(Traditional) Publishing & Our Brains: We Are Not Equipped for This Shit

Recently for dayjob, I went to another training from Kevin Ashworth, founder of the Northwest Anxiety Institute. I’ve seen Kevin speak before, and I am a bit obsessed with him. He’s funny and smart and one of those presenters where everything he says has your brain and heart screaming yes and oh god it’s not just me and can you talk for like five hours more because my blood pressure really likes this.

Anyway, Kevin often starts off his talks with explaining the difference between stress and anxiety. This is always a pretty simple explanation, but for some reason always feels revolutionary in my head, and on this day in particular it really struck me in regards to publishing, especially now that I’ve lived through my traditional debut.

Stress is when we’re presented with a problem that really sucks, but it’s a problem with a solution, something we can problem-solve. It’s short term, until that stressful thing is over. The example Kevin normally gives is getting a flat tire. It sucks and causes a lot of stress, but you can call AAA. You can call a friend for help. You can call a Lyft to get home. Eventually, you can get the tire fixed and move on with your day.

Most jobs, in general, are stressful. But there are metrics by which you know you’ve done a good job. You secured that deal. You got a good review from your bosses. You finished that report. You got a bonus for your efficiency.

(Kevin also gave the example of, if you are working three jobs and feel awful all the time and then go to therapy and say, help me feel less anxious, you are actually probably suffering from stress, and there is a solution, which is, maybe stop working three jobs, and wow did I feel called out!! [I understand that often that solution is not one people can actually accomplish, that they are working three jobs because they have to, but still, ouch.])

In publishing, there are a lot of things that cause stress, too. Like, writing a book. Writing a book is fucking stressful. Writing a book, or working on edits, on a deadline is fucking stressful. But we can do it (most of the time). We can ask our daily supports for time away from parenting and partner-ing to get the work done. We can drink lots of coffee and force ourselves to put the words on the screen. We can ask friends and beta readers and CPs to help solve problems in our drafts.

Anxiety is a problem that does not have a solution. They are problems that we do not have any control over whatsoever. Anxiety is spending every day worrying about whether you might get a flat tire, even though you have no control over whether there are nails in the road you’re going to drive over today. We literally do not have control over those nails, there is nothing we can do about it, but we are anxious about it anyway.

Well. Let me tell you! How many things in (traditional) publishing writers have absolutely no control over!

We have no control over agents. Over whether there are agents who even exist who will “connect” with your very specific work. Same goes for editors. We have no control over publishing not paying either of these entities enough, or hiring enough of them, or preventing them from suffering burnout. We have no control over advances, if we get advances at all, or royalties, or how those are actually distributed. (We often don’t even know how many books we’ve actually sold.) We have no control over marketing budgets. We have no control over awards, or lists, or TikTok virality. We have thrown our shit out there, and we have no control over what happens next.

(Sure, you can write the best book you can possibly write, but everyone knows publishing isn’t a meritocracy. We have all read books that blow our socks off that have received very little “buzz,” we have all read books that have sold millions of copies that make us go “eh?” Writing the best book you can is the one thing we have control over, but really, in publishing, that doesn’t always mean much.)

It’s not that there aren’t metrics, really; it’s that there are too many of them. Even when you have hit a lot of them, there are always more out there, needling our confidence. There is no performance review where your boss says, good job! You have done your job real good. You win publishing.

We can market ourselves, of course, as much as we can, through social media and events and our websites, but even that doesn’t usually move the needle much in overall sales. But it’s this sector that I think really drives the anxiety.

Maybe there are writers out there who are super confident in their work. They’ve written their heart out, know that it’s the best they can do. They’ve worked their way through the tiers of publishing and now it’s out there in the world. They go back to things they can control: writing the next book. Working in their garden. Making dinner for themselves. Binging their favorite TV shows. God bless these people.

But for most of us, we only return to a vacuum of constant reminders about things we can’t control, but that somehow, because of the engine of social media, we feel like we should. You published a book! Yay, have 24 hours of feeling kind of proud of yourself.

And then start worrying about sales numbers, about your reviews on Goodreads, about your reviews on Amazon. About whether your book will sell enough for multiple printings. Will you sell translation rights? Will you sell TV/movie rights? Will you make lists? Will people make fanart? If none of those things happen, does that mean your book sucks? Is there a monthly subscription for Ben & Jerry’s? Why did you want to do this anyway? What if people loved your first book and now you have to write a second book and what if the first book was just a fluke and everyone fucking hates your second book? What if your partner starts resenting you for all the time you ask off from life to go write? What if your beta readers are just being nice to you because they’re nice people? What if someone found a tweet you tweeted in 2014 when like you were super dumb and young and then you get cancelled? Why have you been on Twitter so long anyway? What if all of your posts are really annoying and everyone secretly hates you? What if you’re talking about your book too much or not enough? How much more money than you, exactly, do you think that Nazi romance author got? Like, thousands and thousands of dollars, right? Will you ever make enough to write full-time? Will writing full-time make you lose your mind, because writing is so weird and personal and it’s hard to do it all the time, and people will judge you for wanting to write full-time because like, that’s not a real job anyway, and people will say things that hurt your feelings even though you know you’re working really hard? Why do you care about any of these things? Why do you feel so weird all the time? Why are you always comparing yourself to others when you know that you’re doing the very best you can?

Because…the publishing machine TRAINS us to compare to others. There is literally no escaping it.

Even though we have no control over any of it.

Even though our brains were not equipped for any of this.

One of the things that Kevin also talks about, in his talks, is that traditional coping mechanisms for stress often do not translate to anxiety. Things like self-care: taking a nice hot bath, eating well, going for walks, all help ease stress. Those are nice things to do for ourselves when we have turned in those edits on deadline.

But they do not actually solve anxiety, as long as all those things that trigger anxiety still exist. One of the things that does help anxiety is competence: having exposure to the things we are anxious about and conquering them. Each time you deal with a flat tire competently, your anxiety about future flat tires, should, eventually, decrease. So I imagine, one day, when I have published 45 books, maybe I will be less anxious about it.

Until then, though, I will keep doing what my heart loves, to the utter frustration of my poor brain.

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