People have always said to me, “Oh, but of course you don’t write in order to be published.” What they mean is that writing is something you do because it’s therapeutic and absorbing and creative – and then you put it away and get on with your real life as a teacher, social worker, parent, dogsbody or whatever. Why should you need to publish it in the big bad commercial world when you can blog it or circulate it to friends – some of whom may actually read it – or even, if you must, self-publish it? The other implication is that anyway your writing isn’t the sort of thing that’s good enough to be published, so why not just accept your limitations?
I’ve struggled with that for many years. A lot of the writing I’ve done has been ‘therapeutic’ – though to me it has still been proper writing – and I have put together books of it that friends have read or not read or been polite about or occasionally seemed to like. For a long time I’d resigned myself to thinking that this was as good as it was going to get. I’ve got a small portfolio of rejections from agents and publishers which seemed to say to me very clearly that no, my work was never going to be the real thing for them. Reading authors I admire and then looking again at what I’ve written has always given me the same message. Despite that I never stopped writing altogether, though it has always happened in fits and starts – or spits and farts, as someone said. Nor did I give up trying to get better at it. I went to classes and workshops, learning not to crawl away in shame at how much worse I was than everyone else, and sometimes people said my work was good as though they actually meant it.
It wasn’t until I started the MA at Bath Spa that the old dream of being a published writer revived (for published read famous, successful, acclaimed – none of which necessarily follows from publication). We were all being pointed in that direction: the criterion for getting a distinction is that the work should be ‘of publishable quality’. Now my Bath Spa contemporaries and I are getting our manuscripts ready to submit to agents – the humble supplication implied by ‘submit’ is not out of place. We’ve just submitted our work for an agents’ competition and already those books that are outstanding and likely to sell well (the two are not invariably synaonymous) are being picked off. Mine isn’t among them. I’m not surprised at that but I am surprised at my own disappointment, the return of the old familiar feeling that even if my work is better than I sometimes think, it’s never going to be good enough to make it into the ranks of those who become ‘proper’ writers.
So why does that matter? I’ve hugely enjoyed the course and being with other writers and loved having the chance to work seriously on my book. There’s nothing to stop me publishing it – once it really is finished – on a website or even a blog. These days there’s far less stigma attached to self-publication: it’s what people do en route to getting published commercially, not only what they do if the book doesn’t make the grade. I don’t mind about earning money from writing – so far it’s been all of 75p – and I don’t mind that much (don’t I?) if people don’t like the book when they read it. But for me there remains a vast difference between the home-made publishing I’ve done up till now and being taken on by a publisher who says, “This is a real writer. Here is a real book. Read it.” It’s the difference between mumbling away in my corner as a wannabe amateur and finding recognition in the world out there. And that does matter. It may just mean that psychologically speaking I’m looking for an ‘external locus of evaluation’ instead of validating my own reality, but our reality isn’t only internal. How we’re seen is important to most of us. It may not be our most pressing reason for writing, but it is part of who we are as writers. Is there any writer who doesn’t want to be read, and read with seriousness and respect?
I know of course that publishing isn’t all about cosy things like validation. The bottom line is that if they can sell you, they’ll take you and if you don’t sell, they’ll drop you. The amount an author gets from a publishing deal is laughable compared to how much the publisher makes: a book is a commodity that is bought cheap and sold dear. But it’s in your publisher’s and your agent’s interests to sell your book as well as possible and, in doing so, to promote you as the author. Which is all about being seen in public as the writer you have always been in private.
Trying to get published is like any other game of uncertainty: no matter how much you want the prize, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it. Not all good writers get published, and some who get published are not good. But if your book doesn’t make it, giving up writing certainly isn’t going to help.