The Great Unpublished

I’ve been teaching and consulting a long time now. More than 20 years. It’s been everything from delightful to irritating to way too often, heartbreaking.

Over those two decades I’ve gotten to know some brilliant writers. Brilliant is a big word. Unpublished is an even bigger one.

Yes, I have seen a number of my students go on to be published, some with enormous success. Which of course makes me proud beyond anything I deserve. But there are so many who are so good and just can’t break through that wall of wary agents and editors.

It seems as though  agents are treading water waiting for a blockbuster, probably nonfiction. They know that most novels aren’t going to make them enough money to stay in business. And the same with publishers. The big ones have made so many bad decisions they’re gun-shy. The small ones can’t afford to gamble. Bust that block, or die.

New kinds of markets have given us more chances, but I’m not seeing a general awareness that there are, for instance, e-book publishers who won’t charge them anything and will, in fact, pay royalties and do a little promotion, and smaller print publishers who might like what they’re writing and take a chance on it. 

Some of “my” writers have given up, I can only hope I’ll see them in a class again or asking for one-to-one help, giving it another try. Some of them  keep plugging away and patching their clothes with rejection letters. In the last few years, many have stopped spending their time and emotional capital writing unread or unappreciated query letters and synopses They’ve gone directly to self-publishing, where, without a lot of Joan-Rivers-like self-promotion, they watch  their wonderful books sink into the overpopulated swamp of  who-cares-if-I-don’t know-what-a comma-is. There are writers who make it work. More power to them. But it’s hard, and ego-scarring.

The good writers suffer, and so does literature.

 Here are four of the ones whose work I’ve seen. There are many more. Fictional names, but real talents.

Arlie. A literary writer in the Anne Tyler vein. Her characters are astonishingly vivid, her stories wide-ranging in geography, and in human emotion and frailties. Australia is a favorite setting for her books and the reader comes to know the place well. Arlie has been in my workshops many times over many years and has written three brilliant novels. When I’d see a chapter from her in the class email, I couldn’t wait to read it. She has tried and failed to get an agent or a publisher and is still unpublished.

Manny. A funny and creative writer and artist who is working on a third book. Dark humor with a sharp edge of zany. Crazy, scheming, wildly-alive characters careening through the streets of New York. Still looking for an agent.

Charlotte. Gorgeous writing, great characters, fascinating stories. She’s written several books in my classes, one a beautifully researched page turner of a historical novel, another a suspense-whodunit  that mixes a character’s eerie and disturbing prescience with murder. No agent, no publisher.

Joe. Finishing one book and starting another in a series. An original take on a society exactly like ours except for one element that shifts everything and influences everything. An exciting thriller with a team of  investigators the reader actually cares about doing dangerous, brave, and—here it is: intelligent things. A terrific book and the second one looks like it’s going to be even better. He’s looking for an agent.

Like I said, four of many. The right agent, the right publisher, the right publicity, any of these people could be bestsellers, or at least should be. Perceived marketability trumps quality. Perceived, that is, by fallible people who seem to work with ever-shifting formulas.

Hard on the writers. Hard on the teacher who believes in them and works like crazy to help them. And hard on a body of literature shrinking like a cashmere sweater in a hot dryer. 

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10 Responses

  1. A poignant essay, Shelley. I’ve seen these same writers in my own writing classes and workshops. And I see them online, desperately, bravely trying to beat back the enormous competition and land an agent or publisher. They give away their e-books to readers, and often the readers are happy to add them to the dozens already on their e-readers, though they won’t have time to read them all.
    Many of these people make me feel gullty. Why have I a publisher when hundreds of talented writers don’t? Why are the ball team players earning millions when most of us published writers (and publishers) don’t even break even from our books because of the high cost of conferences, hotels, airfare, et al.?
    It all comes down to: why do we do this? What’s the reward? What does it really mean to be a writer? Why are we valued less than a laywer, doctor, football player? Well, it’s evening here in Vermont, I think I’ll mix myself a nice gin and tonic with a dash of lemon and cucumber.

  2. Thanks, Nancy. We are who we are, I guess, no matter what we get back for being ourselves: writers.. And the gin and tonic sounds good.

  3. I agree, very moving post, Shelley. The good news is that when a student does get published, it’s a huge thrill. Not that we the teachers are responsible, but it is a ray of light in a pretty grim business.

    And, in case I haven’t said it enough — I’m very grateful to have had a class with you at a time when I thought it would be hopeless to think I could get one boook published. You got me through, and I just signed contracts for my 18th and 19th books.

    I’m hoping for great success for the 4 students in this post.

  4. I taught a class on mystery writing this summer and was really impressed with how talented the students were. But I had to be frank with them about how very hard it is to get published–especially if you want to go the traditional route. There are more options now with ebooks and ebook publishers, who often prefer unagented authors.

    • Yes. I’m beginning to think ebooks are a very good way to go. By the time a writer finds an agent and goes through the hunt for a traditional publisher that way–and that’s if those routes are reasonably successful–the ratio of gray to original hair color can be depressing. Meanwhile, clawing through the abuse and indifference can leave scars. We’re tough, but wow!

  5. hey, where’s Lulu with her goofy book she keeps rewriting, chasing the dream of traditional publishing? haha!

    Nice post BTW! Glad you mentioned a blog in an email. My poor blog has been badly neglected. I will someday resurrect it i hope.

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