Writers Debates

Writers can be a contentious lot. A thread I saw on Twitter yesterday reminded me of the kinds of things that polarize writers. While there are many topics over which writers can disagree, two jumped out at me as being particularly overdone these days:

  1. Traditional vs. self-publishing.
  2. Don’t work for free vs. write for “publicity”

As I read the thread, I felt increasingly compelled to offer my opinion, but wisely decided to switch back to the book I was reading (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air–climbing Everest seemed much safer than wading into the Twitter skirmish) and provide some thoughts on these subjects here on the blog.

Traditional vs. Self-Published

I can state unequivocally that one of these is better than the other–for me. I wouldn’t presume to say that one is better than the other for anyone else. I think that goes to the root of the debate: some people feel their way is the best (or only) way to do something for anyone. I can only speak for myself.

I have pursued traditional publishing because that’s the route that writers I most admire have taken, and I want to be like them. I find a measure of satisfaction selling to professional markets, where the stories are vetted by editors, and only those they deem worthy of taking up space make it into print. For me, it is difficult to tell if I am getting better at my craft from one piece to another. One measure of success for me, therefore, is my ability to sell stories. For the first fourteen years I tried my hand at writing and submitting, my stories were rejected. At first, they were rejected with form letters. Then, as time passed, I got an occasional comment back on a story from editors. I took this as a measure of improvement. Then I sold a story; then another. Each subsequent sale, told me that I was getting better at my craft.

I also went the traditional route because it provided a way for me to learn and improve. Professional editors, once they finally started buying my stories, or providing feedback on those pieces they passed on, proved to be a great source of learning for me. They helped me to understand what makes a story work, and moreover, why some stories don’t work.

Finally, I’ve stuck with the traditional route because I have no interest in the ancillary parts of the business. I’m not very good at copy-editing and proofreading my own writing. I have absolutely no interest in the mechanics involved in building e-books, nor do I have any desire to learn about the ins-and-outs of what makes an e-book sell on Amazon. I don’t want to spend much time promoting my stuff. I have limited time to write and I’d prefer to use that time writing. Perhaps I’m missing out on readers, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

That said, I have friends who are very successful at self-publishing, and I admire their commitment (to say nothing of their fan base) to what it takes to be successful in the self-publishing world.

Don’t work for free vs. write for publicity

I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but once again, this is how I prefer to work, not how I think the rest of the world should work. In the Twitter debate I saw last night, someone objected to the statement “Don’t work for free” with the argument that only a successful writer who is making money can make this statement.

But how, exactly, does a writer become successful? Most have to go through the same paces that all writers go through. Isaac Asimov spent the first eleven years writing nothing but stories before he finally moved onto novels and books and even then, it took a few years and a hundred or so books before he was a real success. At the time Stephen King submitted Carrie, he was a virtual no-name, and Doubleday took a chance on him. It was a chance that paid off both ways, but like all writers, King had to earn the success.

To put it more succinctly: the modest success I’ve had selling stories and articles was earned through some amount of skill, a lot of hard work and perseverance, and a measure of luck. I didn’t start out by selling my first story and everything thereafter, and I suspect most writers don’t either.

I said that I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but it is not an all-or-nothing proposition for me. Where it seems appropriate, I’m happy to do some writing for free. This blog is one example. I’ve written numerous guest posts for for friends. I do this because I enjoy it, but also as a way of paying forward the advice, assistance, and camaraderie I’ve received over the years.


It seems to me that frustration lies at the heart of many of these debates. It is incredibly tough to get rejection after rejections, most if not all, without even a reason for why the story was bounced. I understand that frustration well–I lived it for fourteen years. I may have complained about it from time-to-time, but I never blamed the system for my failure to sell stories. Possibly, the system hindered me along the way, but the only thing I could control was my own writing, and whether or not I’d continue to send stories out, despite the rejections.

Very early on in my writing career, long before I ever sold a story, and submitted stories to markets without much consideration of guidelines, I took Piers Anthony’s attitude. I read a lot Piers Anthony at the time, and he was of the mind that if an editor rejected the story, the problem was with the editor, not the story. This is a good defense mechanism, but it wasn’t until I discarded that attitude and replaced it with one where I intended to learn as much as I could from the hints provide, and try to improve with each story. Those hints were few and far between at first. A few words from Kris Rusch at F&SF, or a helpful observation from Algis Budrys at Tomorrow. Over time, they became more frequent, and I learned what I could from them.

Writers debate all kinds of things: what tool to use, whether to outline or write by the seat of your pants, self-publish or submit to traditional markets, work for publicity or insist on being paid. These debates can be fun, and at times contentious. Over the years, these debates have taught me two things about my own writing:

  1. Figure out what works best for me (it took me a long time to do this) and once I’ve done that, stop worrying about what other writers do because:
  2. Spending time debating these things takes time away from writing. And writing is the only proven way I know of improving my craft.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

2 replies on “Writers Debates”

  1. For me, the debate on writing for free vs. writing for publicity comes down to a few things, and a lot of it has to do with copyright ownership of your words plus outside world expectations.

    First of all, if you’re writing your own blog, that’s on your own time and your own expense. It’s also your own decision. A blog does help you publicize yourself and your work, and it allows you to say pretty much anything you want to. Furthermore, you own the entire copyright. If you decide to license some of the posts, or turn it into a book (through either traditional or indie publishing) that’s your own call.

    Writing for free for another site is trickier. I do know people who have written for free for other sites, and I myself did it for a few years because I knew it would get me an audience that I wanted. But that was a case where I knew the people well who ran the site in question and my writing for them was most definitely mutually beneficial. What does not work for me is when an absolute stranger, or an editor at a site that is clearly raking in a lot of money, approaches me and asks me to write for free. For me, the key question is the respect for the writer and the words. If someone wants to publish my writing, well, why do they want my writing? Presumably it has value to them, and if it does, they should expect to pay for that value.

  2. I have long been of the mind that it is good to hand out a few bits and pieces for free, especially when you are getting started. Not your best stuff, of course. That being said, in practice, publishing for “publicity” really didn’t give me any benefit. I think a lot of the publishers who don’t pay for stories are the same ones who don’t have a large enough readership to warrant offering things to them for free.

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