I'm going to tell you a story, but I must warn you, you've heard it before. It's the one about Dr. Seuss's rhyme genius being rejected 30 times and Stephen King's manuscript of the famous thriller Carrie being tossed into a trashcan by the author himself and yes, even J.K. Rowling's being homeless before the magic kicked in. Tired of hearing these examples? I am too. Luckily, I have a fresh sequel to the tale, though it doesn't have a very happy ending. It's 2012, and writers still cannot get discovered. Talk about a thriller.
We use these anecdotes to comfort ourselves, not realizing that the success stories of authors past are so rare that we all repeat the same ones. There are so few who have made it that we have no choice but to share the same beacons of hope, to use and reuse them until there is nothing except the creases and fold-overs on a piece of paper where our resilience was once sworn. Each year, we're offered an example of a self-published author's million sales and expected to clap furiously, nod fervently, agree that the industry has been fixed that the holes have been filled. But each time you hear this story, you should ask yourself: for every new author turned famous, what happened to the million unopened submissions?
I wish I could offer you a scapegoat, point to a person or company who's to blame. I tried that route once. While I was studying in Columbia's Creative Writing Program, I sent out my first manuscript. I was enthralled, giddy even, as I slipped the packages into the mail. (Note, that the word mail used in the prior sentence is not for effect. I actually mailed some of these letters just for good old school writer karma). And then, with a smug smile, I waited.
Three months later, the smirk had faded. The act was over, and it was clear to everyone: the joke was on me. Four uniform rejection letters sat on the nightstand where my perfectly packaged manuscripts once rested. The irony was toxic. They hadn't even used my pen name on the four envelopes. I had been ignored by nearly a hundred people. And so, as is often the case after rejection, I sought an excuse. Surely it couldn't be me. So it had to be them. I blamed the agents and the publishing houses, the ones who couldn't see my genius. What fools, I thought. What an enormous mistake.
Soon there were fissures in my unshakeable self-confidence. What if they had a point? What if my writing didn't deserve to be opened? I had to know for myself. I made my way into the trenches, accepting a position at Simon & Schuster and preparing to face my foes. Only when I arrived, the foes were not to be found. The publishers were bright, they were talented, and they were facing significant obstacles themselves. 10,000 of them, in fact.
During that time, I learned. Each year, a publishing house can expect to receive about 10,000 unsolicited manuscripts. Out of every 10,000 manuscripts submitted, about 3 are published. The odds are horrifying, which is perhaps why so many undiscovered writers turn to self-publication. Unfortunately, on average, a self-published book sells about 10 copies in its lifetime. I can only hope those authors have small families; either that, or even their loved ones chose not to buy their work. Ouch.
That's the pickle. There's no one to blame. It's not the publishing houses. It's not the literary agencies. It's not even you. With so much talent in the publishing world, it's opportunity that's the problem. It's too scarce for all the skill. Publishing houses can't take a risk on everyone. They can only print the people who come with an advantage, the ones who have a guarantee to sell. That means taking on books by pets and memoirs by reality stars and sex scandal anecdotes by famous athletes. Quality isn't always compromised but there's no shortage of compromising decisions. It's the catch-22 of a brand that has two conflicting goals: reputation and profit.
Self-publication doesn't have that issue. There's no shortage of opportunity, no limit to what is distributed. Unfortunately, when everyone is included, some are excluded. Admittedly, this paradox is nonsensical, but nothing personal makes sense. Many writers simply shy away from self-publication because it seems too cold, too distant. There's no one to edit the text and shape the writing and assure you it's finally ready for the world to judge. There's no guaranteed reader. There's no one to spread the word. There's no one at all.
Enough is enough. We must fill this gap. We must create a solution where writers can have both quality and opportunity. There is an audience for everyone; the trick is finding them. There is enough to go around: enough skillful editing, enough talented writing, enough devout reading. There is more than enough of everything to create a significant opportunity for the inbetweeners, the ones between doing it themselves and the publishing deal.
That's how Writer's Bloq came about. After operating privately with peers at Columbia for a few months, a community of talented writers blossomed. Short stories, poems, essays, and articles filled the platform, and so an event was hosted for the top writers on the Bloq to share their writing. The Rare Book Room at The Strand was packed, dozens of writes, readers, and industry professionals listening intently to the compelling pieces read aloud. The alcohol was plentiful and so was the conversation, and by the end of the event, four of the eight readers had been contacted by industry professionals.
Not long after, one of our top writers approached us. She had an MFA, years of experience as an agent herself, an unpublished novel, and even an opportunity to publish her book. Unfortunately the opportunity came with a heavy price: she would have to remove an entire third of the plot to make the novel conform to industry standards. Conformity: something to which we should all aspire.
Writer's Bloq doesn't believe in conformity and neither should you. If your novel doesn't fit, maybe it's not meant to. After all, isn't that why we write? To stand apart from everything and everyone, to see the world differently, to have just one moment of true individuality to share with the world? If the sharing opportunity doesn't exist in the places you know, it's time to find new doors on which to knock. If your work doesn't have a home on the streets you recognize, it's time to start a new path. If your writing simply doesn't belong to the neighborhoods you've visited, it's time to join our Bloq.
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