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The Writer’s Real Enemies

image by Balazs Szabo

Talking with a group of aspiring writers recently, I was struck by how many of them felt like everyone in the publishing world was against them. “Why are agents so narrow-minded about what they want?” one asked. The frustration was nothing new — anyone who’s spent time talking to writers in person or on the internet knows frustration is the meat we feed on — but I was particularly uncomfortable with how much of the frustration was directed against individual people, rather than a system that can’t give all of us what we want all of the time.

So I thought I’d do a handy list of who and who isn’t your enemy in the publishing world. (Keeping a list of enemies isn’t something I generally recommend, for all sorts of reasons, but I think you’ll see how this one can be useful.)

  • Not your enemy: agents. Believe me, I know how painful the query process can be. Yet over the years I’ve gotten to know dozens of agents, and not a single one has ever mentioned getting any joy whatsoever out of rejecting a writer’s work. Most of them got into the business because they love books, not because they hate writers. When you get your 38th rejection of a full manuscript with a note that says “I just didn’t love this,” you will want to scream TELL ME WHY NOT TELL ME TELL ME PLEEEEEASE. But if they don’t love your work, you don’t want them representing you anyway.
  • Not your enemy: other authors. It’s easy to see the attention other books are getting and be so jealous your stomach aches. But the vast majority of authors have not personally set out to thwart you. In fact, most of them are downright friendly. Gathering other writers around you, both pre- and post-publication, is one of the best ways to keep your sanity and achieve some level of satisfaction in the maddening publishing world. Find your friends. They’re out there.
  • Not your enemy: readers who review your book online. Yes, reading reviews of your own work on Goodreads or Amazon can drive you to drink. Go ahead and think How dare you. Go ahead and think I’d like to see you write a coherent book-length work of fiction and persist against all odds to get it published, RadBookLad88. Then once those thoughts have crossed your mind, move on. Readers are reviewing for readers. Obviously I don’t agree that my book deserves a one-star review because it’s “interesting, but the f-bomb was used about 6 times,” as one Goodreads reviewer does, but you know what? There are readers who would benefit from that review. Bless them.

OK, you’re asking, so if none of those people are arrayed against me, why am I so miserable? What’s keeping me down? Indeed, I have some thoughts on that front as well.

Your enemy: time. You may never have time to write all the things you want to write to the standard to which you’d like to write them. You almost certainly won’t have time to personally promote the book to every single reader who might want to buy it. Your writing career will have tradeoffs, choices, opportunity costs. There’s no way around but through.

Your enemy: timing. Almost as bad, you can write a brilliant book and find that someone else has happened to write a similar book on a similar topic, or that your book has something else in common with another book that is already out in the world. Sometimes this works in your favor; often, it doesn’t. It’s no one’s fault. But the part luck plays in the publishing world is absolutely immense, and if luck doesn’t swing your way, it can be crushing.

Your enemy: an infinite world of entertainment possibilities. Part of the reason authors feel like their books are in competition with other authors’ books is because they are. But in reality, books in general have a lot more competition out there from other media. For under $10 a month you can have tens of thousands of hours of televised programming at your fingertips. It isn’t just that you want people to read your book vs. reading other books, but vs. TV, movies, family time, work, and a whole bunch of other demands. It kind of feels like a small miracle we read at all.

The good news is, these enemies aren’t undefeatable. And we start fresh against them every day. In the end, the only one who can really keep you down is you — you’re the one who decides whether or not you keep writing.

Q: Who and what else would you add to these lists?

About Jael McHenry

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.