This was a tough decision for me to make. To me, writing is all about telling a story. Ideally, a writing career would enable me to devote more time to writing stories while still eating regularly and sleeping indoors. The sad reality, however, is that most writers won’t be able to live off their writing alone.
That being the case, my concern initially was, which route to publication would leave me with more time to write? Since independent writers run their whole show, it seemed a no-brainer that going the traditional route to publishing would leave me with more time to write, though going independent would leave me with more control over the final product, from cover to content.
I didn’t question those assumptions until a couple weeks ago. I’d completed the first book in an epic, dark fantasy series and was shopping it to agents, and several things were starting to bother me.
The first issue lay with the sheer number of gatekeepers standing between my book and prospective readers. First there are agents—who might have assistants to triage all the queries received. Many of those agents make a decision on representation based on the query letter rather than the story itself. There’s a considerable difference between a sales letter and a novel, or we’d all be avidly reading our junk mail for entertainment! Even the agents admit that a lot of good writers get overlooked—which tells me that this triage system doesn’t work very well.
Another issue was how hard it was to research agents—only a few of them give interviews, and not surprisingly most of those who do say what they’re looking for is “good writing”—however they privately define it. Duh. But in the process of trying to learn more about the agents, I was struck by how none of these prospective “business partners” were forthcoming on how they agented for their clients—not a single interview with an agent talked about how long they averaged to get a book deal for their clients, how long they tried to get one before giving up, how prompt they were in delivering royalty checks and statements, and who did their auditing and how often. Since the author is the last one paid in this food chain, picking a business partner based on whether they like your writing just didn’t seem a sound way of doing it. I couldn’t help noticing how many agents have moved on to partner their clients in self-publishing books if they couldn’t sell the manuscript to a traditional publisher. An agent has a number of clients to minimize his or her risk of starvation, but authors have all their eggs in one basket, and are essentially making serious decisions in the blind, based on a few phone calls—I may be very much mistaken, but I don’t think clients are invited to inspect an agency’s books before choosing to be represented!
The final blow against traditionally publish my work came when I finally asked the right question.
While I was writing my novel, I thought the question was one of control over the production of the book—covers, etc. Once Book One was finished, however, I realized control over the book wasn’t the issue. The real issue for me was that if I managed to get past all the gatekeepers—after the agent, there’s the editor, the editorial board, the publisher’s marketing and sales force, and the bookstore buyers—the book still has only anywhere from 30-90 days to find its audience and sell well enough, fast enough not to get pulled off the shelves and returned to the publisher. That’s also about how long it takes for a search engine to discover the book’s existence! It’s no secret that publishers don’t do much to promote a book by a new author—I’d be expected to do that myself in my scant spare time. If the first book in my series failed to take off in 90 days, it would be pulled off the shelves and set back, ending the hope of the other books in the series getting published. I couldn’t even self-publish it as a backup plan, because the publisher would own the rights to the book, print and ebook forms.
That was the point where going indie became a no-brainer. After so many years of writing, it’s the only decision that gives me peace of mind. I have already committed myself to writing the series, so there’s plenty of time for me to help it find its audience. No one devotes years of her life to telling a story if she isn’t convinced it’s a story worth telling—and reading.
I look at my bookshelves, real and virtual, and am struck by how few fiction books I’ve actually bought in recent years—and I own thousands (more than I have shelf space to hold). I read the kind of stuff I like to write, and I write the kind of stuff I like to read, and there just hasn’t been much out there for me. (I don’t enjoy books with a cast of thousands, no matter how epic the story.) The last epic series I got excited about and bought was The Queen’s Blade series by indie ebook author T. C. Southwell.
The traditional publishing world is made up of editors and former editors-turned agent who know what the editors are buying—but they haven’t been selling much to me. I have to wonder how many other readers are like me, looking for what we think is a good book.