Managing Fear and the Unknown in Publishing

Fear can hold you back. So can feeling overwhelmed by everything you don’t know. But if you have decided to publish, you’ll need to figure out how to overcome those barriers.

When I talk to writers who are thinking about publishing, they don’t always use the word “fear,” but I think it’s there, lurking in the background. Putting your writing out in the world is a risky business; it’s understandable that you might be trepidatious about the risks you’re taking, the known and the unknown.

What are writers typically anxious about when contemplating publishing their work? That they’ll get lots of criticism and negative feedback. That they’ll get no reaction at all—which many feel is worse than getting negative responses. That something they’ve written will offend their friends or family members, causing irreparable damage to personal relationships. That they’ll have made mistakes only found after publication, and the errors will make them lose credibility in their field.

They may ultimately worry that all the work they put in—the blood, sweat, and tears—will turn out to be a waste because their book isn’t successful in terms of sales, critical reaction, effect on the intended audience, or whatever measure matters to them.

If you have any of these fears, how can you manage them well enough to take the leap into publishing? Naming them is a start. Then take them one by one, and map out a strategy.

If you’re concerned about negative feedback or mistakes, there’s no substitute for having a number of reliable readers review your manuscript. Don’t just ask your friends, who may not be as up front with you about the problems in your writing or even with your facts. Beta readers, as they are sometimes called, need to be willing and able to point out the flaws, the weaknesses, the gaps in the story or argument. (Here’s some more information on beta readers.)

If your publication has a primarily academic audience, or a niche readership, due diligence requires finding readers with relevant expertise to vet your work. This is true whether your thesis is fairly conventional or close to revolutionary. If you’re publishing in order to get your argument a public airing, you’ll want to make sure that it will be seen as a legitimate perspective, whether on the fringes or in the middle of the spectrum.

If you do get some negative feedback early in the writing process, you’ll be more prepared to handle criticism later. You may then be more accepting of the truism that you can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to. And remember that you’ll learn more from your mistakes than from what you get right.

If one of your worries is that your story is going to hurt a friend or relative, it’s best to address that long before your writing goes public. If you possibly can, talk to the people you think might be most affected by your work; tell them what your fears are about their reaction, and let them express their reservations—if any. You may be able to work out a compromise, e.g., by disguising personal details or leaving out a particular piece of a story. (Here are one writer’s suggestions.)

In other cases, you’ll have to decide whether the risk of offending someone you care about is worth it. Only you can decide how to balance your obligations to people in your life and your desire to publish your work.

And when it comes to success or failure, only you can define what it means to you to have a successful publishing experience. Consider writing down exactly how you will measure your success, which might involve a number of elements—from your own satisfaction with the finished product to how many copies you sell to being publicly praised by someone you admire. Once you’ve carefully and concretely defined “success,” you can create a plan to give your publishing project the best chance at achieving it.

What will make you personally satisfied with the project? What’s important to you? Do you have a particular vision of the cover? Do you want to make sure you work with an editor you can meet in person? Are you hoping to get an endorsement from a big name in your field? What steps can you take toward achieving these goals?

If you have a sales goal in mind, start working on a marketing plan. Do your research about how other authors in your genre or subject area have found sales success. Learn everything you can about how you can get your book reviewed (here’s a list of online reviews and podcasts that may be a good place to start), what awards you might submit your book for, and all the other ways your book can get noticed and find readers.

A good plan can make all the difference in helping you face your fears about publishing. Making sure you have all the information you need, asking for support from friends and colleagues, and doing the work to get answers to your questions can all be part of that plan.

Good luck!

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