Chip MacGregor

August 25, 2015

Why does everyone want to be published?


I thought you’d like to see this question someone sent me: “I’ve been writing for several months now, and I’m trying to figure out what my motivation is. Can you help me understand WHY so many writers want to become published authors?”

A fascinating question. Okay, this may surprise you, but I believe most new writers basically Keyboardwant to get published so that they’ll be famous. They want that thrill of holding up a book with their name emblazoned on the cover, show it to their friends, leave it on their coffee table, maybe peruse a copy at the bookstore and casually mention to someone in the aisle, “You know… I wrote this.” I think most new writers are seeking fame and encouragement, that they believe validity and meaning will arrive out of publication. They see fame as offering a measurable amount of worth and competence.

That’s not to say most new writers don’t also have something they want to say — they do. It’s just that many newer writers struggle with having a worthwhile story. Think about it — we all know it takes a while for a writer to become competent. Rarely do you see a novelist get her first completed work contracted. The industry average is five complete books before landing a deal… in other words, if you’re starting out, it will probably be your fifth completed novel before you get a contract. That’s why so many writers give up after one or two — it takes persistence to complete five novels before a publisher will pay attention to your work. So, in my opinion, many writers get into the business as a way to express themselves; as a way to get noticed.

Yet most writers who have achieved some level of fame fairly quickly eschew it in favor of craft. They may still enjoy the warmth associated with being recognized, or having someone come up and praise their words, but most successful authors discover that fame is not only fleeting, it doesn’t make us better people or better writers. And that, I think, is why so many successful writers I know spend considerable time attempting to improve their craft. In other words, the best writers are always trying to get better.

If that’s true (and it might be too much of a leap for some readers to accept), then the one thing a beginning writer ought to do is to devote himself or herself to improving their craft of writing. As an agent, I see hundreds of manuscripts every year that I reject for representation. Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough. The ideas may be interesting, and the marketing may be slick, but the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish. That’s a message I’ve tried to get into the heads of beginning writers everywhere: Don’t try seeking “the secret” of writing; improve as a writer. I’ve yet to meet a great writer who is not published.

And how does one go about doing that? I don’t think it’s all that complicated – write regularly and expose yourself to great writing. A beginning writer should read widely, and should focus on great, not just popular, writing. A beginning writer should set aside time to write regularly, and should make writing a habit in his or her life. A beginning writer should find someone who can help him or her improve – a writing instructor, a writing mentor, an experienced editor, even a writing critique group, so long as the members can bring some wisdom to bear on the issue of craft.

I know of no other craft that promotes beginners before they are ready. Surely a young pianist doesn’t take a couple lessons and rent a concert hall to present Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” A first-year ballet student doesn’t expect to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. An artist cannot expect to move directly from paint-by-numbers to creating fine portraits. Yet I often meet beginning writers who are hell-bent on publishing “something.” They often have no clue of their motivation or message (though they can dress it up with fancy talk and make it sound like “a calling”). What they really want is to be noticed — to have be able to show someone “I did a book.” So my advice to beginning writers is to study the craft of writing by reading and listening to those who already know it, in order to become more like them.

Now, having said that I realize there are those in the industry (including a couple editorial friends) who disagree with me. They think “market” is more important than “craft.” In other words, “Don’t focus on becoming a good writer, focus on creating a salable book.” I understand that thinking, but I don’t agree with it. Right now ANYBODY can get ANYTHING published. Go to, and you can find a way to get anything (your company reports, your school papers, your nutcase political screeds) into print. Lulu and PublishAmerica and Author Solutions will print anything you send them. We’ve made “becoming an author” into the easiest, most-accessible form of “art.” You may not be able to paint well enough to sell a still life, or sing well enough to be a finalist on American Idol, or dance well enough to get cast in a show… but you CAN become an author!

Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really legitimate. One of the things that real publishing professionals provide is a filter. There is training and evaluation involved as agents figure out who can write, and editors determine what is valuable, and publishers produce books that offer something of merit. So part of the role of those of us who work in the industry is to strive toward some sort of quality. As I always say, if I were in this strictly for the money, I’d do porn. (It’s cheap, it’s easy, and there’s a huge market for it.) But I can’t make myself go there, since I still think part of my job is to help writers become better, and to help publishers sell good books.

So what’s the motivation? In writing it’s probably to tell a story, I suppose. We write to inform, to entertain, to expose, to convince, to enlighten — there are a ton of motivations. But from a personal perspective, I think every good writer wants to be a great writer.

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  • Judy Hudson says:

    It is a very confusing time for new writers. I have three finished ms I am shopping around. I get the feeling (from friends in the publishing houses) that publishers are scrambling to stay afloat and redefine their role. Afraid to take a chance on someone new. Everyone is scrambling – writers and agents too. Yes there are a lot more chances to “get your work out there” with the advances in indie-publishing, but I know, as a reader, I am tired of stumbling through the landmines of indie books looking for one that I want to read. I have grown to appreciate the “gatekeepers.” Yes I want to publish, but I want y stories to be the best they can be.

    On the other hand, the more I learn about the industry and how potentially dangerous it is for new writers to sign over all control of their intellectual property, the more nervous I am about signing on. I suppose this is the role of a good agent.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree that everyone is scrambling, Judy. And that it’s a confusing (well… certainly a “changing”) time for authors. Appreciate you coming on to the blog to comment.

    • Iola Goulton says:

      I’m not sold on the “gatekeeper” argument. Of the last four books I’ve picked up, only one was ready to publish (IMO – go Becky Wade!). The other three (from Bethany House, Penguin and Zondervan) all have excellent proofreading, but the writing and copyediting isn’t as strong as I expect from these publishers–and it isn’t as strong as the best self-published authors in similar genres (e.g. Rajdeep Paulus, Sally Bradley). I hope this is a nothing more than a temporary glitch caused by “scrambling” publishers, because it’s stealing the joy from reading. Publishers exist to make money by publishing books they think will sell. These are not necessarily the best books.

    • Judy Hudson says:

      I have found the same thing lately Iola. Another reason to be wary I guess. In one traditionally published book I found 5 typos. Really?

  • A.E Sawan says:

    Wise advise, Excellent blog. However, I partially disagree. When I look at some of the published works, specially Romance. I can’t help to see hundreds if not thousands of books that look alike, from the cover to the plot. The publishers are looking at market and charts, not craft. I agree with “I’ve yet to meet a great writer who is not published.”
    I am happy to know that you stick to your standards.

  • Virginia Munoz says:

    Honey Booboo got an $8 million book deal from my publisher. *shrug* It’s not just authors who are throwing out material that’s not worth anything.
    I guess my issue with the “don’t rush into print” mantra that has popped up, is that my first published book (traditionally published so we can set our minds at ease about whether it was good, hahah) is NOT as good as my last book. It was the first book I ever wrote, and it got a contract from a Big Five publisher. So, with this kind of “slow yourself down, little grasshopper” mentality, authors might hold back for years, when their books are needed and wanted by readers just because a traditional publisher or agent doesn’t see the worth in it.
    I say we let the readers decide. If a book is excellent, it will float to the top. Readers want great books, they’re looking for great books. I read, review, recommend great books.
    Or, it might be trash and garner a huge following. Let the readers decide.

  • josie downey says:

    I publish because I have a story a feel God wants me to tell.

  • Joe says:

    While I imagine you see your share of terrible manuscripts, let’s be a little more genuine here. Many manuscripts are rejected because “not good enough” often means that the agent or editor doesn’t believe he or she can make money on it. Which would explain why horribly written books like Fifty Shades and countless others somehow manage to not only land an agent but go on to be published.

    While the ease of publishing certainly allows a lot of bad writers to throw their books up on Amazon, etc., it also allows many excellent writers to finally get their work read. I’ve read many self-published books in the last couple years that were excellent, and in most of those cases better than what the traditional world is offering.

    We only have to take a tour of our favorite bookstores to find plenty of traditionally published books with bad, sometimes horrendous writing. There was a time when this industry cherished great writers. Now it seems to cherish only money.

    • Virginia Munoz says:

      Agreed. I might lump (a whole genre of religious fiction in there that focuses on a certain romanticized sect that won’t use electricity) in there.
      I wanted to write my Cane River Romance series as authentically as possible, which includes Catholic characters. That only seems to fly with historical fiction. Nobody wants to know that Catholics exist in modern times, apparently. So, I self published.
      Most reader letters I receive on that series are positive mentions about how the reader’s culture is finally presented accurately, especially the Catholic culture, a religion the big CBA houses don’t want to showcase (unless it’s historical).
      I’m not bitter about it, I just thank my stars that self publishing exists. It’s not the refuge of hacks and talentless noobs. It’s also a place authors can publish books that agents and publishers don’t want to take a chance on.

    • This seems to assume that agents lie to the writers that submit to them. I’ve gotten my share of rejections: some of them because the writing wasn’t good enough (it wasn’t), some because the agent didn’t think it had a wide-enough audience (it didn’t). Really what we’re striving for as writers is the intersection between great writing and a salable idea.

      If anything, I’d say more agents tell writers they don’t think they’d be successful with the book, when in reality the book is just awful, simple because they don’t want to crush their egos into oblivion.

      And for the record, Fifty Shades was self-published. It was only once it began to gain some traction and sell copies was it ever picked up by a traditional publisher for widespread distribution. In that case, the readers drove the success, not the gatekeepers. We just won’t talk about what that says about the readers. :/

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for comment, Joe. The fact is, I see both great and terrible manuscripts, as you probably imagined. I will sometimes see something good, but that doesn’t fit my list, and I’ll always say to that author, “This is good, so look for an agent who is a better fit,” or sometimes, “This is good, but may not fit a traditional publisher, so you may want to look into self-publishing.” But yes, if I take something on for representation, it’s because I think I can actually SELL it.

  • Sheila Odom Hollinghead says:

    Pianists, ballerinas, and artists were mentioned. Why do they go into these fields? For fame and fortune? That’s not the motivating factor.

    I ran across this quote the other day:

    “Don’t make stuff because you want to make money — it will never make you enough money. And don’t make stuff because you want to get famous — because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people — and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts.

    Maybe they will notice how hard you worked, and maybe they won’t — and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating. But, ultimately, that doesn’t change anything — because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for, but to the gift itself.” ~John Green
    Making the gift and making it the best gift possible is why some of us choose to write. We are hooked on the *creativity* involved in producing the book. And because God made us social creatures, we wish to share our gift with others. Getting fame and fortune is a pleasant daydream. However, it is the love of the words, the love of creation that drives the writer, much as it is the love of music that drives the pianist.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree with you, Sheila. I take ballroom dance classes NOT because I want to be professional ballroom dancer, but because it’s fun and good exercise, and I guess I always wanted to be better than all those guys on the dance floor doing the “prom hang.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all. My point is more about creating and selling art to make money — which is where my business role comes in. So for all the talk about writers being able to just write (a concept I wholeheartedly agree with), I don’t think that necessarily means their writing is any good, or has any meaning to anyone else, or legitimizes them as “artists.” Does that make sense?

    • Sheila Odom Hollinghead says:

      Yes, it does.

  • Patricia Zell says:

    I would suggest that there are two other reasons people decide they want to become published writers. First, technology has made it so much easier to put words on paper and to publish those words. Way back when, I decided to write a novel by hand and had to abandon it at the time because I couldn’t type well enough to produce a clean copy. Guess what the word processing software did for me–yep, suddenly it didn’t matter that I couldn’t type well.
    The second reason comes back to the agents, publishers, and other writing experts–writing conferences have exploded in numbers. People actually paid/pay good money to come and hear that they can be writers and can get published. Not only have all sorts of small businesses (small presses, editing services, self-publishing services, etc.) have grown out of the onslaught of those writing conferences, but agents and publishers have been a strong force behind them. To then turn around and complain about the lack of quality of the writing that’s coming forth–well, what did you expect? (I’m not being mean to you, Chip–just stating a circumstance.)
    When all is said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of us writers just want to be heard above the roar. Fame is just the evidence of being heard.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Interesting thought, Patricia. What’s the alternative — to NOT support more education for writers? I’m not complaining about the quality of writing, by the way — only about the expectation some people have that getting published will somehow validate their life.

  • Jane Lebak says:

    Reminds me of a HuffPo piece from a little while back:

    “Self-published authors, we are led to believe, are scheming “writers” who aren’t good enough to land an agent or a publisher, have no interest in improving the craft–and show no respect for that craft–eschew editing they are badly in need of, and, in short, don’t deserve to be published, period.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Of course, I would disagree with that thesis, Jane. Not sure why my piece reminds you of that, frankly.

    • Jane Lebak says:

      It reminded me of the HuffPo piece because you said as much above, that writers are trying to be published before they’re ready or before they learn their craft, and that we use self-publishing to get around the filtering process of agents and editors. And that we do it for self-aggrandizing reasons:

      “Nearly all of these are rejected for one basic reason: the writer simply isn’t good enough”

      “the authors simply aren’t good enough to publish.”

      “I know of no other craft that promotes beginners before they are ready. ” “Yet I often meet beginning writers who are hell-bent on publishing “something.” … What they really want is to be noticed — to have be able to show someone “I did a book.” ”

      “We’ve made “becoming an author” into the easiest, most-accessible form of “art.” You may not be able to paint well enough to sell a still life, or sing well enough to be a finalist on American Idol, or dance well enough to get cast in a show… but you CAN become an author!

      Well, I’m sorry, but that’s not really legitimate. One of the things that real publishing professionals provide is a filter.”

      “So part of the role of those of us who work in the industry is to strive toward some sort of quality.”

      That’s why your piece reminded me of the HuffPo piece: because he’s making all the same points, only he’s making them from a position of dialogue.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ve been totally supportive of indie publishing with the authors I represent, Jane. I think it’s what makes our age the best time ever to be a writer. But… surely you’ve seen bad indie novels, right? (And yes, I’ll certainly concede that there are also bad traditionally published novels, by the way.) One of my points here is to contest the notion that everyone who indie publishes is somehow an “artist,” when in fact you and I both know that’s not the case. While self-publishing has given great opportunity to writers, it’s also created a much bigger pile of junk — wouldn’t you agree? So don’t take this as a bashing of writers, or of indie published books. That’s not my intent. I’m just trying to point out that I’m seeing this attitude of “I’m published and that makes me an artist,” when in face anyone can get published today.

    • Jane Lebak says:

      I went through an MA program with plenty of people who considered themselves Artists who were writing Deeply Meaningful Texts that were going to Transform The World and were really rather craptastic. 🙂 I get that. But in tone, you’re presenting as very critical of anyone in indie publishing no matter what the reason they chose to publish their own books.

      Self-publishing by no means makes anyone an artist; but to ascribe to self-publishers the idea that they’re after fame or outside validation is to ascribe the worst possible motive to an entire class of individuals. So no, because of the quotes I pulled above, your blog post didn’t sound at all supportive of indie publishing. Telling indie-published writers that their method of publication “isn’t legitimate” is hurtful and can be taken the wrong way by your readers.

    • Jane Lebak says:

      To clarify: my traditionally-published work doesn’t make me an artist. If I ever achieve artistry, it’s independent of the name on the book’s spine. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree with you, Jane. And… really not critical of indie publishing, believe it or not. Maybe we’re looking at different issues. But thanks for coming on to comment.

    • Sharon says:

      I appreciate this conversation. I’m considering self-publishing (creative freedom is a big reason), and my impression of this post was similar to Jane’s. Thank you, Chip, for clarifying. If I do self-publish, it will follow critiques, extensive editing, and at least a brief attempt at a shop-around. (And a jacket by a professional artist!) Self-publishing seems to be the worst way to try for fame, actually–just dumping my book in a giant vat with a million other obscure titles. Still, it would offer closure, a finished story that I can offer to friends and family. Also, I retain the rights to my storyworld, can extend my series for as many books as I want, am free to change genres, am not bound by a contract, and am not pressured by the market. After so many years of loving writing, practicing the craft, and having to wait on publication for a variety of reasons, self-publishing sounds like heaven. If I write in obscurity for my entire life, so what? I do know that I have to at least share my stories, not hide them anymore. If people end up liking them, that’s just a bonus.

  • Pam Halter says:

    Most people don’t understand what it means to be a “published” author. Those who don’t hone their craft and self publish before they’re ready aren’t really published anyway. They’re only “printed”, right?

    What I’ve learned is it’s not necessarily being traditionally published that makes you a “published” author. There are small presses that claim to be “traditional” and yet the things I’ve seen published by them often have really weak writing and bad covers because they don’t do a stitch of editing and offer authors free clip art for covers. But they don’t charge anything, so they’re “traditional.”

    I’ve purchased several indie (self) published novels that had a terrific premise, but I can’t even get half way through them because they are BORING.

    Then, there are the indie published books I’ve read that are fantastic. It all comes down to an engaging story with strong writing, for the most part. We know story trumps everything, but a great story with great writing is the best. Doesn’t matter if it’s traditional or indie published.

    What I like to tell beginning authors is this: I have a 24-year-old daughter who has autism and severe mental retardation. If I give her several sheets of paper to scribble on and send them to a self-publishing house and get them printed and bound into book form, she will be a “published author.” Silly, huh? And everyone usually laughs. But this is not too far of a stretch for some of the self-pubbed books I’ve seen out there.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Pam. There’s no one venue which has a stranglehold on quality or fulfillment. There’s good and bad art everywhere.

  • Julia Robb says:

    What you’ve said is true, but I would take this a big step forward. Writers aren’t the only ones who want to be famous; our ENTIRE culture wants to be famous. That’s one of the big reasons mass killers kill, they believe fame redeems their failed lives. We live in a celebrity culture because people live through celebrities, because they want to be a celebrity themselves. Take a look around you. We believe being famous is the same thing as being loved. I wish that were true.

  • Chris Crawford says:

    The industry does not necessarily filter out bad writers. it’s less about the story or quality of writing, and more about what’s selling, what’s projected to sell, and what niche the agent/publisher wants to fill. Great writers with great stories are rejected every day.

    I’m a good writer, hoping to someday be a great one. As I was shopping around my first novel it became obvious that if I signed away the publishing rights, it would inevitably become something I did not intend. More commercial, perhaps, easier to market, but missing the purposes for which I’d been motivated to write it in the first place. I’m glad it’s out there – It’s the story I wanted to tell. I have no regrets about my decision to self-publish, or that I didn’t wait for my skills to improve so I could do it “better.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Maybe… or there’s an alternative view, Chris (and I saw this with no rancor, and not having read your novel): It’s also possible that a publisher would have improved your work, reached more people, helped you grow. You sound like you’re coming from the “self-publishing is the only way!” crowd, and while I’m on record as being a fan of indie publishing for many authors, it’s not the only way, nor is it always the best way.

    • Chris Crawford says:

      After some reflection, the “5 book rule” is probably in effect for indie writers as well – an inventory is needed to be able to draw in readers, each book encouraging sales of the other.

      I’m well aware of the value that agents publishers can bring, and for many it’s the best option. In fact, for some of the writers in my group, I suggest they not self-publish (because I know they don’t have the financial means to make the proper investment in editing, etc., or don’t have the technical know-how).

      I’d written a novel too Christian for secular publishers, but didn’t meet some of the criteria for Christian publishers (they wanted to change the ending and “tame” other parts). And it is a bit unique. They were making a solid business decision, and you may be right about it reaching a larger audience.

      I guess what I see in traditional publishing is a resistance to risk, and that’s not just from my own experience. My next project is less personal, more genre-standard and an easier sell, so I may go the traditional route. Or not.

  • T. G. Cooper says:

    I really appreciate the examples you gave about a concert pianist and ballerina. Excellence is never achieved without hard work. Writing is no exception.

  • Nick Kording says:

    I couldn’t agree less. Really. If that’s the motivation, everyone would just self-publish. I’ll respectfully agree to disagree this time.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Okay, NIck. You don’t have to agree — but I’m not saying one should never write for publication. I’m just saying if that’s the only motivation, particularly for a new writer, then he or she is being short-sighted.

    • Nick Kording says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more on that point, Chip. That should never be the motivation. I’m sure you encounter writers like this every day. But I’ve only encountered two like that ever in the Christian market. Maybe I have a good group of friends, but this post made me wonder if agents’ perception of writers was a little cynical. I met you at an event at the ACFW conference last year, and didn’t get that feeling from you. I hope you didn’t get the feeling expressed in this post from me.

  • Deb Kinnard says:

    I doubt that any writer puts words on paper/computer storage in order to have them remain forever unseen. From the beginning, I wrote to communicate. Maybe I wasn’t too good at it then, but my intention was that eventually someone would read what I wrote. Since then I’ve put in my 10,000 hours. I’ve written two million words, and I’ve sold. If that’s patience, I guess I’ve achieved some measure of it, despite being hybrid-published.
    Those who say publishing is “too easy” might risk denying “someone reading it” to many, many worthy voices. Traditional publishing has room for far too few.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think people write for all sorts of reasons, Deb. Some of what I write isn’t to be seen by anyone but me. Or it’s a letter that I send to someone close, and they’re the only intended target. But sure, some of what I write is for publication and sale. But… writing isn’t just about publishing, any more than singing is just about selling records. We understand ourselves better when we write.

  • Aimous says:

    Five full manuscripts before getting published? Check. Studied the craft and everything for several years, too. This is so full of all that’s real, it’s a balm. I’m linking this everywhere.

  • Kate London says:

    Do you really say if you wanted to do something for the money you’d do porn because it’s so easy, cheap and there’s always an audience for it?! That’s so hilarious I almost spit out my morning coffee. Quite the unique Christian perspective :-). (Just don’t let Josh Duggar hear you mention that!)

  • Ron Benson says:

    I remember attending my first writers conference and hearing this information about two days in. It devastated me. I advocate being honest with beginning writers as soon as possible, letting them know with gentleness and care that their bubble is about to burst. Then they can be in a position to learn and grow and perfect their skills. Or they can give it up before they waste a lot of time and money and make their spouses really angry.

  • Peggotty says:

    This so excellent, I may have to frame it in lights and post it with a siren that blares every time I hit Facebook.

  • Robin Patchen says:

    You said, “I think every good writer wants to be a great writer.”

    Well said, and so true.

  • Carolyn Perpetua Astfalk says:

    Publishing has become almost too easy. Reminds me of when I was in grade school. I wanted to try out for cheerleading, not because I liked it, but because I wanted to see if I was good enough to make it. (Stupid reason, I know.) That was the year they abolished try-outs and deemed everyone interested a cheerleader. Boo.

    The road to publication requires time and patience, and while that’s at times been not-so-fun, it has SO MANY benefits, not the least of which is time to improve at your craft.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for commenting, Carolyn. And we’ll all be looking for those cheerleading photos of you on Facebook.

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