Why can't I sell my work if my friends think it's great?
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Why can't I sell my work? My friends all say it's great. I do fine if I submit it to some tiny zine that can't [sic] promises its writers only exposure and glory, but I always get rejected at the places that pay. Even places that pay just a few cents a word reject me. Help! This is so frustrating!! Am I just not as good as I think I am?
None of us is as good as we think we are. Fortunately, we are also all better than we think we are too.
Casey, you seem like a sincere person with a sincere question, so I'm going to try to answer you without my usual persona that waxes intellectually about groupie threesomes and uses the word "amazeballs" entirely too much for anyone's good. Not that a good threesome joke doesn't set exactly the sort of tone I want here at Writing About Writing, but I don't want them to dilute the answer to what is a very common and deep frustration among writers who are sincerely trying to make a go of a career in writing creatively.
The best way for me to answer this question is not to do it with writing. Let's imagine some other kind of art/entertainment. Sometimes with writers and writing it's hard to see the forest for the trees because within that cliche, we writers basically live in the metaphorical equivalent of an Ewok village. Writing is all we know so the gradients of quality become difficult to discern beyond "So much better than I'll ever be" and "I could write that." When actually there is a vast diaspora of writing quality.
So let's imagine a singer or a painter or some artist type other than a writer. You probably have a friend who is in some way a capable artist, so this shouldn't be too hard for you. I'll use singers and painters for my example.
You know how there are people who are okay at art? Not great. Not even that good. Just okay. They can carry a tune or draw a picture of a bear well enough that you don't think it's a fish. And when they ask you "what do you think?" you generously tell them it looks pretty good with a Kevin Bacon, "Not Bad, Kid" half-smile, nod. You don't think they are Andrea Bocelli or Rembrant or anything, but they've obviously taken some meager talent and have done a little better than most people.
But you wouldn't pay for it. If they asked you for ten dollars for their CD or a print, you'd smile and say "Don't quit your day job." And other than acknowledging that maybe they're better than you, or better than an average person, you might not really think they're that great. Sadly, a lot of writers live here. They don't notice that they only get good feedback when they demand their friends or family give it to them. Seems like you're getting published, Casey, so you're probably past this point.
Well, then you have those who are quite good. You have friends that draw pictures of Disney characters that aren't traces, or warriors in armor that look pretty damned fly, or friends who sing along with Avril Levine and don't crack the high notes in Complicated. They are good. Not just better than you. Not just better than most. They are pretty fucking good. You might even tell them "Holy flaming honey badger testicles, you're really good," without them first soliciting your opinion. If they post a picture or a Youtube video on Facebook, you will take the time out of your day without being asked to tell them that they are
But they still aren't pay-for-it good. And if you didn't know them personally, you might not stop to look at or listen to their work. You are impressed because you know them, but when it comes to a world of the artists themselves, you might think "eh" (or perhaps if you're very charitable, you'd think "they still have a way to go"). The point is that they are a big fish in a little sea when it comes to talent among the people you know, but they are still a little fish in a big sea when it comes to the world of their art. A big sea with sharks and ill tempered sea bass with lasers and rocket launchers and shit who are all much more impressive than your friend. If they invited you to a concert or a gallery opening, you might hem and haw--especially if it was ten dollars at the door, or the newest Downton Abby was going to be on TV. It's not that they aren't good, impressive even, it's just that they are not as good as artists you would spend money on.
So now imagine someone who is EVEN BETTER. They are very, very good. Incredibly good. They draw incredible pictures or use oils or acrylics and really capture moments. They sing beautifully and with back up, you aren't sure you can really even hear a difference between them and most professionals. You are blown away by their talent. When you think of your most talented friends you have ever known, this person is at the top of the list.
Now. Here is where things get interesting. You might spend some money on a concert or a picture or something because they were a friend and you wanted to support them. If you were really interested in their art form, you might also take an interest in them as a rising star. And if you just had money to burn you might pick up what you could from them. So in that regard, this is when an artist might start to make a little bit of money.
But.....if you were a working person with a modest spending money budget each month, and you had never met this person before, and weren't familiar with their work, and your choice was between some artist you knew you liked (say The Beatles or Salvador Dali) or this unknown artist who you admit seems to be pretty good, you would probably still spend your money on the known quantity. I mean imagine you buy groceries and pay rent and you have just enough left over for one indulgence--will it be something you aren't sure about? It's not that you don't like the talented person. It's that you know the other will be money well spent.
Well, the publishers of literary journals and magazines and anthologies and ESPECIALLY books all know this as well, and they have a bottom line to think about. The publishing industry changes year to year--never mind over the decades. Small presses are dropping like flies. Major houses are struggling to keep their costs under control in changing markets (like e-readers--old guard publishers are pretending e-readers are the devil and then scratching their heads when their sales are down the exact amount that e-readers account for). People don't spend as much money on short stories as they used to. There aren't a lot of short story magazines at the newsstands. (There are a few.) Literary journals barely cover costs and can't usually pay their writers--AND you don't tend to find them outside of their local venues where they have been put on consignment. We certainly don't have pulps anymore. The success stories of Ray Bradbury or Stephen King are completely obsolete. You just aren't going to make it the same way these authors did. And when most people are thinking of dropping ten bucks on a book, they are far more likely to go with the latest Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling (or whatever) than they are to take a chance on an unknown's first time novel. This is why even authors that (after years) finally get approved for their first publication generally have tiny runs and don't make much money. I have personally spoken to an author who has published her tenth book and done quite well with it, but admitted that she probably still couldn't quit her day job yet.
Her tenth book! Think about that.
Many writers forget how much effort there is in climbing these ranks of artistic quality. They think that writing is a talent and not a skill (I think because they'd rather think of themselves as inherently special instead of special in a way that many people could achieve with concerted effort). They listen to the end of too many success stories without paying attention to the beginning parts about hard work and dedication. They get some good feedback but forget that there's a really big gap between friends saying "this is good" and strangers saying "take my money."
The point where your friends enjoy your art is incredible. It is wonderful. It is breathtaking. It rocks the party that rocks the party (and I don't even know what that means). Because even to get there you probably had to go through another phase. The phase where your friends read your work, offer weak smiles, long pauses, and reluctant sounding "it's good"s--where the "good" is slightly higher pitch and than the "it's" and cracks just a little bit. (I can't tell you how many friends approached me [cautiously] after I'd been in the Creative Writing program for a year or so, and told me that they were so relieved to see how much I had improved. They had actually been a little worried about me wanting to be a writer--I wasn't very good at it. Well, actually, I can tell you--it was seven. Seven friends thought I was being way too ambitious for the quality of my writing.) But there's still a gap between your friends liking you, people taking a chance on your writing for free, and complete strangers being willing to spend hard-earned money.
I wish I could tell you it was a small gap or that you would certainly cross it in time. It's not. And you there is no certainty. Some writers never make it to the other side, though they struggle their whole lives at it. Some fall into that chasm and are never heard from again. Some get to the other side only after decades of work. Most are overwhelmed by the frustration and give up. And a few float effortlessly across due more to market forces than the quality of their writing. Science fiction, for example, is a genre that sells very well, still has popular commercial short story magazines within it (like Analog and Asimov), and both readers and publishers will take a chance on a new author more readily. Self-help books seem to be based more on whether they predict chic trends than the quality of the writing. And certain nonfiction stories of profound human interest will be published because of their content rather than their prose quality.
Some writing is never going to cross that gap because it's just too esoteric or "high art literary" and it's just not going to sell. A lot of my friends from the SFSU MFA program are in this boat. They have high quality work but they can't find publishers, or sometimes even agents, because the financial realities of this kind of work are very somber. And sometimes publishers will take a chance on that writing if it's very, very, VERY good because they simply believe that it should be in the world even if it sucks up some of the Harry Potter profit margin, but even when a publisher does publish a book like that, those authors never make much money from them. If they're lucky, they can leverage such a publication against an advance on their next book.
As writers, it's sometimes hard to see that Rubicon between acknowledgement of skill and willingness to pay. It just feels....unfair and arbitrary, and watching 12 year olds, another cat book, or retooled fan-fiction get published hurts us in our souls. But if you think about it in terms of what you would be willing to pay for other arts or entertainments, it may help you visualize how very real that disparity is.
Casey, you're doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing. You're putting your name out there and you're working to improve your writing. As your accolades increase you will have a cover letter that is more and more impressive when you send your work to a commercial venue. You will build an audience of people familiar with your name and willing to give your next thing a chance. If you keep getting better and you keep getting exposure, one of these days a gatekeeper is going to decide that your good short story (which works with their theme and space) is worth a risk. And they will cut you a check. And you will get paid for writing fiction.
And nothing in the whole world is ever going to feel quite as good as that moment--even if that check is a hundred dollars.
You just can't give up.
That's why it's just so important to love the writing. The possibility that you will struggle forever and never have fame or fortune is SO real that if you don't enjoy every second of what you're doing, it's going to be too damned frustrating.