The Meritocracy Myth

All right, as some of y’all might know, I tend to be of the School of Hard Truths when it comes to publishing (especially on the podcast). Here at PubCrawl we try to be as encouraging as possible, but neither do we want to sugarcoat every aspect of this business, thereby giving people a false sense of complacency. Writing is hard, folks. Publishing is, in many ways, even harder. It’s harder because outcomes or results rarely seem to make sense or adhere to a sense of internal logic that we as natural-born storytellers expect all stories to fulfill.

This is the hard truth: Publishing is not a meritocracy.

I think that truth is hardest to accept for those us who were good students—those who studied, who knew how to take tests, who knew what to do to get the grade. If we put in the work, we saw the results. Unfortunately, that’s not how publishing works—at least, not in the way to which we became accustomed in school. Success was something we could control then. If we worked hard enough, if we put in the time, the effort, and the labor, eventually we would be rewarded.

And to some extent, that’s still true in publishing. If you work hard at your craft, if you put in the time, the effort, and the persistence required to become an author, you could eventually make writing your career. But what changes when we move from school to business is how we define success. Success in school meant generally meant good grades. But what does success mean in publishing?

I think where a lot of writers get tripped up is in this notion of absolute success. That there is some invisible yardstick by which we measure what makes a book a “success” or a “failure.” Because of my experience as an editor, I often get asked questions like What is considered a good advance? or Why is my publisher promoting X book and not mine? These questions usually come from authors who have perhaps published one or two books, but perhaps feel like a failure because their outcomes don’t measure up to their ideas of absolute success.

Another hard truth in publishing: There is no absolute success.

Instead, we have relative success. I think that’s the concept we have the most difficulty understanding. What is considered a success is all relative to your situation. We’ve all heard “keep your eyes on your own paper.” There’s a reason for that. The size of your advance, whether or not you hit a bestseller list or win an award, if you sell 100,000 copies in a year…these all seem like marks of absolute success AND YET. The size of your advance means nothing if your book underperforms, hitting a bestseller list or getting an award may not account for the fact it’s unlikely your book will earn out, and selling 100,000 copies in a year might seem great except it’s not the 200,000 your publisher was hoping for.

Longevity in publishing is really a matter of managing expectations: the publisher’s, the reader’s, but most especially yours. The only things you can truly control are your writing…and your expectations. Hope for the best, but be clear-eyed enough to see your successes (and failures) in context. “Quality” is subjective. It’s not an A grade. For some that subjectivity might be terrifying, but I like to think of it as an opportunity.

Success is what you make of it. Whether or not you write to be published, find joy in what you do. Define success for yourself.

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