The stories we tell ourselves are like glasses through which we understand the world. They define the field we play on and guide the decisions we make, whether about book publishing or any other area of our lives.

The Truth About Book Publishing: 3 Stories All Writers Need to Hear

Unfortunately, in the world of writing and publishing, there are a lot of false narratives floating around that create a romantic idea about the life of an author that can end in self-doubt, frustration, and stagnation. To avoid falling into the trap of bad stories, it’s important we pause and consider the world we exist in.

3 Stories Writers Tell Ourselves

Recently, I was speaking to a friend about book publishing. He was weighing all the options in front of him: indie vs. traditional, Amazon exclusive vs. wide, DIY vs. paying a pro. These are difficult choices many of us “writers” are not prepared to make when we finish our first manuscript.

The conversation with my friend got me thinking back to when this crazy journey called writing began for me. It was almost four years ago that I signed up for the Story Cartel Course and began writing and publishing fiction.

Now, three novels, four anthologies, and loads of short stories later, I think my understanding of the publishing industry has grown; but still, I feel like a rookie.

Every day I learn new things about the art and business of writing. Every day the stories I tell myself are being reshaped to match the reality I see. Here are three stories I’ve had to wrestle with this year.

Story #1: Publishing is a team sport.

When I started, I thought of writing as a solo thing. I had an image in my head of the lone author who spent days in a dimly lit room pouring over words and paragraphs, tortured and isolated, hoping to fight through the wall that was holding back potentially amazing work.

Then finally, this creative hermit would emerge holding his book high, ready for it to be published and distributed to the world.

I tried it with my first novel. I wrote the book alone. I did all my own editing. I made my own cover. I did my own formatting.

And it was a disaster.

The experience taught me that I needed to start telling myself a new story.

While I do spend hours alone writing, I also have a cover designer who wraps my books in an amazing package. Why? Because I’m terrible at designing covers.

And while sometimes writing does feel like a battle, I’ve got a great group of readers who will test read things for me and help me think through plot lines that aren’t working anymore.

And when I emerge ready to share a manuscript, it is far from finished. At least one, sometimes two editors need to look at it because my grammar is so bad I often don’t know when I’m making mistakes.

And we haven’t even gotten to the publishing and marketing side of things yet. That requires an entirely different team. For that, you need other authors who are willing to help you share your work with the world.

As Joe Bunting says in the Story Cartel course, “Every writer needs a cartel.”

Story #2: Like any startup in any industry, scaling is accelerated by seed money.

Along with my image of the author-hermit was the idea of tech geniuses creating the next incredible product alone in their garage.

You’ve probably heard this story before. The intrepid geniuses build a prototype in their garage, take it to market, and launch a giant company.

While I am sure there are amazing people working in their garages around the world, the reason you know about a product is because someone invested money in it to help it scale.

This is something we don’t talk a lot about in the indie community, which is a shame. Yes, the gates have come down. With the rise of indie publishing, the gatekeepers have less power, and anyone can publish.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still barriers to successfully launching a writing career that have nothing to do with talent and hard work.

Is it possible to write and amazing book, have friends edit it for free, self-publish it, find readers, and launch a career from it? Yes. Of course, it’s possible; and there will always be outliers that can be held up as an example of this story.

Is it easier and more likely you will be able to build a career as an author if you have disposable income to invest in cover designers, editors, courses, and advertising? Without question, yes.

Please don’t hear this as a complaint. I’m not complaining. I happen to be one of the ones who has the blessing of resources.

I’ve had a leg up over the past four years because, while I don’t have discretionary money of my own, I’ve had family members who were able and willing to support me by paying for parts of the team I mentioned above. Even the Story Cartel Course I took that originally got me started down this road was paid for by a family member because I could never have afforded it on my own.

This is how the world works. It is how all businesses work. And we, the writing/publishing community, should be open and honest about it because false narratives don’t help anyone.

There are lots of talented authors around the world that don’t have the resources I have. Over the past four years, I’ve often heard people rightfully bemoaning the absence of diversity in the book publishing world.

My suspicion is that, like in other industries, part of the reason many minority groups are missing from the publishing world is not because there is an absence of talent, interest, or disciplined hard work in those communities, but rather because they do not possess the discretionary resources required to accelerate their success.

If this is a problem we are going to fix, I think we need to consistently acknowledge the reality that becoming an author is like starting a small business and seed money goes a long way to accelerate success.

Story #3: I don’t have a choice.

I think the question every writer has to ask herself or himself is, “Will I do this anyway?”

If I never find my team and I’m forced to go it alone, will I keep going?

If I never find my readers and no one ever reads my work, will I still tell the stories rattling around in my head?

If this is always a slow slog and I never make a dime, will I continue pushing through until all the stories are done and my pen has run dry?

I was driving in my car yesterday and a song came on the radio I hadn’t heard before. Suddenly, I found myself thinking about a scene I’ve been working on. I can’t tell you why that song made that scene click, but it seems to happen to me all the time. I’ll see something mundane or hear something or smell something and suddenly I’m back in the middle of my story.

This never happened to me before I started writing, but now, I’m constantly being pulled back into the plot and the characters I’m working on. The narrative is never far from the surface of my mind.

The most important thing I’ve learned over the past four years is that now writing has become a part of me. I’ll never be able to escape it.

Even if I tried, these characters and stories would haunt my mind until I finally surrendered and did the work to bring them life. They are like a burning in my gut that has to come out before it eats me alive.

So even if I never successfully scale, I’ll continue, because I can’t stop.

What Stories Do You Tell Yourself?

Telling myself these new stories helps me explain the world around me. They help me make better-informed decisions as I work to build a career as a writer.

No, not all these stories are fun to hear. But if we’re going to make it as writers, we need to honestly understand the industry we’re operating in.

Then, we can come together and support each other as we face these challenges together.

What stories do you tell yourself to help you make sense of the world? Let us know in the comments.


So many stories are about teams. Think of the Avengers—they could never save the world alone. Today, take fifteen minutes to write a story about a team working together to succeed against a common adversary. Maybe it’s an alliance of superheroes, or a sports team, or a group of friends. What’s their common challenge, and how will they be victorious together?

When you’re done, share your story in the comments. And remember, writing isn’t an isolated activity—don’t forget to leave feedback and encouragement for your fellow writers!

Jeff Elkins
Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."
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