When is a writer ready to debut?

Photo by John Siebert http://www.sxc.hu/profile/jpsdg

Photo by John Siebert

It seems to me that publishing is the only business in which to even get started, one is expected not only to produce great art, but to do it perfectly. Authors are cautioned not to take their manuscripts to market before they are “ready.” Every writer must be Yo-Yo Ma. Perfect craft and high art. If you are still working your way up, you must do it in private until you have “paid your dues.”

Paid them to whom?

Justin Beiber and Amanda Hocking get mocked for producing pop. Their work is neither high art nor perfect craft, yet they are obviously wildly successful for a reason. They appeal to their target markets, which they reached by circumventing the dues-extracting system.

The visual arts is the only other business I know of where those producing the popular are derided by those producing “great art.” Thomas Kinkade took a lot of crap. Damien Hirst artwork sells for millions. But which would you want in your living room?

Wait, maybe this is the wrong crowd to ask that question…

But even in the visual arts, no one suggests that the student hide his work. Student artists show their drawings. Student musicians play in recitals. In fact, a music teacher is likely to demand that students play in recitals. But student writers are advised to hide their work, sharing it only with critique groups, beta readers, and mentors, until its “ready.”

Ready according to whom?

Why is that? Is this a restriction we impose on ourselves? Does it come from agents and editors who are tired of amateur work in their slush piles? I highly doubt it comes from readers.

I agree with Seth Godin (yeah, I know, I quote Godin a lot), who said:

Today, a teenager can self-publish an ebook in five minutes, for free, and I hope she will. The single best thing to happen to the future of book publishing is the fact that young people who believe that they have something to say now have a chance to say it.

In addition to Kindle Direct, I’m familiar with Smashwords and Lulu, and have my eye on BookTango and Wattpad. What other venues exist where a new writer can hold a recital?


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

5 comments on “When is a writer ready to debut?

  1. A fascinating and timely blog post! That whole “don’t let anyone see until it’s perfect” mantra is one I’ve had pounded into my brain by so many authors and publishers.

    One mentor had this reason: the publishing industry is small and the Christian publishing industry is smaller. If what I submit is anything less than my best, it will not only ruin my chances, but count as a mark against me in future submissions. And apparently publishing houses talk with each other, so it could ruin me in other places as well. Wise words for the very rough draft I had two years ago, but now I’m worried it’s just feeding my relentless perfectionism.

    Good points about where to have a recital. I’ve also been conditioned that it’s good to go for a “real” place, like a reputable online magazine or (thought these are rarer), an actual print publication. However, considering my short stories and novellas are exclusively speculative fiction, this puts me in as a lone fish in a very crowded pond, where the editors call all the shots (as well they should, considering it’s their magazine, but doesn’t really help as motivation, since they can hold onto my stuff for a long time before getting back to me).

    I’ve never considered places like Wattpad or Smashwords. Are those reputable, viable options now? Maybe I’ve just been getting really out of date information.

    Thanks again for making me think! I’m going to link to this post elsewhere.

    • Thanks, Janeen!

      I have to admit, Wattpad contains some pretty mediocre material. But the way I see it, if the readers are willing to give, and writers are willing to take constructive criticism, then that’s a place where mediocre writers can improve their craft. I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but I perceive Wattpad more as a place for amateurs than for entry-level professionals.

      Smashwords is very reputable; it’s one of the places Amanda Hocking got her start. Whether it’s viable for professionals has come under question. It’s basically a good place to convert your ms to all the e-book formats at once, easily. It is not a discovery engine the way Amazon is.

      Your observation about perfectionism is a good one. Certainly it’s possible for a newbie to waste an editor’s time with an unpolished manuscript, but it’s also possible for a skilled novelist to beat a manuscript to death trying to please everyone and make it “perfect.”

      I question the advice that supposes a bad submission this year will preclude an editor (let alone other editors) from considering another submission at a later date. Surely editors are clever enough to figure out that a writer can improve over time.

  2. I wrote this post before reading Damien G. Walter’s “7 Signs You Are Ready to Self-publish.” Although he offers some answers to the “How do you know when you’re ready?” question, he perpetuates the idea that unready writers ought to keep their heads down and their manuscripts unseen. This is what I mean when I say publishing, unlike visual art or music or drama or any other art form I can think of, allows no forum for apprentice and journeyman practitioners.

  3. I’ve been dabbling in Wattpad, and it’s very amateur. At the same time, it’s also full of the crazed enthusiasm of teens who are writing their hearts out and sharing it with everybody. If you want to get noticed on there, you have to hang out on the pertinent genre forums and advertise. It also means trading “reads” and “comments” with other people, which means reading a lot of amateur work.

    There’s also a lot of “professional” authors who post books on there as a favor to Wattpad. I’ve also seen someone post a book in exchange for Amazon reviews. Those stories wind up with millions of views and thousands of comments.

    It’s not for everyone–I try to network for one hour a day–but I also spent my teen years in a similar community and I’m used to the way it works. I figure that after I’ve been there a year (and if I can score well in the Watty awards), I might have a ready-made audience for my other book I want to small-press publish.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Kessie. I only spent a little time on Wattpad, but what you said about teen enthusiasm is very true. I think a forum like that is just what amateurs need to build their skills. And you are right about using it to find and build your audience.

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