Category Archives: Some writing reality checks

How Authors Get Everything They Really Want: The Death of Traditional Publishing “Success”

What is “success” as an author?

This question has more answers than Carter has pills. (My grandpa liked to say this, which always made me feel badly for whoever Carter was. Who is Carter and why does he have so many pills?)

Ah, this is great. I'm munching some popcorn Charlotte, my 5 year old, just brought me from her mid-morning snack. She’s home today for teacher’s conferences, and this is way more information than you need, but I want to set this up first, to say how glorious it is working from home, and appreciate that beauty with me, but second, how instructive it is to have a kid around who comes downstairs with her big bowl and quietly sets it near you, careful not to interrupt the typing, and say, “You can have some of my snack, if you want.”

I mean, this isn’t the way I imagined it. I had no idea. But I take a handful and she smiles and tells me to get lots of work done and leaves.

And I will. With this popcorn, I will work like a factory-assembly-line maniac. Like Carter without his pills.

Now I don’t work for her affection. She gives it to me freely. I don’t do a thing. I could even deny my affection, work so I never see her and miss out completely on a relationship with her and she’d still bring me her own food to share.

Because this is how it is with love.

And this question of how we define success has so many different answers because so many people don't feel loved. Underneath what we say we believe, "success" always has to do with whatever we're seeking most. These are words I've treasured: When you first seek to give yourself to God's way, his higher purpose, you'll be given everything you desire.

I used to think this was a cheap trick because when you do this, your desires "magically" change—and how easy is it to give me what I want when he just changes what that is first? Come on! But there's a deeper principle at work that says when you seek the higher purpose beyond yourself, you get what you really wanted all along.

It’s not different from your original desires, it's just deeper, more real. And hense, more lasting when it's fulfilled. It's always better to give than receive. It’s always better to do for another what you’d want done for you.

And I believe it. But do I? Would I act differently if I really believed? Do I give my popcorn, or do I eat it myself? What’s success: having the biggest handful or giving the most away?

Affirmation and validation are big traps for authors. Most realize it’s a fool’s errand, but the exploiters still sell it: “Are you desperate to feel appreciated and worthy? Sign with PAI-YUP Publishing today!” So many authors say they know where ultimate love is, but they don’t seem convinced. If they felt it, they’d know, and they’d figure out it’s probably dumb to try and squeeze love out of a book contract. But they don’t want to look deeper.

That’s not me. I mean, I know you can’t derive your value from a car or a job or even others’ opinions.

But we all still do it. And we close our eyes, rationalize it and make it “all right.”

Why do so many books get printed? Why do so many people work so hard when the only pay off is more attention and more work? Ask anyone “important”: more importance = more problems.

I know what I want to say with my work, and it is a way to give back, but I think I need to look harder at how what I’m writing is directly pouring into who is receiving it. This is a critical step in the process for anyone looking to share a book of true lasting value. I need to spend some more time picturing those outstretched bowls and me pouring from mine that’s been so generously filled…

So what's "success" to you, that is, what do you think is most important? Are you writing to “give back” or is it more about what you want to say?

This Dangerous Platform

Writers who are honest feel fear about self-promotion.

The initial excitement and hope fades into something else, and those fears can blossom into putrid black blooms. (Did you know there's a guy leading seminars on how to make videos go viral who intentionally falls off a stage and posts the videos on YouTube as examples? The quest for fame does make people do some pretty stupid things.)

I get one of two questions from authors when they're about to be published. The first is, "What should I do to get the message out?" And the second: "What if I become a phony?" (they don't always use that term. But I know what they mean.) Phonies are people who fake it. They don't feel real, so they have to pretend they know what being real is. And they desperately have to prove it to you. But even if you have fame shoved on you, problems with being a phony only come when you begin to worry about it. Fame requires authenticity and people know the real deal when they see it.

"But won't I have to change?" they ask. Well, yes, but you always have to change, even if you don't become well-known. Remember Holden Caufield's big fear? After the success of The Catcher In the Rye, part of the reason Salinger disappeared was because Holden was a part of him, and when fame came, it became his prison. Can we blame him?

How do you write without being affected by all that noise? You have to ignore it. People will not like it and they won't always like what you write. But fame or no fame, everything changes you and it's your job to take it all as it comes and continue responding positively and inspiring the same. Everything is an opportunity to invest a little more.

Many people say “God, if you make me famous, I’ll use it for your glory” but if you really meant that would you want to be famous? I’ve told several authors I’d only take their book forward if they promised not to become a phony when the accolades came. Most have no trouble saying it, expecting few accolades. People who stand on truth are far from the danger of falling off their platform, big or little. I haven’t seen many dramatic changes in authors who went on to become famous in their genre or area of expertise because I tend to work with well-grounded people. No matter what you might get at some conferences and reading the trades, publishing books isn't much like American Idol.

I once read a great email from Dave Eggers whose postmodern memoir Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius went on to become a #1 bestseller for several months, and somewhat launched the "young po-mo memoir" publishing phenom (along with Augusten Burroughs, Haven Kimmel, Lauren Winner, Don Miller, several others). Eggers denounced the perception that fame had made him a phony, contesting he didn't much care if people thought he'd sold out. Because look what he was able to do with it, much more good than he'd ever been able to before. I think that's something. How does a kid with his story end up with that truth–that giving to others for a higher purpose is the real focus and worrying about selling out is so juvenile and self-conscious?

I've always been a myopic kid, so concerned about "selling out." But once I saw how adolescent it really was, I decided to be done with it. The right question is, "Am I selling out right now to the idea of changing things for the better?" Because that's entirely up to you. I’ve had a half dose of fame since growing up in a fishbowl as a pastor's kid, possibly to inoculate me and convince me it's a necessary evil and certainly not something to strive for.

You may think you'd like fame, but believe me, sane people don't like it. You think it'd be so nice being known, being of interest. But fame is never really being "known." What people know, they want it from you, and many act as though they have a right to claim it. They don't, but when you're famous, you don't get to decide that. I grew up the oldest son of the senior pastor at a growing church. I was known in that little circle in our small town, so even becoming a book editor took me time to embrace. I still don't enjoy the attention I sometimes face. People come with all kinds of expectations that feel very similar to being told I had to perform perfectly to set a good example, and that this was God's plan for me, to do good things so others would. Then God would be happy. I never knew if what I was doing was enough or good enough, and most the time, I fought the desire to secretly rebel just to get the voices out and deny their access.

In my limited experience, the more people you encounter, the harder it becomes to hear God.

The struggle is good and worthwhile, but my portion of fame has taught me that the challenge is only an opportunity when I'm striving very hard against it to hold onto resting in God. Will you become a phony? Or are you sold out to changing things for the better?

People who become phony are people who don’t know themselves. They want to present an image and fit in because they lack assurance about who they really are. Most of us know this on some level, but plenty of folks–self-proclaimed Christians–self-promote like crazy, as though becoming famous may finally convince them they're lovable and finally overwhelm their fragile egos with sufficient evidence that they're good enough and smart enough for people to like, doggone it. And some become crazy, attention-grabbing loud mouths.

Listen: when there’s no misunderstanding about where our identity is secured, that doesn't happen. On the other hand, if there’s a in you wanting to be liked, affirmed, comforted by a surrogate daddy, you will smell desperate. And it's a bad cologne. Writers conferences usually reek with it, people desperate to be published. It’s hard to miss. But the real phonies are those with an entourage. They have handlers and no real ability to write. The book is their next chance to be a star and pop the panacea to keep the affirmation fixes coming, the endless fixes that haven’t quite fixed them. Regular folk don't have to worry much about becoming a vampire like them.

My best advice for those worried about self-promotion is to get with your maker right now. Do some soul work and ask the omniscient Creator to point out any place where there’s still a desperation in you to be loved, affirmed, comforted or known. He'll show you and your eyes will be opened. Do the work he gives you. And forget everything else and just keep doing it. Give that to him and let him fill that void in you. You will find your peace and no substitute can look attractive when you have that.

And from there, you won’t have to shun the limelight, though you may want to. If you can use it as one more of his gifts for reconnecting with others, you may end up feeling his smile on you. Imagine his pride in you for investing wisely. Be realistic and don't expect it to be easy, invasive fans waiting to confront you about your sins, mobs of hungry faces looking for a morsel of your flesh, enemies who'd like a chance to stone you. Most people won't care. It normally takes a long time in publishing to gain people's attention. But some will care too much. And they'll hurt you with their hurts.

Remember your real goal is hearing those words: “Well done. Well done my wonderful son, my wonderful daughter of grace.”

Faith is a gift. It is not an ability to gain. It is not a commitment to muster. God supplies it to those who ask for it. So ask. And use your platform the same way you use all his gifts, to highlight the wonders you’ve been shown. To point others to the source. To turn their eager faces to the one who provided your eyes to see it. The ones who help you craft it. The supporters who readers need to know have helped and invested so they could receive it. The endless gifts given to make more and more opportunities to share his love.

As a good friend of mine likes to say, all is grace. And I've discovered it’s really true. All is grace. So what part of ALL do we not yet understand?

Free Yourself


It's strange blogging. I've said before it's like taking your shirt off in front of the class. It feels sort of wrong to do it. Which is probably why so many people like it.

But other people do it for traffic. I've done that before, but I don't really care about that anymore. I actually like not being anyone special. Can you believe that? What's wrong with me? The whole WORLD wants to be famous and special and they kill themselves for 15 minutes of fame. But I've had a little taste of popularity and while it's fun in a way, it comes with a lot of responsibility. And I'm not necessarily against responsibility–it's just when it's really heavy and for things you'd rather not be responsible for. Like the responsibility not to offend all the other people trying to get famous.

When I was young, it was being the pastor's kid and performing at piano recitals that brought unwanted attention. Now it's the almighty book deal people seek at writers conferences. And I don't enjoy that part. It makes me feel weird and I get worn out by it and afterwards I have to go be with normal people for a while and talk about normal things.

But there's a trick here you can learn whether you're popular or not: how to be yourself. I've written articles and stories about this–being who God made you, how to find it and how to hold on to it–and I believe it's what we all really want. And yet for some people it's so ellusive. It's what most editors are looking for when they sit down to be pitched to, and it's what we look for in our favorite actors and actresses who are basically the same people no matter what role they're in. It's the annoyingly trite answer to the unanswerable question of how to "break out." We love people who are authentically themselves, and those who talk with understanding about this truth–people like Holden Caufield, the poster boy for this sacred principle of youth, against all the phonies and the subscribers to artifice and duplicity.

But the thing is, everything is artificial. And this is what drives Holden crazy in the end of The Catcher in the Rye (Oh, there I just spoiled it for all you 8th graders. Sorry). Culture is artifice. Most relationships involve some form of artifice. A novel is the height of artifice, no matter what kind you're talking about. Which doesn't seem a positive sign for novelists. These are constructs built by human ingenuity. Industry, publishing included, is a culture of artifice. Writers are pressured to adopt certain identities and assimilate them, to be contributors to this "society." "I'm sorry," they say to all you Holdens out there, "you must assimilate." So what is the chief difference between publishing and say, a cult? I'm sure there's a good punchline to that, but actually, there's very little difference. So maybe we should take a lesson from our inner teens and not become phonies just to belong to the club. Don't fit your culture, don't impress people. Tell them to blow their book contract out their butt.

I'm being deliberately antagonistic here and I know it. But for me, not wanting to be famous, it can be difficult to see how many people do. I consider many of these people as hopelessly searching for an identity to latch on to. Why can't they be authentically themselves and just write what they want rather than what they think others want them to? What are they afraid of? Rejection? Why can't more wanna-be authors just write about crazy things happening to crazy people and if that happens to reveal some theological truths, great! But no. Even if there's one in a hundred doing that, the 99 will say he's being duplicitous and artificial trying to deceive everyone that what he does is simple, that he's actually striving very hard to come off the right way and fit just the right niche. 

Well I don't think so. I've seen people break out and it isn't because they're trying to. Sooner or later, the act slips (see Bakker, Swaggart, Haggard, et al). There's no art to real.

And I can't accept the rules to breaking out because I'm this person. And you're that person! So don't try to fit what you think someone's looking for. Just being YOU is what people are looking for. And even if they aren't looking for you currently, being you will make them beat down your door. It sucks, but it's true! Believe it or don't. Think it's too simple or naive or whatever. Maybe it's childish to place such a high premium on being yourself. But remember Jesus with the children and think about what kind of artifice a kid knows about. Nothing. And why must the kingdom have no business with anything other than innocence and genuineness?

Childlikeness is actually a spiritual value. And actually one of the bigger ones.

I'll promptly take back this claim if someone can produce an author who "broke out" who was trying to fit a mold. There could be a special author attitude that works like a magic contract-printing machine. But if it did, it wouldn't be worth the effort to figure it out.

In the end, those who are their true selves without apology continue to make us smile and scury to read their genius. And all you publishing gurus with your nine steps to fame and fortune can put that in your pipes and smoke it.

What Is a Publishable Author?

I get this question a lot. Especially at writer's conferences. At a writer’s conference, there’s always too much information. You need to purge it and sift through it afterwards. And some things need to be debunked, clarified, or given proper context. I hear things some of my colleagues say to new authors and I wonder what they’re smoking. Authors misunderstand some things, but some publishing folks talk out of their—out of turn. As I’ve told many an author, don’t believe everything you hear at a writer’s conference. When the fatigue catches up on some of us, it’s not our fault. We simply don’t know what we’re saying.


Yes, sometimes the confusion is entirely an author's fault. Many writer’s conference attendees are wasting money and time to attend their idea of "American Publishing Idol." These natural geniuses are the authors who have no pitch and sit down to read their plot synopsis, while glancing up every few seconds to see if the editor has fallen over themselves to offer up a contract on a silver platter. I imagine I'm Simon Cowell and I want to ask, “What do you think it tells me about you that you think I can make a decision to publish your book on the plot summary?” First, I don’t decide what my house publishes. Second, ten or fifteen minutes isn’t going to tell me your book’s potential appeal, especially from the plot synopsis. Third, and probably most importantly, if you think the plot is what best represents your merit, you’d better go home and do a little research before you come back. You aren’t ready to be pitching, let alone published.

I’d say it in the nicest way possible, of course. But some editors and agents add to the confusion by offering such helpful advice as “keep your eyes open” and “pay your dues.” My favorite is “do your homework.” What the @#$%! does that mean, doing your homework? Is this 3rd grade?

So today, I offer, The Non-Essential “Essential” Quality of a Publishable Author:

Here it is, ready?: Know important people. Have you heard this one? You’re supposed to research authors, agents, publishing houses, editors, and comparable titles on Google, Amazon, and your local bookstore. They want you to find interviews, news reports, trade articles, and scuttlebutt about these people and use this info to impress them. They’ll say things like “books are for people and the industry is made up of people. Do you know them, know what they like, know what appeals to them?” They’ll ask if you read PW and NYT Books and know the bestseller lists. It’s all well-meaning. Editors are swamped, so they want you to follow protocol and formal queries and treat them like professionals with little time to spare for unprepared authors. You’re supposed to convey your advantage of experience, knowledge, and deep passion for your message. And most of all, position yourself as the author not overeager to get one book or one series published, but as someone with too much going on to waste time talking about their book. See, the book doesn’t matter. It’s the vehicle, the means to the end. You should talk about the end instead: the huge media attention and public interest you’re poised to exploit, and never-directly-but-always-covertly alluding to the chance for an editor to be the hero by finding this golden, untapped opportunity.

That is, in short, “doing your homework.” And those who have invested the time, the logic goes, will rise to the top. I’ve said this at conferences myself. You won’t be daunted by the sea of rookies surrounding you because you’ll be better prepared. You’ll know what’s expected. You’ll be able to answer an editor’s 4 questions: 1) Have you read the books like yours? 2) Have you researched your market and the conventions of your genre? 3) What proof have you found that your voice is needed? 4) Are you targeting me specifically because you know what I represent and what I want to publish?

Those are the questions I have asked. Those are the things a publishable author supposedly must have to get published by a top, royalty-paying, high-profile house.

The rest of this post will now debunk that load of crap.

This is what a publishable author should have.

Publishable authors should know what they’re about. They’ll need to know why they write what they write, and not be easily swayed from their purposes by comments from rookies or even pros (though if an editor with 25+ years’ experience tells you it’s not going to work, pay attention and get why). They need to have thought through the decisions about their writing and the reader’s journey through their book, and have good reasons for doing what they did. They should know what their passion is to write and not change to fit an expectation or prejudice about what the market wants or accepts without soliciting second and third opinions by qualified, experienced counterparts in the business. This is not about forming a theory about why the market needs what you’re writing, and then boldly going out to gather the requisite evidence before you attempt to test those theories, i.e. paying more dues. You could still crash and burn, and that would be the end of your publishing career. Better to know how to filter the info, the helpful from the damaging, the “conventional” from the untenable. Better to be willing to be a little unconventional and not market saavy, because you are unique and want to say something new (or at least in a new way).

Know this: the trick to being published is writing well. And the trick to writing well is simply learning what to give away when. Most books could be better (i.e. more satisfying) if the author had told us more, or told us less, at a particular place. There’s no quick way to learning how to read your ideal reader, but authors who study them and how to satisfy them, will find an audience.

That’s your only task in becoming publishable. The “seasoning” and “dues-paying” and “market-studying” will come. Or not. After all, that’s what agents and editors are for.

Rejecting Rejection

 Here's a great letter for any of you who would like to set the record straight about who's rejecting who….


Dear Esteemed Editor,

Thank you for your letter rejecting my book proposal for publishing consideration with your company.

Unfortunately, I have received an unusually large number of rejections from many well qualified publishers and I’m afraid that with such a promising number of rejections from which to select, it is impossible for me to consider them all. After careful deliberation, and because a number of publishers have found my book even more unsuitable, I regret that I am unable to accept your rejection.

Despite your company’s outstanding qualifications and extensive experience in delivering rejections, your rejection does not currently meet my publishing needs. As a result, I will be publishing my book with your company on the first of the month.

Of course, circumstances change and a use for your rejection may arise in the future. I will keep your letter on file in case my requirements do change.

Please do not regard this letter as a criticism of your qualifications in attempting to refuse my work. I wish you the best of luck in rejecting future candidates.






I've said it before, the false distinction between acceptance and rejection by a publishing house causes more problems than it helps solve. Publishing is not an "in/out" proposition. It's a mountain you climb. If your book accomplishes what it sets out to do, that's the first mountain. And if you find a house who believes they can sell your work and they're willing to pay you real money to help you do so, that's the second mountain. If you don't make it up either mountain after many attempts, don't look at the mountain and say, "Don't you like me?" The fact is, your skills and training have not provided the necessary tools and strategies to reach the top yet.


That's okay. Don't give up. Adapt.


And if you find yourself nearing the top of the first mountain, keep your eye on the top before looking over at the second mountain to climb. Focus on one at a time and I promise it will be easier on your next climb.


Find pleasure in the climb, despite the challenges, maybe, dare I suggest, IN the challenges. Those are the sort of strange individuals who end up conquering many mountains. Find your bliss in the climbing, not the arriving.


My 2-year-old is big into puzzles. Never mind that we got them for her older sister. She wants the thrill of figuring it out herself. And when she gets to the end of the puzzle, she doesn't stand back and admire it or leave it to show anyone what she's accomplished. She immediately destroys it, breaks it up, and starts in again. Is she missing the point? I don't know. Something tells me that she's already realized in her rapidly-expanding circuitry that there's only pleasure in the doing, in the work, and not the having finished. The work itself is good. And I would suggest that's not a substitute joy or something we try to convince ourselves of to take our minds off the real pain of rejection. The work is the source of joy.


So remember as you're climbing and imagining looking back down on the journey you've taken: the pleasure is in how you performed down there, not how you stand at the top.