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

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.