Publishing: The Industry of Disappointment

Yesterday, I had to do one of my least favorite parts of being a professional editor — disappoint people. And it started me thinking. We hear all the time about how much the publishing industry sucks for writers, how its fraught with rejection and heartache and nightmare creatures waiting to rip out your soul and feast on it like rabid vultures. But rarely do you hear about it from the other side of the fence. If you do, it’s usually one of three things: advice, a distraught plea for sympathy from publishing professionals pushed to their limits (like me), or a pretentious dish of judgment from jaded pros who no longer remember why, in all that’s holy, they thought this was a good career choice (not me). But what about those people in the middle? Those times when it’s not an extreme day at the office, but just an average, run-of-the-mill blip in a long string of nondescript blips.

Well, guess what? There’s disappointment, rejection, heartache, and nightmare creatures waiting to rip out your soul on our side of publishing too. It’s just not what people think of or consider very often when they picture the glamorous world of publishing. Trust me, I did it too.

When I first dipped my toes into the world of editing, it was done under a shower of fortunate happenstance (you can read all about that here, if you wish). The only thing I knew about being an editor was that it involved reading, and lots of it, and OH MY GOD BOOKS.


Looking back on that moment, just three short years ago, I can so clearly see just how naive I was. And I see that same optimism, that same wide-eyed awe and joy and all things positivity shining in the eyes and voices of the next generation of fledgling editors. They hold their badge of editorship high, crying out to the monolith of publishing that they’ll be different, that they’ll never fall to the blades of cynicism and bitterness, that they’ll uphold the virtues of all manuscripts and none shall ever be left behind. And then reality strikes.

Publishing is a business.

Yes, I know you know that, but read it again and really pause to let it sink in. Publishing is a business. It’s not a grand order of literary superheros, it’s not full of shiny editor-fairies who landed the holy grail of impossible jobs, it’s not some promised land akin to literary Eden. It’s a business. A cold, impartial, focused-on-the-bottom-line, money-driven business. Basically, it’s the antithesis of everything art and creativity hold dear.

And it will very quickly turn those fledgling feathers into razor-edged bits of armor. Why? Because if it doesn’t, if you so valiantly try to keep your idealism and your positivity and your dedication to championing every book, it will eat you alive.

Authors tend to view editors, agents, and other publishing professionals as the enemy. We’re the fire-breathing, demon-eyed gatekeepers standing between them and their dreams of New York Times Bestsellerdom. It’s easy to villainize us, to underappreciate, bully, and slay us until they get their way. That’s right, authors, you may view us as cruel, brutal creatures who live on the tears of rejected writers everywhere, but you can be just as bad.

Don’t believe me? Think about this for a moment:

Think about what it’s like to receive a manuscript, to fall in love with those pages, to give your heart on a silver platter to that author’s brilliance, imagining the beautiful and wonderful relationship the two of you will have in your quest for success . . . only to have it be ripped out of your hands and given to someone else. (Yes, editors and agents get rejected too. A lot more than you’d think.)

Think about how it feels to stand on the precipice of a production schedule that holds not one, or two, or even six (if you’re a truly prolific writer) full projects, but twenty-two. TWENTY-TWO manuscripts, all scheduled within a single twelve-month time period, and all expecting to be in that first slot.

Think about what it’s like to dread opening your inbox, or Facebook, or Twitter, not because there might be more heartbreaking rejection notices in there, but because it’s akin to jumping head-first into the seagulls from Finding Nemo, with all 250 new messages screaming some variation of “MINE, MINE, MINE.”

Think about the hours and hours of work you pour into helping an author polish and perfect their baby. All the emails, the late nights, the carpel tunnel, the mind-numbing exhaustion . . . just to be left out of the acknowledgements and receive no appreciation or credit whatsoever for that part of your soul you gave to someone else’s work.

Still think only the writers get the short end of the stick? The point I’m trying to make is not that publishing is one massive pity party, but that its an industry built on disappointment, no matter which side of it you’re in. It’s an industry that survives on the brilliance of creative people — those sensitive, passionate, empathetic people-pleasers.

No editor or agent likes sending a rejection notice; no author likes to have their dreams crushed. No production manager likes telling people they’re not the first one in line; no writer likes to feel like their book is just another notch in the title-mill wheel. And that’s just it, there are an awful lot of “no one likes” when it comes to publishing. Because — say it with me now — publishing is a business. That’s just as true for authors as it is for freelance editors and designers, as it is for agents and acquisitions editors, as it is for publishing houses and distribution centers and booksellers.

So how are we — tender, creative souls that we are — meant to survive in such a bloodthirsty, money-hungry industry?  Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still figuring that out myself. I believe the key lies in understanding that age-old crucial point — it’s not personal, it’s business. But I also believe that business should be tempered with humanity. So my approach is this: hold on to those ideals you started with, whether it was a dream of gracing your local bookstore’s shelves or of helping greatness into the hands of readers. Keep that part of you that first craved a place in this industry, and remember how to find it again when the darkness tries to pry all the joy from your fingers. Be compassionate and empathetic, but fight for yourself too. Define your boundaries and be prepared to defend them. And above all, remember that there are no battle lines to be drawn; we are, all of us, no matter which side of the publishing spectrum we fall on, in this together. So be kind to one another, and let the vindictive anger, the soul-crushing guilt, the heartbreak, and the disappointment fall under our mutual love for the written word.


16 thoughts on “Publishing: The Industry of Disappointment

  1. Loved this post! It brought to mind the Tasmanian Devil pen when they tossed a chicken (not live) in. Snarls, ripping, oh boy. If the lady had been any slower, the crazed critters would have taken her hand. Sounds like you need to have fast reflexes, too.

    • Haha, indeed. That’s a good analogy for some days too. Not all days, obviously, but there are definitely some moments of the job that feel that way. Fortunately, the good days and joy that comes from the editor/author relationship outweighs the bad. Well, most of the time. 😉

  2. Great perspective, Kisa! As I trek my way through this process, I can really see both sides, agent/editor and hopeful author. It’s not always glamorous, lol😊

    As always, I enjoy reading about “the other side”. Thanks for sharing. Your Las sentence of the post is a wonderful sentiment!

    • Thank you! I’m glad it sheds some light on things for people. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own emotions and expectations that we forget to think about it from the other person’s side. And with much of the publishing industry cloaked in secrets and mystery, authors get very little insight into the way things actually work. It’s hard to understand why things happen the way they do if you’re not allowed to see the reasoning behind it.

  3. Mine, mine, mine? Of course you love Finding Nemo. Dark admission. Have watched this movie an easy eight, nine times and still laugh like a four year old.

    Maybe that’s the secret. Outer warrior shields the inner child?

    BTW, know you live on both sides of this mean street.

    • Hahaha, Finding Nemo is awesome! I’ve watched it way too many times. 😉

      And maybe? There’s definitely a thickening of the shields that happens after a few years in the publishing industry. Let’s just say that I no longer view my jaded, cynical peers in the same light I used to; I now completely understand how they ended up that way. :/

    • Thank you! I’m glad you found it helpful. My hope was that it would do exactly what you describe–allow authors to see things in a new light and strip away some of the us vs them mentality seen from both sides of the fence. At the end of the day, we’re all just human, and I think it helps everyone–editor, author, agent, reader–to remember that. 🙂

  4. This is a fantastic post for editors. We are often portrayed, as you said, as fire-breathing monsters. It’s also a great thing for authors to read, too. Thank you so much for this honest and compassionate approach to explaining to clients that we, too, are humans who face a lot of difficulty and disappointment.

    • Thank you! You’ve had a lot of excellent posts lately about the author/editor relationship as well, and this one might have been somewhat inspired by them. It’s always nice to hear my fellow editors echo sentiments I harbor too, even if said sentiments aren’t always the happiest. So thank you for your attempts to enlighten the world on the reality of being an editor; I appreciate not feeling alone. 😉

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