Pep Talk: Ways to Announce That You’re a Successful, Unpublished Writer (And Have The World Agree)

The only painting Van Gogh sold in his life time: "Red Vinyard at Aries" The only painting Van Gogh sold in his life time: "Red Vinyard at Aries"

“I love writing,” said a Grubbie in a one-to-one Career Boost, “but whenever I announce that I’m a writer, someone always asks me what novels I have in print.  When I tell them I’m unpublished, they give me a pitying look, and I feel like a failure.”

Of course, this writer is far from being a failure.  She is working at her craft, devoting time to her writing, and producing great work.  But in a society that too often believes lies about writers, we have to use some activism and turn those lies around.

Here are some of the key lies that the world too often believes about writers:

1. You’re only a successful writer if you’re published by paying markets, such as the magazines that you can buy in Barnes & Noble.

2. You’re only a successful writer if you’ve published a book-length work with a big publishing house.

3. It is hard to write a book, but if it is good, you’ll easily get it published and earn money from the royalties.

4. If you don’t publish a book, you can’t write very well and you’re certainly not a professional.

5. If you’re not earning large amounts of money, you’re not successful in terms of your career.

6. If you self-publish, it means you aren’t talented and/or professional.

All of these are lies.  And ultimately, they’re boring lies.  Plus they are easily disproven.  For instance, Anais Nin self-published Under a Glass Bell because she couldn’t find a publisher.  She sold a tiny amount of copies, until the little book of literary stories made its way into the hands of an editor and was reviewed by the New Yorker.  Fame at last.  Then we have Van Gogh who sold one—just one—painting in his life (and who wants to argue that he wasn’t a serious artist?).  What 's more, the great works of British Medieval authors were given away—to music, sometimes—by oral storytellers on the streets.  Grateful donations were optional.  And even further back in history, Anglo Saxon England saw its oral poets as being so vital that they bonded together people of all different classes through the essential power of story.  In fact, story wasn't generally bought or sold, story was a right.

Of course, these are notions that we can use to argue that writing success isn't about glitz and money.

Now, I argue that it's exciting when one of us stands up and says, “I know society views things that way, but I see them differently.”  That shows initiative, rebelliousness, enthusiasm.  And the logical response is often, “Ooh!  Tell us more.”

For instance:

Jane:  “So, you’re a writer, are you, Sarah?  Where are you published?”

Sarah:  “Actually, I’m glad you asked.  You see, I’ve chosen not to publish my work as yet.”

Jane:  “Oh.  Okay.  Well, why is that?”

Sarah:  “I don’t want to just publish anything.  I want to really hone my craft.  I’m serious, you see, like Van Gogh.  Did you know that he only sold three paintings in his lifetime?  But think how he’s affected the world.”

Jane:  “Wow, I didn’t know that!  But I guess it makes good sense.  So, what are you working on at the moment?”

And then, you’re in a totally different conversation.

Another “for instance”:

Joe:  “So, you’re a writer, Harry?  Where are you published?”

Harry:  “Actually, I’m taking a different tack.  It’s perfectly natural to think about money, but I have an income already, so I’m actually more interested in how storytelling can change lives, rather than earn big bucks.”

Joe:  “Oh really?”

Harry:  “Yes.  See, I write stories primarily to affect others.  When you publish in a print magazine, you often don’t see your impact or effect on the world.  But when you give readings, like I do, you see the effects in action.  People are moved or excited, and they’ll talk with you afterwards.  You make wonderful connections.  It’s really quite amazing.”

Joe:  “Oh, now that’s really brave.  I admire your guts, reading your work in public.”

Harry:  “Well, when you really believe in what you do, that’s half the battle.  I mean, I overcame my shyness a couple of years ago when…”

And then you’re in a totally different conversation.

Another “for instance”:

Barry: “So I hear you’re a serious writer, Sal.  What sort of books do you publish?”

Sal:  “I’m really serious about my craft, but rather like my heroes—Anais Nin, Geoffrey Chaucer—rather like them, writing is a way of life for me, whereas publishing is optional.”

Barry:  “That’s great!  So it’s just a hobby, really?”

Sal:  “I guess I’d say it’s a passion, a craft.  It isn’t about cash, or passing time pleasurably, it’s more about reaching other people, affecting society, creating great art.”

Barry:  “Oh right!  So how do you get your work out there?”

Sal:  “Well, I publish in small magazines—often online mags, where the content is accessible for everyone.  And I also have a blog where I post my stories.  I might actually self-publish, if I do publish a book-length work—I’ve not decided yet.  They’re such different options.  You see…”

And again, you’re in a totally different conversation.

Also, if you try such tacticts and the person you’re talking with says that you’re speaking a load of rubbish, I suggest that you ignore them.  Seriously.  There’s a line.

Now, if you think about all the conversations above, they carry deep truths.  Those who are in writing to earn money, garner fame, get on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, are less likely to make it to those very destinations than those who write because they love their craft, or they want to reach others.  When we wish to affect the world or hone our craft for the love/pride/thrill of it, we are far less limited (and limiting!) than those who only want to be J. K. Rowling or the next Dickens.  I've seen this theory proven via Boost clients again and again.

That’s why conversations like those above are activist conversations.  They’re chats that drive our world to view art as something far deeper than money or fame.  And often, the people who ask us, “What novels have you published?” are the very people who long to be told, “I don’t believe in those restrictions.”  Because you can bet your bottom dollar they’ve been restricted themselves.  Maybe they’ve even been told that money is the only measure of talent, or that the “career ladder” is vital to happiness, or that great stories can’t exist outside of a chain bookstore.

Just think about that.  I know I have, and often.  Every time we say, “Art is deep,” we effectively say, “Your art can be deep too.”

And from that seed, most anything can grow.


P.S. If you want to be truly radical and earn money whilst also changing the world, you might consider publishing literary or popular erotica. (Yay, I have a course coming up! "Go Deeper, Baby: Writing Meaningful Erotica.")  What's more, you can book a Grub Street Boost with yours truly and get some help with re-imagining your writing career or getting confidence in your writing.


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About the Author

Sue Williams is co-founder of Here Booky Booky ( where authors' works are made into beautiful books. With a background in psychology, education, and online marketing, she is an instructor and confidence coach at Grub Street and has published her short stories at a variety of magazines and journals including Narrative (where she also worked as an editor), Salamander, the Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. Under her pen name, Sue is agented, has published a novel and several collections, writes columns on sexuality and spirituality, and also runs an indie press. As Sue, she works as a marketing assistant for branding and marketing expert Dorie Clark, and also coaches writers who are looking to build their confidence and platforms. Find out more at and

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