Should Editors Dissuade Their Clients from Traditional Publishing If It Seems Unrealistic?
By David Griffin Brown
In the writing world, the path to publication is often seen as a fork in the road: one leading toward the prestigious and elusive world of traditional publishing, the other toward the empowering but demanding realm of self-publishing.
When a writer's work is not up to snuff for traditional publishing, should an editor discourage them from pursuing this route?
I recently stumbled upon this very discussion in a Facebook group for editors. Many confessed to subtly guiding their clients away from traditional publishing by emphasizing its rigorous demands and extended timeline, gently nudging them toward self-publishing instead. But this approach strikes me as disingenuous.
The assumption here seems to be that an "unpublishable" manuscript is a dead-end, an irreversible verdict. To me, an unpublishable manuscript is simply not publishable yet. A lot hinges on the author’s grit and determination to refine their craft and their manuscript, as well as their willingness to navigate the often winding road of the publishing world.
An editor's role is to help their client refine their manuscript to its highest potential. That means giving feedback on the draft in question, but it also involves helping our clients see what revision really means. I’m not talking about sentence-level tweaks or a few pointers to help shore up characterization. True revision usually requires deep, foundational changes, often a ground-up rewrite. If I can help my clients see what isn’t working in their current draft AND the extent of work required to get it right, then I will have empowered them to thrive, regardless of the publishing path they eventually pursue.
What’s so bad about self-publishing?
Notice how this Facebook discussion implies that self-publishing is the natural destination of garbage manuscripts that can’t otherwise cut it in the traditional publishing world?
Guess what. A 2022 survey by the Alliance of Independent Authors found that self-pub author income is on the rise, and in fact self-pub authors make more than double the income of those who went the traditional route. But sadly, the two averages are a sobering reminder that novelists aren’t rolling in cash: trad-pub authors made $6,080 and self-pub authors made $12,749. (Don’t quit your day job.)
Some authors make six figures, but most make next to nothing—or less than nothing. On the trad side, this is because major publishers will give debut novels an initial promotional push, and if the numbers don’t immediately come back positive, they stop promoting the book. On the self-pub side, there are some good books that never see the light of day because the author didn’t figure out how to market their work, but there are also many books that are half-baked, with significant obstacles to immersion and emotional draw. Taste is a factor, sure, but a book that doesn’t serve the reader’s experience isn’t likely to generate the reviews and momentum needed to make it commercially successful. For this reason, I always urge clients to keep refining rather than self-publishing in haste.
The point is—self-publishing may not have gatekeepers in the form of agents and publishing editors to block your ascent, but readers are the ultimate gatekeepers. Authors need readers to love their books and recommend them to others. If a manuscript doesn’t serve up an immersive and engaging experience, then it’s not likely to sell.
The role of an editor
As an editor, my job extends beyond simply correcting grammatical errors or refining sentence structure. In fact, I tend not to do much line editing or proofreading these days. Instead, most of the projects I take on are at a developmental stage. As such, my role is that of guide or coach, helping writers improve not just their manuscripts, but their overall craft. This means fine-tuning or even reworking the narrative fundamentals, including structure, characterization, and scene-based writing. Few manuscripts land on my desk that need only a few tweaks before they will be ready for line editing. Most need an overhaul.
No matter which stage of this process we’re at, clients rarely ask if I think they should self-publish. Usually, their minds are already made up about their preferred publishing route. So whether a client is aiming for traditional or self-publishing, my primary goal remains the same: to help the author polish their manuscript so that it’s the best possible version it can be. And that, I believe, is the approach every editor should take.
“Unpublishable” manuscripts: dead end or detour?
Now, let's talk about "unpublishable" manuscripts, a term I use with much caution. Many clients, especially those without critique partners, will approach me with their first or second drafts. When I send back their feedback with the recommendation to rewrite the manuscript from scratch, it’s often true that I think their manuscript is unpublishable—but only in its current incarnation. I prefer to think of these drafts as exploratory or foundational.
First drafts are an exploration of theme and conflict, of how the characters clash and what the various locales look like, sound like, smell like. When a writer takes that early draft, burns down the house, and then rewrites it from scratch, they’re doing so upon a much more solid foundation. Don’t be fooled into thinking that successful authors’ first drafts are anything close to their final products. Sometimes even the second and third draft needs to be disassembled and constructed anew.
Leo Tolstoy is said to have rewritten War and Peace seven times, and Ernest Hemingway wrote dozens of endings for A Farewell in Arms. Roald Dahl rewrote the openings to some of his stories more than a hundred times.
If you are willing to put in that kind of work, then your story is far from unpublishable. What makes any manuscript “publishable” is the author’s commitment to getting it right and developing their craft.
Should editors dissuade their clients from shooting for traditional publishing if they don't think it's a realistic goal?
My answer is no. Editors should not aim to dissuade their clients from pursuing any particular publishing path. Instead, we should focus on informing, guiding, and ultimately empowering our clients to make informed decisions that align with their personal aspirations and the realities of their work.
Whether trad or indie, craft dedication is key. It may take one book or many before an author achieves their desired level of success. But with each word, sentence, and page, you hone your art, inching ever closer to the stories you are destined to tell.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.