Note from Aimee: First, I hope you love this post as much as I did. I read it in line waiting to get TSA Pre-check and couldn’t wait to get home to email Amara back to say how much I loved it so had to email twice, once with gibberish and once with a posting schedule. Second, if you are someone who likes query stats, Amara has kindly provided a Twitter thread I’ve linked to at the end for those (which you can also avoid by not clicking if you don’t want to do query stats). Now, without further ado, the post!
Confronting the Publishing Paradox
By: Amara Cavahlo (Follow Amara @nerdnothuman on Twitter)
There’s this maddening paradox at the core of the traditional publishing process: writers must invest so much time and effort into their work—work which will always have a place in society—and yet writers are rarely invested into in return.
That paradox manifests itself in many ways:
As a writer, you can spend thousands of hours on perfecting your craft, and yet never become a “professional” within the publishing industry—or, at the very least, one that can make a living off their work.
Publishers claim to be making record profits, and yet they can’t pay the employees making them those profits a livable wage.
On a more personal note, stories have always been everything to me: movies an addiction; books an obsession; the act of filling a page with words a necessity for my psychological wellbeing. I knew I wanted to be a full-time fiction writer as a small child and became invested in the idea of becoming an editor as a teenager. But when it came time to enroll in university, choosing between studying editing and creative writing or something else felt like choosing between uncertainty or stability. I worried about affording my basic needs if I chose publishing, because I’d already seen what it could do to its own.
I don’t deal well with uncertainty. So I chose not to study writing.
During the three-year undergraduate design degree I did choose to do, I wrote three books outside of class—the word count equivalent to three PhD dissertations. While I can proudly present a diploma for my university work and get a job for it, all I’ll likely receive for my writing efforts is the assumption that I can’t be a very good writer, or else I’d have gotten those books published.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming that those who choose creative professions are always going to struggle (or that choosing something else guarantees success), or that my books are masterpieces that deserve to be published, or that writing a novel is perfectly equivalent to writing a PhD dissertation. None of those things are true. The point is that it’s incredibly disheartening to know that in some areas of my life, what I receive will be proportional to how much I invest, whilst in others—the ones I happen to care about most—I might as well be tossing keys into the ocean out of the hope that they’ll unlock Atlantis.
Accepting the paradox
There was a time when I noticed this paradox and felt so frustrated by it that I refused to accept it. Instead, I hoped I’d be the exception—the lucky one. That hope was enough to keep me going for a while: I would think, “My work will get published eventually, and that will make everything worth it. I’ll be content and happy then.”
Over time, though, I started seeing how dangerous that mindset and the writing advice that advocates for it can be. Common advice like “It only takes one yes,” “Just write the next book,” and “You’ll achieve success eventually” sound great on the surface, because they claim that anyone can succeed if only they work hard enough.
I haven’t been querying for that long—only since 2021—so I don’t claim to be a veteran of the process. But even within the short time I’ve been querying, this querying advice hasn’t had quite the positive effect it’s meant to have on me, and I’ve watched how it affects my friends. Now when the rejections keep rolling in, when your every project is unsuccessful, that advice starts sounding like an accusation: “Everyone is good enough to get that one yes, and write that next book, and be successful eventually… except for you.”
Then we can’t avoid the paradox anymore: we gave everything to publishing, and maybe in the past that would’ve been enough to succeed, but now there is a very real possibility that publishing will never give us anything back. In the current publishing climate, perfecting your craft is the bare minimum for getting noticed, but beyond that, luck is the main determinant of your success. Writers have basically no control over their publishing journeys, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.
At this point, it might seem like we should cut our losses and just stop. I’ve seen people stop writing completely, and I get it—if no one else will invest in our writing, why should we? If writing doesn’t spark joy for us anymore, why should we continue doing it? Sometimes choosing to stop writing is the best thing a person can do for themselves, especially if they no longer enjoy the process of writing itself. (Here’s a great article about stopping from this blog!)
But we don’t all want to stop. I don’t want to stop—the characters trapped in my head would drive me insane if I did!
So then the question for us who want to continue becomes: having accepted the rather hopeless paradox of traditional publishing, how can we keep going without hurting ourselves with it?
My proposal: punch the paradox in the face
Now, at the risk of sounding like an enormously inflated smart aleck, I’d like to share how I’ve so far gotten through querying mostly unscathed. It’s a bit of a strange mindset, and one that might not help you, but I share it in hopes that it will help someone (especially considering that everything I’ve said before this is high-key depressing).
Before continuing, though, I want to make one thing clear: while becoming a full-time writer is a dream of mine, writing is currently something I only do as a hobby, meaning I don’t depend on it financially. If I spent the rest of my life being unpublished, or publishing books that make very little money, materially I’d manage just fine. This is how I can (literally) afford to think like I do.
So. As I stated earlier, I made the decision to separate writing from my livelihood very consciously. I made that decision because I noticed that damn paradox and knew I didn’t have the temperament to stake my rent or my sense of success on an industry that runs on luck instead of merit. I also did it because, based on some of my experiences being a musician, I knew that in some ways choosing not to go all-in on writing would be very freeing in publishing’s current trash fire climate.
Let’s go back to that idea of ‘success’, shall we?
There’s this common view about art, which is that it has no worth if it has no financial worth. If someone likes baking, we tell them they should start a bakery. If someone likes knitting, we suggest they sell their creations on Etsy. And if someone likes writing, the assumption is that their writing isn’t very good unless it’s published.
Remember how my past self would say that getting published would make me content and happy? I wish I could go back in time and ask her: why do you need to base your entire sense of success and self-worth, of happiness, on the moving goalposts of an industry that doesn’t care about you?
Why should we wait for the publishing industry’s permission to feel successful?
Because the thing is, sure, getting published would be awesome—I would probably ascend into a celestial plane through sheer excitement if I became a bestselling author, and got fan art, and a movie deal, and… well, you get the idea. But a lot of us didn’t start writing because we wanted to get published (or become a bestseller, or get fan art, or…). We started writing because we had to. In my experience, it feels like the stories picked me to tell them, and they’re not going to leave me alone until I do.
And, while there are many aspects about the traditional publishing process that we can’t control—getting an agent being the first one we encounter—there are still lots we can control: we can choose what stories we want to write. We can choose when to write them. We can choose to take a break. We can choose to read books about craft, or ignore craft completely. We can choose who we share our books with, and what sort of feedback we’d like those people to give—as well as how much of that feedback we take to heart.
I used to worry about whether I could sell a project before I started writing it. But now, I choose to write things because I want to write them, and literally for no other reason. Book two in that weird sci-fi series I haven’t even sold the first book of yet about a girl getting mixed up with an extremist group that thinks demons are real? Epic. That five-season Voltron sequel TV series? That’s insane, I’ll never finish it, it’ll certainly never get made (like, ever), but I’m doing it anyway because it’s fun as hell.
After all, until my writing matters to the industry, why should the industry matter to me?
And here’s the best part of making my art for the sake of making it: I’m still very serious about getting my books published, but the rejections don’t sting as much because the books already fulfilled their purpose of making me happy by writing them. This isn’t to say that the rejections don’t sting, and that I don’t mind shelving projects (if you ever need a shoulder to cry on for those things, hit me up). But I love that if I ever do get an agent or make it even farther into the publishing process, each of those advancements will feel like the most fantastic bonus to an already-fulfilling journey, rather than the bare minimum.
The system of traditional publishing wants us to believe that all our dreams and chances for happiness are wrapped in its cold, money-greased machinery. It wants to control our creative output and, more distressingly for our wellbeing, to define what ‘success’ is for us. But I say screw that. We make our own.
Bio: Amara Cavahlo is a UX and graphic designer who, confusingly, is an Australian citizen with an American accent who also happens to be a native Spanish speaker (and subject of feline overlords). If you wish to summon her to your location, an offering of one (1) chaotic science fiction or fantasy book will do. You can follow her on Twitter @nerdnothuman or learn more about her on her website: https://amaracavahlo.wixsite.com/author/about
Querying Stats for the last book queried: Click on this link to learn more about that book pitched as:
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