The inherent ableism of traditional publishing
“You must write Every. Single. Day. You will never make it otherwise!”
“Start your query with a personal connection!”
“Writers hustle! Good writers must love the hustle!”
These were the lessons taught over and over throughout all of my writing education. Repeated to the point one might wonder if instructors were working from a script. Some taught them more gently than others, allowing a little room for deviation. Many, though, insisted these were the hard and fast truths to the point I was often left wondering how badly I would fail as a writer.
I came away from my writing education understanding that writing, or rather, being a successful writer, was reserved for one very specific type of person. A healthy, wealthy, neurotypical extrovert.
I cannot write every day. I have no idea how to make a personal connection with a stranger unless they initiate it. I cannot hustle. Forcing myself to do these things will result in anything from me being wildly uncomfortable and anxious to causing a flare up of my autoimmune disease which could very easily kill me.
I realized long ago that the insistence that one write every day or one will never grow as a writer is not true. I write when my body and brain allow me and my writing practice is designed to foster growth through my limited writing time.
Also not true? That a writer must hustle and love it. I have a rather expensive (both in money and energy) autoimmune disease. I need the financial stability of a full-time job and by the end of the workday, I rarely have the energy left to do anything but sit there and play a video game or read a book. I do not have a body that will allow me to hustle for writing jobs as my job or hustle for writing jobs after I’ve done my day job. I am still a successful writer. How do I know this? I have had editors ask me to write for them when it’s usually the other way around and hundreds of thousands of people have read my work.
The key for me was changing what my definition of success was.
Traditional publishing has long been my one and only vision of success as a writer. There’s still such a stigma (and sometimes it’s a valid one) surrounding self-publishing and I wanted to feel like I really earned the publication of my book. Plus, I didn’t want to do all of the marketing and promotion myself.
During my MFA program, we had to draft agent queries. This came easily to me because my imaginary agent was basically me and I could write a fake personal connection on whatever weird thing I was hyper-focused on at that time. But when it came time to query in the real world, it was painfully difficult. I searched all the places one searches for agents and tried to find one that I could both easily connect with without faking it and was looking for my very niche genre. That agent does not exist.
I asked Twitter for advice (I always regret asking Twitter for advice) and was told by many to just have someone write the query for me. The unsent reply in my head was, “That’s not the solution. You’re basically telling me there is no space for me here if I can’t bullshit my way through it.”
After nearly a hundred failed queries, I was left with zero confidence that I would ever find an agent or have my book published. Not because of the rejections, that part I didn’t care about, but because it made me question my ability to pass as a “normal” person that people want to know and like (historically not really a thing I’ve excelled at, so I’m a tad sensitive). So I moved on to small publishers that didn’t require writers to be represented by an agent. Imagine my surprise when the exact same rules applied and I was met with the same results. I do not know how to sell myself or my book and one must do both in traditional publishing.
After a year of this rinse and repeat, I came to the understanding that if I was to salvage my self-worth and my health, I had to find and be happy with an alternative. My traditional publishing dream died but I’m actually okay with that. For years, there was no room for my type of writing in games writing. Until I made room for it. Now game accessibility pieces are common, even at major outlets. There is no room for me in traditional publishing and while I’m not setting out to change that, I have found that I can be just as proud of my novel by choosing the self-publishing route. I had three sensitivity readers, two editors, and a cover designer work on my book. It’s had just as much effort put into it as it would have at one of the big publishers and I did it in a way that didn’t impact my health or dislike myself due to the things I’m unable to do.
Disabled, chronically ill, and autistic people are often left to find ways to make the world work for us because the way it’s designed fails us again and again, so it’s no surprise that publishing has these barriers. I hope, though, that we can drop the narrative in writing education that there is only one way to be a writer, that there is a set of things one must do or success will never be theirs, because it is both untrue and harmful.