When New Isn’t Better: The Value of Experience

Header image: the word NEW on a red brick wall (credit: Nick Fewings / Unsplash.com)

Today I’m blogging over at the fabulous Writer Unboxed.

“Everyone has to start somewhere.” It’s a familiar truism. And like most truisms, it states a fact so self-evident that there’s no need to really think about it. There’s no start without a starting point, right?

Too often, however, it’s used to dismiss or excuse a lack of skill or training or experience or some other important qualification for doing something that requires expertise.

Because “starting” doesn’t necessarily mean starting from zero. If you start your own law practice, you’ve presumably gone to law school and passed the bar. If you start your own contracting firm, you’ve hopefully apprenticed and/or worked with other builders. If you start your own real estate agency, you’ve taken courses and obtained a license.

Non-zero starting points are just as important for new literary agents and publishers. This may seem obvious—but it’s a fact that writers too often ignore.


Working as a literary agent, or running a publisher, is not an entry-level job. These are complicated, challenging professions that demand specialized knowledge and expertise—not just because skill is needed for success, but because the publishing industry is weird and opaque and clubby and really, really difficult to figure out from outside.

An agent needs—at a minimum–to have contacts at publishing houses and an understanding of publishing contract terms, as well as a nose for marketable manuscripts (not as easy as it sounds). A publisher must—also at a minimum—understand editing and marketing, know how books are acquired and distributed, be capable of creating a fair contract, be able to hire qualified staff–and, just as important, have a business plan.

Such skills don’t come out of the blue. They’re best acquired through training at a reputable agency, or working in publishing in some capacity. Because there are no licensing or educational requirements for literary agents, however, and the easy availability of digital publishing technology makes starting a publisher as simple as setting up an Ingram Spark account, anyone can become an agent or a publisher…even if they have absolutely no qualifications for doing so.

Keep reading at WriterUnboxed.


  1. Some of the comments you left over there were condescending, dismissive and elitist – but that’s to be expected from someone who’s beein inside the gates for decades. Glib little throwaway comments to the effect of “Publishing is hard” followed by useless aspirational advice help no one, especially someone who’s had the door slammed in their face thousands of times, but I suppose giving that meaningless advice feels better than being honest.

    Here’s what people like you don’t get. I don’t have connections, I’m not a celebrity, and I’m not in a position to shmooze at some writer’s workshop in New York. So what am I supposed to do? My choices aren’t between a “good” agent and a bad one. The “good” ones don’t even replay to me anyone (I suppose because their noses are too high in the air to type). So what do you recommend that I do? Acknowledge that every singe thing that I do is “unmarketable” and no good and just give up? Tell myself that any agent who is willing to talk to me must be awful or else they’d recognize what a bad deal I am? Or maybe spend the next decade writing a dozen more manuscripts so that your stuck-up buddies can have a big laugh at my expense?

    I don’t need a pat on the head or some patronizing pep talk. It doesn’t matter how much short fiction I publish, the literary community at large won’t even acknowledge my presence. So spare me the snobbery and the feigned politeness. In your eyes, I’m just another dirty little unpublished peon from the middle of nowhere who should just acknowledge my obvious inferiority.

    1. Welp, sounds like that post definitely hit a chord with you. Publishing *is* hard, even if that sucks to hear. Just put the work out yourself if you really want your work out there. Traditional isn’t for everyone and independent is indeed an option.

      She didn’t write this to singe you personally. Goodness gracious.

      1. Publishing definitely is tough, no matter which route you choose. I think that making it as a writer requires both a degree of talent and a large amount of self-belief–not that this is a guarantee of success, which depends on a lot of other factors as well, including, often, luck. But you really do need both, and one without the other stacks the odds against you. Talent without belief can lead to paralyzing self-doubt, and to giving up too soon in the face of adversity. Belief without talent can turn toxic: since you know you’re a great writer, it has to be someone else’s fault that you aren’t succeeding. I hear from many writers who are convinced of this, and I imagine that in some cases it’s true. But my guess is that mostly it’s not.

  2. Especially with ebook publishing it’s easy to just set up a site and call yourself a publisher. Some small-time outfits put out books as cheaply as they can and hope if they throw enough at the wall something will stick. Which isn’t technically a scam but it’s bad for the authors. Then there are the real scams where they try to charge people thousands of dollars for doing nothing or next to nothing.

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