Self-Publication

It’s now just under four months until Generation V will be published. (In case I was too subtle on that: May 7! Pre-order is available at many fine online establishments!) Here’s something that’s kind of funny about being almost-published – you find out just how many people around you would like to publish a book. From my mailman’s niece to the boss of a friend of mine, when the people you know start saying “Hey, my friend is about to get published,” suddenly you become someone people would like to talk to.

This is very different from the response to “Hey, my friend is writing a book,” because then everyone is just coming up with reasons why they really really don’t want to read a draft of it. (For the record – I don’t blame them. Two friends read my drafts. I do not envy them this – they have to tell me what isn’t working in harsh enough terms that I put on adult-sized pants and deal with the issue, yet at the same time validate me for the six months I just spent wrapped up in creating this manuscript. It’s stressful.)

But one of my friends knows someone who has written a manuscript, and who wanted some advice on publication. She’d been talking with someone who self-publishes, and his advice to her was geared toward that line of publication. He even was nice enough to suggest who she could employ to edit the book and design a cover.

Here was her question, which I’m going to post since I have a feeling that it’s a question that a lot of people looking at a freshly completed manuscript end up asking themselves:

Since I’m new to this scene, I wanted to get some more information on the benefits of self-publishing vs. trying to get a literary agent which I know can be very difficult. Any words of wisdom? Do you mind me asking how you got started?

I’ve written about my path to publication before, but I never really addressed my own decision not to explore self-publication. Plus I spent about two hours writing my reply email, so I’ve decided to put this up. I know that there are a lot of strong feelings both for and against self-publication, and that this topic has a lot of nuances to it, but here are my thoughts on the issue, and the advice that I would offer to people considering it for themselves.

I’m clipping the first part of my letter, which was about stuff more specific to her, but I’m posting the rest as I sent it to her.

I think this goes with the general gist of my feelings toward publishing. The odds may be long, but I think it’s worth trying for. Run, hippo, run!

I think this goes with the general gist of my feelings toward publishing. The odds may be long, but I think it’s worth trying for. Run, hippo, run!

Firstly, I’ll explain my own position about self-publishing — I know that it has gained much more credibility in the last few years, and that it is no longer limited to the standard “vanity press” — there are also a lot of examples lately of people who didn’t have luck getting something published through traditional means, published themselves, and found success.

That being said, when I was working toward getting published (and it did take me a few years), self-publishing was never something I even thought about trying. Was getting an agent hard? Yes, it was. I cold-queried over sixty agents before I found mine — some of them never responded, many sent me form rejections, several read parts of my manuscript and thought about taking me on, and a few even came very close to taking me.

And getting an agent is no easy pass to publication either, since then your agent tries to find your book a publisher, which is just as difficult. My book is going to be published in May — it is not the book that I got my agent with. The book my agent originally represented (the book I spent three years writing, trying to get an agent with, rewriting with feedback I’d gotten, and then finally got her with) never sold, despite my agent’s best efforts. So I sat down and wrote a completely new book. And it also took my agent about seven months to find this book a home, and it was rejected by enough publishing houses that I’d actually just sat down to start writing a third book when my agent gave me the call that we’d gotten a nibble of interest.

But during that time period (which stretched about four years from the first time I sent a query to an agent to when I signed a contract to sell my book) I never thought that self-publishing was a better option. And I’m even more confident about that decision now. I’ll walk through that process again:

I wrote a book that I loved and that I was extremely proud of. I’d already gone through two major edits, and it looked good. If I was self-publishing, I could’ve taken that book (which I was happy about) and jumped immediately to the parts like hiring someone to edit, hiring someone to do a cover, and trying to do self-promotion.

It wouldn’t have been the best thing I could’ve written. The agents who turned down my manuscript gave me a lot of very valuable criticism. I probably sent it out to forty agents before I decided that the manuscript needed to be overhauled. So I stopped submitting and took six months and reworked the book again. It was hard, but the book was a lot better when I was done. I sent it out to all the agents who had responded to my original query. None took the book on, so I compiled a new list of agents and started sending out. That was when I found my agent, Colleen Mohyde.

That’s the thing — one query or a thousand queries: all you need is one person to say yes. If you have a good, solidly written book, then someone will say yes. Also, the thing about an agent is that she doesn’t get paid until you do — it’s in her best interests to make sure that she gets you the best possible deal on the best possible terms. Short of one-shot celebrity memoirs, every agent is working to build an author’s career. Colleen worked with me for two years before she got a paycheck out of it.

So Colleen then took my book and sent it out — starting with the top publishing companies, then working her way slowly down the list to small independent presses. This took one very long year, with a lot of rejections, a few nibbles of interest, but mostly rejections. It became really clear that the book wasn’t selling — so during my summer break from teaching, I sat down and wrote another book. I gave it to Colleen, and she began the same process that she had with the first, complete with a number of rejections — except this time it sold, and it sold to [Roc]. Definitely a big deal. And, again — it didn’t matter how many people ultimately said no, as long as one person said yes.

So I sold a manuscript that was 74,000 words (and here is where Colleen more than earned her 15% — on the contract negotiation), and a book that I loved, my agent loved, and my editor loved.

What is getting published is 85,000 words. My editor and I went back and forth on three through edits — one largely structural, and two more precise line-edits. I cut some things, adjusted some things, and ended up fleshing out and adding a lot more. I can say without a doubt — everywhere my editor touched the manuscript, it got better. She questioned things and challenged several others, and it pushed me to improve what I’d thought was good and make it better. I wasn’t employing my editor — we were working together on a project that both of us believed strongly in, and that we were both trying to make as good as it could be. Because she also had a bit of a position of authority over me, I never had the out of saying, “Hey, I just want to leave it like that” — if I didn’t agree with an edit, I had to work elsewhere to correct the issue she was noting. She was able to do her job, and that was pushing me to write as well as I could — and beyond where I would’ve left things on my own.

Once my editor was satisfied with the result of our labor, it was passed over to a separate copy-editor. This person had no emotional stake in the manuscript like my editor or I did, and a month later I was presented with his notes. These were mainly focused on grammar and continuity (things that I’d already worked on with the editor, but now these were even more precise), and I worked on those and returned the manuscript. It then went to a typesetter, who put together an uncorrected proof. These pages were sent to me and to a completely new proofreader to make sure that any last grammar issues or typos were caught — and this is a fact: even after it had been through this many edits and hands, I found 10. I don’t know yet if my proofreader found any others.

After this round the book will be adjusted, rebound, and advance reader’s copies will be sent out to try to solicit some more good reviews. When I first finished the initial edits, my editor sent the manuscript to a bunch of other (bestselling) authors to try to get blurbs for the front cover — I got two from bestselling authors in the field. If I’d just sent an e-book to them, I have no doubts that they never would’ve read it.

Because I’m a new author, not much money (comparatively) will be spent on publicizing my book — that’s just a fact of the publishing world today. So I’ve been setting up a website, blogging, trying to bring my book to the attention of people who could help publicize it — all the stuff that any writer will do as self-promotion. But in addition to what I am doing, my agent is doing everything she can to promote it, and so is my editor, and there’s a general publicity department over at Penguin that includes information about my book in their press releases. Whenever I find a website or blog that devotes itself to reviewing books, I fill out a form on their site to request that they review my book when it comes out — and the truth is that many of them specify on the form that they aren’t interested in self-published books.

The cover of my book is amazing — my editor asked me to send her a list of covers I’d seen that I liked so that she could get a sense of what my tastes were, but she also let me know at the start that they would be putting together a cover to sell the book, not to please me. A team worked on it, with my editor very involved, and when they showed me the result I was blown away. Was it what I’d pictured? Nope. It’s not what I would’ve designed either. But I’m not a graphic designer — I’m a writer. Not having to worry about the cover, or pick someone to do it, meant that I had more time to write. Plus, the cover that I was presented was something that a whole group had worked on.

This is running crazy long, so let me ultimately sum this up — if you’ve written a book that you are proud of, and that you worked hard on, I think you owe it to yourself to try and get it published through the biggest platform available to you to showcase this work. Good books are self-published — I’m not denying that. But so are a whole lot of bad books that are poorly edited and have very cheap cover design. And even if your book is amazing, and you employ a great editor who will be honest with you about every change that needs to be made and will go back and forth with you through as many edits as necessary, and even if you get a great cover artist who designs an amazing and professional cover (and that can absolutely happen!), here’s the thing:

1) You are putting a very real financial investment into this book beyond what was even required to write it — the editor, the cover artist, whether you then also employ a copy-editor and then a final proof-reader, plus the publication itself. Will it be faster than if you went traditional publishing? Yes. You will also rest assured that you will see your name on the cover of a book, which is a promise no one can make to you if you pursue traditional publication. But I never wrote a single check or handed out a dollar to anyone in that long process I described to you — it was long and hard, but when money came, it came to me, not from me. My agent and my editor are invested in the book — that’s where their payout will come from — not from whether I’ll write them another check.

2) There will be an asterisk next to your book if you self-publish. This isn’t a scarlet letter, but it means that the strength of your writing will have to overcome assumptions. Even as self-publishing is getting more and more acceptable, and the barrier of brick and mortar bookstores becomes less important in sales, this is a fact that will very seriously remain, and for this reason:

No matter how much you put into this work, and how good you *know* that it is, this fact will remain: a five-year-old can self-publish. All it takes is someone standing next to them with a working checkbook, and their book will sit right beside yours. Publishers deal with the slush pile — these are unagented manuscripts that are sent in by those dreaming of publication. Famous books have been pulled from the slush pile. Less famous are the books by five-year-olds that get dropped into the recycling bin. But self-publishing is the new slush pile — and forcing your book to the top of that so that people can read it and be inspired by it is frankly a full-time job in self-promotion. You don’t have the stamp of approval that comes with traditional publishing — that this passed through many gates, and many rounds of approval, and what is here is professional and readable. (notice that I don’t say “good” — no one can truly guarantee that. but the rest does matter)

3) The option to self-publish will still be there next year, and the year after it. I know what it feels like to so viscerally want to see your work in print — but will it hurt you to say to yourself, “If I’m not in a publishing contract in ___ years, then I’ll look into self-publishing.” Unless your book is about how the Mayan calendar was originally miscalculated and the world is actually going to end on New Year’s Day 2014, then it probably won’t. And don’t you owe it to the work you’ve put into the book to try?

Anyway, I’m sorry that this took so long and became so much of a soap-box sermon, but I hope that it helps you make the decision that works for you, and please don’t hesitate to email me any questions!

— That’s the end of the letter. So I’m wondering, what do the rest of you think? Am I giving good advice or bad? If you’ve self-published, can you add your viewpoint to offset mine?

And if you read that and have any questions, just drop them in the comments field and I’ll be happy to answer them!

I leave you with this:

I remember this episode of Batman. It is still more believable than the time that a dolphin bravely threw itself between the BatBoat and a missile to protect Batman and Robin.

I remember this episode of Batman. It is still more believable than the time that a dolphin bravely threw itself between the BatBoat and a missile to protect Batman and Robin.

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About M. L. Brennan

Author of the Generation V urban fantasy series, published by Roc Books. Not your usual vampires, kitsune shapeshifters with attitude, Doctor Who jokes, and underemployment. GENERATION V and its sequel, IRON NIGHT, available wherever books are sold. Third installment, TAINTED BLOOD, to be published 11/14.

Posted on January 27, 2013, in Agents, Editors, Publication. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I went into self-publishing because I liked – and still do – the control I have over my work. I liked the idea of choosing my book cover, being in control of my product and deciding how to promote it. Yes, the investment was the downside, but it was the control part that enticed me, and probably other self-published authors.

    Mind you, not all self-published authors intend to stay in that route for good. Some hope that their books do so well, they’ll attract the eye of a traditional publisher. It has happened – and 50 Shades of Grey is not the only example.

    My stamp of approval comes from my readers. If enough readers say my book was good, then I know I did a good job. They are the ones to cater to, not the book publishers or agents. Even traditional publishers release lousy books, so that kind of stamp of approval only goes so far.

    My advice to anyone is to be honest with themselves and ask what do they want from their book and as an author. Do they want control or the sense that they joined an elite group of traditional published authors? Do they mind the long months of hoping to see the day their book is on the bookshelves or do they want to put matters into their own hands?

    I agree and admit the investment part is a heavy weight. I personally think the way self-publishing is these days is like the California Gold Rush – so many got into it, but few struck gold. However, it opened a whole new world for many people and it changed things around. I think there is a good chance that the way self-publishing goes now may change in the future, especially since eBooks are becoming more popular. But it may not be like the traditional route, just something different for the book world as a whole.

  2. I really like this thread. I have lots of discussions with writer friends about self-publishing vs traditional publishing. While that’s interesting, I find that not enough people really discuss all aspects of traditional publishing within the debates.

    Not everyone traditionally published has an agent or went through an agent; maybe they submitted directly to a publisher. Sometimes agents, like large publishers, claim they don’t take unsolicited submissions. You either have to be referred or they have to have met you at a 700 dollar conference where they agree to look at your manuscript, but might not ever respond. Does this mean your manuscript is awful? No. Now, yes, sometimes it might mean your novel needs work or a new focus, and as writers, we all know our novels can always be better. However, plenty of agents will admit it wasn’t you, they just didn’t think they could sell the book, the market changed, or it just wasn’t their cup of tea, try someone else.

    Or maybe try SOMETHING else, because should you really sit on a stack of finished novels for decades trying to go the agent route? Nobody talks too much about small presses. Signing a publishing deal with a reputable small press IS traditional publishing. Smaller presses are sometimes more willing to take a risk on a book that an agent and a larger press might not. (And what I mean when I say take a risk is that maybe your book is different, too different, from what’s selling and what has sold.) A good small press also covers the cost of cover art, various rounds of editing, formatting, and all that technical stuff you don’t want to deal with. Some do promotions, such as: advertising banners and author swag, sponsor giveaways, grab reviewers and bloggers, make sure the author’s information is up on the publisher site and all of the publisher’s social media, give the author pointers so they can self-promote, and generally keep plugging the book for as long as it’s under contract (years, which is something a large press might not do, especially if the book didn’t sell well when it was first released).

    Now, your book might not end up on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and other chains unless you knock on doors and make friends, but hey, you can knock on doors and make friends. (And, might I add, a lot of large press published books don’t end up on the shelves of Barnes and Noble either.) Also, your book is always available online, and let’s face it, brick and mortar stores are kind of a dying breed. Especially when Amazon can drop books off on your door the next day.

    Does your book get a stigma because it’s not put out by Random House? Depends on who you’re talking to. To a lot of people now, published is published, but it does make you sound special when you can say you signed with a publisher. You see that light come on in people’s eyes, especially other authors, and local book stores are a little more enthused to talk to you– unless you’re a local hero, then they’ll talk to you anyway, lol.

    Oops, sorry for the motivational speech. I just wanted to add something about traditional publishing and small press to authors who want to publish traditionally but never thought about small press before. I hadn’t, until a co-worker and some other writers I met pushed me to, and now I’m very happy with the outcome.

    What is your opinion on small press?

    • Small press can be a great route to publication, and there are plenty of high-profile authors who worked with smaller presses. Chuck Wendig and Wesley Chu are both Angry Robot alumni, for example, and both saw great sales. I disagree somewhat with your assessment of brick and mortar bookstores — while certainly most of the big chains are gone, and the independents have been struggling for a long time, many readers do still encounter new authors during a browse on shelves. An important thing to keep in mind when considering small presses is whether they are able to get their authors’ books onto shelves at places like Barnes & Noble — some can, and that makes them much more desirable than their counterparts that cannot.

      Small presses also can be more natural homes to niche work than a large press. If someone has written a book about wooden canoe trends during the 1800s, then that book might be more likely to find a home with a small press that specializes in books about watercraft than with a large press that simply doesn’t have an imprint devoted to those topics. (there’s also university press, which has similarities to this, but is a different conversation)

      With a small press, though, it’s always critical to do a lot of homework before signing, and there are definitely some risks that will be taken that an author wouldn’t necessarily encounter with a larger press. The unfortunate demise of Night Shade Books happened when the GenV series was just launching, and several of my new author friends got caught right in the middle of it. Michael Martinez is one of the lucky ones who was able to make a successful transition to its buyer, Skyhorse, and his series was able to continue and do well, but Teresa Frohock’s beautiful debut Miserere was one of the casualties — and she talks about it extensively in a great blog post here.

      Money can also be a factor. Large and established presses can have the means to offer higher advances to new authors, but that certainly isn’t a given in today’s publishing climate.

      Of course, for most writers, (and particularly debut writers, or those without serious clout), the question does come down to who is willing to publish you. You might have a list of publishers that are your dream picks, and those are submitted to first, and if no one goes for your book then you might have a second round of submissions to presses that, while not the dream picks, are still good and reputable places that would handle the book well.

      “Published is published” is a bit of a misnomer. My series was published by Roc, but I consider it just as equally out there and reputable as Michael Martinez and Teresa Frohock, who were pubbed by small presses. I think we’d all consider ourselves in a very different situation than those who work with vanity presses (which is another reason why aspiring writers need to learn about the industry — resources like SFWA’s Writer Beware are an excellent way to learn some of the ground rules of good publishing).

      So, in terms of small presses, I agree that they are a great resource, but I also wouldn’t have considered them as separate from traditional publishing. Teresa Frohock are pretty much identical in how we approached getting published, and what we considered to be preferable paths. Had Roc not bought my series, I would’ve certainly considered small presses on a second submission round.

      Where I do disagree pretty profoundly with you is on the subject of agents. You write:

      Sometimes agents, like large publishers, claim they don’t take unsolicited submissions. You either have to be referred or they have to have met you at a 700 dollar conference where they agree to look at your manuscript, but might not ever respond.

      If an agent isn’t accepting unsolicited submissions, then that probably means that they have all the authors that they currently want at the moment. That isn’t unusual or in any way something that should surprise someone. There is a limit to how much one person can handle — and if an agent is happy with their current stable of authors, then saying that they aren’t accepting unsolicited submissions is actually a courtesy to interested writers — if this person is overworked and isn’t interested in new writers, why on earth would a writer want to waste their time on that query letter? In my experience, agents almost always have pretty good websites that explain whether they are currently accepting queries, as well as what kind of work they are interested in. It’s a writer’s job to actually read the submission guidelines — otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time, including your own.

      So don’t fixate on the agents who aren’t taking submissions. That’s not hard, and that leaves HUNDREDS of reputable agents to query.

      The idea that you can only get an agent by having some kind of insider connection or by dropping money to attend conferences is basically an urban myth. How did I get my agent? The query letter. I wrote a query letter for my project, researched ten agents who seemed like a good match, and sent the query letters to them. When I received a “no” from any of them, then I just crossed the name off of my list and sent a query to a new agent. That’s how I got my agent, too — I had never met her, had no personal connection whatsoever, had certainly never spent a cent on some kind of agent conference (I guess there are people who have success that way, but that’s not how any of the authors I personally know got their agents, and to me that sounds like a waste of money at the best and a scam at the worst), and actually never even met her in person until after the publication of Generation V (we met up for lunch).

      If someone is spending decades looking for an agent…… they’re doing it wrong. Really wrong. Was it a frustrating process? Sure, at times. But when I started getting a lot of people asking to see my sample chapters, and then asking to read the whole manuscript, I knew that I was on the right track. And if you can’t, after a thorough and careful agent hunt that spans AT LEAST 100 appropriate-addressed queries, get an agent, than that can actually be a good sign that there’s a serious flaw in your manuscript. Time to stop and rewrite.

      In terms of what my agent did for me — she earned that 15% of my advance and royalties, and I’ll never say otherwise. Large press or small, it just isn’t a great idea to go into contract negotiations without someone who actually knows what that contract language means, and who can bargain for your best interests. I’ve talked with a lot of other authors, and some of them loved their agents and some of them had horrible experiences that made them switch agents as fast as possible, but I’ve yet to talk to a single other traditionally-published author who has ever expressed a desire to go through contract negotiations without an agent.

      An important thing to remember is that an agent is not the same as a publicist. Some agents are more involved with publicity than others, but it’s a good idea to get a clear understanding between you and the agent of what is going to be involved. Some agents wait until you hand them a finished manuscript, then they go and try to sell it for you for the best possible price to the best possible publisher, and then once the contract is signed they basically wait until it’s time for you to get into a new contract. Others are more involved, and some will actually do a bit of publicity legwork — though more and more that’s falling onto the author’s workload.

      Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment!

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