What Not to Say to a Writer on Sub

Submission is brutal. Having a support group is crucial, whether it’s just a couple of close friends or a group. The process differs for everyone, but it’s nearly always emotional. It can last a very long time. In a group of writers polled about submission, common themes for getting through it included “drink more” and “distract yourself.” Today, I want to review some things that it’s better NOT to say to a writer on submission, even if you really want to help.
  1. Don’t say, “It’s going to happen.” Getting published is not a certainty like death or taxes. Unless you are a publisher offering a contract, you cannot promise it’s going to happen. (And publishers fold, so even that isn’t a guarantee.) The unfortunate truth is, there are a lot more people out there with unpublished books than published authors.
  2. Don’t say “You only need one person to love it.” Presumably, your friends and your mom have told you they love your book, but that doesn’t create a published book. Some editors love a book but don’t want to buy it because of the market. Some editors love a book, then get laid off or go on leave and never come back. Some editors can’t get a book they love through acquisitions. Finding an editor who loves the book is the first step, but it’s not the end of the road.
  3. Don’t say, “You can do anything if you work hard enough.” That may be true in many areas of life. However, getting published requires more than just working so many hours your family doesn’t recognize you, and then working more. It also requires timing and good luck and those are beyond the writer’s control.
  4. Don’t say, “You’re a much better writer than [famous, hated writer].” How is that going to help? Would you feel better if someone said that you’re prettier than the person your spouse cheated on you with? Probably not. Reminding your writer friend that there are less talented, more successful writers just reinforces that the odds against success are huge, chances are it won’t happen, and getting a contract isn’t even based on talent (or hard work). Presumably, those other authors worked hard, too.
  5. Don’t say “You can always self-publish.” There are many valid reasons for self-publishing, but it’s not a consolation prize. Self-publishing is a difficult, full-time job all its own, with none of the support you’d get from a publisher. People should only self-publish if they WANT to do it. To be successful, it helps to have some knowledge of business and marketing. Telling someone set on a traditional contract they can self-publish if they don’t get an offer is like saying you can always take your cousin to prom if no one else asks.
  6. Don’t say, “Have you thought about writing [rip-off of huge bestseller]?” For one thing, yes, they probably have. But more importantly, that doesn’t make any difference. Writing is 1% about the idea, 10% about the writing, 25% about pulling your hair out, 8% about crying/ignoring bad advice, 60% about revising, 27% timing and luck, and 42% not being math. It takes more than just someone handing over an idea on a silver platter. Plus, if something else is wildly popular, it’s probably too late to hop on the gravy train with a book that isn’t written yet. Trends change quickly.
  7. Don’t say, It’ll happen when you least expect it. You know when authors are least likely to be thinking about submission? When they’re asleep. And even then, they might be dreaming about it. Editors don’t call in the middle of the night. But also, knowing that just means that, even when you normally wouldn’t expect it – you’re still expecting it.
  8. Don’t say, “There’s nothing you can do, so just relax.” The type of people who spend a lot of time worrying about things they can’t control are not likely to feel more relaxed when you point out that they lack control. I’ve never heard someone reply to “Just relax,” with “Oh, right. Sorry. All better! Thanks.”
If you want to hold a writer’s hand (physically or virtually), lend an ear, or give hugs, that’s wonderful. They’ll probably appreciate it. But don’t lie. Don’t say what you think they want to hear. Don’t pretend the process is easier than it is. All that does is take perfectly understandable frustration with the process and turn it onto you instead. The only thing you can really say to help is, “Here, have some cake.” If you don’t have cake, “This sucks, I’m sorry” goes a long way.
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