The Five Catch-22s of Publishing

As originally posted on the Bell Books Blog (

If you are a reader, not an author, or you are new to the world of writing, there are some rules of the game of which you may not be aware. In case you weren’t around during (or more likely don’t remember) the 60s and 70s, a catch-22 is a no-win situation involving circular logic. If you have dreams of being an author, catch 22s are something you must learn to embrace.

Anyone who decides to be an author will soon face The First Catch-22 of Publishing: The Need for Unobtainable Experience. No surprise here. It’s a problem shared by those trying to land their first job in any field. Just be prepared. When you send out your premier novel, publishers and agents are going to want to know what else you have published and how successful those projects were.

Uncertain how to handle this crisis, you will no doubt seek out help, during which time you will surely stumble upon The Second Catch-22 of Publishing: The Mystifying Publisher/Agent Relationship. More and more publishers won’t read submissions unless they are presented by a literary agent, but most agents won’t accept a client who has no publishing credentials. Tough break.

Now, I know what a few of you are thinking, “I’ve already been published. I’m safe from the evil Catch-22s of Publishing.” Not so fast. No matter what level of expertise you have achieved, you will always have to deal with The Third Catch-22 of Publishing: the dreaded “Bring Me Something Different” Dilemma. To fully understand this issue, you have to identify with the poor agents and editors who spend their days in a thankless job where they must wade through a ton of (let’s be honest) not-so-good manuscripts, hoping to find one that stands out from the crowd. They’ve seen the same old stories hundreds, maybe thousands of times, this week, and if they have to read another They Just Might SCREAM!

These hapless souls long for something unique, something that makes their eyes pop wide and their mouths drop open and forces them to shout, “I found it!  I finally found something DIFFERENT.” It’s these rare, cherished moments that give them a sense of accomplishment. They can stand proud, knowing all their hours of hard work truly do make a difference, at least up until the moment the marketing department shoots down the project, claiming “Too much risk. We’ve never done anything like this before.”  So sad.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Fourth Catch-22 of Publishing: The Tootsie Effect. While you’re out on the web figuring out where you can download Catch-22, you might want to also look for Tootsie, the 1982 comedy starring  Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange. Go ahead, I’ll wait while you review the film.

Okay, remember the scene where Michael (Dustin Hoffman), dressed as a woman (Tootsie), has a heart-to-heart with the beautiful Julie (Jessica Lange)? Julie is tired of men approaching her with lame pick-up lines and tells Tootsie/Michael (in no uncertain terms) the line that she wishes men would use on her. Later in the film, Michael, dressed as Michael, runs into Julie and uses her own pick-up line on her, word-for-word, to which he is rewarded with a drink in his face.

Now, I have never had a publisher throw a drink in my face, although once one did drip tarter sauce on my shoe, but I do know that if you give these people exactly what they ask for, just like Jessica Lange, they won’t be happy. It’s not their fault. They are wonderful people who truly mean well. But it all goes back to their having to read so many “not-so-good” manuscripts, and how they’re tired of seeing authors make the same mistakes over and over again. So tired that they create for themselves a set of rigid rules authors must follow. Problem is, prose that never breaks the rules will come across flat and lifeless. You can’t hope to grab their attention this way (see The Third Catch-22 of Publishing).

So what do you do? The only thing you can. Listen to the publishers and agents. Learn their rules. Know why they exist. Respect them. Honor them. Revere them. Now stop worrying. Write what you love the way you love to write it. If you do, your voice will shine through, and no one is going to notice a few rules getting bent, or even annihilated. If you write a good story someone will recognize your work for what it is and want to publish it. Then you’ll have nothing left to worry about…except, of course, for The Fifth Catch-22 of Publishing: “We all love your voice, now let’s turn this over to our line editor for a “light” edit…”


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