Help! I’m Published and I Can’t Get Up!

James Scott Bell

Today’s post is brought to you by Self-Publishing Attack! Nine out of 10 doctors who self-publish recommend it to their patients who self-publish.


Over the past year I’ve heard from a number of writing friends, all of whom have been traditionally published. They are facing some harsh realities, like being dropped by their publisher. Or being unable to land another contract because their sales record follows them around like a bad smell. They are good, solid writers who made it into the Forbidden City. But the gendarmes have tossed them outside the gates without so much as a fare-thee-well.

These writers tremble now in the dark forest, wondering about the band of scofflaws who are self-publishing. It’s not something they thought they’d ever want to (or have to) do.

They always thought they’d have that comfortable room in the City, and maybe even get a place at the A List banquet table if things broke right.

But things haven’t broken right. And now they don’t know what to do. So here’s an amalgamation of the advice and encouragement I’ve been handing out:

1. Know Thyself

Are you a writer? Yes, that’s the first question. I mean the kind of writer who can’t not write. If you can do anything else and it improves your quality of life, by all means, do that thing instead. It reminds me of Lawrence Block’s counsel: If you think you want to write a novel take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.

If you get out of that dark room and know you have to do this, no matter what, take further stock. What type of writer are you? I see four general categories:

Hands off

This is where the author gives everything, including most of the rights and income, over to a publishing house. It must be pointed out, however, that such contracts are increasingly rare, especially for midlist writers whose previous books did not sell. Indeed, several agents I’ve talked to recently say it’s easier to place a new writer than a midlister with poor numbers. And advances are down so low they are starting to feel like retreats. 

Yet many writers continue to pound on the gates of the Forbidden City because of the “prestige” factor. They also hold to the hope that they might make it to national and international bestseller status. If that’s you, just understand that the odds of moving from published to mega-bestselling is an Evel Knievel jump over the Snake River. So wear a helmet. 

Fingers in

There are new ops springing up in the digital world, where the author can contract with a company providing a menu of services. These companies are innovative and fast moving. You share the income, but in terms that are more favorable to the writer who takes the hands off approach. At the Writer’s Digest Conference last week in New York, I heard about one such company, Booktrope. There will be more, many more, down the road. Look over the terms each company offers, and see what other authors say about them. Keep track of the fakes and phonies by looking at Writer Beware every now and then. 

Hands on

This refers to the pure self-publishing writer, who knows writing is (and really always has been) a business. He puts writing as job #1, but places strategic planning as job #1a. He breaks down his publishing career into three parts: a) production (which includes short form and long form work); b) design; c) marketing. He puts in research up front to get his own freelance team in place and, once there, works a plan, works a plan, adjusts, works a plan, works a plan. And, as I say in Self-Publishing Attack, they repeat this over and over the rest of their lives.

More and more we are hearing about even New York Timesbestselling authors who have been crunched by current reality. The aforementioned Mr. Block, who once could find two shelves of his backlist at a Barnes & Noble store, now sees only three or four titles, one copy each. A few years ago he never would have thought he’d recommend a hands on approach, but that was then. In a recent blog post he writes:

“[M]y default response, when someone asks how to get an agent, or how to find a publisher, or any writerly version of what-do-I-do-now, is to suggest publishing it oneself. That’s a course I never would have recommended to anyone, except perhaps the occasional dotard who’d penned a memoir he hoped his grandchildren would read. And now I’m urging it upon everyone—writers whose publishers have dropped them, writers who never had publishers in the first place, writers whose early books have gone out of print.”

Arms around

This is the writer who embraces change and all the opportunities out there. He does not shun traditional publishing, for example, but is open to the right deal (and that means knowing publishing contracts and what terms to walk away from). This writer does not throw flames at bridges. Instead, he builds them—to readers, mostly, but on occasion to the industry, too.

So the very first thing, if you’re a writer who has “fallen,” is to know what type you are. Are you entrepreneurial or highly risk averse? Can you think like a business person, or does the thought of doing so give you the cold sweats?

Since I’m an “arms around” writer, I try to counsel those of the opposite disposition to at least try to know more, do more, take more responsibility for their own life and career. The days of Emily Dickinson are over. I liken the current climate more to the pulp writing days of the Great Depression. Those guys knew it was a business, and had to produce the work to eat.

Get busy, learn, and remember . . .

2. Don’t Give Up, Ever

You have the talent and the craft. That was proved when you signed with a publisher once upon a time. You can still write, so do it. Produce the words. Spend some part of your week, whatever you can spare after the writing is done, studying the new landscape and applying what you learn.

Finally, get rid of all expectations. Expectations are for chumps. The only thing you can control is the work you do today, and then tomorrow. If you are a writer, you write, even if you never sell another thing. But you will. As I told my workshop in NY, your Ficus tree will make something, if it follows the right plan. It may just be enough for a specialty drink at Starbucks (assuming your Ficus likes coffee). But it will be something, and something is better than nothing (I took high school math).

Get up and write, friend. You are not alone. And you are not down for the count. The future is bright for the writer who won’t give up.

45 thoughts on “Help! I’m Published and I Can’t Get Up!

  1. It was hard to “never give up”, but found that I simply can’t stop writing. It’s in me. I think about some scene or dialogue constantly–at work, at home, wherever… so I’ve usually got half my brain functioning in reality and the other half in my other world.
    Good post, James, I’ve decided to go Indie and have more control and a better cut in proffits… and it’s true you can only control the stuff you are writing at the moment.

    • Real writers know exactly what you mean, Lorelei, about “half your brain” being in that other world. Accepting that reality, you have options. Good luck.

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for great advice. As a new writer with a realistic expectation that I will be self-publishing, should I try to get the first book traditionally published? Does self-publishing the first book “poison” my chances for a traditional publishing contract down the road? In WRITER’S DIGEST, May/June issue, Hugh Howey argued just the opposite. I had never heard that before. I would appreciate your thoughts on the pros and cons for the first book.

    And as a doc who writes, I’ll tell me patients who write to take a full dose (the whole bottle) of SELF-PUBLISHING ATTACK! and call Jim in the morning.

    Thanks for the post!

    Steve Hooley

    • Hi Steve…..well, times have changed (boy, howdy). Three years ago perhaps there was still a “stigma” attached to self-publishing, but no more. Self-publishing first does not close the doors of the Forbidden City. But you need to put your book through the paces, make sure it’s something that could be published traditionally and successfully. That requires objectivity, something you can get with a team.

      Hugh Howey is right, and he’s also good. The latter is the most important thing.

  3. Incredible post! Thank you. I have read Self-Publishing Attack, but this post has helped me move out of the dithering stage and on to planning.

  4. This all makes a lot of sense, but what about the never before published writer? Somewhere along the line a publisher figured that midlister had talent and craft enough to be published. That midlister presumably has at least a small following. Newer writers like myself,who may have written 3 or 4 novels with no publications have no “author” cachet, and are often not sure if they do indeed have the talent and craft necessary to sell their novels. How do they proceed?

  5. Hi Eve….well, this post today isn’t really about all the things a new author ought to do, esp. when thinking about those elusive phantoms called “talent” and “craft.” I believe, with Brenda Ueland, that everyone has some talent, everyone has something to say, but you have to marry that to craft and never stop learning, never stop writing. If, indeed, this is something you just have to do.

    Get some feedback. Get into a critique group or hire a good editor or editorial service. Identify your weaknesses boldly and then study ways to turn them into strengths. Go to a writer’s conference. Go after this thing with a club in your hand. And just refuse to go away.

  6. Great post, Jim. As you and I have discussed many (many!) times, my opinion on the efficacy of self-publishing is black to your white. I think that self-publishing is an exercise in frustration and a path to near-assured failure for first-time authors. The Forbidden City, as you refer to it, has an insatiable hunger for new, talented first-time authors, and while advances aren’t what they were in the ’90s, there are still plenty of solid five- and six-figure advances out there for those authors who are patient enough to allow the time necessary for their query to land on the desk of the right agent on the right day. Twenty or thirty rejections is hardly any rejection at all.

    The first-time self-published authors who find success in the traditional world (which still, even in the midst of the self-published revolution, continues to be the touchstone which legitimizes self-publishing in the minds of many) are those whose efforts pay off BIG. For others, whose work in the old days might have been published with an anticipation of a 1,500-copy print run, the fact that they can’t sell more than a couple of hundred copies on their own is in fact a statistic that lives forever in the computers of booksellers. It’s the very formula that kills mid-list careers, but writ larger, and without the advantage of the more reliable shot at success that is offered by the dozens and dozens of publishers large and small.

    No one can argue–certainly, I can’t–that true writers must write, but the need to put words on the page does not translate to a desire of customers to buy the words that have been written. Those of us who read manuscripts for workshops and such know how under-cooked most stories are–even the good ones, written by talented yet unseasoned writers. Too many of those writers see self-publishing as a means of writing those extra twelve drafts that will take the manuscript to the next level. They justify their decision to launch in part because it’s easier to believe that the full-accessible city is in fact forbidden, and that they are being treated unfairly. Especially in the case of the talented writer who just needs another six months of revisions, this is tragic. Rather than surprising an agent or editor with brilliance from an unknown writer, the author has to explain the bad stuff that continues to hang out on the Internet, and the Amazon sales number that never dropped out of the seven-digit range.

    The real power of the developing world of self-publishing lies with established writers whose sales have slumped, but whose fans are anxious for more.

    Or, as always, I could be wrong.

    John Gilstrap

    • At least I know how to get Brother Gilstrap back to TKZ….it’s to write about self-publishing. Nice to see you! There’s a lot in your post that could be the subject of a nice panel discussion sometime.

      I wholeheartedly agree with your last paragraph (the one where you say you could be wrong….kidding….I mean the next to last). In fact, that’s the main subject of my post.

      I don’t entirely agree with your first, because I don’t see this as “black and white.” I see it as a rainbow, with some clouds to be sure, but a lot of sun and a huge palette of possibilities. I do agree, and have argued, that self-publishing writers need to put themselves through the same rigors as they would to go traditional. Indie is no a synonym for short cut. (Well, maybe short as in a book appears when it’s ready, not in 18 months.) And “near assured failure” is an odd phrase in view of the thousands (tens of thousands?) and ever-increasing number of pure self-publishing writers who are actually making good money (and some who are therefore being invited into the Forbidden City, though they may politely decline.)

      And I would argue that self-published “numbers” do not mean the same as print book sales numbers. In fact, a self-publishing writer of any stripe has more of a platform than some freshly minted MFA sitting at a kitchen table in Iowa waiting for that big deal.

      A self-publishing writer with a killer concept and book to back it up has the same chance at the Forbidden City as anyone, no matter what has happened before.

      Now where the heck is your self-published novella, John?

    • Hi John

      As a late bloomer to the writing game … due to procrastination, stops and restarts some years later, some of us are running out of time for tradition.
      Now at sixty-six the game with traditional prestigious routs is almost not an option any more.
      When I finish my rough draft within the next two months, it will be time to shoot from the hip.
      I believe the marketing angle will be the toughest, and from what I hear, a successful blog could be the best Route 66.

    • Hey John:
      Really late to the party here…took Sunday off. Congrats on Kensington doing your novella! Just FYI: When we decided to do a novella (as a prequel to our traditionally pubbed book), our publisher said they wanted it. But they wanted it turned in within 3 weeks (even though it would not be published for another 5 months!) and they offered almost no money, tiny royalty and no promotion plans. We decided to self-pub it (and keep 70% royalty). We promoted it like crazy, blasted out newsletters to our reader base and got it out on Kindle a month before our new book. It sold really well. It continues to sell. One little book…steady income stream. Although like James, we want to be in both worlds, we will continue to self-pub as well. It just makes sense for us, at least.

    • I agree, Kris. If an author puts out the time and sweat to write a novella, and there isn’t going to be a print version, he ought to keep all of the income and put it out himself. If there’s a traditional publisher involved, they should publicize (perhaps even sell) the novella, because it’s a great way to build interest and readership for the print book.

    • I agree, Kris. If an author puts out the time and sweat to write a novella, and there isn’t going to be a print version, he ought to keep all of the income by self-publishing. If there’s a traditional publisher for the writer’s novels, they should publicize (perhaps even sell) the novella, because it’s a great way to build interest and readership for the full length books.

  7. I resisted the Indie call and finally sold my first book to a small publisher in 2010. In 2011 that small publisher sank with the economy, taking my book with it. With eleven more ready to go, I was more than pleased to read your post; there is hope. The downside I see is the time I’ll have to spend attending to details will come right out of my writing time. That gives me pause. I entered the Amazon Breakthrough contest this year and after two cuts I’m still standing so this Indie thing may be thrust on me. Thanks for the pep-talk. Yours was the first how-to book I read so thanks for that too.

    • Remember, you have choices. You can be “fingers in” if you self-publish. You can let a company handle the gritty details if you like. Just check them out and read the fine print.

  8. Jim, As an author with feet firmly in both camps, someone who has studied not only the craft of writing but the state of publishing (which changes from moment to moment), I can’t think of anyone more qualified to write this post. Thanks for sharing.
    As for your advice to “wear a helmut,” would that be Helmut Dintine? He played a lot of Nazis, but I never realized he was a writer as well. ; )

    • Doc, you are a man after my own, film-loving heart. Helmut Dantine! You know what’s funny? I just watched Mrs. Miniver again the other night with Mrs. B. He, of course, has a memorable scene in that classic…

      No get back to work.

  9. Personally, I’m going to wait for the publishing industry to start scouting for new authors. Heck, stop digging through the slush pile and hang out with us bloggers on the internet. 😀

    Come visit my blog! Oh, you liked that particular article? I have more, and I CAN be bought for a nominal fee. Contract, you say? Sponsorship? Who, little ole me?

    J/K! Great post, Jim. I self-published two short stories just to play around with the “how to” and learn something knew. I don’t plan to publish anything more. I write because I have to. My mind never shuts up.

  10. Thanks Jim, for your inspiring post. I hope that I’m the kind of author who can adapt and change but I who will keep her eye firmly on the writing first and foremost:)

  11. Where do we sign up for the panel discussion with Jim B. and John H.? I’ll bring the popcorn — along with a fresh 5-subject spiral notebook.

  12. Mr. Bell: What great information–thanks a lot! But this needs to be added: Young writers are growing up with and are comfortable with the new technology. Older writers who don’t have easy access to tech assistance are at a great disadvantage–and the door is wide open for scam artists to prey on them. This happened to me. The paradox is that young, tech-savvy writers are often very un-savvy when it comes to writing itself; not always but often,the opposite holds true for people who have been writing (and reading) a long time. In other words, in the age of self-promotion and Indie publishing, anyone who becomes known as a reliable source of user-friendly tech assistance is going to welcomed by many “writers of a certain age”–especially those you describe who have been dumped by their legacy publishers.

    • Well put, Barry. But a bit of time put into learning and research will find the reliable help one needs. The advantage for the “older” writers you describe (who know how to craft a story) is that the story is king. They will lap tech-savvy but -story-challenged over time.

  13. Excellent Jim.

    I had nearly scaled the heights of the trad castle only to have my ladder pushed back at the last minute I by an archer on the wall. The fall was painful, and very discouraging but not lethal (I’d landed on a pile of thousands of bags of fresh marshmallows someone had brought to roast smores over the flames of burnt hopes and dreams blazing nearby).

    After a couple of attempts that fell even shorter, I moved into the self-pub route. Yeah, it wasn’t easy by any means. I had to hire editors and cover artists and shell out a little dough. But now three years later I am wondering why I didn’t do that from that first realization of the self-pub path in 2008. I might’a become one of the big gun’s early on.

    In the mean time, since I have no choice but to write it will be the path I stay on with an arms open plan, in the event some big pub house wants to hug me with a big wad-o-cash like my Aunt Sally used to do…except hers was all $1s and if the publisher tries to plant big wet sloppy kiss on my cheek I’ll definitely walk away.

    Between self-pubbed books and the audiobook narration gig I can see a living in this if I keep at it, maybe even a good living.

    Well, back to finishing the next project. Thanks for the motivation Jim.

  14. Thank you for the post, James. You and Les Edgerton are my favorite writing craft authors, and I just found your writing ebooks last week. Having worked in traditional publishing, I’ve always planned to go that way with the novels I’m working on, but more and more I like the idea of having control over my own writing destiny, and I don’t mind doing some experimenting to see what comes of it. (I’m mostly a nobody in the writing world now, so it probably doesn’t matter much if I remain one if it doesn’t work out. Lol.)

    • I’ll do my best, of course. Writing with excellence is the best thing you can do no matter which route you choose as a writer. There is no substitute for learning the craft of writing and employing it daily.

  15. Wish I’d known this before my book was published. It would’ve saved me a lot of heartache. Luckily, I’m a hard worker. I just didn’t realize the marketing part would be tougher than the writing part.

  16. Jim: You know my writing history. I appreciate all your words of advice over the years. LIke this article today, you know how to touch the hearts of writers. offering encouragement and hope. Keep it up, my friend!

  17. I think the term “Self” publishing is being misused. Few authors truly SELF publish. You can. If you’re willing to do the work. When the NY Times reports that such and such big name is “self-publishing” via their agent, then they’re really not self-publishing.

    I think using a team is the best approach and the way I’ve approached publishing since 2010 with great success.

    At Cool Gus we get approached by trad authors wanting to go indie. First, it is not a simple answer about what exactly we do. It’s a lot more than just slapping a cover on a book, formatting it and loading it. An eBook is organic. It takes about an hour to explain a lot of the intricacies of how the digital world works. And then the ones who are savvy, understand they need a team approach where the author is in charge, but gets expert advice and support in an ongoing relationship.

    One problem is that many trad authors still want to hold on to their agents while going indie. That’s fine if the agent understands the dynamics, but many don’t.

    The bottom line is we’re going to see an evolution for trad authors where they have options that give them much higher royalty rates (at least double what NY does), personal attention, and an ongoing relationship with people vested in their success.

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