Fear and Publishing

by Dan Klefstad

Remember how it felt when your last manuscript was ready? I mean ready to submit, after yet another revision based on input from your most serious writer friends, plus a professional edit. I remember feeling exhausted but exhilarated too. So when a friend announced she was finished writing her book, we got together to celebrate. She was still glowing when I said “Congratulations,” and clinked my glass to hers. “Which publishers are you pitching?”

Her expression clouded briefly before perking up again. “I’ll self-publish.”

“That’s cool.” I nodded while hoping she wouldn’t give up on all her options. She was still young, in her 40s, and never mentioned any serious health problems. Couldn’t she wait six months for agents or small presses to decide? At this point I need to be clear that I consider self-publishing a valid choice provided you get a good edit, the company provides the right cover art, a nice layout, and the people there are good to work with. Having said this, finding a traditional press is also valid – again, provided they give you a good edit, cover art, etc. I wanted my friend to explore all her options before signing on the dotted line. So I asked if she had thought about traditional publishers.

“I’ve tried that. They all rejected my last book.”

I reminded her that she just described this newly finished book as her best yet. She shivered. “I’m tired of being rejected. Can we talk about something else?”

I obliged but can’t help thinking that fear drove her decision to entrust her book to a certain kind of publisher. I hope you’ll agree that of all the factors that go into such an important decision, fear shouldn’t be among them. Next time I find myself in a similar conversation I’ll be sure to point this out – and recommend a podcast episode. It’s not about writing or publishing. It’s about a freelance IT worker featured on NPR’s Invisibilia. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. Apparently she found someone who was taller than he was, and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“Of rejection,” he realized.

Comley resolved to get over his fear. He started making a game out of rejection and this is what I recommend to anyone looking for the right home for their book. Comley made a point of getting rejected at least once every day. After a while it felt good to get brushed aside because, as he put it, “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? And yet there’s no enforcement. It’s not like fear is a criminal prosecutor who can lock you up for disobeying. And if nobody will put you away for flouting fear then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s game? You write something and submit it. Pick a book publisher you admire, a journal you want to be in, or an agent to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks,” emails when they start coming in.

And remember, the publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might later. Or another publisher will take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing to remember all the times publishers got it wrong. They said no to authors who’d later be household names. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s debut, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself when he threw out the first chapters of Carrie. Fortunately his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got declined 30 times. The list goes on and on, so it’s a safe bet that any author could eventually land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to believe in yourself and keep trying.

What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger is a useful mantra when steeling yourself for the next round of potentially bad news, from reviewers. Raise your hand if you’ve received a one-star review. I feel you and I’m with you. If you copped to the even worse rating of DNF – Did Not Finish – you get extra points for owning your fear.

Good reviews are key to any marketing campaign so you’ll need at least a handful to coincide with your book launch. But it’s scary, right? Blogger or newspaper articles can make or break your book and unflattering verdicts can require weeks of damage control. Still, if you’ve ever done something embarrassing in public and recovered, you’re a veteran of these situations. Sure, PTSD symptoms may linger, but that’s what therapists are for. If you tremble while sending out a review copy, remember these books: The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tropic of Cancer, To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, and The Handmaid’s Tale. All of these were declared less-than by major publications such as the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Vanity Fair.

Yet each of these books remains part of our literary canon. If Harper Lee survived getting dinged by The Saturday Review, you can take some hits from a blogger with a few hundred followers on Twitter.

I hope this puts the fear of rejection in its proper place and gives you a clearer picture of the next steps for your manuscript. Whichever contract you opt for, traditional or self-published, your decision will be less reactive and more intentional. Your book deserves nothing less.

I look forward to reading it. And if I later admit I didn’t like your book, feel free to tell me to shove it. Then go find the people who appreciate you. And congratulations for disobeying fear.

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