There’s a lot of unwisdom about publishing (and pretty much everything else) out there on the mighty intramanets. Fortunately wise folks like Holly Black are battling the unwisdom with wisdom:
I’ve noticed there is a trend to believe that a writer should get their first book out by any means necessary—that even paying to be published is establishing a “track record” that will impress future publishers. Scam publishers claim it all the time, but the claim has been made so many times that it’s trickled down into being part of aspiring novelist folklore.
Don’t believe it. A track record tells the publisher what to expect from that author, which is why a poor track record is worse than none at all. Publishers are—like all entertainment—looking for the next big thing. Unpublished first novels are potential bestsellers just as much as they are potential anything else. That’s why “debut novel” sounds exciting and “sophmore novel” sounds, well, less exciting. Publishers aren’t looking for a track record. They are looking for a great book that they can sell like crazy.
Publishing is a greedy, greedy machine that is always looking for shiny, shiny new authors! I know that’s hard to believe when you’re struggling to be published, but agents want to find new clients, editors want to find new authors, and publishers are desperate for the next Harry Potter, or Da Vinci Code, or whatever. And they don’t necessarily want it to be exactly like those books, they just want it to sell like those books.
Published writers sometimes complain about up-and-coming writers getting all the attention. “I’ve published six books now! But do I get the advances of that shiny new author? No, I do not! Where’s the justice?”
Those complaints are just as silly as the unpublished writers who are convinced the big New York houses are uninterested in new talent. You might have puny advances now, but you don’t know what’s ahead. Lots of authors who’ve had a bunch of not particularly successful books go on to have hits. Dan Brown is a good example. So is my old man. Scott’s first New York Times bestseller was his thirteenth book (under his own name). And Robin Hobb is a fabulous example of how to resuscitate a failing career.1 Sales taking a nose dive? Then publish under a different name.
Obviously, not every published author is going to have the career of a Brown or a Hobb or a Westerfeld. The thing is though that you never know who’s going to have that break out book. It could happen to you. And if it doesn’t happen with the first book, it could with the thirteenth. Or when you change your name, or switch genres.
You can find examples of every kind of publishing success story if you look hard enough. First time young novelist makes it big. First time old novelist who ditto. Overnight success story. Writer who has been plugging away forever is finally published with a huge advance, a big Hollywood deal, as well as graphic novel adaptation, and a Broadway musical. Many are the paths to publishing success.2 It’s good to keep that in mind while you struggle.
Twenty years passed between my first submission to a pro adult market and my first sale. I aimed to be published by the time I was 18, then by the time I was 20, then by the time I was 25, then 30. All those ages zoomed by without publication. My first pro sale came when I was 35. By then I had long since stopped aiming to be an S. E. Hinton or Thomas Chatterton and switched to modelling myself on writers who didn’t sell until later in life, like Elizabeth Jolly and James Tiptree, Jr.
That’s the beauty of publishing, unlike dance or any sport, there is a role model for you no matter how old or young you are, no matter what circumstances you’re writing in. And you don’t even have to give up hope on your deathbed cause there are plenty of posthumous publishing successes as well.
See? In the world of publishing there can even be a bright side to death.