Thursday, June 12, 2014

Are You Good Enough? How to Preserve Your Spirit and Sanity in the Soul-Sucking Darkness That is Self Publishing

In DarknessBy Jordan McCollum, @JordanMcCollum

Part of the Indie Authors Series

I think all first-time authors reach "the other side" of publishing when their book hits the shelves—and all is not rainbows and roses. The soul-sucking darkness affects all publishing, really. Even if we have backing of a publisher, we don't know what to expect when our book finally hits the market. When we venture out without that backing, we have one less assurance that our work is good. But no matter what path we take to share our work, we can stay sane staring into that soul-sucking darkness!

Don't. Read. Reviews.

For every writer friend I have that loves to read reviews, there are two (or three or four) who hate it. You might be able to let the negative reviews roll off your back, but most writers I know have come to the conclusion that reviews aren't for them. They're for the reviewer, and possibly for other readers. Negative reviews are a public flogging, and you don't have to attend.

On the other side of this coin, positive reviews can be equally crippling. When you see how well received a previous book has been, sometimes it's easy to fear your next project will never measure up. Or you might be tempted to rest on your laurels instead of growing as a writer.

When I started "Goodreads-stalking" and blog-stalking reviewers of my books, I knew it had gone too far. I blocked Goodreads through my browser. This is a little inconvenient sometimes (I may never list my own books again, and I can't look at Goodreads lists, etc.), but there's enough self-doubt in writing without feeding that insecurity with others' real, negative opinions of your work.

Identify (and avoid!) self-doubt triggers 

Negative reviews may be a self-doubt trigger for you, or they may not. Perhaps Publisher Weekly announcements make you feel inadequate because that's not you and it may never be. Maybe release days get you down in the dumps. Whatever makes you feel unhappy or inadequate, recognize that. Own it. Maybe you need thicker skin—or maybe you just need to stop cutting yourself.

If you absolutely can't avoid your triggers—like that NYT bestselling author who lives next door to you—at least give your emotions "permission." Own that you feel this way, you're going to feel this way, and don't try to force yourself to feel something you don't. Repressing even negative emotions is no way to keep your sanity!

The feel-good file

My personal favorite (because I made it up). So often, the negative voices come echoing back to us in the still hours of writing. Even if they're the minority, those negative reviews, the self-doubts we already have from our own writing, harsh critiques stick with us so much longer than the positive ones. The detracting voices drown out reason sometimes.

Enter the feel-good file. I keep mine in e-mail, because most of my messages go through there (and ones that don't, like text messages, get forwarded there). Whenever I get really good news, an encouraging email from a writer friend, or awesome reader feedback, I put it in my feel-good file. Then, when I feel like a hack or like nobody loves me, or like my books will linger and perish in obscurity, I go to the feel-good file and I read nice things people have said to me.

Enter contests for the right reason

I think many indie writers turn to contests and awards for the validation we think we might have gotten from having an agent and/or publisher "vouch" for our work. But awards can also turn into just another way to get rejected.

Before you enter a contest, ask yourself why you want to do this. Analyze what you'll be getting out of it. Many times, I've really wanted to enter a contest, but I thought through what the best-case scenario would be. What would it change if I won? I'd be struggling with doubts again in another week or two, and would it substantially help sales and publicity (this will depend heavily on the contest).

Conversely, is a contest worth the cost if you lose? I don't just mean the financial cost of entering; can you handle losing psychologically? Imagine the worst-case scenario. How upset would you be to lose? Anyone might be disappointed for a few days or weeks, but would losing make you despondent? Would it significantly hinder your future writing?

Remember why you write 

Publishing and its paraphernalia of reviews, acclaim and money probably isn't the primary reason you spent hundreds of hours crafting your story, or why you began writing in the first place. For most people, it's because the writing process itself brings you joy.

If that has changed, take some time to reevaluate your writing. Are you going about it the wrong way? Putting too much pressure on yourself? Worrying about what other people will think? Think about how your writing process has changed since the days when you first started. How can you recapture the magic?

For me, I've realized that I do write because it makes me happy. When it isn't making me happy, I have to take some time away to realign my thoughts, or sometimes work on something new. I've also found that different parts of the writing process bring different kinds of happiness, so that's something to keep in mind. I've come to love perfecting my writing in editing and revision, but nothing compares to the (good) days of drafting and creating.

Write with the door closed  

d286This is Stephen King's phrase. Once we've published, we know an audience (might) one day read our stories (and I'm pretty sure that's a feeling Stephen King's familiar with). It's hard not to think of how they'll respond to plot points, people and phrases. Sometimes this is a good thing—you're sure they'll love these twists and turns-of-phrase as much as you do.

Sometimes, however, we feel the immense pressure of having to get this right, of trying to impress them—it's crippling. For me, especially with self-publishing, I sometimes worry about first draft material. I've even gotten so mixed up in my production schedule that I've spent days upset at what readers must think of my book because it had such obvious flaws, and how I wished I could change it—when I hadn't published it!

Stephen King recommends closing the figurative door in our heads on this future audience. Tell yourself you're writing for you. One thing I love about indie publishing is the freedom to publish whatever I want—or not. So I really can tell myself during the drafting process, "Let's see how this works out" or "This is only for me." As I mentioned above, I try to remind myself that I write because it's fun, it makes me happy, it brings me joy. I focus on that aspect during the writing process.

Then, as King advises, you rewrite with the door open, getting as much feedback as you need to feel confident that your words will have the effect you want.

Remember why you publish

I think (hope) most of us publish because we've worked hard to perfect our stories to share them with readers, because readers will enjoy them. The financial motivation is definitely a factor—or we'd just give them all away, right?—and I'm not judging anyone who wants to make money off their writing.

However, that might not always be a lot of money. So far, it hasn't been a whole lot for me. It's very, very easy to take this as a sign that we're not very good after all (or at the very least that we're not great marketers).

But are we publishing just to make money and gain approval through awards and copious positive reviews and the NYT bestseller list? There's nothing wrong with that per se, but be honest with yourself. If those are your real, ultimate goals, then self-publishing may not be the right path for you. Period. However, if these goals are stepping stones (or just your wildest dreams) on the your ultimate goal, sharing your story, then it's best to remember that goal, and count each sale as a success.

Take the long view

Remember that very, very, very few people become overnight successes. There are many stories of overnight success, but they usually omit years of work and preparation, not to mention the run up of sales. I've only been publishing for a year, and most people making any kind of sales have been at it much longer. (see figure 14 in Beverley Kendall's self-published author survey analysis). As author Beverley Kendall says:
For most authors, self-publishing success is not going to happen overnight. There are logical reasons this won’t happen. First, it takes time to write books and as we’ve seen above, the more books you have out, the better your earning potential. Secondly, it takes time to get your name out there.
Many of my self-publishing friends have given themselves time—two or three years—before they render a "verdict" on self-publishing. I think that's wise.

No matter what course you take to publishing, the emotional side of being published usually comes as a surprise. I know I have lots more to learn (and relearn)—so what have you found to help you stay sane on your publishing path?

Photo credits: "In Darkness" by Dr. Wendy Longo, "Locking door" by Rachel Titiriga

Jordan McCollum is the (indie!) author of the romantic suspense series Spy Another Day which begins with I, Spy. She enjoys teaching writing craft through her writing craft blog at, as the Education Director of Authors Incognito (an online writers' support group with over four hundred members), and through her book CHARACTER ARCS (with a foreword by Janice Hardy) and CHARACTER SYMPATHY.


  1. I'm not published, but I have some experience with reviews (and being judged) as an artist. I pretty much take the "you can't please everybody" point of view. Some people are going to hate my work, and they're going to feel they have to let the world know about it. If I know that going in, it's a little easier to take when it happens.

    I try to focus on my own goals for my work. I really can't know what anyone else expects because I'm not them. So I ask, "Does the painting or story meet my own personal expectations?" If it does, yay! I accomplished what I set out to do. If it doesn't, no amount of praise will change that I didn't meet my own goal.

    Now by "goal", I don't mean sales numbers or awards or anything like that. I mean, "Did I tell the story I want to tell, in the best way I'm capable at this point in time?" And that's the biggest factor--did I do the best I can right now?

    My work can ALWAYS be better. As long as I'm consistently doing the best I can (and improving as I go along) negative criticism is meaningless.

  2. Wow. I needed this today as I stare at the completed novel that was supposed to be out last month (my own deadline) and wonder if it's "good enough" - I've had the feedback that it's good, but the fear that it's not good enough can be crippling. Thank you for posting this helpful reminder that writers are truly not alone. We share each other's fears.

  3. Love this!! I'm on my second agent (but not pubbed yet), and I use many of the same tricks to beat my self-doubt and keep writing. Now I'm going to employ the "feel-good file" too. Thanks for sharing!

  4. This is awesome advice. I've heard about Goodreads, and how bad it can get. I heard one writer suggest to get on, get your book up, and never go back.

    I also love your idea of the feel good file. My son's 6th grade teacher wrote me such a sweet email after reading my book. I told him I was keeping it and will re-read it whenever I'm having a tough writing day. Because there will be tough writing days! But yes, we do it for the joy. Otherwise, why bother?

  5. I feel as though you reached into my brain and pulled out every single thought I've ever had on this subject. Thank you, thank you for this post. I tell myself these things all the time, but to hear it from someone else who's in the trenches along with me is incredibly powerful.

    It's so hard to explain to someone who doesn't do what we do to know why reviews (good *or* bad) can be so crippling. It's hard to explain why every struggle in self-publishing feels like one more tiny validation for those, "Should I have done this?" thoughts that sneak in when your guard is down and you forget why you chose this path in the first place.

    It is a difficult, grueling road--one that's not for everyone. But ultimately, when I look at the journey I've had so far (and I'm still so early in it, having only been on it for less than a year), I know I wouldn't have done it any other way. Publishing is an intense marathon no matter which path you choose, so choose the path that makes you feel as fulfilled as possible. For me, it was self-publishing.

    Thank you for sharing this. Thank you for reminding me that I chose the right path for me.

  6. This post was fabulous. I actually like the idea that self publishing is a slow build. I also loved the reminder that you need to “write with the door closed" because too many times I find myself agonizing over the characters I've created and how readers will like them or react to them.

  7. The feel-good file sounds lovely! I remember negative remarks for far too long and think positive remarks are undeserved. I definitely need to let the negative go and open to the possibility that there might be something in the positive, after all...

  8. I have a critique on something I published on Amazon. I thought it was pretty good!
    Actually going to follow up on what the guy said.

  9. I don't know...I think reading reviews is important. Feedback helps me grow as a writer. Sure, there are nasty people who seem to get off on attacking writers personally, but you have to learn to see that for what it is: just a toxic person being toxic. There are far too many reviewers with thoughtful, interesting things to say, and I'd hate to miss out on that.

    That being said, I agree about how good reviews can cripple future books. "The next project will never measure up" hits home right now. I SO fear the sophomore slump....