There’s no “Just” in Just Self-Publish

Author’s Note: This isn’t a subtweet blog or in response to any discourse, in fact I started drafting it over a month ago, long before the current *state of affairs*. And I might deeply regret dipping my toes back into this water, but with rising difficulties in trad publishing and more and more new writers being inundated with the “Just Self-Publish” advice, I feel it’s time for me to take that on in full.

Please specifically note this blog is not intended for people who are happy self-publishing, have found great success self-publishing, or have otherwise made up their mind about self-publishing. This is for people who are exploring multiple possibilities, are feeling like “just self-publish” might be the answer to querying challenges, or are otherwise interested in different perspectives regarding self-publishing. It is not intended to be an attack on self-publishing as a method of publishing or to pit self-publishing against traditional publishing. They are both legitimate paths forward with different pros and cons. This post is simply an accounting of my self-publishing journey (which was not a Cinderella story), the potential pitfalls I have noticed with the self-publishing narrative, and why it was not a good fit for me.

Content/Trigger Warnings: Alcoholism, rehab, struggles with RSD, financial difficulty, brief discussion of poverty, some brief discussion of writing community gaslighting.

My Self-Publishing Story

It would be disingenuous to talk about this topic from any lens besides my own. As always, I caveat that I am not giving one size all fits advice for anyone. Your story, your journey, your decisions on your path are your own. What I provide here is only information regarding mine. Where and how it went wrong. Why I did what I did. What I wish I’d known. My hope is only that this information can help someone make better informed decisions than the ones I made.

The Decision

In January of 2016, I went to rehab when my struggle with alcoholism nearly took my life. During the early days of my recovery, after not setting eyes on a book for about six years, I’d started to read again, then write. Soon, I finished a book. A book that, for the first time in over a decade, I felt ready to try to publish.

I assumed I’d query this book. That’s what I’d done many years before. What I’d been instructed to do during my creative writing courses in college. “Never pay for something in publishing” was the age old advice. But as I researched agents, query letters, synopses, I stumbled upon blogs about self-publishing. Things had changed. There was a new, legitimate option for writers that didn’t involve agents and publishing houses and years of rejection and waiting.

Control over my own story, the articles told me. No querying rejection. Immediate results. The ability to make all the decisions. And, if I followed the formulas, success. No agents taking 15%, publishers taking even more. I would get 70% of my earnings. I didn’t have to sell nearly as many books to see a return with percentages like that. And getting a return wasn’t so hard, anyway. Good cover, good editor, good mailing list, some great content, and the book would damn near sell itself. Follow the “steps” (to a neurodivergent individual, read: follow the rules), and I’d be all set.

I fell hard for this pitch. Fragile in the early days of recovery, terrified of rejection, and desperate to control my own story after so many years of… not doing that, it seemed perfect. Plus, there were rules. I was great at following rules. I’d been doing that my entire life. Don’t speak. Don’t cry. Tiptoe. Be quiet. Keep your elbows off the table. Chew with your mouth shut. Get only As. 4.0 GPA. Join the proper academic teams. Get a 1450 or higher SAT score. Go to work. Mind your manners. Your voice. Your tone. Not too loud. Or too soft. Don’t mumble. Or stutter. Don’t squirm. Hold your shoulders just so. Maintain your weight. Keep your eyes down. Not like that. Go to the right college. Get the job I tell you. Admit you have a problem. Don’t do drugs. Actually, do the drugs we tell you. Don’t drink. A power greater than you can fix you. That power might just be rules. Follow them at all costs.

Oh yes. Rules I could do.

The decision to self-publish came pretty quickly from there. No querying. All the control. Plus rules to lead me to success. Great.

The Flaw

At the time, there wasn’t much information available about self-publishing failures. Or at least it wasn’t popping up when I searched for self-publishing. Was I explicitly looking for it? Not really. But I wouldn’t say I did zero research, either. I read blogs and articles, followed indie authors on Twitter and signed up for their newsletters, read everything the big self-publishing names were putting out there and none of these folks were saying you’re more likely to fail* at self-publishing than succeed.

*Okay, before anyone jumps at me, let me go ahead and define what I see as “failure.” This is purely economic for me. I see a failure as not making back what you put in (at the very least). If your goal is to simply put a book into the world, and you don’t care about the economic reality of it, you can absolutely succeed and lose money. And if you go into it with your eyes wide about that and have money to burn, I wish you so much success! What I hate seeing is people who, like me, thought they would see a return on their investment instead lose huge amounts of money without realizing this is the more common story than the one of financial success (much like traditional publishing, truth be told but in traditional publishing the author isn’t out the money personally). However, despite my personal definition of failure, it’s also true that a vast majority of self-published authors will never sell more than 100 copies of their book (when I self-published this statistic was 90%. I don’t know what the current number is, however I expect it’s still high, so this is another thing to consider if you’re looking for readership if not economic success).

Certainly, I could have looked harder for information related to self-publishing “failures.” But the overwhelming mass of information out there was so positive it seemed almost impossible to go wrong if you stuck to the self-publishing script: Good book, good editor, good cover design, good website, good marketing plan, good mailing list, ARCs, bloggers, next book on the way. Bingo, bango, you were almost ready to quit your day job.

Spoiler: I was not on my way to quitting my day job. Nor was I alone, though I would spend the next many years feeling very alone and being persecuted for trying to speak this truth.

Black and white image of a neon sign reading "The Journey Is On" 
Source: Unsplash
Buckle up, y’all, we are about to get all kinds of statistical. And transparent. And as per usual, long as fuck. Like really please go get a coffee or bookmark this or find a comfy reading place. I do not know how to write less than a million word blogs I’m sorry.

Book One, Creation and Cost

The Wheel Mages

In November, 2016, I published my first book, The Wheel Mages. But before publication there was development. For this book, I had an alpha reader followed by four beta readers. After five rounds of editing amongst betas, I sent it for professional developmental edits. It went through two rounds of developmental work with an editor (a RevPit Editor actually in case anyone wants to know the credentials). First round developmental edit cost: $700. Second round developmental cost: $250. Total developmental edits: $950. Then, it was professionally line and copyedited. Cost: $1725. My developmental editor helped me create the tagline, back cover material, and written promotional information for online retailers as well. Cost: $150. I had a professional graphic designer create the cover and some graphics for marketing. Cost: $175.

For the first book, I beat my head against a wall repeatedly doing the formatting for the print copy myself. I used Vellum for eBook formatting, which I believe the subscription was somewhere around $100 for unlimited use at that time but don’t quote me (it’s $200 now for ebooks only, and they have a new version that does print and ebook formatting for $250). I launched a website (Cost: $99 a year for WordPress and $19 a year for the domain), Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in advance of the release and pushed for preorders of the book. I signed up for Goodreads as a Goodreads author. I bought ISBNs from Bowker, 10 of them which at the time I believe cost about $200 (the more you buy the less they cost per ISBN, but you can only buy in increasingly large multiples). I tried to do a pre-sale campaign (which failed, miserably, but I wasn’t horribly deterred, it was my first book, I had things to learn, naturally).

In addition to those fixed costs I can reasonably track, I also spent hundreds on Facebook ads, Instagram ads, buying personal copies to hand sell from CreateSpace (and waaaaaaay more to give away to book bloggers, bookstagrammers, etc. all in the hopes someone would review and promote). I paid I don’t know how much in shipping to places as far as Indonesia. I did giveaways, took days off work to attend events no one showed up to, drove (and a couple times flew) hundreds of miles to hustle wherever I could, go to workshops, industry events, network, etc.

Total fixed costs: $3,418

Total Estimated Costs with Auxiliaries: ~$5,000 (or more)

*Note: I have repeatedly said on Twitter I was in a “strong” financial place and was privileged to be able to set off on this self-publishing endeavor. In preparing this blog, I was reviewing all my financials to get the exact costs because somewhere along the way I lost my spreadsheets, and while I was certainly much better off than many, I was not actually doing as well as I thought. I’m in no way discounting anything I’ve previously said about that, but do note my relative privilege from where I started (I grew up below the American poverty line for reference) tinged my view of where I was in 2016. In an effort to be completely transparent about the financial reality of this journey for me, in 2016, when I started down this path my entire life savings consisted of $5,458. By February 2017, it had dwindled to $776.78. My credit card debt went from $0 to around $5,000.

Pile of books of The Wheel Mages (black cover with white woman in white dress surrounded by water) with decorative silver and blue ornaments. One book is open on the table with a pen nearby.
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
First book I ever autographed. To my dad. The inscription reads: Dad, Remember the little girl who always said she’d be a writer? She made it. Love you always and forever, Aim. I am still super proud I was able to do this, but honestly it’s good I didn’t sell more copies because this signature would have REALLY been difficult to do in mass.

Book One, Sales

In 2016 when I published The Wheel Mages, things were a bit different in the self-publishing space, so I originally launched on Amazon Kindle, CreateSpace (for paperback), iTunes, and Smashwords which distributed to multiple other online retailors, the most notable being Barnes & Noble. In the first month (November 29, 2016 – December 29, 2016) I sold 58 copies: 27 on Kindle, 23 CreateSpace, 7 hand sold by me, 1 on iTunes. I made a total of $136.81 and €2.18. My goal had been to sell 100 copies in the first month (sweet summer child I was).

The second month (December 30, 2016 – January 29, 2017) I sold only 12 copies: 4 on Kindle, 4 on CreateSpace, 4 hand sold by me. I made a total of $33.50 and £1.85. Bonus fact about European sales and Amazon (at least from 2016): They won’t send you any money until you make more than 100 of whatever currency. I never saw any foreign currency from my years of self-publishing.

The sales declined from there. In months three and four combined I sold only 13 books. I stopped keeping track. In June 2017, I pivoted from the multi-platform model, pulled my book from iTunes and Smashwords, and relaunched on Amazon’s KDP Select Program.

Self-Publishing Side Quest: Amazon’s Murky KDP Select Program

For those unfamiliar with self-publishing, Amazon is the uncontested leader of the self-publishing world. As such, it offers its KDP Select Program for authors who opt to publish exclusively with Amazon and put their books in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (“KU”) database. For $9.99 a month, readers can access unlimited downloads of any and all of the 3 million or more books in the KU selection. These are primarily self-published works.

Because the books are offered for free to readers, authors are paid in a somewhat unconventional way. The $9.99 per month paid by each member (minus Amazon’s cut, of course) is put into a total “pool” each month, the transparency of which is murky at best (or was when I was part of the program). That pool is divided up by pages read not books downloaded. So if someone downloads your book and never reads it, tough luck. If someone downloads your book and just flips through the pages without reading a work but it’s logged, cool! You get paid! If you stuff your book with blank pages and random things that make it longer, you uh… also get paid. Amazon has made efforts to crack down on this latter practice which was getting exploited and was hurting the program because readers were unenrolling due to frustration about blank and incomplete pages.

Some positives about the program are that people can’t return your book which actually costs you money in publishing because of complicated weirdness I won’t get into right now. The program also unlocks some great promotional tools on Amazon like the ability to run free promotional campaigns. I found this to be helpful when my second book was coming out (offering the first book for free to get people to preorder the second one is a time-honored marketing technique for series’ writers. Out of 397 free copies given away I gleaned a whole FOUR EXTRA preorders! When you’re hustling though, every sale counts). Also, I actually made more money with the KDP program.

Photo of The Wheel Mages surrounded by fake white and blue flowers and blue butterflies along with a blue bookmark that says Reading is Halfway Between Living and Dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
It’s honestly weird to be posting this many pictures of these books I’ve been trying to avoid talking about for so long, but were they pretty or what?

Bottom Line: The Wheel Mages

Fortunately, despite the fact I stopped keeping track, Amazon has a dashboard! Which I can still access. Which is mildly horrifying, but see how much I love you all! I even went there of all places.

I took The Wheel Mages and its sequel The Blood Mage off the market in May 2020 for a few reasons. I wanted to focus entirely on my traditional publishing career and put the self-publishing path behind me, and I was afraid my self-publishing history was hindering my ability to get an agent (I think it wasn’t, but sometimes you need to close doors to prove to yourself the book you’re querying is just not the right book). Prior to that time, I had dabbled with the idea of maybe figuring out a way to finish the series, but I realized I had no desire to return to self-publishing and leaving an incomplete series out there for people to consume and be disappointed by its perpetual incompleteness was pretty rude. Finally, though I’m proud of the work I put into those books, and I think they taught me a lot about working with editors, and being professional, and how a book is put together, and all that goes into the business and marketing and failing at marketing, there’s a few things about the books I’d do differently now. I’m a different person, a better writer, I like to think a better human. I love those books but closing the door on them was the right thing for me.

Drawing of characters. From the left to right: Catalina, a brown woman with brown hair in a yellow dress; Felipe, a light-skinned brown man with black hair in a blue vest with a red tie; Alena, a white woman with blond hair wearing a blue dress; Nikolai, a light-skinned brown man with dark brown hair wearing a black suit with a green crevette; Genevieve, a white girl with long, curly black hair wearing a dark blue dress. 
Copyright: Emily Moberg
Plus! I got the thing every author wants, FANART! I mean basically my author goals were achieved so there was no more work here to be done.

Anyway, numbers. For The Wheel Mages from it’s launch in November, 2016 through May 2020, it sold 891 total units through Amazon, 822 on Kindle and 69 in print (not including those I sold originally through iTunes and CreateSpace and the hand selling I did at events and my family members, bless them, did). There were 13,114 pages of this book read. All of that super impressive seeming information amounts to… $253.35 in royalties.

Cost: ~ $5,000.00 (or more)

Sales: $253.35

Loss: $4,746.65 (or more)

Book One, The Emotional Cost

Two and a half years of work. Drafting. Editing. Marketing plans. Ten hour work days that turned into eighteen hours when I put my second writing job on top of it. Trips to the post office to send out ARCS to everywhere and anywhere. Reading blogs for submission information on how to get bloggers to review my books. Querying them. Hundreds of emails. To bloggers. To Bookstagrammers. To influencers. Launching a Twitter. An Instagram. A Facebook. A website. A blog. Creating content for the blog. Spending money on Instagram ads. Facebook ads. Amazon ads. Creating a newsletter and newsletter content. Learning MailChimp. Creating free content to entice people to sign up for the newsletter. Joanna Penn. All the indie authors telling me just do more, just spend more, just try harder. Just market better. Just push harder. Write more. Faster. Learn the algorithms. Do the formulas. You’ll win if you follow the rules. There wasn’t a win. There never would be. But I didn’t know that yet. I kept going.

Going to local events at libraries where not a single person showed up. Staring at empty chairs with a PowerPoint I’d spent hours on and a box of books to sign and sell while five minutes went by, ten, fifteen, thirty. The librarian awkwardly asking if I needed gas money at the least, she could really only spare $15 though. Never mentioning these things because that would be faux pas and wrong and unprofessional. Certainly never getting the benefit of going viral for them. I didn’t need it. I had formulas and orders to keep going.

Going to other events where people did show up but awkwardly shuffled past the weird girl with the fantasy book to talk to the nice lady with the memoir or the elderly gent with the WWII nonfiction. Where people asked me how long I’d queried before I got my agent and I proudly proclaimed, “None!” and they scoffed at me and chalked me up as a hack. Going weekends without rest as I traveled to local bookstores trying to hand sell to kind bookstore owners who smiled sadly and shook their heads. Soliciting librarians who said they had no idea how to shelve self-published books even when I said I had ISBNs from Bowker just like everyone else. Miles on my car. On my heart. Learning how to create this website even though I hate website development. Learning how to format a print book. Talking to designers, reading sample pages of editors, interviewing developmental editors. Going to workshops, being laughed out of industry conferences or simply refused admittance in the first place, told I wasn’t welcome in professional spaces because I wasn’t a real author. Winning awards at RWA only to be told that didn’t matter. I wasn’t a romance author. I wasn’t a fantasy author. I wasn’t a young adult author. I wasn’t an author.

And that was only book one. Because I am persistent and there were rules, I signed up for a second round!

Box of books of The Wheel Mages. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Unboxing videos just aren’t the same when you’ve bought the copies yourself. Still, I did have a real book with real author copies that arrived just like a real author. Because I was and still am a real author with my name on a real book I worked very hard to get there, thank you very much! And other self-published authors should be treated with the same respect.

Book Two, Creation and Cost

The Blood Mage

While I was running around trying to sell The Wheel Mages I was also editing the already drafted and beta read sequel, The Blood Mage. This hulking beast of a 130,000 word round two went for developmental edits in January of 2017. The first round edits cost about $900. The big takeaway: The book was too long and the entire third act needed to be cut off and put into another book. The planned trilogy had to become a quartet. The good news for me (at the time) was that meant more books to sell. Also, because editing costs are calculated by the word by most editors, the costs for the rest of that book would be less when I cut 30k off the ass end of it. It also made the book a lot stronger, obviously! And was a ton of unexpected work, but hey, so was this whole self-publishing thing.

I got back to work on editing, on marketing book one, on my day job when I could remember to think about it. During this time I was also exploring more marketing techniques, trying to get my newsletter presence established (fail), attempting to establish myself in the self-publishing community more, and learning a lot about preorders and ARCs. I had a plan for book two! I would do the things. I’d learned from book one’s mistakes. Book two would be better.

My second-round developmental edits cost about $330. Total developmental costs: $1230. Copy and line edits for this book were about $1840. My graphic design package was a bit more as well as costs increase so the cover and marketing materials were about $250. This time I decided not to beat my head repeatedly against the wall and paid for a professional formatter for the print book (which, if you can spring it and you too find this process completely fucking miserable, worth it, the product is just so much better). Cost: $150. Good news, I already paid for Vellum, the website, Bowker, all that. So no new fees there.

Bad news, marketing is still marketing. And this time I was convinced I had a Real Plan, so I put more upfront money into print ARCs and ad campaigns (although by the time I launched my second book in July 2017 I had signed up for KDP Select, so I had access to Amazon’s free promo campaigns). However, I’d also learned a lesson this time around about international shipping (sorry international peeps) and did eARCs only for international folks.

Total Fixed Costs: $3,470

Total Estimated Costs with Marketing Included: ~$4,000 (or more)

Proof copy of The Blood Mage with many pink tabs/sticky notes on the side.
Fun stats from the past: This book took 3 months to draft, 7 months of editing, 11 total drafts, cutting 30,000 words, and rewriting the ending twice before it was published. Sounds uh… like my Pitch Wars book. At least I am consistent in my chaos drafting and extreme editing I suppose.

Book Two, Sales and the Bottom Line: The Blood Mage

I launched The Blood Mage in July 2017 (approximately 7 months after the launch of the first book). Some brief notes about this: That’s slow for self-publishing. Part of the issue was the unexpected redevelopment of the entire end of the book. Part of it was trying to rework my marketing plan when I pivoted to KDP. Part of it was ignorance and poor planning. I did try to do a preorder campaign in advance on Amazon as mentioned (where I gave The Wheel Mages away for free to drive preorders of The Blood Mage but that resulted in only 4 additional preorders). My ARC campaign failed miserably. No one reviewed the book in time or in coordination. There wasn’t enough driven hype at all. Basically, everything I thought I had carefully planned was a total failure.

As a result, The Blood Mage did as many second books do, and underperformed its predecessor by a significant margin. Between its release in July 2017 and when I removed it from print in May 2020 it sold 170 total units. 145 on Kindle, 25 in print (not including author purchased copies for hand selling, ARCs, etc.). There were only 3,935 pages of this book read. In its lifetime, total royalties amounted to a stunning $151.24.

Cost: ~$4,000 (or more)

Sales: $151.24

Loss: $3,848.76 (or more)

Image of The Blood Mage book, a white girl in a white dress coming out of a river of flames. Book surrounded by red, orange, and yellow fake flowers. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
I love these covers. I do wish I had used the tagline on the front though… Hindsight, what’re you going to do?

Book Two, The Emotional Cost

I’m not sure when exactly I ran out of steam for self-publishing, but I’m pretty sure it coincided with running out money. As I mentioned, I grew up below the poverty line. When I started this journey it was because I was fresh out of rehab, seeking control over something. There was control, absolutely. None of that is a lie. Honestly, there’s maybe too much control for someone like me who prefers to focus on what I do best while letting others do what they do best, so I don’t have to worry about those other things.

What isn’t talked about quite as much is the loss of control that can and does happen much more frequently than we think: The loss of control of your finances.

After my first book didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, the self-publishing community rallied to reassure me there was plenty I could do to “fix” what I’d done “wrong” the first time around. Better mailing list. BookBub (which I could never get into). Better planned preorder campaign. KDP and free giveaways. Cutting editing costs (which, admittedly, I refused to do because I loved my editors, and the product they helped me create was one I was proud of). But the primary refrain I heard from the community was: (1) More paid advertising; and (2) More books. There were various tactics that went into this, backmatter, campaign strategies, cutting the cost of the first book in the series and heavily promoting it to get people to pay to read the others, but the overall concept came back to: More investment.

This was a business. I understood that. My day job was to work with businesses. I knew you often had to lose money for awhile before you could make money. But this business had a formula for success if I just got better at following it. I buckled down. Planned. Invested. Kept going. Cut where I could without hurting my product, invested more where I thought it would help most. Put in more time. Learned more. Invested in a business and marketing education. Hustled. Sure, it wasn’t as easy as I’d originally thought, but the best things never are. It would be fine. I was a good writer with loads of passion and persistence who was reasonably intelligent, and I had all these great formulas and information. There was nothing to worry about.

Image of The Wheel Mages next to The Blood Mage on a bookshelf surrounded by blue flowers to the left side and orange flowers to the right side. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Plus I had these badass books! If anyone is super frustrated by the fact I haven’t told you what they’re about, it’s because you can’t buy them except occasionally by third parties on Amazon for 3x more than I ever sold them for because they’re “rare first edition out of print” things now. Lmao. Anyway, you can still read the blurbs on Amazon if you’re interested.

When book two did worse, I talked about it the same way I’d talked about book one (with transparency, my constant brand). But the self-publishing community response… shifted. Besides being told to write more books faster and market them better, people started getting aggressive with their unprompted and unsolicited advice. They began attacking my choice in editors. They were too expensive. I was stupid to pay. My mailing list was bad. My free content wasn’t worth signing up. My genre was wrong. My covers were wrong. My pitch was wrong. What exactly was my marketing plan, in detail? Did I understand this was a business and marketing was the biggest part of it? Did I think I’d get a better deal in traditional publishing? Didn’t I know they’d just steal all my control (and royalties) then do nothing to market my work? I’d be right back here. And really, how dare I talk about self-publishing like it wasn’t working? Or that it was difficult? Didn’t I care about the stigmas? Didn’t I know I was pulling the community down when they were trying so hard to look legitimate? Who did I think I was, complaining about going quietly bankrupt? Questioning the legitimacy of this process when there were gatekeepers out here gatekeeping everything? I should have known better.

It became very clear very quickly that because I’d not been successful and was being open about that I wasn’t welcome. And the only one to blame for my lack of success was myself. I’d done it all wrong then tried to give self-publishing a bad name.

I could honestly write an entire blog just about this experience alone. About the sleepless nights. The tears. The questioning. The sheer panic. I was deeply in debt, my life savings drained, with an incomplete series I knew I couldn’t finish, and a community that had turned on me. There was no one to help me. As it turned out, the control I’d been promised came at a cost: Help.

Spiraling happened here. I lost track of whatever was left of my marketing plan. I threw everything at the wall. I spent money I didn’t have. I begged everyone for a shot. I said things I deeply regret to people I admire to “prove” I was part of this community that didn’t even want me.

But the truth is, I did know what it felt like to be labeled less than. To be told my books didn’t “count.” To have people laugh at me, roll their eyes, dismiss me, tell me I had no business calling myself a real author, refuse to even consider reading my book or allow me to sit on a panel of local authors because “well, you aren’t one, really.” To be denied the ability to enter competitions or be treated like a peer by my fellow traditionally published authors, to listen with rapt attention while they talked about submission processes and editing and try to contribute to the conversation with my experience with real (!) live (!) editors (!) and cover designers and formatters only to be brushed off and told “different world, not the same” when it sounded really similar in a lot of cases. To be told by these same people that they had no interest in learning about self-publishing despite my interest in their careers and their struggles and traditional publishing’s latest Twitter tea because “self-publishing isn’t really serious publishing.”

I absolutely knew what the struggle was like. But I also knew it was unfair to say because of that we should give a false sense of reality about this path. That because it’s hard to be stigmatized we should therefore act like everything is perfect and when people try to point out things that are not perfect, we’ll make sure they know they are the issue, not the falsities about the method.

I knew I couldn’t allow myself to fall victim to that. I had to be better. Even if it meant abandoning the series I’d worked so hard to develop. Even if it meant disappointing the few faithful readers I had.

I decided to get my finances back in line and turn to traditional publishing. In 2018, I began querying a totally new project. In 2020, despite being no closer to an agent and preparing to shelve my second book from querying, I removed my self-published books from print and closed the door on self-publishing forever.

German shepherd leans her head on a printed document with red edits on it. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Gabbo helping me edit The Blood Mage. Look how smol she was then!


In total I lost about $8,600 or more self-publishing. Honestly, by the end, it was most likely closer to $10,000 but who knows. Probably if I’d been a better business person I would know, exactly, to the dime. Probably there are self-publishing people out there doing well self-publishing ready to throw flames at me and shoot 87 holes in my process and plans. But that’s the thing: There is no guaranteed success method, and we have to stop promising it. Business is unpredictable and unknowable. People make mistakes. Plans fall apart. We run out of time and money and capacity. You can set yourself up for better success, but it isn’t something that can be promised. That’s why entrepreneurs so often fail and fail and fail before they succeed. And that’s okay if you’re prepared to do that both financially and emotionally. It’s not okay if you have false expectations of what you’re getting into. There is no “just” in “just self-publish.” Self-publishing is hard. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. There are stigmas attached to it that make it more challenging. It’s not something to enter into flippantly or without thought. It’s also not something to enter into without all the information including the potentially bad things.

People often ask me if I could do it again what I’d do differently. My primary, tongue-in-cheek response tends to be: I wouldn’t do it at all. But that’s because self-publishing wasn’t the path for me. Why? Well, it was a lot of work I don’t love doing myself so I had to farm out or figure out which I hated. I also didn’t like losing that much money or bearing that much personal risk. And after years of being silenced, I really didn’t like feeling like I couldn’t speak about the shitty things I was going through or the misinformation I felt I was facing.

For example, you hear a lot in self-publishing circles that “You don’t get marketing help in traditional publishing, either.” And that can be true to some extent in some situations depending on what press you end up with and a myriad of other factors. What they don’t mention is there are marketing components you do get with most traditional presses that you have to do yourself self-publishing. Cover control is not always a positive. Covers are a huge reason why people buy books. It’s not just about what you think looks good. It’s about what sells. Nice to have a professional know something about that. Taglines, same thing. Back of your book blurb. Promo material. Getting your book on NetGalley ($499 per book to be listed for a self-published author, by the way). Access to the publisher’s mailing list of influencers and book bloggers all in one fell swoop without having to independently solicit them. There is a lot besides flashy book tours, big posters at Y’all Fest, Kirkus Reviews, pallets of printed ARCS, and an endcap at Barnes & Noble.

But in all seriousness, if I was giving legitimate advice about self-publishing from my (obviously) jaded perspective it would be this: Set real expectations and budgets. Define in advance what you’re going to consider success and really evaluate if it’s feasible to meet it. Also define what you see as failure. Draw a hard line around that and be prepared to walk away no matter what. How much risk can you tolerate? How much debt? How much until it’s too much? Know that in advance and when you get there, pull the plug and exit. Do not look back. Close your ears to anyone who says otherwise or tries to push you deeper forward into your abyss. You know your own life better than anyone else. Never regret protecting yourself.

If you’re publishing a series, budget for the entire thing in advance and have it ready to go (or mostly ready to go) before you hit publish on anything. That way you can rapid release and capitalize on the power of the series. Use backmatter to link to the next book and keep readers hooked. If you’re looking for financial success, publish in a genre you can do that in – romance is a great one and probably the biggest but there are others. Write short books. Do not rely on only the experiences of the successful but also those who haven’t been so you have a centered perspective. And always take all advice (even this advice) with about 1,000 grains of salt.

And as in all business, be ready at any moment to pivot.

Final request: If you’re going to be mean to me without having read this entire thing (and yeah, I know, it’s super long) please don’t. I’m really only trying to help people not end up in debt, depressed, and potentially multiple years behind in their writing career because someone made self-publishing sound like an easy solution to traditional publishing’s problems. If you’re doing great self-publishing, this blog isn’t for you. If you’ve already made up your mind, it also isn’t for you. If you know exactly what you want and you’re not me or even remotely like me and you love all the things I hate, this blog is not for you. And that’s okay! You’re doing great work and I support it! There are many paths forward, and we’re all beautifully unique in getting to choose them. I only ask we be allowed to provide information without fear of reprisal so those people may actually choose.

Photo of The Wheel Mages lying flat with white and blue flowers around it and blue sparkly candles along with a bookmark that says reading is halfway between living and dreaming. 
Copyright: Aimee Davis
Source: Instagram @writingwaimee
Final Fun Fact of the blog because I think the universe sometimes just neatly ties things together or maybe my brain does without me knowing. But the tagline for my first self-published book The Wheel Mages is actually: There is always a choice.



Ohhhh y’all didn’t know I had a Serious Author Photo did you? Yeah, I do. Because I was a real author and had a dust jacket which needed a photo.

Reflections: One Year Post-Pitch Wars

Author’s Note: For those who are not aware, Pitch Wars was a well-known, all volunteer-run mentorship program that paired unagented authors with published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns. One mentor (or mentor pair) to one mentee. Over the course of several months, the mentor(s) and mentee pair worked together to prepare the mentee’s manuscript, query letter, and synopsis for querying. At the end of the “revision period” was the infamous agent showcase, a one-week period where the mentee could post a short pitch plus the first page (about) of their book on the Pitch Wars website for agents to review and (hopefully) request. For the entirety of the revision period and the week of the showcase, no mentee was allowed to query the work. During the showcase, no one but Pitch Wars volunteers involved with running the website could see what agents requested whose work. Limited information about requests was conveyed to the mentors, who conveyed it to their mentees. At the end of the showcase, it all went live for everyone to see. Read more here.

One year ago today, me and about 114 other of my peers were officially thrown into the query trenches. The same day, the Pitch Wars Committee announced that after 10 years of mentorship, the program would be shuttering.

I think it goes without saying that was one hell of a day.

As I’ve mentioned, the agent showcase did not go well for me. Still, I grit my teeth and buckled down. Maybe my book was not a one-line pitch type book. Didn’t make a lot of sense considering the amount of people who told me how “high-concept” it was and oh so “hooky” but you know, who knows what those things are, anyway? I would win the agents with my query.

If you’ve read my How I Got My Agent post, you’ll know I didn’t really win the agentS with my query. I did, however, win one. Well, maybe. I’m not sure it was the query that did it. I never asked. Nor do I want to know.

Truly, I never thought I would be writing a one-year reflection blog. If anything, I thought I might be writing a one-year reflection thread on Twitter about how pissed I still am about the showcase and how SO MANY querying authors think the showcase is the real loss of Pitch Wars and how fucked that is because agent exposure is not the reason to seek mentorship, mentorship is the reason seek mentorship thus mentorship is the real loss. And those feelings are all true and real and still very, very raw even one year later.

But since Pitch Wars is gone railing about the showcase seems less applicable. What is applicable is how much I learned from one year of watching 115 separate writers start one place and 365 days later be in so many different places. The following observations are things I hope will help all writers but especially those still querying.


I tried to get into Pitch Wars for 5 years. It wasn’t until 2021 I actually opened up and started engaging with the online community a bit more. Invaluable. I’ve said this before, I will say it again, some of my closest friends and CPs are the ones I met during the waiting period. The ones who didn’t get in and the ones who did. They’re the ones who will understand you best, who will get the highs and the lows, who will never accuse you of being too dramatic or too much to handle. They will be the ones who understand all the random and weird publishing things your family still can’t seem to grasp no matter how many times you’ve tried to explain it to them. And that you don’t have to explain it or yourself will ease some of the exhaustion. Of which there is so much.

Community you need to boost you, but also to check you, to be honest with you, to encourage and support you, to be there in your mopes and your hopes, to be your void to shout into when it’s not appropriate to do it on Twitter. You need them always and should start finding them as soon as you can.

Image of a rainbow bucket with yellow roses, a congrats balloon and a sweet smiles jar of cookies.
Signing day gift from some of the CPs in question. Do you know who didn’t send me a gift? Anyone else. Not family, friends, partner. No one except them. Because they get it.


Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a mentor. In fact, some might say trying to achieve one is just adding another gatekeeper in an endless stream of them. Considering the odds of being chosen by my Pitch Wars mentor were something like less than 3% and I spent five years trying to get into Pitch Wars and a couple trying to get into RevPit and at least one trying to get into AMM, I can’t entirely disagree.

They’re cool to have IF you do end up with one, though.

I was really fortunate to end up with the world’s greatest mentor. Not everyone is so lucky. There are arguments about this topic for both sides I could go on about for days, but that isn’t the point of this post.

What was really interesting about Pitch Wars was seeing all the different mentees with their mentors and how they all communicated and what worked and what didn’t and how totally different that could be. And how hard it could be to summarize on a blog, too, which is what the mentors attempted to do, and which I think many of the mentees did not read, because they cared more about getting in with ANYONE than getting in with the RIGHT someone. Sound familiar? Yeah, it happens with agents, too. A thing I will talk about in a future blog already mostly written.

So for me, I really wanted a close relationship with my mentor. I had spent a LONG time being rejected not only in publishing but in, well, life. I desperately needed someone to believe in me. Not only in my stories, but in me, as a human. I needed someone to believe I was capable of doing this. Even if it meant rolling her eyes and smiling through my dramatics while I raged that I could not, in fact, do this. Then waiting until I was finished, asking politely if I was actually finished before telling me that I could do this for the following reasons.

I also really needed someone who understood my neurodiversity and my trauma. That I process things differently. Who understood I’m not going to do Save the Cat or beat sheets and that would have to be okay. Who knew I needed some semblance of rules in the chaos that is publishing, even if the rule was there are no rules. Who would be able to be flexible where I was not. Rochelle was all these things and more. I was very lucky. Did I mention that?

But not everyone needs all this hand holding and cheerleading and ya ya. Some of my peers did very well with a much more business-like, professional relationship with their mentors that did not involve frantic 1 a.m. text messages about doom spiraling. Some fit right in the middle somewhere. Others had communication breakdowns because they could not find a meeting of the minds at all.

This is when you refer back to your community.

Cartoon image of various characters working on cell phones, tablets, digital displays, etc.

Where You Are is Not Who You Are

Let me tell you about how Pitch Wars teaches this lesson to the Not Darlings really fucking fast. This exact time last year I was essentially equal in credentials to my Pitch Wars peers. Of course some of us had heftier resumes than others. Some had won other mentorship contests. Some had been published with indie presses or in short story anthologies. Some (like me) had creative writing degrees, or MFAs. Some (not like me) had a list with 50 requests on it ready to go. But we all had shiny manuscripts polished over a period of the most intense revision months of our lives, a submission packet to make any querying author drool, and we had “2021 Pitch Wars novel/mentee” to tag onto our books (and our names). Out of thousands, we were the 115.

We thought that meant something. And maybe it’s the weirdness of this querying climate, or maybe it’s that Pitch Wars shut down the same day we entered the trenches, or maybe it did mean something but not enough for some of us. But on February 15th that starting gun fired and some of us shot forward and others of us stumbled, fell, startled, pressing our hands to our ears, shell shocked. Some of us barreled forward but quickly ran out of steam. Our paths started to diverge. Fast.

Within hours, LITERAL HOURS, calls were getting announced. From there, the deluge of distancing became frantic. Full requests poured in, some phones seemed to be ringing off the hooks. Question lists were assembled. Drama. Subtweeting. Agents with teeth. Mentees in the spotlight. We rallied for our peers because that’s what you do for your community, even when your own heart is bleeding. Even when your own inbox is empty. It was a good distraction.

Agent announcements. Talks of auctions. Editors with teeth. And still for so many of us, empty inboxes. Full requests from the showcase gone untended while the shinier mentees glowed. It was hard not to wonder what was different. Not to blame ourselves. We were all the same except… we weren’t. Not anymore.

Despair came fast, too. And in that despair sat uncomfortable feelings about our friends. Our peers. Our community. People we’d bonded with so tightly during this experience so few could relate to. Guilt. Blame. Shame. Resentment. Toward ourselves more than anything, really. Many of us started to turn away. And this is where things get a little tricky.

Because this is not uncommon in the entirety of the writing community, not just the Pitch Wars community. You will see if you hang out here enough there is this concept that there exists a hierarchy between authors. A chart is needed. Hold.

Chart: Title "Weird Publishing Hierarchy" which depicts levels. From bottom to top: Aspiring Writers; Querying Authors; Agented Authors; Contracted Authors; Published Authors. Subtext: Let's burn this chart down.
If this chart makes you uncomfortable, good. Me too. Let’s do something about it.

If you’ve been around long enough, you’ll have had the weird experience of watching your friends level up through this chart. You’ll have also likely seen some drama around people leveling up through this chart and leaving their friends behind. There is nowhere this phenomenon happens faster than in Pitch Wars. And if you’re on the inside of it, you get to watch this weird hierarchy play out in rapid fire fashion as some folks level up and others do not. Right now, at this very moment, my Pitch Wars peers are basically at all levels of this chart. The first book from my class comes out soon. Many book deals have been announced. Even more agent announcements. Still more of my classmates are querying new books, still looking for their agents. Some have veered off the traditional path all together, choosing indie presses or self-publishing. Some, like me almost, stepped back from writing all together.

But the thing I noticed while watching this all happen was that it’s not always as simple as “level up, leave behind.” There is so much more nuance behind it. I, for one, in my grief, tried to leave my core group of Pitch Wars friends… a couple of times. I felt like I was dragging them down, holding them back, being too depressing, dampening their joy. I felt like I was too lame for them with their fancy Big Five book deals and big shot agents. They, thankfully, dragged me back.

Now that I have an agent myself (weird), I also notice there’s a bit of a dynamic put on authors at perceived “higher” levels from those “beneath” that makes this all the stranger. My opinion seems to automatically matter more because I have an agent, which honestly, y’all it shouldn’t. It’s luck. You will never see me giving away a query critique because my query stats are objectively terrible. I still can’t write a synopsis. Don’t misunderstand, I learned a lot from Pitch Wars, and I continue to learn about my craft every day from writers everywhere on this pyramid. I will speak on what I believe I know enough about to speak on, but my advice is no more valuable than anyone else’s and in many cases, my un-agented CPs know just as much if not more than I do about loads of craft things.

All this long winded thing to say: We’re all writers. We all have valuable advice to bring to the table, and none of that is earned by any milestone along the way. It’s earned the way all knowledge is earned: by study. So don’t let where you are on this pyramid thing define who you are as a writer, and don’t let it change the way YOU act around other writers (you can’t change how they act around you, obviously, but one side of this can be controlled at least). If you feel your friends leaving you behind, ask yourself, truly, are they? Or are you?

TL;DR Don’t push your friends away because you think you’re not worthy of them anymore because they got a Fancy Book Deal or a high profile agent. If they’re your real friends, they are not going to give a shit. They’re still going to crack jokes with you about opening pickle jars and ask you for cat pics. Because besides all being writers, you are first and foremost all friends.

Picture of a gray and white cat sitting in front of a bowl of pickles.
Apropos of absolutely nothing, I JUST SO HAPPEN to have a picture of my cat Hope with pickles.

So, to my Pitch Wars 2021 Class, happy one year post-showcase. I am so proud of each and every one of you. And I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.



Don’t Give Up… Too Soon

I know. I just wrote a How I Got My Agent post that was all about why it’s totally okay to quit. AND IT IS. To be clear. There is no right or wrong time to quit. Or to get back in the game. Or to leave it entirely. Or to try something new. Publishing is dynamic, and you can be, too. What you should not be is knee-jerk reactionary because you read some Bad Advice on Twitter™. Of which there appears to be a lot lately.

If you are new to querying, please go read my agent sib, E’s How I Got My Agent post first. There’s some Very Good Advice™ to be had there that we really don’t talk about enough. Like how pre-pandemic querying advice should be thrown out the window and some great tips on setting limits to help your mental health through this most arduous of journeys. My personal favorite being letting someone else have control of your query inbox. Which, by the way, if you don’t have a separate email JUST for querying, I do recommend setting one of those puppies up and giving yourself a specific ringtone for it that you can also just… turn off.

This post is sort of the reaction (not knee-jerk) to E’s post, which made me realize my own How I Got My Agent novella was great for those long-time queryers who were worn to pieces but maybe wasn’t considering the message I might be giving to writers new to the trenches. Fortunately, E to the rescue to rectify my oversight!

However, this post is also the reaction (knee-jerk, a bit, yes) to some new Bad Advice™ I’ve seen making the rounds on Twitter (again). Evergreen bad advice. Everyone’s favorite.

Evergreen tree to the left with opaque light shining down. Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Luck is a real thing. It has nothing to do with you.

You could write an objectively fantastic book. It could hit all the right writerly things. It could have a great hook, a cool concept, a fantastic story arc, fast pacing, hit its beats with dynamite precision, and prose that makes the reader’s mouth pop open into a delighted little “O.” But let’s say for shits and giggles it’s a new adult portal fantasy about giant Donny Darko bunnies navigating their way through college who get sucked into a weird space/time dimension. Okay, clearly I don’t read a ton of sci-fi but DO YOU GET MY POINT? If the book is not hitting the right market at the right time, it can be the best fucking book anyone has ever read and no agent will request it because they can’t sell new adult right now, never mind portal fantasies that maybe are also sci-fi genre blending. This has NOTHING to do with you as a writer or your ideas or your book. Maybe in two years new adult will be a thing in traditional publishing. Or portal fantasy will be back. Or genre blending will be the next hot trend. But right now, that’s probably going to be a whole nope.

GIF of figure in bunny mask from Donnie Darko. Source:

I don’t consider myself a very lucky person, but I obviously have been. Here are just SOME of the ways I have gotten lucky over the past couple decades of this wild publishing journey of mine:

  • At the very last moment a spot became available at a retreat in 2017 put on by MadCap Retreats and We Love Diverse Books and when I applied, I was able to snag it. There, I was able to make some amazing connections, many of whom are still my friends, CPs, and were influential in getting me where I am today
  • I got rejected from #PitchWars and #AMM and #RevPit a million times, yes, but I also made SO MANY friends and connections along the way
  • Two of the people I met at that conference in 2017 and one of the people I met during AMM helped me do BIG EDITS to the book that would FINALLY get me into #PitchWars
  • Being a #PitchWars mentee absolutely gave me a bigger platform than other querying writers
  • The #PitchWars showcase went very poorly for me, yes, but I again, made friends and CPs and supporters – AND one friend in particular who REFERRED ME to my now-agent (Gabriella you are amazing I owe you forever!)
  • My agent passed on my first book queried but was kind enough (and liked my writing enough) to request another book which is the one that ended up being The One
I sit in front of a monitor with my Pitchwars swag during another rewrite of the book that would eventually get me my agent.

A lot of things had to come together over a long period of years for me to get to that one single yes, and much of it involved luck and opportunity and yeah, hustle. I had to recognize the luck when it was happening and seize it, for sure. But to just pretend it was all me working my ass off and no just like… happenstance would be doing a disservice to other writers who are working THEIR asses off and no magic is happening.

Which is to say, if you’re working your ass off and nothing is happening, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. You could just be having shitty luck. There’s no way to control luck, but you can keep trying. Or not. Up to you. But don’t give up because someone said you had [arbitrary number of rejections] so you must be Writing Bad. Nope. No. Wrong.

Privilege is also real. Don’t minimalize it.

Privilege comes in so many forms. Whiteness. Straightness. Able-bodied-ness. Economic privilege has huge power in publishing. Connections. Networking. Who you can rub shoulders with (or not). A lot of the same things that fall under the category of “luck” for me can also fall under privilege.

  • That retreat in 2017? It was lucky a spot opened up and that I got in. But if I hadn’t had the money to afford to go, all the luck in the world wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference
  • During the #PitchWars revision period, I was in the middle of transitioning jobs, which was actually just lucky timing, but I was economically privileged enough to be able to take a full month off between the two jobs to focus ONLY on my revisions. Many of my peers did not have this advantage
  • Do I think my whiteness and overall appearance of straight-passing/non-disabled in a profile pic helps me? I would be stupid not to

That said, the things you can’t see about me in a smiling photo on Twitter or my gushing about some kittens have hurt me. Almost destroyed me. Almost smashed this glass slipper of a dream against the cobblestone. Migraines. Broken teeth. Nerve damage in my back. Disassociation. My sexuality and coming out and what that has cost. The exposure putting my touch aversion and trauma on full display brings that I never really calculated. How talking about my recovery from addiction has ostracized me in IRL circles. So much incalculable pain to chase this thing I might never really hold to tell these stories the world might not even want.

It takes someone special to understand the unique experiences of people digging deep from these wells. That has nothing to do with you. It’s a them problem. Not a you problem. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt just as much, though. Your pain is valid and real, and I see you. But please do not let anyone drive you to quitting or changing your story or taking your identity out of it because of some un-nuanced hot take on Twitter. You are the only one who can tell your story. Finding someone to champion it, well, that’s the journey. If you want to take it.

Blue cake with a glass slipper on it with a bookmark that reads “You’re never too old for faerytales” next to a pink rose in a glass case.

Sometimes, it takes a few (dozen) books.

You can be writing good books now. Probably are! But if you love your writing and your craft, they’ll only get better. So, if you still love writing, and it isn’t taking a toll on your mental health, keep writing them! Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a one hit wonder. There’s always a chance to circle back on that other book that just wasn’t quite right for whatever reason. I know loads of people who have resurrected shelved books with their agents and gone on to sell them when the market was better for that book or their craft was better for that revision.

Also, if you need a personal example, a reminder that my agent passed on one of my books, requested another right away, and offered on it. So clearly it wasn’t “you suck as a writer” it was “this isn’t quite the right book for me right now what else you got?” And because I had been querying forever, there was in fact something else! Bonus to querying forever! So, for any new writers who are wondering, “Do agents really mean it when they say I hope you’ll consider me for your next project?” Yes! They do! A vast majority of my agented friends have agents who rejected previous projects.

Do not Self-Publish just because

Before I wrap this up, I do want to add this last part. Because hidden among some of the Bad Advice I’ve seen making the rounds on Twitter is some Good Advice. But it’s (of course) lacking some meat on its bones.

There are loads of reasons to choose to self-publish. You want the book in the world, have some money to spend (and know how much that will cost and how much you can afford), and don’t care how much money you’ll make as long as you can have something in your hands. You are a very savvy marketer who can write fast and have a great business plan and are ready to make a business of this whole self-publishing thing. You want a super expensive hobby and that’s cool if that’s all it ever is. The list goes on.

You should not self-publish because you’ve been querying for five months and have received twenty form rejections and fuck it. Self-publishing is a VERY big endeavor. It’s a whole business unto itself and you can incur tons of debt very quickly if you aren’t going in with your eyes wide open. Sadly, there are also a lot of folks who will prey off your desire to get your book into the world no matter the cost. Self-publishing should really be taken seriously and considered for a long time. Don’t allow rejections from traditional publishing to send you into debt if you’re not in a position to take it on. Instead, try some of the tips in my agent sib’s How I Got My Agent post to stave off (some) of the sads.

TL;DR I self-published two books in 2016 and 2017. I’m very proud of them, but I wish I had not done it. It cost me $10,000 that would have been better put to other uses. I made less than $1,000 on both books. This is a more common experience than the “I make six figures a month self-publishing and YOU CAN TOO*” stories you hear.

*All you have to do is buy my 7-book series on how to accomplish this and attend my $1,500 course on how to do it ‘right.’

Don’t let Bad Advice Get you Down

So all this very wordy post to say simply: Querying is hard. And shitty. It takes forever. And involves way too many things you have zero control over which is exactly why you see so many of these “Just do X” or “If you are getting X query response, then Y” posts. People are trying to help you (and probably themselves) regain some control over a process that is totally uncontrollable. I get it. I like rules too. And control. Boy, do I like control.

But I don’t like lies. And that’s what all that shit is, I’m afraid. Lies. There is no One Good Way to query. If there was, we’d all be doing it and getting our agents and taking publishing by storm. Or probably more realistically someone would be hoarding it and selling it to the highest bidders.

Either way, if you need to quit for you, absolutely do it. But don’t give up too soon. If people like E and me can tell you anything it’s that even when you think there isn’t, there’s a lot of story still left.



How to Explain Publishing to Your Fam: A Primer

Author’s Note: This post is about traditional publishing. My days of self-publishing are behind me, but that comes with a whole other dynamic and set of ins and outs to explain to people. Godspeed me, having to do this multiple times with multiple methods now.

So we all have that friend or relative (or twenty) who has no idea how the hell publishing works. My mom thinks my agent is a publicist. My dad doesn’t understand editors work for publishing houses. Everyone in the world thinks that now I have an agent, my book is soon to arrive on the shelf of their local Barnes & Noble within the week. You too have friends, family, and coworkers like this. I know you do because I have never met a writer who doesn’t. And also because publishing is a legitimately strange business, so it’s perfectly reasonable that people who are not glued to Twitter/Querytracker/Publishers Marketplace don’t understand how it works.

For you, and your struggling family, I have created a primer. Complete with visual aids if that is your jam. Let’s start with a very bare bones flow chart, then break it down, shall we?

Obviously, this is all assuming you don’t have to go back to the beginning and start over, which you might have to do… multiple times. At multiple steps in this process. But let’s make this as clean as possible and assume we live in a utopia and you have one book that goes straight through. (Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahaha)

Okay, so I know you, writer, understand all of this. But your well-meaning family doesn’t. And if I’m guessing right, no matter how many times you try to explain it to them, they still aren’t getting it. So let me break down some of these steps highlighting some of the most frequently asked questions I hear from non-writers and how I’ve navigated explaining them.


Writing books is mostly simple enough but querying really seems to confuse the shit out of people. And it’s hard to blame them. It’s confusing. Even for us. Who among us has not been tripped up by unwritten querying etiquette? Right. So here are some of my go-to favorite tips for trying to explain the whole querying thing to Uncle Donny three schnapps deep at Thanksgiving dinner:

Remember to tell them about the free bit. I don’t know about your family, but a few members of mine seem to get really hung up on the amount of unpaid labor that goes on in publishing. It could be the Steelworkers and Teamsters in them, but they seem convinced they must have it wrong about the free bits. Remind them. Often if necessary. In the simplest terms you can. In my household, I caveat almost everything with: THIS IS A FREE PART.

Compare Querying to Corporate. Query letter means nothing. But most everyone has prepared a cover letter and a resume. Many people have had to either take a skills test of some type or provide a writing sample. I have found this simple conversion to be handy in comparisons:

  • Query letter = Cover letter
  • Synopsis = Resume
  • Sample pages = writing sample

Keep it Simple. I have at this point entirely given up trying to explain to people who are not in publishing how requests work. Partial? Full? Meaningless. Pointless. Throw them out the window. Celebrate your wins with the people who get it. Is it mildly annoying that my dad STILL doesn’t understand what the difference between a full and partial is after I’ve been doing this for approximately 100 years? Yes. But not nearly as annoying as it is trying to explain it AGAIN. The people you love will be there to celebrate with you when that partial turns into a full turns into a call turns into an offer turns into a… you get the deal (ha! there’s a pun there!). Absolutely celebrate every win, but in my experience, cultivating who you celebrate the wins with can drastically improve your overall mental health and make the wins themselves much more enjoyable.


Thissssss is where we really start to lose folks. Because at this point, if you’re having a normal querying journey, you’re probably a few (or more) years in STILL DOING FREE SHIT. That is admittedly weird in most every other business. Like even in the worst (US) economy most people are not job searching for 3-5 business years. Hopefully. But that is a totally normal thing to be doing in publishing. Add to that the part about how getting a literary agent is actually just ANOTHER free step and people are just checking out on you (or perhaps checking your temperature for a fever). Some ways I’ve found that can sort of help explain some of this:

Remind them that a new book or new revision means starting over. Just because I’ve been querying for three years or five years or ten years doesn’t mean it’s the same book or the same revision. Explaining that is helpful. “I decided to pivot and am trying to pitch a new book to literary agents. That means starting over from square one but hopefully this idea will hold more traction.” See, I say pitch instead of query. Again, query does not mean anything.

Literary Agent Comparisons. Most people do not seem to understand what a literary agent does. Some useful comparisons:

  • Real estate agent – They sell books instead of houses, they don’t get paid until they sell my book (to a publisher). Don’t forget to mention a BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there are waaaaaaaaaay too many houses and not enough buyers, so they’re only going to pick the nicest, fanciest, best ones (where your book is the house).
  • Recruiter – They are trying to land me the gig with the publisher and don’t get paid until they do so. BIG KEY DIFFERENCE: Except they exist in a market where there is like 1 job, 5 recruiters, and 100,000 potential applicants, so you (the author) have to apply first to the recruiter before you can even try applying to the actual job. This is probably a more accurate comparison but if the person you’re talking to doesn’t work in white collar corporate America it might not be that helpful.

Again with the free stuff. Yeah, you’re going to need to tell people that literary agents don’t get paid until you do. Call them a middle man. Remind people that yep, I am FIVE YEARS into pitching this book and have just gotten someone to agree to try to sell it. Correct. And they don’t get paid until they do it. Yes.

The Call. Call this an interview. Plain and simple. That’s really what it is anyway. The agent’s chance to interview you, your chance to interview them.

Celebrating. When you do finally sign with an agent, you’re going to celebrate the shit out of that win (as you should). This is going to confuse people though, especially if you’ve been querying for approximately forever. Because they’re going to think you’ve sold your book. Because really, why haven’t you? It’s been like… a decade. This is your opportunity to ignore the fuck out of them. Please refer to my earlier comments about cultivating the people you celebrate with. If your family calls your agent a publicist, or people blow up your Facebook or Teams messages wanting to know when they can buy your book, laugh and move along. Now is not the time to waste energy educating or get frustrated with people’s lack of understanding. You can do that all later. Now is the time to wear your tiara and celebrate.

Submission. Godspeed. Do we need another chart? Okay, yes. If only to break this long ass post up. I swear I write short books. Long tweet threads. Long blogs. Long emails. Short books. Do with that information what you will.

Submission is like Querying 2.0. Probably at this point even the people who love you most have dead eyes. They’re starting to wander off, checking their phones for the latest updates on… literally anything except this. Might be time to just go ahead and admit defeat. But if not, you can pull out the good old rinse and repeat methodology. Basically, submission is like querying version 2.0. Except, pause for effect, there is MAYBE MONEY AT THE END.

Three piles of coins with small sprouts growing atop each one. Image by Nattanan Kanchanaprat from Pixabay


We are really only on step three, huh? Well, hopefully people have perked up because I mentioned money. We’re getting somewhere (finally). And yes, we are. Below are some optional steps to discuss about acquisitions if people have started listening again. If not, you can probably get away with simply saying acquisitions is when an acquisitions editor at a publishing house (the person with the buying power) acquires (aka buys) your book. Huzzah! BUYS! Money has arrived. I mean sort of, you know there are exceptions here but like for the basics let’s assume you’re getting some kind of advance and finally, finally, dear sweet baby Jesus, finally get paid. And so does your agent. Whoop!

Types of Sales. If you really want to get into this, you can tell people about the different types of sales traditional publishing has to offer, but I would recommend keeping it as short as possible so as not to get that dead-eyed stare coming back. Just keep letting them follow the money without getting too bogged down in the details:

  • Regular Sale – An editor read your book, liked your book, offered to buy your book. Sweet.
  • Auction – Multiple editors read your book, liked your book, and WENT TO WAR for your book. Admittedly, this is the scenario most of us are dreaming of but our families are like, “Whatever, greedy, money is money you’ve been doing this for free for 87 years are you really going to be picky?” And they are not wrong.
  • Pre-empt – Multiple editors read your book and liked your book, but one in particular really liked your book and decided to avoid the war they would make you an offer you couldn’t refuse and buy it before there could even be a war. For the publisher, this is sort of like that button on eBay where you can buy the item for the set price to avoid the risk of getting bid up at an auction, but you could also lose out on getting a lower deal. You as the author, of course, get the bird in the hand. This is also a Very Excellent outcome. Guaranteed any outcome that results in you no longer doing this for free anymore is an excellent outcome to your loved ones.

Advances. Okay, listen, we all know that advances are a lot to process. Not all publishing houses offer them, how they’re paid out is ridiculous. That publishing houses can take them back for sometimes no reason is wild. Want to explain earning out to someone not in publishing? No you don’t. Just tell them when the publishing house buys your book you get some money in advance and then some more when you fulfill other contractual obligations like turning in the final draft and the book going up for sale. Might also be worth telling them this is going to take a lot longer than they think (like all things publishing) and no, when your book sells they will not be seeing it stores near them in the next couple of weeks and/or months. Don’t we wish.

Editing (again). Time for that good old rinse and repeat situation. Just… repetition is everything in publishing. I’m going to have a chart about that here in a minute to summarize. Skip to the end if you want that because you, just like Aunt Darla, are getting glassy-eyed with this post. Yes, dad, I have to edit this book again. With someone who has the title of editor this time, though. Which is new. (Unless you’ve had your book edited professionally before you queried, which is also a thing that happens that I don’t even have the spoons myself to get into but am not knocking, to be clear).


I have a not very good title for this step because I have never found myself remotely near it (yet), but my friends have, and I’ve been in (?) around (?) traditional publishing long enough to know what goes on. So I have summed up all the fine tuning bits that make your book sparkle into a step called “Finishing.”

Line Editing. Yep. More of this. Just like… tell them it’s edited a lot. By lots of different people. Many of whom are underpaid and overworked. Remind them to support the HarperCollins Union.

Copy Editing. Rinse and repeat.

Title. No, you don’t get to choose your own title. Tell your family to get over it. No, cousin Susie, trust me, I don’t care what your friend from the office said or did or read on the internet, getting to choose my own title is NOT worth bootstrapping it on my own and self-publishing. Trust me. Oh boy, trust me.

Cover Design. Don’t get to do this, either. But someone who knows WAY more about the market and Photoshop does get to do it. It will be great. And if it isn’t, you will act like it’s great.

Formatting. The book is formatted (!) into a book looking thing (!) This is when you will finally be able to answer that annoying question every non-publishing person in your life has been asking you since you finished your first draft: How many pages is it? They probably don’t care anymore, because it’s now like… six years later, but you’ll be able to tell them.


In my flowchart I labeled this “Marketing/Sale” because there are a few steps that happen in-house before the official go live date for your book, but the most important part of this step is:

Cat wearing a hard hat presses a red button with text that reads LAUNCH.

Marketing. LOADED QUESTION. PASS. Mumble mumble marketing stuff maybe there’s a lot of gray area TikTok mumble mumble not a lead title mumble mumble eARCs bloggers mumble mumble. OKAY, BYE IRENA, THERE IS STILL MORE PROMO THAN SELF-PUBLISHING, YES. But marketing is fraught and no, I really don’t want to talk about it that would need more words than you want to read because you’re probably already sick of me, right? MOVING ALONG.

Pre-events. Yeah, kind of same as above. No one wants to hear about the debate around whether it’s pronounced A-R-C or

An ark with a bunch of animals Photoshopped (poorly) onto it.

For the record, though, it’s totally the latter.

Distribution and Sale. YES. MY BOOK IS FINALLY AVAILABLE. IT IS OFFICIALLY PUBLISHED. AND MONEY. IT IS TIME ONCE AGAIN TO TALK ABOUT MONEY! We have arrived! You can BUY my book now! And review it, and add it on Goodreads, and do all the things you’ve been waiting to do! Here are some extra points to make now that we’ve reached the finale:

  • This whole process from start to finish if everything went absolutely perfectly and not a single thing ever went wrong (LOL!) would take 2-3 years. At best. Like if you fast drafted the cleanest book you’ve ever seen and threw it into the trenches and got a million requests right out of the gate and signed with an agent immediately and the book was almost perfect and went on submission right away and editors loved it and WENT TO WAR and pushed it through as fast as possible, you could MAYBE have a book on the shelf in 2-3 years.
  • This absolutely never happens to anyone. I mean maybe like three people ever in the history of publishing. More likely it is going to be a 5+ year process.
  • You will not be paid for most of it.
  • Neither will your agent.
  • You’re not quitting your day job anytime soon sobs.
  • You’re going to do the same things over and over and over (a chart on that is coming, I promise).
  • Publishing is not a meritocracy. It’s about luck and persistence and honestly privilege since it’s overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, able-bodied, and male. No, Uncle Earl, I do not give a shit what you think you saw on Fox News about book banning or white dudes not being able to sell their books. They can. And do. They’re fine. Sit down.

Royalties. Remember what I said about trying to explain earning out? I stand by that. Just… don’t. Royalties are sort of similar. We don’t want to talk about royalties. But if you have to, keeping it simple might go something like, “If I meet contractual obligations I’ll start to earn a small percentage of every sale after a certain point. The publisher keeps most, my agent gets about 15%, I end up with an amount less than that. Nope, I do not want to debate that with you.”


If you’ve been keeping track, there’s a lot of repetition in publishing. Which you and I know and can appreciate. But sometimes seeing it laid out can help people who don’t come from inside publishing understand where and when it’s happening, so they don’t think you’re just… I don’t know, working harder instead of smarter or some other corporate jargon that cannot be applied to this business. So, as promised, here is my repetition chart!

There are a couple of bonus features in my chart, yes.

And because I know this is probably The Most Important Thing to most people’s Nephew Ryan who is surely not a 24-year-old techbro running a startup in his mom’s basement just dying for the chance to mansplain to you about how you should really quit it with this “starving artist” thing and “get a real job” I present for you the Publishing Money Flow Chart.

Don’t hate on the graph, Ryan. This is just how our business works. I didn’t make the rules. Trust me, I would have made better ones.


Did I do a good job summarizing this succinctly? Checks the wordcount. No. Did I work out some deep-seated family issues I appear to have? Yes. Also, I made some pretty charts perhaps you’ll find helpful when next you confront one of YOUR family members who “just doesn’t get it” despite your 87th explanation of querying. At the very least, I hope I made you laugh a couple times as I tried to untangle this messy business we all know and love and so fondly call “Publishing.”

Until next time! Xoxo,


How I Quit Writing Forever, then Got My Agent

Author’s Note: I revamped my old website so I could do this announcement post, and hilariously, the very last post on my blog before I shut down my website was titled “How I Didn’t Get My Agent.” Written in 2019, you can read that here. It’s been a looooong road, and this is going to be a long post, so please bear with me!

Content Warning: This post contains query stats. But don’t worry they’re probably some of the worst you’ve seen.

Sometimes, you have to quit to be found. In this story, I will not overwhelm you with toxic positivity or tell you to “Just keep going.” Because this is a story about how I was, at almost every critical point in my writing life, not the Darling or the Exception, or the Chosen One. And that got to me so much I quit. Several (dozen if you ask my friends) times. But quitting gave me the perspective to carry on which led me to the infamous single yes (really a single one in my case). So, gather round friends, it’s time for me to get On Brand, aka brutally honest.

Dramatic Kitten yells and falls back. For my #PitchWars peeps – I am the most dramatic kitten still, yes.

I sent my first query when I was 14. The manuscript was called IN THE LIGHT OF DAWN. It featured elemental magic, talking Pegacorns, and a villain clearly taken from many hours reading Magic Knight Rayearth fanfic. I wrote it during the summer between the 7th and 8th grade and never edited it. Why would you have to edit a masterpiece?

Pretty sure that first query (and full manuscript in all its messy glory) went to Tor, my dream publisher (if any editor from Tor is reading this, my books are way better now, call my agent!). I remember putting that big manila envelope in the mailbox and thinking, “Today is the first day of my destiny.” Because I was a prodigy. Obvi. When I never heard anything (bless whatever intern for not responding and shattering my fragile, pre-teen heart), I sent out other queries with sample pages. To agents this time (like I needed one, right? But I supposed I could give these fools a try)… Nothing.

I was not deterred. (Bless me.) I’d written the sequel, IN THE DARK OF NIGHT, and four other books in the same world, the names of which I do not remember but were all horrible, things like ocean depths and thorny something or other. I tried to look them up for shits and giggles but couldn’t find them, they’re probably on a floppy disk somewhere (yeah, I’m dating myself with that).

A stack of floppy disks. To the youths, they’re like old school flash drives. Predated CDs. They stored like 1.4MB of data or some nonsense. You could download one illegal song from Napster (that website that gave everyone’s computer a virus) and that was about it. Unlike Napster, this image is not illegal and was sourced freely via Pixabay.

In addition to the churning out of books, I was also winning every writing competition my teachers entered me in. Short fiction, poetry, essays, whatever it was, I was coming back with medals, and plaques, and awards. I cruised through high school feeling Destined. So when I was approached by UNC Chapel Hill to apply for the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship, a writing scholarship that would cover my full tuition, I was sure I had it.

I… did not have it. That rejection letter was the first rejection letter that broke my heart. Spoiler alert: It would not be the last. I remember lying on the floor in the kitchen, the cool stone beneath my hot cheeks, screaming. My dad called me pathetic. Maybe I was.

Maybe I was a spoiled, entitled 17-year-old who had always won everything. Who had never learned to lose. Or maybe I was a teen with C-PTSD and then-undiagnosed ADHD who had rejection sensitive dysphoria who couldn’t handle someone saying their soul wasn’t good enough. Maybe I was both. We do exist in multitudes, as they say.

I did go to UNC, ultimately. For creative writing. I competed mightily with the recipient of the Wolfe Scholarship (whether she knew it or not). I worked my way up through the ranks of a brutally competitive program where every semester you had to apply to get to the next level, and the class availability got smaller and smaller. Whittling out the weak. Teaching us, whether we knew it at the time or not, to fail.

“So much raw talent, but you’ll never make it in this program writing genre fiction.” That’s what my very first fiction professor told me. I wanted to make it with writing. It was all I’d ever wanted. So, I put away stories about goddesses of dreams falling in love with gods of night and wrote lit fic.

Girl with long brown hair lies on white bed, sleeping with a red rose in her hand and a crown of briars on her head.

I argued Chekhov and Hemingway. I dissected Faulkner and literally got in a fight with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For years, I had my work ripped apart twice a week with ruthless efficiency. I stopped crying. For better or worse, my writing would never look the same.

When I graduated college at age 21, I quit writing for the first time. For 6 years, I didn’t pen a word. I didn’t read. Instead, I drank. Until one day, rehab woke me up. And when I came home, I looked around and the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t have a single book in my apartment. Me, who had loved books all her life.

I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the Miss Peregrine series. The covers looked how I felt. Black and white. Nostalgic. Lonely. And when I had finished them, my fingers itched for a pen. So, I picked one up, and I wrote. Within nine months, I had four more books drafted.

Two of them would become my 2+ year journey in self-publishing. Another failure. I still couldn’t remember how to cry, but I remembered how to pivot. Back to traditional publishing I went. This was what I knew, and how I was trained, even if I was now writing the Big Terrible Genre Fiction. Brand new book. And the age-old query letter. My enemy.

That first book I queried was a YA fantasy, stats as follows:

  • Pitch Wars Entry 2017 (3 mentor requests, did not get in)
  • Pitch Wars Entry 2018 (0 mentor requests, did not get in)
  • Queries to agents: 51 – ALL form rejections or no response
  • Requests: 0
  • Offers: 0
  • Request rate on that book: 0%

While that book died in the trenches, I worked on another YA fantasy that for the first time featured a character with touch aversion and C-PTSD, like me. I would go on to query this book THREE times over the course of the next four years.

A vulture hides its beak in its wing against a black backdrop. IFYKYK.

Between 2019-2020 the revisions blended together and were not big enough to be a different set of queries, in my opinion, so for purposes of this post I am going to lump them together. Stats:

  • Pitch Wars Entry 2019 (1 mentor request, did not get in)
  • Pitch Wars Entry 2020 (0 mentor requests, did not get in)
  • RevPit Entry 2021 (Got cold feet and did not enter at the very last minute)
  • Queries to agents: 64 – ALL form rejections or no response
  • Requests: 0
  • Offers: 0
  • Request rate on that book for that round: 0%

The rejections for that book hit me hard. It was the first time since college I’d tried to write a character so closely related to my life experience it was impossible for me to separate the rejections of the book from rejections of me as a human. I quit writing forever again. Right in the middle of drafting this other book about a fairy godmother who hated her job. For about four (maybe six) months I didn’t write or read a word. Every book I picked up made me want to throw things. The professional jealousy was real, and it was beastly. Why did it feel like everyone was winning all. the. time? Hadn’t I suffered enough? Didn’t anyone give a shit about what was fair? Spoiler alert: Most people don’t care, no, but also, if you too are obsessed with the concept of fairness you might be neurodiverse (just saying, I wish I had looked into this sooner).

I’m not sure why I started writing again. I just… did. And then in four days, POOF, I had a finished book looking thing. It was adult, which was new. And missing a WHOLE bunch of words (which would turn out to be a POV), and was a mess, but it was done.

GIF of the Fairy Godmother from Disney’s Cinderella waving her wand.

That book would get me my agent, but not linearly. Because naturally. That book, ALL HER WISHES, an adult fairytale retelling, would also FINALLY get me into #PitchWars. Mentorship stats below:

  • AMM Entry 2021 (1 mentor request, did not get in)
  • Pitch Wars Entry 2021 (2 mentor requests, AND I GOT IN!)
  • PW showcase requests: 2*
    • *This was one of the lowest request rates of all the Pitch Wars mentees

After the showcase, I was a mess. Five years trying to get in, draft 11 of the book, 19,000 words cut to make room for 16,000 new ones. An ending rewritten THREE times, months of work and for… nothing. I’ve tweeted a lot about the post-PW angst, and I’m sure I will blog about it in the future, but it was brutal.

Mood board containing various pictures of me and text advice from my Pitch Wars journey. Including my fave: You don’t need Pitch Wars to survive publishing, but you will need friends – still appropriate, btw.

I queried because I felt like I had to, but I went in with a spirit so thoroughly broken I could barely see straight. Reminder that we’re a couple decades in at this point, if you’ll remember from 100 paragraphs ago. I have written like 14, 15, 16 books at this point, I can’t even keep track. It’s shit for me.

Like honestly, the whole thing is shit. If you’re in the trenches after a lot of years, and you’re feeling like it’s shit, you’re right. It is. I wish I had something inspirational to say to make it better, but I don’t. It’s just absolutely brutal when you aren’t lucky.

And if you’re wondering: What am I doing wrong? Is it me? Probably not. I mean if you’re following the advice, getting CPs, listening to querying tips, taking feedback and help, honing your craft, it’s probably not you. It’s just shit. And luck. And finding that ONE yes.

So, ALL HER WISHES querying, woof. That was awful. I went months and months without a single request. Dozens and dozens of queries. I lamented, cried (remembering how to do that very well at this point), screamed, didn’t sleep, didn’t eat, ate more than was comfortable, bothered my mentor SO much, considered small presses, ultimately decided no and shelved the book. And revised ye old YA of my heart (again, but seriously tore it up this time). For that new revision on the YA (which would be the THIRD time querying this puppy), I had somewhat better luck but still not great. Stats:

  • RevPit Entry 2022 (0 editor requests, I did not get in)
  • Queries to agents: 93
  • Requests: 3 partials, 1 full
  • Offers: 0
  • Request rate on that book: 4.3%

I quit writing forever again. I was pretty serious this time. Wrote a thread on Twitter about it and everything. But my now-agent had kindly passed on ye old YA of my heart with interest in ALL HER WISHES, so I figured I would give it ONE. FINAL. GO. Ultimate stats on the book that got me my agent:

  • Traditional queries (outside the PW showcase): 84
  • Requests: 1
  • Offers: 1
  • Request rate (not including PW showcase requests): 1.2%
  • Request rate (including PW showcase requests): 3.6%
White mood board featuring a pink pair of shoes, pink roses, a white woman with long blond hair in a gold dress, a lilac covered field, and a shaded glen. Text reads “All she could do was stare at the silk in her hand and wish…”

That’s three decades of writing and two decades of querying. Of quitting and returning. It’s starting and stopping. Failing and pivoting. It is not Destiny. It is Determination. It is loss. And grief. It is hundreds of rejections at every turn, some I can quantify and some I can’t. It is 98.8% more failure than success.

Are you waiting for me to tell you not to give up?

I won’t. Because giving up is exactly what gave me the courage to keep going. The day I gave up was the day I finally separated my identity as a human from my identity as a writer. It was the day I realized all those agents were not rejecting me, they were rejecting things I could not quantify. Luck. Timing. Market. Style. Preference. Were some of them rejecting me in that I write neurodiverse, bisexual characters with trauma issues baked in? Maybe. Probably (whether consciously or not, everyone has bias). But that’s a them problem, not a me problem. I have carried so much shame in my life, I don’t need to carry more, especially when it does not belong to me. Giving up gave me time and space to finally see some of this and to find a life on the other side of writing.

Yes, there were days it was hard. There were days I was angry at the stories the gatekeepers were (and continue) holding back. I grieved not only my loss but the ones I saw my friends suffering, too. That thing inside me that screams NOT FAIR revolted, slamming against the cage of my ribs like a feral cat in a trap. I told it to shut up and go to hell. Fair or not fair, life is life, and here we were.

But after awhile, I started to miss writing. A little twinge at first, then a tick, then a pang that turned into a steady beat like a heart, like a need. The grieving was done, but there was still a hole that nothing else would fill, and I was reminded why I started writing in the first place. For myself. For the kid still inside me, longing for escape. For kids like me who deserve to see someone like them being the heroes of their own stories. For kids who are trapped in chaos to know there’s an exit on the other side, an exit that might not be sexy but is real and true and entirely theirs. To have a platform to speak on this, on trauma, on neurodiversity, on socioeconomics, on so many things that leave the kind of scars society doesn’t often see.

Those lessons that led to reasons are what will help me through the 98.8% more failure I know is headed my way. So, I stand by my earlier statement.

Quit if you have to. Quit now. Quit tomorrow. Quit forever or for a week.

YOU are the story most important. Never forget that.



P.s. All the love to Keir Alekseii for making this post possible by becoming my agent. I’m totally kidding about 98.8% more failure, btw, we are going to be fiiiiine! Please pretend you never read that. Jokey joke!

How I Didn’t Get My Agent

2023 Update: This post was originally posted in 2019. It was the last post on my website before I shut it down. Now that I reactivated it to tell my very own How I Got My Agent story, it seemed fitting I leave this here as well, as a reminder. This is not always (or often) an easy journey.

Trigger/Content Warning: This post is sad. It is coming from a really dark place and is my mental illness speaking through me. If you’re not in a good place for that kind of dark content, please tread no further, I would never want the expression my mental health to hurt someone else’s.

You know the posts about How I Got My Agent? A lot of your favorite authors have them on their website. Most of them are stories of victory over adversity. They’re about the pains of the querying trenches all being worth it. They’re about how there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. They’re really cool and often so inspiring.

This post isn’t that.

I’ve been crying for three days. I can’t stop. Every time I think I have it under control, it starts again. My throat burns, and I’m having trouble breathing my sinuses are so choked. I can’t sleep, can’t taste the food I eat. When I go to the gym, I end up sobbing so hard I can’t keep going. The other day after another unsuccessful workout, I curled into a ball on the yoga mat I was stretching on and fell asleep. Things aren’t good with me.

I’ve been rejected. Again. From Pitch Wars, again. For the third time. It’s a new manuscript but the same results. This book was a bright and shiny beacon I was so, so proud of. But I was proud of the last one, too. And it was rejected twice from Pitch Wars and received 27 form rejections or spots of silence after that. The last manuscript didn’t receive a single request from a single agent I submitted to. It seems like this one is headed down the same path.

After I was sure I wasn’t going to be getting into Pitch Wars, I braved the querying trenches once more. I want this so bad. And this manuscript, I assured myself, is different. It’s special. It’s so much of me that someone has to see it for what it is. I have worked so fucking hard.

Not hard enough. I received my first form rejection within 24 hours of sending the first query. Here we go again.

I laid under my desk at my day job where I work as a paralegal, surrounded by smart people I really like but who I’m so jealous of because they will always be more important and make more money than me because they have a piece of paper I don’t, and I wept. And when one of my coworkers found me, I blamed my period and ran to the bathroom to continue crying alone.

This isn’t my period. I haven’t gotten my period in three years. The doctors say it’s stress.  Stress I put on myself, or the world puts on me, I can’t be sure anymore. So no, this isn’t that. This is something else. This is the raw, ripe, stinging pain of rejection after rejection after rejection with no shining hope at the end of the tunnel. I am not good enough. I will never be good enough. I am what I am and what I am is not sufficient.

No one tells you about this part. No one records it. It’s not hopeful or pretty or tied neatly with an HEA and a bright red bow at the end. It’s bad for your look to look like no one wants you. But it’s the truth. And if I had a brand, which I don’t because you need to have a product to have a brand, it would be truth.

Here’s the truth. We aren’t all going to get agents and book deals. There are far more of us than there are of them. We aren’t all going to be able to live the dream and make enough money writing to quit our day jobs and pursue our passion. So we need to have contingent dreams. If I could give any young writer advice it would be that: Have another dream. Have something else to care about. Have something else to pay your bills and sate your passion. Search for it if you have to. Demand it of yourself, even if it doesn’t come naturally, even if you’re sure the only thing you’ll ever want is to be a writer. Find. Something. Else.

For me, something else is photography and fostering kittens. Sometimes, something else can almost be my day job. But whatever it is for you, don’t let writing become who you are. Let it be part of you, but not all of you. Save some of you for you.

And when you’re down, find a way to get back up, no matter how hard it is.

Take care of yourselves,

❤ Aimee

On Failure

I learned how to fail at this gig a long time ago.

When I was eighteen, the University of North Carolina sent me a letter encouraging me to apply for its coveted Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. They’d seen my accomplishments in some writing competition or other and thought I’d be an ideal candidate. The application process was (in my opinion) more rigorous than applying for admission to the University. It required a fifty page prose packet and additional letters of recommendation. I agonized over my submission. UNC was my dream school. It was the only university I applied to; it was the only-thing-I-ever-wanted. Worse, I’d convinced myself that because they specifically asked me to apply, this scholarship was all but in the bag.

It wasn’t.

The rejection letter came in an envelope with the University’s famous Old Well logo on the front. I ripped it open, sure of my imminent success (in those days, I was still a big fish in a little pond, and I was always successful). As my eyes scanned the paper, my heart fell into my stomach. My chest tightened. My hands trembled. They didn’t want me.

I was inconsolable. I screamed and raged like a toddler. I threw fists and spat hurtful words. My father and I got into a terrible argument. I didn’t want to go to college. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to curl up and die, and I was sure I would, the rejection hurt that badly. I was a terrible writer. He didn’t understand. Look, there was a letter here to prove how awful I was at this thing-I-wanted-more-than-anything. I was nothing. My dream was dead. I would never write another word.

Little did I know, but that would be the first of many kicks Carolina would deliver to me over my three years as a student in their creative writing program.

If life has taught me anything, it’s that when you get kicked, you get back up, with a snarl and bleeding fingers if you have to. But you keep fighting.

Writing this, I’m torn between a chuckle and a wince. It sounds melodramatic, and truly, it was, but it hurt too. It tore at my foundation, shredded my already fragile self-worth. For someone who has been through as much trauma as I have, you’d think I’d have been tougher. But I wasn’t. Not about this. I lost a lot of innocence too young, but this was the one thing I’d managed to keep pure. This was the one Truth I thought I knew. I was the best writer. It was the only thing I was sure about. When it turned out to be just another lie, it felt like the last of what I thought I was had been stripped away.

One of my ex boyfriends used to call me his “tiger.” He said I was a fighter. He was too. It was the thing that held us together. We were both good at getting back up. Call it stubbornness or stupidity or maybe both. Whatever it is, it’s ingrained deep.

That day was no exception. I got up. I kept writing. I was accepted to Carolina. And when I got in, I realized you weren’t allowed to enter the writing program until your sophomore year. One of my roommates managed to find a way into the screenwriting track early, however–second semester freshman year. That felt like a kick, too. But it hurt less than the one before. And I got up and entered the fiction track my sophomore year.

The first day of class, my professor told the room full of eager students that if anyone would be happy doing something other than writing, they should do that, and there was the door. Four people walked out of that class. I didn’t. This was still my dream, and if I wasn’t the best, I would break myself and rebuild until I was. Fighter’s instincts.

My first piece was a fantasy short. My professor liked it but advised me that writing fantasy wouldn’t help me move forward in the program (when I was at Carolina, you had to apply for a spot at every level of the program, and the spots were limited). Another kick. I gritted my teeth and adapted. I started to write literary fiction. This was still my dream.

I applied for the second level of the program and was accepted. I met the Wolfe Scholar. She was both kind and talented, and somehow, that felt like another kick. I got up. Because this was still my dream.

Every critique I received from my peers and my professors felt like a kick, too. We were clumsy and competitive. We knew there were limited spots available, and we coveted them. We fought for them. Me more than some, maybe more than most. I was eager to fight, to prove myself tough enough. Every time I was kicked, I got back up, heart bleeding. I pushed through it, honing my armor as I honed my craft. And I failed and fell and stumbled and sometimes succeeded. And every kick hurt less and less, until getting up became easier and easier.

I made mistakes (most notably getting into a political argument with Stuart Dybek at a bar. For the record, I had no idea what I was talking about). Sometimes, my competitive edge got the best of me, and I fought those who only wanted friendship. Sometimes, I was more tiger than human, and my teeth were sharp. It’s a knife’s edge that’s hard for me to walk. Sometimes, I don’t know when to stop fighting.

Still, through that program, I learned perhaps the most important lesson you can teach an aspiring writer–how to fail.

So last night, when I arrived at a library where I was supposed to be giving a writing workshop to teens on how to craft a story, and no one showed up, I was pleased to find the armor I’d crafted years ago was still in place.

Don’t get me wrong. It still hurts. Armor only serves you until you take it off, and years of therapy have taught me that I do have to take it off eventually. But at least in public, I was able to maintain my composure, and the armor blunted the worst of the blow, so when I did later remove it, I was able to keep some semblance of control.

Failing is part of this life. It’s probably the reason that professor in my first writing class offered the door. She was trying to present a kindness to those who saw a different way. We all fail. In big ways and small. We are rejected from writing programs and literary agencies. Our writing is torn up by editors and reviewers. Our books flop. Our series are cancelled. We face walls of silence and empty rooms.

But we don’t talk about it much. And when we do, it’s after we’re already safe. It’s when we’ve already attained a measure of success. We don’t discuss the empty rooms when we’re facing one, but only when we’re standing before a packed house. We remember our failure fondly, with a different eye. We talk about our happily ever afters, and our hero’s journey arcs, and that’s okay, but it’s not the only Truth.

Someday, I hope to tell that triumphant story, but right now, I can only tell the story I know, and that is the one of an uncertain ending and an empty room. It’s a story about learning to fail, about getting kicked, and feeling lost and helpless and worst of all–silenced. But it’s a story of triumph too, even if it doesn’t have a happily ever after tied to the end.

Because in this story, I still get up.