April 30th, 2013


The Odds Are Ever In Your Favor

To self-publish or go the traditional route? In the past five years, self-publishing has become a much more viable and less-expensive option; traditional publishing, meanwhile, is more accessible than ever. How to choose?

I’ve met a lot of self-published authors. My father’s friend’s wife, who gave me a copy of her fantasy opus, back when an expensive vanity publisher was the only way to get around the agent-editor-publisher chain. The guy at a writers’ Meet-Up who passed around his Smashwords-printed novel about radicals in 1960’s San Francisco, the hero a thinly-disguised self-portrait with extra heroism and extra sexy.

“I don’t have time to wait for traditional publishing,” he said, and given that he was pushing eighty, I saw his point.

Most authors who self-publish don’t want to wait. Traditional publishing is immensely time-consuming.

Sometimes, that’s the best part.

I know an author on the third book of a three-book deal with Penguin, a respected international publisher. He wrote book one, went through a few drafts, did the query letter rounds, came up with nothing. Ten years later, he found the manuscript in a drawer and thought, I could make something of this. Another couple of drafts took more than a year. Another round of query letters. An agent liked it enough to get her assistant to work with him on another draft, which took another year. When the manuscript finally went back to the agent, she gave him more feedback and he revised again.

The payoff? His book was accepted by the agent’s first choice publisher. He got a mid-five-figure advance for the first book and a three-book deal.

The price? His first two books sold respectably, but weren’t runaway hits. Fingers are crossed for book three. He submitted a synopsis for a fourth book…and they didn’t want it. So he wrote another synopsis for another idea, which the publisher is more excited about. For him, this is a good price to pay—he doesn’t want to write midlist books, he wants to write a runaway bestseller and make a living as an author. For him, it’s worth coming up with Idea #2 (or even Ideas #3-99) and trusting the publisher’s judgment. He believes his books are better because they go through gatekeepers, because he’s forced to heavily revise and depend on someone else’s verdict that “it’s ready.”

There are some excellent reasons to self-publish:

Your book is timely—there’s a major world event or a fad or movement you want to tie into. Even a short publishing process takes about two years from Agent-Said-Yes to Book-On-Shelf. If you have the know-how and the ability to publicize, get that sucker out and leap on the gravy train. If you’ve just written the next Fifty Shades of Grey, you have about six more minutes to sell as many copies as you can. Agents—working on that two-year timeline—are already out of mommy-porn and into another burgeoning trend. A trend it’s hard to spot until, in book-submission terms, it’s done.

Your book is aimed at a niche market. You’ll sell enough copies to make money for yourself, but it won’t be worth a big publisher’s time. Generally, if you’re looking at fewer than 10,000 copies, you’re a niche market. Nonfiction books for a narrow audience—say, “Firefighter Moms’ Resource Book” or “Croatian Recipes”—are classic examples of niche books.

You already have a platform. That is, you’re a public speaker or someone with a public presence who has at least 10,000 True Fans. You have the power to reach 10 fans for every one who will actually buy the book. So, if 100,000 people have heard of you, or you speak to that many people at churches and Lions’ Club meetings in a year, you can probably sell 10,000 copies. Why cut a publisher in on your profits when you’re going to end up hand-selling your book to people writing you a personal check?

Your priority is personal satisfaction. It’s more important to you to hold a book in your hand and share it with friends and family than it is to write your best possible book in a longer period of time, with more outside input.

You want complete creative control. You believe your work will be compromised by outside influences, and you have to get it out exactly as Xenon dictated it in your dream.

Here’s a terrible reason to self-publish:

“It’s all a rigged game. If you’re not already famous, no-one wants you. It’s impossible to get an agent’s attention. It’s impossible to get pulled from the slush pile. It’s impossible to know what they want.”

Ten minutes on the internet and you can find out exactly what agents are looking for. There’s a whole site devoted to (helpfully) critiquing query letters. There’s an agent who gives personal responses instead of form rejection letters once a week. And you know what?

Agents want you to be good.

They are not cackling in their offices, calling out, “Hey Marge, get a load of this one!” (OK, maybe sometimes.)

They want to be able to stop reading after your book. They want the first book they pick up to be incredible, to tug their heartstrings and send them marching to the barricades for your hero’s cause. They want to hold it to their breast and sigh, “This is why I’m an agent. This book.” They don’t want to read 2000 slush manuscripts, they want the first ten to be so amazing they can close down submissions for the year and focus on YOU and all your future sequels.

Yes, there are 2000 manuscripts in the slush pile. (Or 2000 queries in the inbox). Maybe more. But here’s a secret:

The odds are in your favor.

The actual odds. (Collated from my friend the mid-size publisher, my friend the small publisher, my experience as an editor of an academic journal and a literary journal, and from interviews with agents.) You’re not competing with 2000.

If there are 100 manuscripts in the slush pile:

50 are wrong. They have been sent to the wrong publisher or agent—i.e., a short story collection to a house that doesn’t print short stories, or a novel to a publisher that only prints playscripts. These lost souls are a waste of time and postage that five minutes on the internet would have saved.

40 are terrible. They are poorly spelled, un-grammatical, the story is leaden and boring, the characters hackneyed, the plot a thin copy of the latest trend. The authors should stick their work in a drawer, write another couple of books, learn a lot, and come back in five years to see if anything is salvageable about this one.

9 are good but not good enough. The author needs another draft, maybe two. They’re on the down side of a trend instead of the up side. There are too many books just like it out there already. You’ll know you fit in this category when your rejection has a few personal lines, or a suggestion about what to fix. Take it seriously—even one personal sentence is gold. (My co-editor at the academic journal was mystified at how many authors didn’t understand that the four-page revise-and-resubmit letter wasn’t a rejection, it was “We want your next draft”. No-one spends more time than they have to on a real rejection.)

And that 100th manuscript? It’s good. And while there’s still the chance that the agent is too busy to take it on without being totally “in love” with the manuscript, or they already have a book like it in their stable—

it’s only 1 in 100.

If you have truly, truly, put the time and effort in to make your manuscript as good as it can be—which takes months or years, plus feedback from trusted friends and critiques from people you aren’t fucking and possibly even editing you’ve paid for, plus reading everything you can in your genre or field to know what trends are coming and what are played out, and reading everything you can from and about the agents you want to sell to—you are not competing with the whole slush pile.

You are competing with one in a hundred.

Your agent has 2000 manuscripts? You only have to be better than 19.

And that’s pretty good odds.

So if you pick self-publishing, pick it for a good reason. Pick it for creative control or timeliness or because you're a rockstar who already has a publicist. But don't pick it because traditional publishing feels like a lottery. It's not. It's a race. It may be as intimidating and challenging and time-consuming as the Boston Marathon, but you can train for either one. And if you'd rather run your own race--make sure winning will feel just as good.

Traditional, self, or "just for me and my select readers"? Why?