Why Submit to Publishers & Agents When You Can Self-Publish?

Last week I celebrated the one-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism.

I posted specifically about that experience here. But for now, I want to address a totally legitimate question I’ve been asked in the context of coping with rejections: why bother? Why bother with this whole submission thing when you can just self-publish? Why submit yourself to the good graces of literary academics and traditional publishers in their ivory towers, when you can just do it yourself?

Self-Publishing Is Awesome–If You’re Up For It

Let’s just head this off by saying–as evidenced by the fact that I self-published that book myself, I am not anti-self-publishing in any sense. I think it can be an amazing solution for many writers.

Before the Amazon revolution, self-publishing was considered a last resort, expensive and clunky, and the quality of self-published books was notoriously awful. These days, that’s no longer true; self-publishing is a totally respectable and affordable option, and you can pretty easily produce a beautiful book using a POD (print-on-demand) service.

Self-publishing offers a flexibility and control over the process that you can never have with the traditional model. I am glad that I did it and I think it was a great experience for me.

But.

All things being equal, I still prefer getting published by a publisher, even a small independent one.

Why?

The Learning Curve

From what I’ve learned, successful self-published authors have the following in common:

  • They produce high-quality books
  • They are great at engaging with and expanding their audiences via social media, forums, and content marketing
  • They are prolific and produce new books all the time, consolidating their revenue and audiences

The first two items require a much wider skillset than just writing a book–or the money to pay someone, or several someones, who have those skills.

Producing a high-quality book means editing, proofreading, book design/typesetting, and cover design–not to mention formatting the eBook. Publishing it yourself means choosing the right tools and platforms for you, and learning the differences between them and how to use them was a major project for me.

Engaging with your audience on the Internet requires some computer skills–building an attractive website, managing an e-mail list,using social media, etc. You don’t have to be a gregarious extrovert to succeed, but you do need to be willing to put yourself out there and pitch your stuff to people. This, in particular, is something I really, really struggle with.

Editing as a Service, and the Problems Therein

My biggest investment in LtJ was hiring an editor. I felt it was indispensable to have another pair of professional eyes look over the manuscript.

First there’s the question of finding a good one. I hired one on the recommendation of a colleague–and had a fairly negative experience with her. Working with an editor at a traditional publishing company isn’t a guarantee that you’ll love each other, but it does at least set a baseline for the quality of the work you can expect from her.

But even if you manage find an amazing editor—you’re still hiring her. That is, the editing job is a service she is providing you.

I think this creates a problematic dynamic.

In my opinion, you should want to please your editor, not the other way around. If your editor is worried that giving you certain feedback may make you unhappy, he may opt to gloss it over or omit it. He is not invested in the success of the project–he’s only invested inasmuch as he gets paid for his work, which happens before the book goes to print.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t ever be done this way. But it’s a disadvantage, one that can negatively impact the quality of your final product.

The Investment

If you have the money to invest in the production of a great book–awesome. I didn’t. I did most of the work myself, including book design and setting myself up on CreateSpace et al, paying only for the editing (which I was unhappy with, remember?) and the ISBNs. I enjoyed the process of designing the book myself and I have an eye for design, so that worked out just fine for me:

But it’s not for everyone.

Depending how much you invest, you’ll need to sell several hundred copies to break even, and that usually means investing a lot of time in marketing. (Unless you also have the money to invest in a publicist, but… yeah. Time and/or money either way.)

You’ll have to invest time in marketing no matter who publishes your work, but at least with a traditional publisher, it’s them making the seed investments, not you–and you have a team of people, not just you, who are invested in your book’s success.

The Distribution

If you’re on top of your social media game and get the hang of content and social marketing, you can achieve excellent results. Still, you can’t achieve the same level of distribution that a traditional publisher will have. Getting your books on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar store will require a lot of work and ultimately doesn’t really pay off financially when you’re self-publishing.

The Recognition

Look.

In the Creative Resilience Manifesto, the collection of core beliefs that guide this blog, I state the following: “I share my creations because I believe in their worth. Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.”

Self-publishing, for me, was an exercise in letting go of the need for a higher authority to approve of my work.

And yet.

Obviously, the quality of your book is far more important than who published it. Nonetheless, having the reputation of a publisher behind you makes people more likely to take you seriously. In the world we live in, people are obsessed with qualifications and credentials. There will always be snobs who will turn up their noses at a self-published book no matter how good it is. (It happened to my heroine Brené Brown with her first book, which was self-published!)

People are lazy and they like relying on the judgment of “professionals” instead of forming their own opinions.

That doesn’t mean you have to get the approval of an authority. Absolutely not. But having it can be an advantage.

A Note on “Author-Invested” Publishers, a.k.a., Glorified Self-Publishing

Now, the publishers that exist today fall all along the spectrum from strictly traditional to what I call “glorified self-publishing.” I dabbled in submitting LtJ to some Jewish publishers before making the final decision to self-publish it, and discovered that the vast majority of them are what they call “author-invested,” which is a euphemism for “fork over $10-15k so we can produce your book and distribute it, and you will enjoy high royalties.”

Look–I’m not pooh-poohing this model entirely. If you have that money and don’t want to handle the production yourself, it might be worth it for the distribution. And I get that from the perspective of a publisher, investing in a book is risky, and this is a smarter business model that eliminates that risk. But to my mind, that’s also the biggest problem with this model. Because thanks to your investment, their editors and graphic designers will get paid either way; and thanks to your high royalties, they aren’t left with much of an incentive to make sure your book is successful and profitable.

It’s Not Really One or the Other

I think this is the most important thing.

The two models are not mutually exclusive.

When you self-publish, the book still belongs entirely to you. This means that another publisher can still acquire it from you. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen. (It happened to another author I know, and it may happen to me–I have a publisher interested in LtJ, but we haven’t signed anything yet.)

If you are successful and achieve good sales with your self-published book, that makes you a much safer bet for a publisher or agent, since you already have a platform and have proven yourself at marketing.

Yes, there are agents and publishers who will turn up their noses when they hear that you self-published something. They need to get over themselves and get with the times.

Ultimately, it’s a very personal choice, and I can’t tell you what’s right for you. Both routes require courage and resilience; it’s just that some of the challenges you face are different. And I’m sorry to tell you that no matter what you choose and how successful you are, if you’re a creative person putting your work out there… there is still plenty of rejection in your future.

But hey–that’s what this blog is for, right? 😉

Someday Your “Yes” Will Come

When I started writing this post, it felt kind of funny.

Hypocritical, almost.

I mean… this is the blog I explicitly started on the banner of shifting focus away from success stories and happy endings, and towards talking about rejection. My first post was powerful precisely because of my particular position at the time–a writer who, for many years, had consistently failed to get her stories published, and despite this, continued to believe in her work and to keep trying. Without the “and then.” Because there doesn’t need to be an “and then” for that effort to be worth something.

But if you don’t give up, if you keep creating, and keep trying, and keep saying “yes” to opportunities, and keep risking rejection… one way or another, one day, you will have some kind of “and then.”

I am now 29, with another novel, a novella, and a handful of short stories under my belt… and more than 200 rejection letters to show for all of it.

That’s it. Not one of them has been published.

Two months after I wrote those words in my introductory post to the Rejection Survival Guide, my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal.

And then, my short story Scarf Sisters was accepted for publication in arc 25, literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English (to be published this winter).

…And then, I found a publisher for my novel.

Yeah. You read that right.

excited gif

I’ve been sitting on this news since the end of September, waiting until it was on paper before making official announcements. We just signed the contract.

It was one of those crazy situations where all the components have been slowly building and lining up for several years unbeknownst to me, and all it took was one conversation to make everything fall into place. The first piece of the puzzle was a poem I wrote on a whim, in response to a submission call years ago. This led to its publication in the Veils, Halos & Shackles anthology. The publisher, Yael Shahar of Kasva Press, contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy. She happened to be someone I sort of know from various online settings and through mutual friends; an author in her own right. From here to there, we ended up exchanging books and ideas, and when I mentioned that I write fiction as well, she enthusiastically invited me to send her my manuscript. Two days later she called me to tell me that she wants to take it on.

This is the “yes” I’ve been dreaming of for almost 15 years.

Well… sort of.

Technically my fantasy was a “yes” from a literary agent. I dreamed of getting published by a major publishing company–without any prior credentials or platform–and then sitting with my feet up waiting for the rave reviews, fan mail, and royalties to come pouring in.

I may as well have imagined using a unicorn as a footrest.

So, this is the “yes” I’ve been waiting for… adjusted for deflation of my ego and expectations over the years.

And in this rare, very long-in-coming moment of accomplishment… here’s what I want to say to those of you still drowning in “nos.”

Keep going.

I KNOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS TO HEAR THIS FROM ME RIGHT NOW.

SERIOUSLY.

If I were reading this entry six months ago I would have wanted to throw a book at myself. A few months ago I posted an entire tirade against telling people not to give up! But let me clarify that what I mean when I say “Keep going.

I don’t mean “Keep sending the same submission to the same exact market forever and ever and eventually someone will like it.”

What I mean is this:

Keep doing what you love.

Keep listening to yourself.

Keep creating when that is right for you.

Keep engaging with your work and embracing constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

Keep taking breaks when you need to.

Keep your mind open to other possibilities and solutions–and be humble enough to try “lower-prestige” opportunities. You gotta start somewhere.

Keep trying new things.

Keep putting yourself out there.

When you do this, when you are persistent and flexible and in love with what you’re doing, eventually, magic will happen.

The magic may not look like what you dreamed. But you know what? Up close, even getting everything you ever dreamed can be, in the immortal words of Wicked lyricist Stephen Schwartz, “a little… well… complicated.”

Once upon a time, I thought of a literary agent as a kind of fairy godmother who would swoop in, wave her wand, turn my manuscript into a magic carriage, and sweep me away to Authorland.

Comic of girl standing opposite fairy godmother saying,
Preach, sister. Used with permission.

But in the past few years I’ve learned that that’s not how it works. Even if you are lucky enough to have an agent, you don’t just hand off your manuscript and sit back waiting for the world to be blown away by your genius. You have to put yourself out there, you have to make connections, you have to keep writing and keep promoting until the book is pouring out of your ears and you never want to look at it again.

But I do have some good news about Authorland: you don’t get there via magic carriage. You get there by writing a book! No fairy godmothers required!

I got to live my dream of walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on display, not because of an agent-fairy-godmother, but because I believed in my work enough to publish it myself and put it out there without the validation of a higher authority.

And it was that–the putting myself out there, the daring greatly, the thinking outside the box, the grinding, consistent, difficult work of submitting and revising and clarifying for myself what success means to me–that got me a publisher for my book in a totally unexpected way.

I mean… I’m not exactly on my way to being a literary superstar here. I probably never will be, and I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day–that’s never really what I wanted. And that fact is something I had to clarify for myself very carefully before I got to this point.

There are no glass slippers in my story. Just my own tired, blistered feet.

So… to those of you with equally tired feet. Those of you with inboxes and mailboxes and phone calls full of “nos.” Those of you who are questioning whether it’s really worth it to keep pursuing this dream. Those of you who are brave enough to keep going and who continue to believe in your work despite all the rejection and criticism.

To that brokenhearted woman I was, a year and a half ago, crying her eyes out at 3 a.m. because she finally let herself feel the pain of all the disappointment after a particularly difficult rejection.

Someday your “yes” will come.

It might take 15 years.

It might take hundreds of rejections.

It might require a serious shift in expectations and flexibility about what that “yes” will look and sound like.

And I know how hard it is to keep hoping for so long after so much disappointment. God Almighty. Trust me. I know.

Throw a book at me if you must. I know your pain.

But it will come. I promise you. It will. It will, if you just. keep. going.


P.S. If you want to know more about my forthcoming book, be sure to sign up for my newsletter here!

A Happy Confession

I have a confession to make.

In my first post on this blog, I wrote: “I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old… Not one of them has been published.”

As of today, that is no longer true.

My short story, Immersion, was published today in the Jewish Literary Journal. It’s about a religious Jewish woman who copes with heartbreak in a rather unusual way. You can read it here.

See, I don’t get rejected 100% of the time. Only 99.99999%! 😉

It’s a niche journal, not too fancy, but you gotta start somewhere, and I found the editors to be professional and insightful.

Here’s praying it’s the first of many.

In the meantime, don’t you worry, in the past 24 hours I got another two rejections for another of my stories, which had me despairing and questioning all my life choices, as per usual. 😉

4 Strategies for Surviving the Wait for a Response to Your Submission

You know what’s worse than getting a rejection?

Waiting for a rejection.

Okay, maybe not worse. But it’s really hard. Especially when it’s a very long wait, and especially when the stakes are high. I have had five full manuscript requests from agents in my life. The wait between the request and the rejection is nothing less than harrowing… and it lasts. for. ever.

What do you do with yourself? How do you not sit there staring at your inbox, chewing your nails, for 2-3 months straight?

This post is a collection of strategies I’ve discovered. Please share your strategies below!

1) Let Yourself Dream

I know this may go against the common wisdom–“don’t get your hopes up”–and I’ve mentioned before that I have a bone to pick with that “wisdom.” But I’m not talking about your expectations from reality. I’m talking about letting yourself fantasize about the outcome you wish for.

“But…!” I hear you protest. “I’m a Real Adult! I can’t spend my life in Lalaland dreaming about fame and glory!”

No, but you certainly can–and maybe even should–spend part of your life in Lalaland.

Fantasy can be a powerful coping mechanism. It has its dangers, yes. But being that you’re a Real Adult, you probably differentiate rather well between fantasy and reality. If you’re a creative person, you probably have a vivid imagination, and you probably fantasize about achieving your dreams already. Contrary to what you may have been told, this is a Good Thing. I’ll show you why.

Close your eyes and imagine your phone rings. On the other end is someone giving you the best news you could possibly hear right now. Really picture this carefully; imagine their voice, the feel of the phone against your ear, and really hear the words and let yourself react naturally to what you hear.

How do you feel?

Probably flooded with excitement. You may feel a tingling in your limbs and your heart pounding. Even though the situation you’re imagining isn’t real, the excitement is.

Science tells us that experiences that take place only in our minds can have the same or very similar effects on our brains as the real thing happening. Martial artists who practice kata (forms) in their minds actually improve their technique. And if there’s a decent chance that what you’re going to experience when you get a response to that submission is the disappointment and sadness of a “no”… why not give yourself a chance to experience the excitement and joy of a “yes,” even if it’s only in your imagination?

If all you experience from submission is disappointment and pain, you’re likely to burn out fast. Who wouldn’t? Who wants to constantly subject themselves to disappointment and pain?

But if you make the excitement and hope part and parcel with the experience of submission, you are much more likely to keep at it.

2) Create Something New!

This is a pretty common recommendation, and in this context, I think it’s a fairly good one. Obsessing over your submission is not going to influence the decision of whoever’s considering it. Might as well invest those energies in a new project and do what you love, right?

If you’re not feeling inspired, invest in what writer Amity Gaige calls “inspirational research” or what Julia Cameron calls “filling the well.” Read good fiction. Visit an art exhibit. Take a walk in nature. Listen to music you love. If you’re a writer, paint. If you’re a painter, write. Etc.

3) Keep ‘Em Rolling

I’ve read recommendations to send out query letters in batches of 6-8 queries and wait to hear back on them before the next batch. That way you can see what kind of responses you’re getting and adjust/revise your submission before submitting to more. Fairly practical advice.

The problem is, this makes your life a sickening emotional rollercoaster. You send out the submission. 6-8 weeks later you get a wave of rejections (or hopefully, requests to see more, or acceptances! But, sadly, most likely rejections). Then you send it out again. So you have a period of hope, followed by a period of disappointment, followed by a period of hope, and on and on…

When I was still actively seeking an agent, I had what I called a “query-a-week policy.” I sent at least one query letter each week. That way, when I got a rejection, I knew that I still had another few queries out there and wouldn’t have to wait a whole new “cycle” for a response. This maintains a steady level of hope.

And hope–if I haven’t emphasized this enough–is one of the biggest keys to resilience.

The “rolling submission” method doesn’t have the advantage of the “study groups” you get from submitting in batches. But you can still adjust your submission as you go.

I don’t know about other fields, but I know that literary magazines tend to have reading periods. There are lists and groups online where you can see current calls for submissions. Keep on top of those and try to submit on a regular basis. And if you’re feeling impatient about hearing back on a submission–go ahead and make another submission!

4) Pray or Meditate

You don’t have to be religious to engage in the practice of self-compassion and wishing yourself well. I’m a religious Jew, and when in doubt, I like to whip out my book of Psalms. But meditation is wonderful, too, and you can find excellent guided meditations on YouTube an other places on the web. For our purposes, I recommend finding one that focuses on inviting blessing and abundance into your life, or “metta” (loving-kindness) meditation, which involves cultivating compassion for yourself and others. Here’s one I found helpful while I was waiting to hear back on a full manuscript request.

Part of what’s so difficult about waiting is that it is so passive. You’re waiting for something to happen and there’s nothing you can do to make it happen faster! But praying or otherwise wishing yourself well helps you move from that sense of passivity to a sense of activity–doing something active to prepare yourself emotionally and spiritually for the outcome.

What are some strategies you employ while waiting to hear back on a submission? Which one of these have you tried, and how have they worked for you? I’d love to hear!

Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up

I’m sure you’ve heard those stories. The ones about extremely famous people, who experienced some form of rejection or failure, and went on to “prove them all wrong.”

Some are true. (The Beatles were rejected by Decca records. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper and told he lacked creativity. Albert Einstein really was a late talker. Etc.)

Some of them are exaggerations or inventions. (Michael Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school basketball team. C. S. Lewis was not rejected 800 times before he was first published. Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers, but J. K. Rowling already had an agent at that point, whom she snagged after sending only two query letters.)

The point of these stories is, of course, that rejection and failure don’t mean you can’t succeed. I think that is an important and inspiring message.

But I also think these stories are misleading, and even harmful, when taken at face value.

Here’s why.

The Danger of Survivorship Bias

A very well-meaning person once heard that I was trying to get my novel published, and told me not to give up. She saw the weary smile on my face and said, “It’s only the ones who give up who don’t succeed.”

I looked her square in the eye and asked, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you don’t know about the ones who kept trying, their whole lives, but didn’t succeed, because they didn’t succeed?

The Beatles were not the only musicians to be rejected by Decca. They were probably not the only good musicians to be rejected by Decca, either. How many music sensations did we never get to hear because they didn’t manage to find a recording company that liked their sound? How many truly amazing manuscripts were buried with their authors and never saw the light of day?

We’ll never know, but sadly, the answer is probably a lot.

We only hear about the ones who succeed, so we think they are representative. They aren’t. They are representative of the very small percentage of cases, of people who had just the right balance of talent, courage, and dumb luck/Divine assistance to make it big.

We need to face this truth and stare it in the face. We are not all the Beatles. We are not all J. K. Rowling. We are not all Walt Disney.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Freeing Ourselves from a Narrow Definition of Success

When I was contemplating the possibility of self-publishing Letters to Josep, I found myself approaching this question: what does it mean for me to be successful as an author? What specific, concrete results or experiences am I really dreaming of achieving?

When I sat down and thought about this, I came up with two things:

  1. I want to walk into a bookstore, see a book on the shelf, pick it up, hold it in my hands, and be able to say, “I wrote this.”
  2. I want something I wrote to change the way someone thinks or feels about something important to me.

That was it.

And I realized that I did not need an agent or a fancy publisher or even to sell more than a dozen copies to make that dream come true. I was willing to concede the brick-and-mortar bookstore part; after all, those establishments are becoming a rare relic of a pre-Amazon past.

But as it turns out, I didn’t have to.

Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem
Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem

Within a week of releasing Letters to Josep, someone wrote to me to tell me what an impact one small line from the book had had on her.

So under my definition of success, Letters to Josep was a success.

Typical inspirational success stories tell us that success means becoming rich and famous. They don’t give us room to ask ourselves what success really means to us.

Sometimes Giving Up Is the Bravest Thing You Can Do

If we buy into the idea that if we only try hard enough, we’ll succeed, one of these days we’re going to turn around and say, “This just isn’t working. I’ve given this everything I have, and I still haven’t succeeded. Why?”

I am writing this blog because I reached that point with my latest novel not so very long ago.

Let me tell you something. It is not easy to query more than 100 literary agents over the course of 18 months.

It is not easy to persist in the face of so many rejections. And there were little milestones along the way that made me feel that I was going in the right direction; encouragement from agents, keep going, keep trying. The manuscript evolved and improved dramatically over the course of that time thanks to the feedback I got from agents and friends. But all efforts turned up dry. All partial and full manuscript requests were turned down. All gates that opened led to dead ends. And at a certain point I realized that the querying process was no longer giving me hope, only anguish.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to rest.

Sometimes we need to know when it’s time to walk away–temporarily, or permanently–from a pursuit that is taking away more than it is giving us.

“Giving up” has such a negative connotation in a culture so obsessed with productivity. “Quitter” is one of the worst insults in American English. But there’s a concept in economics called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It’s when you continue to invest in something that is clearly not profitable only because you’ve already invested so much in it.

Sometimes giving up is the bravest thing you can do. Sometimes you need to recognize that you’ve invested everything you could in something that did not bear fruit, and it’s time to cut your losses. Giving up from a place of self-compassion and faith that you are doing the right thing for yourself is completely different from giving up from a place of fear.

And… you can always decide to pick it up again when you’re ready. I still Google agents from time to time. I will only query when it feels right.*

Investing in the Right Things

There is one piece of advice that all writers get that is absolutely, 100% true.

“Keep writing.”

I used to be annoyed when I got this advice. It sounded kind of like “Keep dreaming.” “You’re not good enough yet. Maybe you’ll be better if you keep practicing.”

And I found it infuriating to be told that just because I was very young, I couldn’t produce anything worthwhile.

While it was true that I was an unusually mature teenager and that my age didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t produce good literature, I still lacked something that could only be gained with time: experience. Anything I could have written at age 17, however talented I may have been, is going to pale in comparison to something I wrote at age 27. And I hope and pray that will be true of something I may write at age 37 or 47.

The perk of being an artist, my friends, is that we are like fine wines; the passage of time and experience itself gives our work depth, complexity, and color that cannot be achieved by anything else.

Sometimes we need to realize that the emotional energy we are investing in trying to get our work out there might be better spent invested in creating the next, greater work of art. Your “self-doubt demons” might drive the fear into you that you will never create anything better. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I’m able to ignore those voices. Sometimes they suck me into their vortex of “never good enough.” It’s a struggle, but the important thing is not to let them stop you from doing what you love.

The Lack-of-Wings Predicament

You may have seen a meme going around with a quote from a poem by Erin Hanson. I should mention that it works a lot better in context. But this is what appears on the meme:

‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

And I’m just like… really?

You think I should jump out the window and risk breaking my neck over the chance that I might fly?

Let’s be real. We have to weigh the risks of falling against the chances of flying. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most people reading this are not in possession of a pair of wings. Therefore, let me state the obvious: jumping out a window to see if you can fly is not called “brave,” it’s called “suicide.”

The choice not to jump is a lot less glorious, but sometimes it’s the right one.

So… my creative friends… this is what I want to tell you, and myself, today.

You are allowed to give up.

You are allowed to rest.

You are allowed to define what success means to you and operate accordingly.

You are allowed to choose which pursuits are most worthy of your energies–based on what’s right for you now.

And when you’ve decided to walk away from something, and someone tells you to not to give up… you have my permission to roll your eyes, curse under your breath, and keep walking with your head held high.


*I feel an obligation to add a footnote here for the sake of full disclosure, but please do not let it distract you from the very important message of this post. Just a few months after writing this entry, my novel was accepted for publication by a small publisher. More thoughts on what it means not to give up in my post about that acceptance, “Someday Your ‘Yes’ Will Come.

The 5 Words that Keep Me from Giving Up After 15 Years of Rejection

My name is Daniella Levy, and I’m a manuscript submission addict.

I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old. I wrote my first full-length novel between the ages of 12-14, and I sent my first query letter–for my second novel–a year or two later. I wrote five novels before I turned 20, and was this close to signing with an agent on the fifth one before she kinda disappeared on me (turned out she had quit).

I am now 29, with another novel, a novella, and a handful of short stories under my belt… and more than 200 rejection letters to show for all of it.

That’s it. Not one of them has been published.*

(Okay, it’s not that all my writing efforts have failed so extravagantly. I’ve had articles and poetry published, and I self-published my first nonfiction book, Letters to Josep, based on the eponymous blog, a couple months ago. But my passion has always been fiction.)

Well, you might be thinking, maybe you just suck at fiction.

I don’t.

Don’t take my word for it:

“I really enjoyed this and think you are talented and that this manuscript has potential,” said one literary agent.

“Your query letter stood out from the many we receive… we encourage you to continue with this project,” said another.

“I found much to admire in your writing,” said another.

“You show an obvious talent for writing… I’m sure we’ll find a project to work on together,” said another.

“I enjoyed this so much… I hope you will think of me for future projects if you don’t find an agent before then,” said another.

“Your sense of pacing and dialogue are better than many hopefuls twice your age,” one agent told sixteen-year-old me.

“We really enjoyed this piece, and we hope you will submit more of your work to us,” said one literary magazine.

“Although we cannot publish this piece at this time, we enjoyed it, and hope you will continue to submit to us,” said another.

So why haven’t I been published yet?

Well, here’s the disappointing truth for all those starry-eyed, well-intentioned people who like to tell me that Harry Potter was rejected dozens of times (…and don’t know that J. K. Rowling snagged an agent after sending two query letters. But I digress).

The market is hopelessly flooded.

More people have access to the literacy, materials, and leisure time necessary to create art and literature than ever before. And humans are creative by nature and many of them come out with some decent stuff. While most of the slush pile on agents’ and editors’ tables is pretty crappy, from what I gather, there is still a fair percentage of writing in there that is pretty good.

But “pretty good” isn’t what gets a novel published these days. Even “excellent” isn’t enough. It’s the M word. It has to be marketable. And the traditional publishing industry is in something of a crisis because of the huge changes in information technology and the “Amazon revolution.” They can’t afford to take risks. So they stick with the guaranteed bestsellers–probably depriving the world of a lot of diverse and intriguing voices in the process. It sucks, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business, and that’s how it is.

As for literary magazines… let’s be honest: who reads them? Save for the handful of elite publications that are impossible to break into, the vast majority of lit mags are not for profit and don’t pay their writers. Many of them support themselves by submission and contest entry fees, which basically makes them a self-contained echo chamber for literary academics. From my (admittedly limited) experience, they seem to be more interested in “daring” and “experimental” writing techniques than in producing things that us common folk actually want to read. It’s almost the opposite extreme of the full-length fiction industry.

And… let’s not even get into the question of prejudice and sexism.

Then why, you may ask, do I continue to submit my work in the face of these impossible odds? Why bother?

I have asked myself this question many times, and the answer is subject to change.

“I still have hope.”

“I’m a frikkin’ masochist.”

“I’m trying to prove myself.”

“Why not? What have I got to lose?”

“I’m addicted to querying. I can’t stop.”

“Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Maybe I’m just insane.”

Most often:

“I don’t. even. know.”

But deep down, I do know.

The answer is five words, whispered by a small, still voice at the very core of my being, beneath all the layers of self-doubt and fear and self-criticism.

“I believe in my work.”

That voice has never been silenced by anything. No amount of criticism or rejection dampens it in any way. It’s why I’m either going to get published one day, or die trying. Giving up was never an option. Because I believe in my work.

So many people stop believing in their work because of rejections.

So many people give up or don’t try in the first place because of rejections.

I’m here to tell you that if you are a creative person who wants to share your work with the world, rejection is just going to be part of your life.

But that doesn’t have to suck nearly as much as you think it does.

If you ask a writer how to handle the ups and downs of the submission process, you are likely to get one or both of these answers: “don’t get your hopes up,” or “move on to the next project so you’re occupied with something else.”

In other words: suppress your feelings, kill your hope, and distract yourself from something that is deeply important to you.

…Somehow that doesn’t seem like the healthiest approach to me.

It’s time we started talking about dealing with rejection in a way that is constructive and builds resilience… as opposed to reinforcing the neuroses that probably turned us all into writers and artists in the first place.

So, that’s what this blog is for.

I want to share what I’ve learned, and what I’m still learning, about resilience in the face of rejection. I want to explore the dialogue with self-doubt and the interplay between hope and disappointment. I want to publicly question the common coping mechanisms we employ to deal with these things, and where appropriate, find better alternatives.

I want to help you, too, discover the still, small voice in your heart that whispers, “I believe in my work.”

I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. I’ve been there. I’m still there. I may be there forever. So I’m getting comfortable, setting up shop, and mapping this place out for those of you who haven’t gotten to know this place like I have.

I have written out a manifesto to serve as a guide for myself and for you as I set out on this journey. It can be accessed at any time from the main menu. (ETA: Here is a post in which I elaborate on each section of the manifesto.)


The Creative Resilience Manifesto

I create because creation is an act of love.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.

That said, I embrace constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

I cultivate hope.

I refrain from the use of “prophylactic pessimism” to numb myself to disappointment.

I invite myself to feel everything.

Getting a rejection letter means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to submit my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

I give myself permission to mourn the loss that each rejection represents:
the death of a dream.

I also give myself permission to honor
that I dared to dream in the first place.

I celebrate the incredible courage I showed
in trying to make that dream come true.


I hope you’ll stick around.


*This was true when I first posted this. Happily, it is no longer true. My debut novel is forthcoming from Kasva Press in the fall of 2017; my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal in September 2016; and another short story, The Olive Harvest, was published in Reckoning in December 2016.