5 Ways to Combat “Publishing Block”

Written by Caitlin Jans

Many writers talk about writer’s block, but for me that has never been an issue. What I have struggled with for the last 8 years is something I have started to call “publishing block”.

What I mean by “publishing block”, is not an inability to write, but an inability to get published or a feeling of stagnation in terms of publication. For example, during my first year of submitting my work to literary journals, it was very hard for me to get any of my work published. There was a big learning curve and I felt frustrated much of the time with how many more rejections I received than acceptances. I still had a strong daily writing habit and my creativity remained unblocked, but it became harder and harder for me to bring myself to submit my work for publication. After a year of always having 40 submissions out, I stopped submitting for long enough that my amount of pending submissions dwindled to less than 20.

No acceptance snapped me out of this. Instead I forced myself to start submitting again and to try new strategies. Eventually, I saw results and felt “unblocked” in terms of publishing. That is far from the only time I went through a period of publishing block. I still feel that way intermittently and I probably always will. Each time I reach a new stage in publishing, there seems to be a new plateau, and sometimes this lasts for years.

For example, I still have not gotten my manuscript published, but that is mostly because over the last few years, my standards have gotten even more specific, which is a bit of a self-imposed “Publisher block”, I guess. I have had publishers offer to publish my manuscript. I just felt like these publishers were not the right fit for my books. Instead, I have focused on making progress in other areas and have discovered ways around and through the various stages of publishing block.

I think a lot of authors’ answers to such a block is to self publish, and while I am not ruling that out, I think trying the different steps below can be helpful, even if one eventually ends up self publishing.

Here are the 5 different tools I use to get myself out of publishers block. But before I go into these five tools I need to make clear that I am always revising my existing work, depending on feedback and what I am focusing on getting published at any given time, and am always generating new work. Sometimes I focus more on publishing, but revising and generating new work are the essential foundation to publishing your writing.

1. Get Feedback

I get feedback through writing groups, both online and off, and also occasional paid editor feedback (more on that later). I had found most of my writing groups through friends, but there are many other ways. If you want to know more about writing groups, these articles are all helpful. Feedback is one of the most important parts of revising, but it can also encourage you to generate new work. There is one simple fact that I am starting to acknowledge as a writer — on my own with no feedback, my writing can only be so good. With feedback from others, I am challenged in new ways and my writing becomes stronger, and more publishable. This is not true for everyone, but it true for most writers. Even if you don’t think the feedback itself is that helpful (and trying other writing groups doesn’t help), the connections you make in writing groups and with professional editors can be invaluable. Many of my early publishing opportunities came from these connections.

Also, in addition to writers groups, beta readers can really help provide great feedback. An enthusiastic beta reading group can often ensure the long-term success of your book after it is published. This article, and this one, are both very helpful in terms of learning more about beta readers.

For a long time I was opposed to paying for editorial feedback, or when I did, it was just the copy editing variety. But even that was extremely helpful. However, particularly in the poetry community, but also in the literary fiction community, it is not that difficult to get feedback on a manuscript from an established, respected author or poet with a track record of book publication. Many have a section of their website devoted to it, or are open to it when you contact them through email. Payment for manuscript feedback usually ranges from 200-800 dollars, but the once I did it, the feedback was well worth the cost.

2. Work on Your Author Platform

If you are an unfamiliar with author platforms, this article is a good primer. An author platform is essentially your ‘brand’ or what makes you visible as you. A lot of articles focus on the online aspects of this, but offline ones are important too. A social media presence is usually considered the key to this brand, but I don’t think that this has to be the case.

Many of the authors I know that are or have become established have done so by focusing on establishing in person connections in the local and regional communities that they are part of, something that I focus on in point 4. So if you are not keen on going online and creating an authors Facebook account, or some other social media account, don’t worry, they are not an essential part of furthering your chances of publication. That said, if you are not going to have a social media presence, a strong, up-to-date website is even more essential.

A strong website should have a good biography (at least 500 words in length) and a list of most important publications and possibly readings. It should also be up to date, regularly list and link to new publications (part of the importance of point number three) and readings, and possibly have a blog element (but it doesn’t have to).

If social media is something you are comfortable with, create an account that doesn’t just connect with other authors (which can be easy to do), but more importantly, connects with your ideal reader base. That means if you wrote a book aimed at young adults, you might be trying to connect with a younger audience, or if you wrote a book about Alzheimer’s, you might want to connect with family and support networks of people with Alzheimer’s.

It is also important to know how your particular community of writers works online. For example, poets regularly have author’s pages on Facebook and use their own personal pages to build communities and to interact. Also there are many secret and closed groups on Facebook that can be helpful to building community and your platform, so how you interact with other authors and readers is important.

3. Submit to Literary Journals

Publication in literary journals is most important to authors who write primarily short stories, and to poets. Both have little chance of getting manuscripts published with a traditional publisher without a strong publication history in literary journals

Emily Harstone has written about the benefits of submitting to literary journals several times. I don’t really have to go into the details here, but will link to her two most relevant articles: Why You Should Submit to Literary Journals and How to Start Getting Your Work Published in Literary Journals. Even if short fiction, flash fiction, short creative nonfiction, or poetry is not your focus or forte this is how you can create a publication history without publishing a whole book. There are even journals that accept excerpts from novels. So no matter what you write, there are places out there seeking it.

The great thing about submitting to literary journals besides creating a publication history is that it can give you a regular acceptance boost as an author.

3. Get More Involved in the Local Writing Community

First off, I have to say that being involved in your local writing community is something everyone should do, period. Forget publishers block, or anything like that. In my experience being involved in your local writing community is rewarding in and of itself.

That said, it can seem a little intimidating to start with. The best way I’ve found to get involved in a new community (and I have moved a lot) is to go to readings, particularly in the genre or area you are interested in. Local libraries often host readings and so do local bookstores and coffee shops. Libraries and independent bookstores often host free writing groups as well, so look into those. Usually the best way to find out about these things is to go to the librarian or the bookseller and talk to them, but browsing community bulletin boards can be helpful too.

If you go to a reading or a reading series, make sure you add your name to any email list. That is usually how you find out about other readings and events. Talk to people at readings. Most of the people there are writers or readers, and are part of your community. Local free weekly papers usually have event listings that can be helpful too.

Don’t go to one event and call it a day. It takes a while to become part of a community; also try different readings and groups. Where we used to live, there were three or four lively literary communities that had some overlap but clear divisions. We could have gotten involved in a casual way with all of them, but instead focused on getting more involved with the one we had the most in common with.

The other thing is that you can start to support the literary community by buying local authors’ books and attending their workshops and supporting their events in other ways (maybe by hanging up posters or helping set up chairs). Also at some point you can start hosting or co-hosting literary events yourself. I have co-run a weekend poetry workshop which brought together poets from all over the country and from across the border.

Being involved in my local writing community has led to local readings, regional readings, local publications, regional publications, articles in the local paper, the sales of a number of chapbooks and lots of wonderful lasting friendships.

Whenever I feel publishers block, drawing on the support of my community helps me.

4. Make Connections with the Writing Community at Large

Making connections within your local community can lead to making connections  with the writing community at large. After all, local reading series and bookstores often bring in authors and readers from other parts of the country and world. I have made long lasting friends and connections this way.

The most frequent way of connecting with other writers at large is online. Many writers connect with each other through Facebook groups, Goodreads groups, and forums. But remember that takes time. Don’t assume automatic friendship or connections. I have met most of my online connections and friends through editing Authors Publish and through running The Poetry Marathon. Some of these connections are just tangential but others have formed into firm, ongoing friendships. So running something, even just a writing related blog, will definitely help make connections. Many of the participants in The Poetry Marathon go on to form writing groups and life-long friendships, because they meet in a unique situation and have something in common. The same goes for many NaNoWriMO participants.

That said, most of my best connections and friendships with the writing community at large have been made through attending writing conferences and week-long workshops as well as writing residencies. I wrote an article that explores this more deeply, called Retreats, Conferences, and Week-Long Workshops: Which One is Right for You?.

The great thing about conferences and week-long workshops is that you often get to re-connect or connect offline with writers that you know don’t live near you. The more you go to conferences and workshops, the more connections, tangential and otherwise, you will have. At conferences you meet publishers and agents face to face, at week-long workshops you can develop lasting relationships with established authors. All of these things can help you get out of the slush pile.

Many of the publications I have had have come out of connections with the writing community at large. Not in a deliberate or planned way, but in a surprising way.

5. Keep Working on and Submitting Your Manuscript

This point is only relevant for authors or poets that are trying to publish manuscripts, which honestly is most poets and authors. But for me this is often the step or tool I most forget about. I submit to journals almost automatically at this point. I am deeply involved in writing communities. I am always part of some sort of feedback loop, but this is different. Manuscripts take more time to revise. I am a mother with a full time job. Editing a poem I can do easily, editing a manuscript can involve far more steps and time than I have. The same goes for researching manuscript publishers and agents and putting together great query letters and synopsis.

That said, it is important that you regularly submit your manuscript(s) and after a round of rejections you revise them, and the corresponding query letter. That is how manuscript publication happens, with applied work. Keep track of all these things in a file, so you know how many submissions you have out, and who you have heard back from before.

Research is also an important aspect of this. If you are not doing research about the agents and publishers you are submitting to, you are really doing yourself and your manuscript a disservice. Although being involved in a writing community can help. I learned both of my ideal publisher and of a number of publishers I would never submit to (even though they are traditional publishers) through being part of the writing community and hearing first hand accounts of these publishers.

In Conclusion

Whenever I feel the “publishers block” I review these five steps and tools and think about which one I’ve been neglecting. Has it been a long time since I went to a reading? Have I not been in a workshop in years? Have I been submitting a lot to literary journals but not to manuscript publishers (a bad habit of mine)? Usually the answer is obvious, although often it is more than one tool that I have been neglecting. I then deliberately re-focus on that area. Almost always within a month or two I feel like I have been “unblocked” and am starting a new level of my writing career. The only issue is that I often forget to check in on the tools. I have to remind myself to do that more often.


Caitlin Jans is a poet, a novelist, and the editor of Authors Publish Magazine. Her writing can be found in The Conium Review, The Moth, The Labletter, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Facebook.