The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path.

You’ve written a novel. You keep hearing all this buzz about self-publishing, but you’ve always imagined going the other route, getting an agent, landing a publishing contract, having that book hit store shelves. You’re not sure what to do. You get conflicting advice and all these anecdotes from friends and strangers online. What to do?

I’m seeing this conundrum a lot at WorldCon. I’ve met a lot of authors weighing their options, seen a ton of hands shoot up in panels hoping for that one last piece of advice to push them off the fence one way or the other. There’s a path on both sides of that fence, and writers can see crowds beating the grass flat. They can see the books that lie along either way. My advice, for what it’s worth, is to stop looking at those crowds and those books. Look at the work in your hand.

One of the greatest fears with self-publishing is that your book will be crap. Well? Is it? Look at it. Stop looking at what you see out there on store shelves and on e-bookstores. The path will not greatly shape your book. It simply won’t.

Sure, you will get some editing and some advice either way you go. The book will change a little. But that’s true along either path. Because you take this seriously, right? You aren’t going to publish a rough draft any more than you are going to query an agent with a rough manuscript. There are those people out there, but that’s not you. Stop looking at them. The work is the work.

If you send a rough draft to an agent, it’s going to get rejected. That thing better be polished almost to the point of self-publication. That means you workshopped it, had it critiqued, had some beta reads, have done seven, eight, nine full passes through the work on your own. You’ve read it aloud, looking for typos. You’ve had a text-to-speech program read it aloud, listening for typos. You haven’t done this? Neither path will lead where you hope.

But you’ve done all this if you are pondering this decision. You’ve got that perfect work. Is it good enough for an agent? For a publisher? They are more discriminating than readers. For them, it can’t just be a good work, it has to be marketable. Shelvable. It has to fit a mold, an expectation, a time and place. It has to be like that last thing that sold well, but not too like all the other things that are about to go on sale from the same people.

The reader just cares if they like it. The agent and the publisher can love it and still reject it.

The work is the work. Whichever path you choose, it won’t become drek just because you self-published. Books don’t rub off on each other like this. If anything, you will shine by comparison. And along that other path, where the books are all professional and polished, you can’t see the ones that didn’t make it. The slush pile is buried. It’s behind those bushes, out of sight. The work is the work.

We fear self-publishing because of the stigma, but it is rapidly fading. We fear it because there are so many bad books out there, but those aren’t your books. We gaze longingly at the beautiful hardbacks lined up in the store windows, but those aren’t yours either. And the path didn’t make them that way. Not all that way.

This is the great barrier, I think. There’s the dream that someone will accept a manuscript that isn’t done and they will somehow turn it into a bestseller. There’s the fear that somehow the awesome book that blows the minds of everyone who reads it will become rubbish as it is dragged through the muddy track of self-publishing. My advice is to worry about that work in your hand. And pick a path with zero expectations that the ground will magically move beneath your feet. How far you get is up to you and the work you put in, either way you go.

37 responses to “The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path.”

  1. It doesn’t matter if all that results from my work is a single hardcopy volume, which I can have POD create from a perfect, typo-free, master file, edited and polished to my standards, as good as I can make.

    This is now possible, and what I will want.

    I also will want millions of readers – that’s a given. But I can produce the best book I can write, just for me, first. THAT is within my control. And at a reasonable price (not counting my labor).

    I love this publishing world: no one can deny me my dream, IF I’m willing to work for it.

    I realize I could have done this before, with a vanity publisher, for a LOT of money, but the now way gives me the option of selling as many as I can, too – without a basement full of books. Control.

  2. I had considered writing a book for decades. But the challenge of writing a book that would please an agent, was too daunting. After all, some books have been through dozens of agents before they were published. When I heard about the success of a self-published book called “Wool”, it was a dream come true. I don’t expect my first book to be nearly as successful, and it hasn’t been. But what’s really important, is that the advent of an inexpensive, free, way to publish gave me hope, and turned on my Action switch.

    Thanks to Hugh for blazing the trail for me.


  3. Your advice is so good it makes me think I could pull this off.

  4. Thank you Hugh! I needed that boost of confidence to continue my writing and really understand what I am writing, rather than look at the people reading it. You are an inspiration and great writer that I hope one day I will be able to meet. Thanks!

  5. Michael Wozniak Avatar

    I have been asked to write fictional stories and books since I was 18. In November I will turn 55. My life’s experiences allow me to transcend reality’s implicit limitations on thought, love, and promise. Thank you Hugh for giving me motivation and hope to do something I feel was meant to be. My first novel shall be written by 2013!

  6. “Do, or do not – there is no try!” – Yoda

  7. I think Hugh’s advice is sound, as long as you take all of it. No book is perfect in its first draft, or its fifth, maybe not in its tenth. I’ve been comparing the printed, Kindle and Audible version of Hugh’s silo books and I note a few small changes even in them. So, they can always be tweaked just a little bit. I think what keeps most writers from being read is a lack of discipline, not a lack of creativity (although that can be a problem too).

    One other good piece of advice is if you want to BE read, you should be a reader as well. This comes courtesy of C.S. Lewis.

  8. I think the most important thing is that you love your own book. Life is full of choices, tradeoffs. And you have to make a choice. Down the road, your choices will determine who you are.

  9. Hey Hugh and fellow readers. Whats the best way to get started as a writer. I have a ton of ideas but have no clue where to start. Is thee any good books out there to give me a good idea where to start. Any ideas would be well appreciated. Thanx Hugh and fans.

    1. I’ll give you the sage advice offered to Simon Pegg in Run Fatboy Run about training to run a marathon.

      Gordon: Go on then, run!

      Dennis: Isn’t there some kind of like… special technique?

      Gordon: Well… yeah… you put one leg in front of the other over and over again really really fast.

      I’ve seen similar advice offered to writers. Put letters together to form words, words to form sentences, sentences to paragraphs. This may seem sort of snarky, but it really isn’t. The only way to write is to just write. Any techniques or tips given really have more to do with organization than anything. In the end, no matter the way you go about it, eventually you’ll have written each and every word in the story from start to finish.

      I’d start by writing down all of your ideas. Find the one that is begging for the most attention and give that one a go for awhile. In the process, you’ll find what works best for you.

  10. I’ve always been intrigue with how a book reads? Interpretations are myriad. The writer sees it one way, everyone else sees it an infinite number of other ways. It was be maddenening, not knowing how a book will be perceived. What will readers think of this and that, and those weird squiggly story lines over there? It’s like the personal heavens in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, readers create their own personal reads, unwind their own interpretations of the book. Some are ball of yarns, some lengths of string attached to balloons, some mooring lines, some . . . The downsides to alpha readers and workshop groups are the restraints that are placed on the work and, inevitably, its path to the reader. It’s no longer a wild stallion, it’s a tame beast. Its course is now predetermined, set by a few readers who want more of this or more of that. I like discovering original work, blazing its own path. Such works are rare. A needle in a silo. It’s why I have been following Holston’s ghost around the silos for a couple of years.

  11. Hugh’s marketing advice to me when I found it tough promoting books was only four words… “write more good stuff…” and he’s right, the only world a writer can control is the one on the page. I still struggle with promotions and languish in sales, but fans are enjoying the “good stuff” more and more each day.

    Writing is a marathon not a sprint.

    Thanks for the advice, Hugh/

    1. Hi Peter,

      I was so intrigued by the title of your latest – Little Green Men – that I bought it as soon as I saw it was available. Having also seen a concept cover that Jason Gurley produced (he designed my book cover, too), I was moved to look into your work.

      On top of all that, we both live in Australia, so that has to count for something!

      I look forward to reading your books.


  12. Sage advice, as usual Hugh! Thank you for this.

  13. […] The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path. | Hugh Howey […]

  14. […] path,” in Hugh Howey’s The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path. refers to self-publishing vs. traditionally publishing. Writing from the 71st annual WorldCon in […]

  15. […] a short essay, The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path., he also notes some of the confusion and hesitancy among newer writers today debating traditional […]

  16. […] a very few of the biggest names get the kind of traditional deals we grew up salivating over. As Hugh Howey notes, “the work is the work” regardless of its […]

  17. […] The Work Is The Work And The Path Is The Path You’ll find this one at Hugh Howey’s website – this is a must read. Highly Recommended. […]

  18. The notion of becoming a writer has changed. Too much emphasis is placed on the selection of paths, which will soon become a tangled collection of paved sidewalks. It’s inevitable. At least when there was just one path we were free to concentrate on the work. There was one true god. The gods are all dead. It should always be the work, no matter which path you choose. Just keep writing. Read. Write some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. When your work shines all on its own, when you can say that–even when you live in a plastic bubble at the middle of the ocean–then you are on to something.

    1. Agreed. That is the hardest thing for new writers to learn, you have to write, all the time. There is one thing most bad writers have in common, they write one or two books, they try to publish the second or third draft, then they sit back and complain the money isn’t rolling in. I have a dozen novels in the drawer, none good enough, but only by writing 12 bad novels could I begin to learn how to write better. I can always go back and rewrite those 12 someday, but I am too busy now working on the next one.

  19. We had a similar discussion at our school’s last Science Fiction and Fantasy meeting (9/11/13). Some of our students want to be writers in the genre’s they love. I even expressed my own desire to do a graphic novel. In the end it became clear to the group that If you want to be a writer then write. We have this quote in my classroom, Dreaming and talking about it is a good starting point but you must finish what you start whether it be a short story, novella, novel, graphic novel or just a blog. To encourage our young writers we have create a blog to develop some of their skills and writing styles ( Now we can work on the tools of grammar, editing and publishing.

  20. Sorry I thought I deleted the statement that started with, “We have this quote in my classroom… The quote was “Focus on the task not the fear of the task”.

  21. Yes, and each book may have its own path, its own merits, its own story if you will.
    And sometimes, when you and your agent have given up and you self publish, you attract an agent when you lost one who retired, and that agent shops your books to Hollywood instead of traditional publishers, and then falls in love with that one oddball book, the YA with the weird title, and says, “I think I can sell this, let me try” and your money-grubbing-self-made indie fingers unclench enough to type, “Okay” on an email…because the future is hybrid, uncharted, and individual, and every book has potential. Even the bad ones, the oddball ones, and the ones that were better left in a drawer
    And that’s a good thing.

  22. you are my hero. keep up the great work. I have taken a lot of your advice and it has born much fruit…but I still have a long way to go.

  23. […] verarbeitet er in ernsthaften, lehrreichen Abhandlungen, wie etwa dem kurzen, pointierten Essay The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path, in dem es darum geht, die Bodenhaftung zu […]

  24. As a newer writer, have been following Michael J Holley’s blog ( and he featured you today in his post based on an interview you did. And now I’m following you! LOVE the metric on the left side – is that a custom feature! My own blog,, followed my life moving to England but now writing novels. Well, working on finishing the first one, but working full-time it’s a little hard. But your comments on how much you write are inspiring, and how quickly you wrote your first book! I need to be more driven and get out and write!

  25. […] is atypical. So is having a bidding war on your debut novel. As I argued in a blog post entitled The Work is the Work; The Path is the Path, a novel’s quality is not appreciably affected by its method of publication. Brenna wrote a […]

  26. […] writers should be as brave as Brenna. As Hugh has also stated, the Work is the Work, the Path is the Path. Self-publish, work with small presses, or do a little of both (like me). But get your work out […]

  27. well said, and so true. if you want to be a writer – write.

  28. More good advice. I would like to add to it, while you are fretting over the big novel, your great work, one way to get over the fear of getting it out there is to write something else, something smaller and get it out there. I ‘needed’ to have something for sale, so i put together all my notes about frugality, took a picture for the cover, and threw it on the Kindle. It is not my best work, I could have spent more time editing it, but it is 70 pages available for anyone to buy, and I have sold almost 1000 copies in 4 months. Seeing the few reviews, getting my first 20 dollar payment from Amazon, getting hard copy of my own book to hang on a shelf; all these things helped inspire me to keep going with my big book.
    In the old days if you didn’t write 300 pages no one would talk to you, but now if you can put a good 50 page story together and throw it on the Kindle for 99 cents, you can very quickly go from writer to author. And nothing beats the feeling of doing a google search for your book and seeing it come up online. My little book is “The Frugal Samurai”, a non-fiction account of how i started living frugally.
    My next book, “Wool: Alternates”, is fan fiction and is close to being ready. I have to do it right, i do not want to let Hugh down.

    1. Removed the Frugal Samurai, not up to snuff, lol. Now time to focus on writing and starting over.

  29. […] *Hugh Howey wrote this. He has helped me from time to time when deciding what direction to take. Check out this link: The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path. […]

  30. […] trenches is a rapid rise in the quality of self-published works. Here’s another reminder: How you decide to publish does not appreciably alter the quality of the end product, and this is more and more true every day as publishers do less editing and self-published authors […]

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  32. […] be later this week. In the meantime, I’ve been reading some of Howey’s posts about writing and self-publishing and realized I had enough interest in the subject and enough to say that it warrants its own […]

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