WHY WRITE ON SUBSTACK VERSUS GETTING AN AGENT? By Michael Mohr
Hey everyone! Before I say anything else: Please do check out my Substack writing newsletter, where I’m currently publishing my “fictional memoir” about my time during Covid living in what turned out to be a totally violent, insane section of East Harlem in Manhattan, New York City. (CLICK HERE.) *Please do consider subscribing. It will always remain free for all. I would greatly appreciate it, of course, if you’d like to become a paying member.
I come from a writing family. My mother is an author and used to write for a national magazine. My uncle is a novelist and screenwriter. Two cousins are writers—one writes for a videogame company, and the other does independent travel writing. So, you might say it’s “in my blood.” I grew up reading my mom’s prodigious library of classics as a young child, which familiarized me with twentieth-century authors such as Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’ Connor, and a plethora of others who shaped American writing in profound and unexpected ways.
An active alcoholic from age 17-27, I read and wrote but couldn’t get my shit together enough to truly cobble up a large, meaningful project. (Aka a novel.) Finally—when I hit bottom and got sober in 2010—I finished my first book, what became an autobiographical YA novel. I worked on that book endlessly and by 2011 was submitting to agents. This was a major amateur mistake. I didn’t know that then, of course. Hindsight is 20/20. I was still a nascent writer, still forming my voice and style. I hadn’t written enough words yet; hadn’t read enough books. I needed more time in the creative furnace, so to speak.
Between 2011 and 2016 I wrote several more books, pumping our prose proudly and incessantly. I also interned for a literary agent during that time, began reading voraciously, and joined my first writing workshop on 44th Street in North Oakland. (I was living in the Bay Area.) At last, in 2012, when I was just shy of thirty, I got my first short story published in a literary magazine. I actually got paid (not much) for my writing. Of course I was thrilled.
My YA novel started getting agent interest for the first time in early 2016. This was after I’d broken down and hired a former Random House-turned-freelance editor who worked with me to shape the book for eight hard but productive months. She loved the novel, and after we finished she said it was ready and that, were she still acquiring books at Random House, she’d certainly take it. It was around then that agents started responding to my query letter and sample pages. Then they started asking for the whole book. Many read it. Some read it more than once. I started getting long, personal emails from agents praising the book; the writing, the voice, the style, the characters, the plot.
And yet, in the end, no agent took the book, despite several saying they could “see it on the shelf.” A couple signaled indirectly that, it being the time of Trump, it was “problematic” that the narrator was a WSM (White Straight Male) from the upperclass. It was time for “underrepresented voices” to rise from the white ashes of bigoted Major Publishing. I understood this concept on a basic level, of course, but it didn’t change the fact that it felt unfair and censorious. In my opinion good writing is good writing, regardless of skin pigmentation, class, gender or historical differences. Punishing new white writers then, in 2016, for the “sins of the fathers” didn’t make sense to me. Still doesn’t. And it’s only gotten worse.
Like many writers I’d always wanted to be published by The Big Boys. I wanted an agent and a major publisher—Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, etc. I wanted to walk into bookstores and see MY book, with an awesome cover. But I’ve been trying to get to this goal for the past 12 years…and the door seems perennially locked no matter how hard I try. The industry seems to be getting more and more Woke, more and more political and ideological, less and less interested in serious art or divergent, transgressive viewpoints. Publishing has become a monolith of Wokeism. After the Penguin-Random House anti-trust trial, where we all learned how little the vast majority of authors get paid from major houses, and given the fact that major houses rarely pay for writers’ book tours or PR, it finally dawned on me, at nearly 40 years old: Fuck it; I’ll do it myself.
And so that is precisely what I’m doing. This is why I started my Substack newsletter: Click here to read my Substack Newsletter. I figure: if agents and publishers are the old gatekeepers, and they no longer believe (for the most part) in literature and true Art, and they’re not paying writers much of anything and they aren’t supporting their PR campaigns: What reason, really, do I have to stick with that old paradigm? For a long time I was secretly critical and judgmental of “self-publishing” mainly because anyone and their grandma can do it, and there is some BAD self-published writing out there. That said: There is also some terrific writing put out directly by authors. I finally grasped that, if I wanted to write for an audience and have a shot at making decent money as a writer—which is my eternal calling and always has been—it was time to let go of the old dream of getting an agent and a major publishing contract.
So here I am. I started my Substack on August 21, 2022. I’m posting every 3-4 days. Subscribers have been joining, slowly. So far I’m not making much money but I feel strongly that this will change over time. Readers will pay for good, honest writing. And that’s always been my thing: Good, serious, honest writing. No Wokeism. No ideology. No insult to the reader or trying to make readers think a certain way. Just real, raw, gritty, true, down-to-the-core writing.
Isn’t that the whole goddamn point?