective source (they have to make money, therefore they will not spare my feelings).

I don’t trust my own judgement (part 2)
To further my story, when I drew these things, I used to show it to my brother and ask him what he thought. He always replied with the same general answer. “It’s good.” At first, I was ecstatic, to receive such kind words from him. But later on, I started to suspect that he was simply sparing my feelings. I tested this by drawing something VERY badly, then showing it to him. “It’s good,” he said. This conditioned me to believe that he was not giving honest feedback. Somewhere in there, I started to create the mentality that everything I did was bad. I would go to him and probe and probe him, trying to get him to tell me what was wrong with it. I don’t think he ever did.
Anyway, the point is, I have a natural tendency to assume my work sucks. I have no way of knowing if any beta readers are telling the truth. But, I can’t rely on my own judgements (that it’s bad) either, for they may be biased. Therefore, a publisher again provides objective feedback.

My goal and the publisher’s goal is pretty much the same
The publisher wants to make as much money as possible. I want as many people as possible to read my books. In the end, our goals are the same. Thus, if a publisher rejects my book, the chances are that the book wouldn’t have sold much. Therefore, I can judge how well my book fits my goal by how much the book fits the publisher’s goal. The publisher knows better than me. I can say this because I know nothing about public demand, marketing or any other publishing related information. They have done this for who knows how long, so why should I doubt them?

That’s the main reasons why I believe I need a publisher’s approval. However, there are other factors to take into account. Sometimes publishers make bad decisions. Sometimes publishers reject masterpieces (Dune was rejected with a letter "I might be making the mistake of the decade, but..."). Also, it is impossible to know how the public will respond (as with Harry Potter that sold far more than expected).

In conclusion, I still think that a publisher’s validation will always be an important part of the writing process for me, but perhaps I should start finding a way to validate my own work. I can’t rely on publishers alone to tell me if what I wrote is acceptable. Sometimes, you have to judge your own worth, subjective or not.

Is a publisher’s validation important to you as a writer? Or are they simply a tool to get your book out there?

Edit: After the discussion in the comments, I've come to a different conclusion.  See this, here.


  1. You have to remember publishers put out thousands of books a year and very few make any money. Very, very few. If they just randomly chose some books and put them out there they'd probably have the same success rate. They aren't particularly good drivers, they just have the keys to the car. Or they used to.

    Moody Writing

  2. Even so (though I cannot think that they would have the same success ratio by picking books at random), they do filter out the really bad ones. They have some idea of what sells and what doesn't. Following your car metaphor, publishers would be learner drivers. They might not be perfect at driving, but they sure drive better than a toddler.

  3. Sure, but they shouldn't be learner drivers they should be racing drivers. All they do is this, and they're terrible at it. But there's is the only car in the race, so they always win.

    if they picked books at random and then marketed them as hard as they do now I think they would have about the same success. They would push authors who do well, and if they stopped doing well they would drop them, as they do now.

    There would be an occasional smash hit they would trumpet about, but they wouldn't be able to tell you which of their books is going to be the smash hit. They have no idea.

    The only guarantee is if you market it loads, then you will sell loads and it's more about the balance of expenditure vs profit.

    Even if you get picked up by a publishing company it's no guarantee of anything. Remember, you only see the successes, you don't see all the ones that weren't given any marketing budget or left by the side of the road.


  4. Haha, only car in the race, indeed.

    If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting that I can write a book of random words and market it hard, and then have the same chance of success as I would have if I had spent years crafting a perfect story. I know that having a great story does not necessarily guarantee you a lot of sales, but surely a good novel would sell more than a bad novel?

    What I'm saying is that no matter how bad publishers are at what they do, they have experience and knowledge that I do not have. They know what elements are needed in a story to increase the probability of it selling. The market is unpredictable, but I think you can influence it by giving the market what it has shown to want. It might change, but they keep track of that, I'd think.

    If a publisher could have the same success with randomly selected books, why do they go through all the trouble of selecting those they want? They could save a lot of money by removing the need for slush readers (and time for the editors as well) and replacing them with a randomizer program.

  5. No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying if you had a bunch of books written in decent English that told a story, choosing which of those books the public would go for and which they wouldn't based on your many years of experience as a publisher is no more successful than choosing randomly. Because, as William Goldman said about the movie industry, nobody knows anything.

    I'm not talking about the difference between gibberish and professionally edited books, I'm talking about the difference between reasonably written books (which are the only type publishers will consider, they don't 'teach' you how to write).

    As for why bother then, well they believe they are different from the average. It's a matter of ego more than anything. Consider, they've shown that choosing shares at random or using professional stockbrokers comes out at about the same. Do you think stockbrokers are going to admit to that? (article here).

    I'm not saying the publishing houses can't help you if they put their muscle behind you. But I would suggest they are not the arbiters of quality you seem to think they are.


  6. Ah. I understand better now, but I still can't say that I agree with you. Publishers have the knowledge and the experience to tell you whether you have written a reasonably good book or a bad one. They can tell you (not that they often will) that your story does not have enough of a hook, or that your conflict in the second half of the story is too feeble.

    As for the stockbroker thing (which I find hilarious, by the way), it is an interesting experiment. But still, in the economic market, as with the publishing market, there are indicators. Perhaps they don't read them perfectly, perhaps something goes wrong every now and then, but in the end, the publishers can know of these indicators which increase the odds, while I do not.

    I cannot believe that every publisher is so vain that they think they have the knowledge to make more money, but they don't. (The stock brokers will not admit their fault because then they make no money, whereas our hypothetical publisher would in effect make more money. Versus pride, it might be a tough call, but it is a no-brainer in the stock brokers' case.)

    I'm saying that a publishing house will not put their muscle behind a weak story, but they will put their muscle behind a strong one that they believe will sell. And I trust their analysis of that possibility better than mine because they have to have some way of measuring sell-ability that worked somewhat in the past in order to make money.

  7. I agree with you in general, but the problem is if you are good enough a writer for them to take you on chances are you don't need them to tell you. If you aren't good enough yet, they'll tell you (or ignore you) but they won't help you get any better. And any advice you get indirectly (from articles or professionals etc) will be exactly what the next big author DOESN'T do.

    They'll say you have to do this and that, and you look at their new signing and they don't do any of it.

    They send very mixed signals so it's hard to follow their lead (because they aren't going anywhere).

    So, sure, if your story is really good, they will say yes, it's very good. If you're at any other level in your writing, they won't really be able to help.

    You might consider the music industry too. They're experts in their field so they know what sells, right? It's what people want to hear, right? The stuff in the charts and on MTV, that's exactly what you and your friends like to listen to, right?

  8. Haha, point taken.

    You mention that if you're a good enough writer then you don't need them to tell you. I wouldn't be able to tell you if I'm a bad writer, a mediocre writer or a great writer. I have no idea and I rely on the publishing industry to tell me when I have reached 'great'. Because I don't think I would know when I got there. For me, they act as a buffer that prevents me from sending bad writing into the world.

    Let's put it this way. I don't want to publish anything that isn't really good. Thus, the publishing industry's acceptance levels fit me well. If I'm at any other level than really good, they will let me know, per se.

  9. Yes, but they will only let you know if you're really good. Not if you're quite good, not if you have potential, not if you've got no chance, not if you're headed in the right direction.

    So, if you don't know if their rejection is based on you being nowhere near good enough, or just not quite there yet, how will you proceed? Give up? Keep going?

  10. Hm. Well, in my case, I would keep going. I don't need publishers to tell me what to do, I just need them to tell me if I'm not ready.

  11. That's good, you need that sort of perseverence. But how do you tell if you're getting any better or wasting your time? The letter from the publisher only says 'No thanks' (or words to that effect).

  12. Technically, nothing I write would be a waste of time, but I understand your point. At that stage, if I get too many "No thank you"s, I'll know that I need to get better and get that information elsewhere. It's not a publisher's job to tell me what I'm doing wrong. (Though some will give you an "almost there" response. As in a "revise and send again".)

  13. My point is, you need to develop a sense of your own writing (or whatever art you're into) based on what you are trying to achieve, rather than hoping eventually something will spontaneously evolve.

    It's not for the publisher to decide you can join the club, you have to find a way to gauge you're own development. And you can, although it can sometimes be a painful learning process.

    The publisher can only tell you if they think they want to represnt your book in the market place. They can't tell you if people will want to read you, because they don't know.

  14. I just left a comment on another person's blog about validation, and said something along the lines of validating myself through tracking my own improvement. I think that's a key thing. I really hope you can find some peace with this. It's certainly something you have to decide. I just hope you don't rely too heavily on outside validation because I have seen that fail for one too many people, and it saddens me. :(

  15. Also, I left a comment here earlier that doesn't seem to be showing up. Do you want me to re-post it?

  16. Why is Blogger eating people's comments? I get an email saying that there was a comment, but nothing appears on the blog itself.

    Michelle, please see if it shows up if you try to post it again.

    JS Chancellor, if you want, you can try and post the comment again, but know that I've already read it.

    Admin aside, I think I'm starting to get a better understanding of what everyone means by personal validation. Just know (Specifically Chancellor) that money is not the point here. I simply want lots of people to read it. Mostly, money comes as a part of that, but if one person bought my book and simply lent it to a million other people, I'd still be happy with that.

    This seems like an important concept to grasp, so I appreciate all your comments. Tomorrow, I'll make a new post of the conclusions I've reached through your comments as well as some clarification as to what I meant. Please come by and comment again. I would like to hear from you.

  17. OK, Blogger is stupid. Let's try this again...

    Mooderino is right in this last comment about you needing to develop a sense of your own writing based on what you are trying to achieve.

    Do you honestly think a Big 6 publisher would publish some of the experimental classics now if they had never been written and published before? Hell no. That doesn't mean they aren't some of the most amazing things ever written - it means they are basing things on what sells NOW, or what they think will sell now. Once in awhile I'll see some truly amazing stuff out there (usually published by small presses) that has the potential to last more than 50 years in the market.

    If your aim is to write what's good based on what publishers say is good, by all means rely on them to tell you if you're doing well or not. Good luck with that.

    If your aim is to write and actually grow and learn something inside your heart about yourself and you can read and read and read and decide for yourself whether or not your work measures up to what YOU admire (NOT THE PUBLISHERS), then you're getting somewhere. Have some faith in yourself!

    Writers who get published aren't necessarily better than ANY other unpublished writers out there. They just work harder. Period.

    You say: In conclusion, I still think that a publisher’s validation will always be an important part of the writing process for me, but perhaps I should start finding a way to validate my own work. I can’t rely on publishers alone to tell me if what I wrote is acceptable. Sometimes, you have to judge your own worth, subjective or not.

    I think that's a start for you there, and that makes me smile. You do need to find a way to validate your own work. In the end it's the only thing that will keep you writing, I promise. Getting published has validated me on some levels, yes, and I do appreciate it, but in the end it is NOT why I write, and it is certainly not why I keep writing books, and it is certainly not why I think I'm a good writer.