Do You Have to Be Traditionally Published to “Make It” as a Writer?

In 2015, I was still an unpublished writer. I had been querying for years with no success. I had sent out queries on three different novels and had queried so many agents I lost count of them all. I had rewritten my first chapters, my opening scenes, my first sentences, over and over and over again. Nothing worked and I was getting nowhere.

By that point I had been querying for years, six years to be exact, and so I had created a system to give myself emotional down time and also keep from losing my damn mind. I sent out a batch of queries every six to eight weeks, received back the rejections (or gave up hope of any answer), and then gave myself “recovery time,” while I recuperated from feeling depressed, discouraged, and despairing.

I went through many cycles on the emotional rollercoaster that we call the querying process. There was the stage where I was sure that if I could just learn more about “my craft” I would get a bite. I also went through the stage where I was convinced I just wasn’t looking in the right places. Then there was the stage where I tried to shove my novels into a genre—any genre—that looked like it might hold some promise. Finally, there was my least-favorite stage—the stage where I couldn’t help but feel I just sucked, and so did my writing.

It got to the point where the querying process felt like endless rounds of self-abuse, but I didn’t know of any other way to go. I was scared to death to self-publish. I was worried readers wouldn’t take me seriously, and I didn’t know a thing about marketing or promoting myself. I didn’t want to learn either. I just wanted to find an agent. It seemed like if I could only get traditionally published, everything else would fall into place.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the feelings of torture and despair that turned me away from the path of trying to get traditionally published. It was that I had a really great idea for a book—a book that I knew would sell and that I knew could help people—and it was so good that when I thought about taking another six years to try to convince agents of the value of this book something deep within me instinctively fought back. I didn’t have six more years to waste, and I wasn’t going to spend my time trying to convince people of something I already knew they wouldn’t understand.

That was when I decided to self-publish my first book, The INFJ Writer.

After I released that book, everything changed for me. For starters, the self-publishing process was so much easier than I thought it was going to be. There was a learning curve with Amazon KDP, but it was manageable and I picked up on it faster than I expected. But what really surprised me was the way I felt. I had never released a book out into the world before, and it felt so liberating, so cathartic, and so deeply satisfying, that I knew I was hooked. I was going to do this, again and again and again. I had books inside of me (and sitting on my computer) that were straining to get out there and find readers. Now that I had overcome my own resistance to an option that had been sitting right in front of me all along, I knew there was no stopping me.

In the years since then I have self-published five books, and along the way I have learned an incredible amount about publishing in general—both self-publishing and traditional. Like most writers, back when I was in the querying process trying to get an agent, I had assumed that traditional publishing was about the art. I thought the goal of traditional publishing was to find the most promising new voices out of all the writers out there, and bring those new voices to the world. I thought that if a manuscript was of high enough quality, then it would surely be chosen by an agent.

It wasn’t until I self-published my own work, and began working as a coach with many different writers, that I got a look behind-the-scenes at traditional publishing and saw the truth.

Traditional publishing is about sales. And I say that with no emotional charge, really. It’s not a good or bad thing, it’s a thing that just is. Publishing is a business and that business is selling books. So, a book might be extremely high quality, but if it’s not something that an agent thinks they can sell, they won’t even look at it. Something they can sell means that the topic is trending, the author is already well-known, or it fits into a very specific niche that’s been pre-decided. One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of how this all works is posted on my writer friend Stephanie Churchill’s blog:

Trad Publishing Is About Sales. If We’re Lucky, Those Books Are Also Good

Once I realized what traditional agents are really looking for, I stopped feeling so depressed and discouraged. I hadn’t been rejected because I was a bad writer. I was rejected because I honestly don’t fit the requirements of what they need to make big sales. The stuff I write about is weird, hard-to-define, and definitely out-of-the-box. So, while I might still have a shot with some of the smaller, independent presses, the big agents and publishers are just most likely never going to want a piece of me, or my writing. And that’s okay.

It’s okay because I’m happy right where I’m at with self-publishing. Six years and five books later and I still love it. I wouldn’t go back in time and make another choice and I wouldn’t have it any other way now. There is no better feeling than publishing my books when I want, exactly how I want.

If you’re still on the fence about which route you should take as a writer, I highly recommend you try it.

Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ WriterThe INFJ Revolution, and the creator of Intuitive Writing, an online video course for INFJ and INFP writers who struggle with traditional writing methods. She also recently released Loving Meditations for Writers, a bundle of 10 meditations for only $20 that you can use for your regular writing practice. You can get a free copy of her book on creative marketing for writers by signing up for her newsletter HERE.

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