Why I Self-Published my Debut Novel: On Respecting Agents and Building a Business Relationship

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Is self-pub­lish­ing for every­one? Prob­a­bly not, despite the acco­lades being sung all across the inter­net in the shad­ow of a hand­ful of for­mer­ly self-pub­lished authors. There is an enor­mous amount of work that goes into a sto­ry after it’s been writ­ten, so much so that with two self-pub­lished books under my belt I can final­ly breathe a sigh of relief know­ing that my goals have been accom­plished. What goals exact­ly?

I self-pub­lished because I want­ed to work on becom­ing a good poten­tial busi­ness part­ner for a lit­er­ary agent. I want­ed to bring to the table the best pos­si­ble author and pro­duct. Self-pub­lish­ing my first fic­tion nov­el was about dis­cov­er­ing whether my sto­ries and my sto­ry­telling were sell­able. My first book was non-fic­tion–Data Sci­ence in High­er Edu­ca­tion–and I’ve made enough on that each mon­th since launch to remind me that I don’t write total garbage. After that, I pub­lished my first fic­tion book–Bur­row–and as of writ­ing this it’s been on the mar­ket for 48 days and has aver­aged (com­bined e-book and Kindle Unlim­it­ed reads) about one full sale per day. Com­bined with the steady, non-mar­ket­ed inter­est is a hand­ful of 3-to-5 star reviews that have helped to push me from an “I don’t write total garbage” mind­set to one of “I’m writ­ing some­thing that can sell.”

Being a sell­able author is not the same as being an author. I think any­one who can sit down and write can be an author–I real­ly do. In fact, I think peo­ple would be writ­ing even if no one want­ed to buy or sell their fic­tion. But while some may be able to hit that pub­lish but­ton with ease, ful­ly expect­ing to just watch KDP sales dash­boards every­day and cross­ing fin­gers for con­tin­u­al­ly grow­ing spikes, oth­ers (like me) are a bit more, well, pes­simistic.

Here’s what I mean by being pes­simistic, which I don’t see at all as a bad thing. My mind­set going into self-pub­lish­ing was like this:

  1. I don’t bring any­thing to the table. Pro­ceed to write a thing.
  2. I have writ­ten a thing that I real­ly enjoy read­ing and enjoyed writ­ing even more. But does that bring some­thing to the table?
  3. I would real­ly like to work with an agent, but I don’t want to both­er any­one with some­thing that’s not sell­able.
  4. How can I ensure I’m bring­ing some­thing to the table? I should self-pub­lish my debut nov­el, work hard to make sure I am a sell­able author, and then reach out to an agent.

Not wast­ing an agent’s time is just as impor­tant to me as pre­sent­ing them with a good sto­ry well told. I need to be con­fi­dent that I’m bring­ing some­thing to the table in a query let­ter, even if they decide to send a stan­dard rejec­tion. The impor­tant thing here is not whether they accept or reject me, it’s that I am con­fi­dent that I have a solid con­tri­bu­tion to a busi­ness rela­tion­ship. As Chip Mac­Gre­gor (Mac­Gre­gor Lit­er­ary) puts it, “This is a busi­ness rela­tion­ship, in many ways almost a part­ner­ship, and you don’t want to part­ner with just any­body.”

Do new and/or self-pub­lished authors under­stand this? Fly around on forums across the inter­net and you will see tro­ves of self-pub­lished authors lament­ing about agents. Some don’t want to be both­ered with the pub­lish­ing indus­try, some see agents as road­blocks to their pal­pa­ble (but often­times juve­nile) dreams of overnight suc­cess, and still oth­ers are just look­ing to get their stuff out there as quick­ly as pos­si­ble so they can say they have writ­ten a book. It is this crowd that has, in my mind, taint­ed the self-pub­lish­ing indus­try; at times I feel like it’s either you’re one or the oth­er, and per­haps that delin­eation is delib­er­ate­ly con­struct­ed by both sides. Let’s face it: well all know some self-pub­lished authors who chose the inde­pen­dent route because they don’t see any val­ue in lit­er­ary agents.

Well, I self-pub­lished my first fic­tion nov­el because I think so high­ly of lit­er­ary agents. Fol­low­ing Lit­er­ary pro­fes­sion­al Kristin Nel­son (@agentkristinnla, web) has real­ly helped to frame the writer-pitch­es-agent process as a busi­ness pro­pos­al. After all, isn’t that exact­ly what a query let­ter is sup­posed to be? A busi­ness pro­pos­al? I have cre­at­ed X and would like you to sell it. Here’s what X is and why it’s sell­able. Let’s do busi­ness togeth­er.

Think­ing of the query­ing process as a busi­ness pro­pos­al, you can share my dis­heart­en­ment when I saw that Kristin had to write an arti­cle address­ing the obvi­ous­ly fre­quent asked ques­tion of why do agents need query let­ters. The ver­ba­tim ques­tion–“Why can’t agents sim­ply skip the query pitch alto­geth­er and read the sam­ple pages the author includes with the let­ter?”–is answered per­fect­ly on Kristin’s blog, but what isn’t said is the under­ly­ing assump­tions and atti­tudes that sur­round a writer ask­ing this ques­tion.

If I am sell­ing you a busi­ness idea for a new mobile appli­ca­tion, would I expect you to dive into my source code before telling you about what the app does, why the world needs it, and how it fits into the cur­rent ecosys­tem of mobile apps? Absolute­ly not! So why do we expect agents to give writ­ers spe­cial breaks and just “trust” that their sto­ry­telling and sto­ries are strong enough for them to invest in?

I love sto­ry­telling, but I don’t love sto­ry-sell­ing. So before I go out and both­er Kristin with my book that wrote, I’m going to go out of my way to make sure that 1) there’s a mar­ket for my book, and 2) there’s a mar­ket for me. Self-pub­lish­ing was a busi­ness deci­sion to test the waters; I need­ed to know, with a high degree of cer­tain­ty, that a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of the pop­u­la­tion of read­ers avail­able to me would pur­chase a sto­ry by a nobody and enjoy it. I need to bring to the table at least something to reduce the inher­ent uncer­tain­ty that comes with a nev­er-before-pub­lished author, and that’s what I have done.

If you’re think­ing about self-pub­lish­ingthink about what your own goals are. Do you want to get your sto­ry out there as fast as pos­si­ble? You might want to recon­sid­er. Slow down, shelf your book, let it mari­nade for a while. Intro­duce to the world not your pro­duct, but the best pos­si­ble ver­sion of your pro­duct. I made the mis­take of pub­lish­ing Bur­row before my wife went through it with a fine-toothed comb (a mis­take I will nev­er make again), and had to make two post-debut updates to the dig­i­tal file. This caused some ear­ly read­ers to get a ver­sion with about five typos in the whole book, which are enough to put me off. Thank­ful­ly, they admit­ted that while the typos were dis­tract­ing, the sto­ry was still worth the read.

So my goals before pitch­ing a pro­fes­sion­al like Kristin (who does accept queries for sci­ence fic­tion, so I do have her on the top of my list for my cur­rent work-in-pro­gress) were achieved: dis­cov­er if my work was real­ly worth tak­ing a risk on. Do I have to explain all this to a lit­er­ary agent in a query let­ter? Of course not (unless they ask), but what I have done is elim­i­nat­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty that an agent is wast­ing 100% of their time con­sid­er­ing me or my sto­ries. Now, does that mean they’ll accept my book? absolute­ly not–but that does mean I can be con­fi­dent that the rejec­tions are a business–and not a personal–decision.

For writ­ers look­ing to self-pub­lish fic­tion, here are my rec­om­men­da­tions:

  • Iden­ti­fy agents who rep­re­sent sto­ries like yours, and draft to your­self some query let­ters using their sub­mis­sion guide­li­nes as a ref­er­ence. This will help you frame your sto­ry in a way it needs to be framed: as a com­mod­i­ty of enter­tain­ment in a vast mar­ket­place of sto­ries.
  • Iden­ti­fy what you want to have hap­pen, and what you expect to hap­pen, once your book is on the mar­ket. Are you test­ing the waters? Are you look­ing for overnight suc­cess? Be real­is­tic with your­self, and about why you aren’t seek­ing a more tra­di­tion­al route.
  • Ground your deci­sion to self-pub­lish in a deep respect for what lit­er­ary agents and the whole pub­lish­ing team does. If you’re self-pub­lish­ing because you think you don’t need an agent and/or the resources and tools they provide, you will like­ly fail. If, how­ev­er, you are self-pub­lish­ing for a speci­fic reason–and that rea­son is close­ly tied to your under­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of the pub­lish­ing indus­try and the val­ue of agents–then you’re head­ed in the right direc­tion.

Self-pub­lish because you respect an agent and val­ue their work so much that you don’t want to waste their time.

Self-pub­lish because you want to be con­fi­dent that you are head­ed in the right direc­tion craft-wise.

Don’t self-pub­lish because you think a lit­er­ary agent pro­vides no val­ue.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Kristin’s arti­cle here on the “Mag­ic Num­ber [of books before you are a suc­cess­ful, pro­fes­sion­al writer]”:

One of the truths I high­light at writ­ers con­fer­ences is that for more than half of my clients, I passed on the first project they sent me. It wasn’t until they sent me a lat­er, more mature work that our agent-author love match bloomed.

Why do I tell you all this? If you’ve just com­plet­ed your first nov­el, awe­some. Cel­e­brate this huge achieve­ment. But it doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t sell, or if you inde­pen­dent­ly pub­lish it and it doesn’t get much trac­tion.

Now get out there and go work on that plot hook!

P.S. I am plan­ning on query­ing an agent for my cur­rent work-in-pro­gress (a sci-fi thriller), not for BURROW. When Burrow’s sequel is pol­ished, (it’s cur­rent­ly mar­i­nat­ing in my “don’t look at this for six months” fold­er) I do intend to find a way to release it, and am look­ing for­ward to the rejec­tion let­ters due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a pre­vi­ous­ly self-pub­lished book. Who knows how that will all work out.

P.S.S. This post is about fic­tion, and I’m not sure how much of it applies to non-fic­tion. I have a very suc­cess­ful non-fic­tion book self-pub­lished in a niche mar­ket for a niche audi­ence. I nev­er con­sid­ered tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ing for this book because I had some very strong opin­ions on the mis­use of tech­nol­o­gy in high­er edu­ca­tion and want­ed that voice to be 100% authen­tic. Is this pos­si­ble in fic­tion? I don’t think so. Mass-mar­ket paper­back is a busi­ness that needs to gen­er­ate rev­enue, and if you need to move things around or change things in your sto­ry to make it more sell­able, then damnit, you bet­ter lis­ten to your agent/editor. If you’re sto­ry­telling for your­self that’s one thing, but if you want to be a sto­ry­teller for the mass­es then you need to know what enter­tains the mass­es. Be smart, lis­ten, and know that oth­ers work just as hard as you do. 

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