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Does Traditional Publishing Validate an Author?

Last week, Rachelle Gardner asked her readers this question: Why are you pursuing traditional publishing? While self-publishing gets a lot of press these days, I found it refreshing to hear authors champion traditional publishing. And boy did they fill it up! At this writing, Rachelle’s post has 200+ comments, most extolling the virtues of traditional publishing.

In perusing those comments, one of the most common reasons authors gave for seeking traditional publishing was validation.

Mary: “I want the validation from trained professionals that what I write is good.”

Heather: “I want validation. I want someone other than myself, my writing mentor, my crit partners saying, ‘This is good!’ All those people have some kind of personal investment in me. I want to hear from a totally non-biased professional.”

Marla: “I want the validation of a traditional publisher. Someone thought my book was awesome enough to invest thousands of dollars in.”

Jessie: “For me, it has to do with validation. I have a story that I believe should be told. I want someone else to believe that too. Someone who will believe in it so much they will fight for it.”

Amy: “I want the validation. To know that someone besides my husband and my mom thinks I should write books.”

While I agree with many of these sentiments, there’s a big fat caveat to the “traditional publishing for validation” credo. You see, even though I value traditional publishing, pursued it, and feel validated by it, seeking validation from traditional publishing can be a dangerous thing.

A writer’s self-worth, motivation, professionalism, work ethic, and craft, should not require recognition from peers or professionals.

I am not saying we shouldn’t seek professional validation and celebrate its acquisition. I’m saying, If you require professional validation in order to continue writing, then you should stop right now.

Writers can be extremely insecure people. Having your book published only compounds that insecurity. Readers will now begin to scrutinize you, your story, and your talent in ways you never imagined. Are you really ready for this? If a writer lacks confidence and personal self-worth, traditional publishing will only intensify their insecurities. Just wait till your editor requests rewrites and the bad reviews start rolling in. It’s the equivalent of a literary strip search. No amount of external validity can make up for internal fragility. The writer with self-esteem, inferiority issues, cannot be cured by traditional publishing.

Validation should work on another level, a professional level rather than a personal level. The writer who seeks traditional publishing as a means to bolster their self-worth is asking for trouble. Instead, we should approach publishing as an affirmation of what we already know.

The validation one gets from traditional publishing is best spent on authors who don’t require such validation. In other words, they are self-starters, hard workers, attentive to detail, humble, receptive to critique, determined, resilient, flexible, and pretty damn sure they are a good writer, whether or not the establishment says so.  

Yes, external validation is important for an author. However, internal motivation will sustain an author long after the accolades wane.

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Question: Do you agree that a writer’s self-worth and motivation should NOT require recognition from peers and professionals? In what ways can traditional publishing make a writer’s insecurities even worse? What’s the difference between “professional validation” and “personal validation”?

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • Amarissa Cale April 11, 2011, 5:54 AM

    As you say Mike, writers are a vulnerable lot. I think this is largely because through writing, we are bearing our innermost thoughts and fears; they’re right there on paper for the world to see! So yes, this could lead to insecurities. I think having a positive support system, a belief in your own abilities, and the ability to motivate yourself, despite what others say, is vital for any writer. If you are writing the story you want to read, and you accomplish just that, this should be enough. Never rely on anyone telling you that you are worthy of publishing to validate WHO you are and that you are worth a second look!

    How many masterpieces were never published, because the publishing houses rejected them, disheartening the authors, and the author gave up trying because they thought their stories weren’t good enough?

    Cheers all,

  • Wendy April 11, 2011, 6:05 AM

    I agree 100%. Beautifully stated!
    ~ Wendy

  • Greg Mitchell April 11, 2011, 6:33 AM

    Good post. I agree.

    You know, it’s tough. I first self-published because I believed in the story when I was sure traditional publishers didn’t. After I did that, all I heard was “Oh, self-pubbing is too easy. You won’t be ‘real’ until you get it tradtionally published.” So, then I went and got it traditionally published. Boom. Done. NOW all I hear is “Oh, traditional publishers don’t print great novels. They print crap anyway. Print is dead. Do an ebook. Oh, and do it yourself.” Or I hear “Oh, you got published by a Christian publisher? Well, you won’t be ‘real’ until Random House picks you up.” I’m sure beyond that it’ll be “Oh, you’re not ‘real’ until you’re a NYT Bestseller.” Just when you think you’ve reached the top of the ladder, someone sets the end just a bit higher. It never ends.

    So, yes, while I thought being traditionally published would validate me, it seems I’m always three steps behind the “cool” thing to do for that day in publishing. I say screw it. I can’t keep up with the trends and seeking validation from critics on the industry who probably won’t ever read my book anyway. I’m just going to write what I write and where it lands, it lands. I’ve gotten a lot more confident about my writing and it’s been because I’ve noticed my own improvement–not because of who published it.

    To me, the best thing about being traditionally published isn’t the validation, but the exposure. I ain’t gonna lie. It’s pretty great walking into a bookstore and seeing my book there on the shelf and knowing that I didn’t have to work out any deals with that store to get it done. :p

  • PW Creighton April 11, 2011, 8:38 AM

    I recently discussed this in one of my posts about how traditional publishing tends to harden authors for criticism. However, I think many authors are still looking at this from the wrong perspective. This is almost a religious fervor associated with this topic. Trad pub and E pub/Self-pub are just Mediums to convey your story to the masses. Many agents and authors have already forecasted that it’s likely that you success as a Epub/Self Pub author could be the next evolutionary screening for trad pub. Validation should not be a result of publication the ‘you’re good enough’ benchmark. This thought process is only going to lead to more unheard and ‘broken’ future authors.

  • Brandon Clements April 11, 2011, 8:39 AM

    Very well said Mike. I completely agree.

  • Katherine Coble April 11, 2011, 8:45 AM

    I’ve been telling stories since I could talk. I forced my way into an early typing class when I was 12 so I could stop hunting and pecking on my parents old IBM Selectric and actually make progress. For years–decades–I was jealous of anyone anywhere who published anything. I saw their success as my failure.

    Ten years ago, even though a large part of my then-job was writing copy and editing copy (for a publisher’s marketing department no less) I refused to even call myself a writer. I didn’t think that anyone who had never published a book was a real writer. Two years after that, two of my work-for-hire efforts at that same publisher were published, but they were non-fiction. So I still didn’t feel like a writer.

    It wasn’t until I went to a one-day writing workshop led by author River Jordan that the scales fell from my eyes and I saw that Being A Writer had as much (or more) to do with how one sees the world and responds to it. I then spent a few more years thinking I couldn’t be a real writer until someone published my books and so I never finished any of my books. Because I didn’t want the day to come when no one would publish a finished book of mine and I would feel like a failure at the one thing in life (other than knitting) that came naturally to me.

    Then God told me I was an idiot. In thousands of ways, large and small, God has been chipping away at the vanity in my heart. The vanity which says I must have a book with my name on it, a book that is good enough to find a publisher. While I would still like for my book(s) to be published, it’s slowly become less about my pride and more about my joy. About sharing joy and hope with people.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, for the rightness of others’ motivations. I just know within myself that seeking validation from anything other than my Creator and Saviour has proven to ultimately be an unsatisfying exercise.

    • Katherine Coble April 11, 2011, 8:50 AM

      I’d also like to add that over the years I’ve watched a lot of authors dropped from their contracts.

      That will happen to every published author at some point.

      Those who are validated by their contracts, by their audience, by seeing their books in print will know one of the deepest depressions of their lives when this inevitable moment comes.

      I’ve also watched a lot of authors make deals with questionable houses, signing away too many of their rights and taking on a partnership they don’t necessarily believe in–just to get published. If you’re not validated by Being Published, your work is less likely to be compromised and unsatisfying.

  • Julie Musil April 11, 2011, 8:56 AM

    I’m glad your agent tweeted this post, as I’m preparing a post for next week about validation. I think validation from peers along the way helps, and lets us know we’re on the right path. But I agree…it shouldn’t be the reason WHY we’re writing or seeking traditional publishing. Great discussion!

  • Mike Duran April 11, 2011, 9:07 AM

    I want to make sure to clarify that this post is not meant as a slam upon aspiring, insecure, growing artists. I’m not sure creative people CAN be anything but sensitive and somewhat self-conscious. This post is intended to encourage writers to derive validation from their own enterprise, rather than the fickle world of publishing.

  • Elle Strauss April 11, 2011, 9:09 AM

    Thanks for making this distinction–very important concept to keep in mind.

  • R. L. Copple April 11, 2011, 3:16 PM

    I read the same posts, Mike, and though I completely understand the need for “validation,” and how that can drive one, I think you’re on the money here for at least a couple of reasons.

    As has been mentioned, using traditional publishing to validate one’s work and “worth” is like building a fire on an iced-over lake…it will soon come crashing down. Especially since most publishers will only work to sell a book for around three months or so, and if it doesn’t take off and make them money, they’ll cut their cost and drop it, let it go out of print, etc. If that approval is validating you as a writer, short of hitting the publishing jackpot and your book taking off, you’re likely to only be validated for a few months before it all dies off and no one remembers that book you wrote.

    On the other side, validation comes in more ways that simply getting a publishing contract. Sure, it is great to find out that an editor or agent likes your work and thinks its worth investing time and money into getting it on bookstores. But where the real validation comes from are the folks who make it a reality, those who buy that book and have wonderful things to say about it. That is validation on multiple levels, especially when someone says that your book helped them at a critical point in their lives, or gave them the insight to make changes they’ve needed to make, etc.

    IOW, though you will always get those who don’t like your book, what really validates it is how God uses it in people’s lives. Who cares what an editor in a NY office thinks?

    I don’t think Amanda Hocking, for instance, feels a need for validation. She made the decision to do a traditional published book because it was good for her business model, not because she needed to prove anything to anyone. Everyone knows, including her, that her books will sell, and sell a lot. And that is the key most any editor cares about as well if for no other reason that it makes the books they do care about, get into the hands of people.

  • Jill April 11, 2011, 4:38 PM

    As I already commented on Rachelle’s post, I would never be in this for the validation. I should be a self-starter, and I should have a gut-level sense of my own abilities. I want to publish traditionally because I’m not up to the task of learning the publishing trade on my own right now. On a certain level, I’d love validation (who wouldn’t?), but it isn’t my ultimate purpose.

  • Beth K. Vogt April 11, 2011, 7:16 PM

    “The validation one gets from traditional publishing is best spent on authors who don’t require such validation. ” I liked the way you said that–and I liked the list of characteristics that followed.
    I think everyone looks for validation–writers just tend to look for it contracts and bylines. The question is, do we live or die without it? Just like happiness is circumstantial, so is validation based on the whims of an ever-changing publishing industry.

  • Kevin Lucia April 12, 2011, 2:18 PM

    This could be a false distinction, but here it goes:

    Personal Validation for writers: we’ve remained true to our vision, written a story that springs from inside us, written a story we’re passionate about.

    Professional Validation: we’ve written that story well.

    Are these mutually exclusive? Maybe, maybe not. Do different publishers have different takes on what constitutes a story that is “well written”? Certainly. But as someone who reviewed for over five years and has had to slog through TONs of poorly written books (and I’ll be honest, most of them were self-published or published in the small press) and I’ll run the risk of being aggressive and stand by the idea of a standard concerning “well-written”.

    AND, every writer has their own goal. Their own standards, which factors in, also.

  • Guy Stewart April 12, 2011, 6:22 PM

    Thought-provoking in the extreme as it made me confront myself and ask important questions. Why DO I want to go through a traditional (this word is starting to sound as old-fashioned as the word “modern”…) publisher? One reason is that there is SO much drek that makes it online. I’m NOT saying that all TP work is superior, but I sometimes wonder if the race to “self-publish” is delusional; sort of a pyramid scheme of writing. YES! Amanda Hocking was successful. So are the TOP SHAKLEE people. But beneath every “I did this, you can, too” are tens of thousands of suckers who spent substantial portions of their savings or incomes. I am TERRIFIED that the race to dump TPs is destined to end up that way…

    So, I aim at the TPs, not to validate myself, but because I really need someone who 1) is vested in my success (do people actually BELIEVE that there are no readers and humans in TP?) , 2) is completely objective about my writing, 3) knows the worldwide market through personal experience rather than hearsay. Can the TPs get it wrong? All the time. But my bet would be that there are more successfully published TP books than there are self/indie/personally/etc. published books. S/I/P/etc feels TO ME like literary emetophagia…yup. That’s what I said. It’s what I feel. “Did I say ANYWHERE here that I said YOU had to feel this way?” Nope. Just me — after trying to read some 200 S/I/P/etc YA novels…

  • Tracy Krauss April 12, 2011, 7:25 PM

    Excellent post. It certainly had me thinking about where my own sense of worth as a writer comes from …

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