There Are No Guarantees in Publishing...Except One
Many of us grew up with the belief that hard work would equal success but I remember learning as early as middle school that there were kids in my class who would get better grades than I would because they'd cheat. They were seen as perfect students and it frustrated me so much that there was nothing I could do about it. I grew up in the Bronx, so snitching was illegal to me as a kid. This went on through high school and pretty soon, I became accustomed to working twice as hard for half the results of some of my peers. I never thought my frustrations with education would prepare me for publishing, but they have.
I've been writing with publication in mind for about seven years now. My first book comes out next year (in 2020) and there are still many goals I haven't reached despite quite literally working my butt off. I work till close to midnight most days, so if hard work were a guarantee of success, I would've reached every goal by now because let me tell you I am always exhausted.
But the thing is, nothing is owed to me. No matter how hard you work in publishing, there is always the possibility of failure, of not reaching the goal you set for yourself. That's something you need to accept going into this business, your success no matter how hard you work, is never guaranteed. And much like my middle and high school experience, there will be people who do questionable things, who steal from others, who build a career on the pain and hard work of their peers without so much as a thank you, but there's no sense in dwelling on that. Everyone's path, even the crappy people's, is different. The only journey you should be focused on, is your own. They might not be able to keep their eyes on their own paper, but you should. Because the point is not the grade despite what our awful education system drilled into us, the point is that you learn.
There is only one thing I know to be absolutely true when it comes to writing: If I work hard at my craft, I will get better at it. Not "if I work hard at my craft, someone will recognize it," or, "if I work hard at my craft, I will get a book deal," because even though those thing seem like the natural progression, if talent were an indication of book deals, a lot more writers of color would be published right now (more on that later.) The truth is, so much of it, so much more than we'd like to admit to ourselves, is luck. The right book, at the right time, going to the right editor, whose team also believes all those things are just right. I know that no matter how many years I revised a book before querying (5) or how many more I revised with my agent after (2 more) it doesn't mean anyone owes me a book deal. I knew that going in, and yes, it is hard not get results when you've put so much of yourself into a book, but that is how it goes. If you want something that makes sense, that's hard work x paying your dues = a trophy, publishing is not the place for you.
Don’t get me wrong, none of this is meant to discourage you from setting goals, I think goals are healthy and important! But there is a huge difference in my opinion from expecting something to happen, on your timing, and lashing out at everyone around you when it doesn’t work out to setting a goal and being disappointed when it doesn’t pan out how you wanted, but continuing to work for it with a tenacious, humble heart. It’s all in how you handle the upsets because there will be a lot of them in publishing. Being flexible in your pursuit of something, learning to grow and rebuild when you get knocked down and have to start from scratch are all things that have served me well.
This also doesn't mean there aren't other factors I consider or things I spend my time on aside from the actual writing. There are people who will tell you the only thing that matters is the writing/book, and although I agree the only thing I can control is the writing/book itself, I won't go down without fighting tooth and nail to be seen and to support the community I care about. It's why I've spent so much of my time and effort on social media, going to launches, helping people and in the process building a community of support that's been pretty amazing on days like my cover reveal a few days ago. The excitement around GHOST SQUAD is not just about this one book (although I know the book itself has an awesome premise and cover) but it's also about the people who've seen me fight for this dream for years, who've supported me, and who are eager to celebrate with me now. It’s a collective win. And I don’t know, maybe publishing doesn’t see that as an asset, but my community helps me survive in this industry, they give me the support I need to keep going.
There’s another layer here, which authors of color have to grapple with and if you’re an aoc yourself you’ve probably already realized the parallels here. Sometimes our books are held to a standard which feels impossible. This is a very real issue, one that hurts to even talk about sometimes. It’s just one more thing that’s out of our hands, because it’s not that we’re not working on our craft, or tamping expectations, it’s that our craft isn’t being recognized for what it is: brilliant, while mediocre writing by our white counterparts get rewarded again and again. It’s that sometimes, we’re not even give then chance to succeed or fail because we can’t even get in the door. There are lot of things out of our control here too. There’s an entire industry built on privilege and years of a certain kind of story being told. It can feel a bit helpless when it comes to these hard truths, but I like to look at the example of authors of color who are doing it. Who are working hard and succeeding sometimes despite everything being pitted against them. It’s a take on the “look for the helpers” thing which everyone is pretty sick of by now, but it does help me. When I think of authors like Tiffany Jackson, like Angie Thomas, like Ellen Oh and Adam Silvera, it gives me hope. They’ve been shut down, had to overcome so many things from poverty to doors being slammed in their face within the industry to being underestimated despite their incredible talent. Seeing authors like them helps me feel it’s possible for me. It helps me reroute my focus from what I “should” have by now, to what I’m working with, and how I can make the most of that.
There are so many moving parts to this industry, it can be hard not to take things personally or make them all about you. The truth is, almost all of us are struggling with the same things: rejection, defeat, discouragement. We all handle them in different ways and indeed some authors (like aoc or marginalized authors in general) have a whole other set of obstacles to contend with, but nobody can guarantee success will come if you keep going. Not if success is defined by industry standards like agents or book deals, or hitting the NYT list. But if you define success as being able to do this in the first place, to tell stories, to tell your truth, despite the size or existence of your audience, you’ll always get what you expected even as you’re working towards the next aspiration.