Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Self Publishing Debate becomes a Debate!

I received the following comment to my Self Publishing Debate post, and I thought the commenter made some interesting points and asked some interesting questions. So I wanted to address them, but felt that my answers might be interesting to you guys too, so I'm creating an entire post in honour of this comment.

Not everyone considers self-publishing just because they received a couple rejections and never tried revising their work.

To this I agree. I already said as much in the initial post. For those who may not recall this is what I said:

I think self-publishing has its place. I think if you have a niche market, maybe are on the lecture circuit, self publishing is an excellent venue for you. If, let's say, you want to put together a collection of poems for your family, or print up a story you've written so you can share it with your loved ones, that too is awesome.

This I said in the middle:

I know that there have been works out there that have been rejected and it isn't because they aren't any good. It's because they just don't fit the market, or they're too much of a risk, or any other number of reasons. But again, that is the exception to the rule. That is actually the same exception to the rule as the one with the successfully self published authors. Because those successful authors were probably the ones that had that book that actually was awesome but rejected for other reasons in the first place.

And this I said this at the end:

But please, for those of you who do choose to go down that path, do it with respect for those who have gone before you and were successful at it. Those people had to work ten times harder than a commercially published author to get to the success they enjoy today, they spent time, energy and money. They were incredibly talented, and I bet they had an outside eye work with them on perfecting their book. It's darn hard to do what they did. Don't just think you can print off a book and voila!

So I do think there are some fiction authors who do go that route and have been successful at it, but those that were were incredibly talented, not only as authors but as marketers.

Moving on:

I don't know how many rejections you had before you found an agent.


I'm not going to say how many agents have rejected me. I will only say every agent on that represents YA has rejected me; the majority have never read more than a short query with ten pages attached. I've been trying to break in for the past four years and I am now beyond frustrated. I believe people are turning to self-publishing because they are finding the gates into traditional publishing to be shut.

This is the first point I wish to address here. I think you are right about why many authors are turning to self-publishing. And I still think this is a bad thing, and I'll tell you why. Many authors are rejected on their first work. For whatever reason it is simply not publishable, and many authors who have looked back on those works have understood why with the hindsight that is, as we all know, 20/20.

Yet these days so many authors who find their first work rejected take the blame outward, to the industry. They don't look at themselves and ask if maybe their work is not quite ready yet. So they turn to self-publishing, as you say, and then spend many man hours creating a work that looks like a published book (formatting the pages, hiring an artist to do the cover etc), years marketing said work, and a lot of money to do both. In my mind, 9 times out of 10, the author could have done herself a much better service by setting that rejected work aside, and writing a new book, and submitting that one. After all, we are authors. We aren't just "writers of one book", well except for Harper Lee. Our plan is to write many a book, to have a career writing stories. What's the harm in writing something new?

That's my biggest concern. I hate the idea of authors wasting valuable writing time on formatting, and design, and marketing when that isn't their niche. Now there are authors out there for whom those are also a passion, and that's cool. But most authors are, you know, authors.

It is possible the rejected work truly is marvelous, and just not right for the market at present. Again, I would still say set it aside and write something else. I'd suggest writing something maybe a bit more commercial, get a publishing contract with that, and then sell the more complicated work.

BUT. If you truly want to spend the time and money on self-publishing your work, then I respect that. A few authors have had success at that, but like I stated above, they are exceptions to the rule, and they not only turn out to be brilliant writers, but brilliant marketers with serious internet savvy. They also have the money to spend.

But who knows? Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps there really is something terribly wrong with my query and first ten pages that would make any rational person turn away. Go ahead and take a look. I'd love to know what about my pitch and first ten pages justifies an immediate "This-sucks-and-isn't-worth-a-partial-request" rejection.

You know what, I actually have a bit of time on my hands. I would never normally agree to this as I have a lot of projects, but if you send me an email so I can send you a private critique, then I will have a look. But I warn you I may be a pretty nice person, but I come from a long line of teachers and my interest has always been first and foremost to educate. And if I'm going to critique your work, I will critique it honestly, I'm not going to be "nice".

I've had over a hundred beta readers and even if they have criticisms, everyone agrees it is a good read.

Honestly, this really doesn't mean much. I'm sorry. Often beta readers are just so impressed we've written a book at all, that they think the book is awesome. Besides, considering all the rejection you've had, I have to keep that in mind as well. After all, I don't think the industry is out to get you personally. I mean, do you seriously think agents look at your work and think, "This is marvelous, now let's reject it because it's all just such a fun game!"? So you have to honestly ask yourself, what's going on here?

I am on the verge of self-publishing not because I've been rejected but because I've done everything in my power to appease the gate keepers and they still won't give me the time of day.

And I get it, really I do. We've all been rejected and it hurts. But I've already explained my reasoning for not wanting to self-publish: I don't have the means, nor the ability. Plus, I'm at a stage in my career where I believe I ought to be paid for my work.

I wish it was as simple as revising the manuscripts. They don't even read the manuscripts. The majority decide whether to ask for a partial based on what amounts to jacket copy, which they dissect in a way no rational human would do (ex. no question hooks, despite the fact I can walk down to Wal-Mart and find numerous books and DVDs with question hooks on their jacket copy).

Okay, so this now sounds like you've had some blanket advice from someone: Never use a question hook, never do this, never do that. Whoever gave you this advice was doing you a disservice, there are very few absolutes in writing in general. The fact is that every agent is different. Nathan Bransford hates rhetorical questions. Guess what? My query was nothing BUT rhetorical questions. So I think you need to take a step back from the minute details and just find what works for you. Remember "Pirates of the Caribbean" - they're not rules, they're guidelines.

Also the idea that they dissect a query in no rational way is just, I'm sorry to say, irrational. Why on earth would they do that? Agents are people, people who love books. They aren't this giant amorphous mass that came from outer space with a whole different set of reading rules. Just because an agent takes the time on her blog to state preferences doesn't mean that they won't read the exception. In fact I've read so many blogs from agents stating just that. That when they offer specifics it's to help, but nothing is ever set in stone. I'll address the reading of queries in a moment.

However this is the bigger issue. If you haven't had a full request from a single agent, this means something really really positive. Your query sucks.

What? Uh . . . how is that a good thing?

I'll tell you. A query is a very difficult thing to get right. So what you need to do is work on your query. This is a great thing because it means you don't have to re-write your novel or anything. It just reflects a poorly constructed query, and that is something that can be fixed. There are some excellent venues for you to do that, I'd highly recommend Absolute Write, a writing forum with an entire critique section devoted to making queries awesome (password "Vista").

Let me now also address your other question from above, namely how can an agent judge a book based on a query letter and first ten pages.

When you buy books, what do you do? I'll tell you what I do, which I think is pretty much the same as most people. I go into a bookstore knowing I can afford one book today, that's it. So I need to spend my money wisely. First, I am drawn to a cover. Can't help it, and that's what covers are there for. Then I flip the book over, or open it to the front flap, and read the plot summary. Then if I like that, I go to chapter one and read a little bit. If I'm satisfied with that, I'll buy it.

Well that's EXACTLY the same thing agents are doing. They already have a lot of clients, so they have to be picky who they are going to represent next. They pick up a query, there's no cover to draw them to it, but since they get sent queries, they read them. If they like the query and there are ten pages sent with it, then they'll check those out. If they like those pages then they'll ask for a full.

Let me tell you, you can tell pretty quick in those first ten pages if you're going to like a work or not, and I am sure you've been able to tell, flipping open a book, if you're going to like a book or not by even just the first page.

You can even tell from a query blurb if you'll like the story (just like reading the back cover of a book). You can also tell from a query if:

- the writer understands grammar and spelling
- the writer understands how to write in a manner so as to be able to express herself accurately to a reader
- the writer has done her research into the industry, knows how to follow rules (which is very important because as you get into the industry more and more, and have to deal with deadlines, etc, an agent is going to want to know an author is capable of being a professional)

There is so much that can be revealed from a query alone, let alone those first ten pages which is more than enough to let you know if the writer is any good, or at least has written something you're interested in.

If you haven't read this already, here's a very informative article about what rejection means from an editor's perspective: Making Light's Slushkiller

And when publishers like Harlequin encourage us to pay AuthorHouse a bunch of money to "self-publish", I admit my faith in the publishing industry to ever give my work an honest chance is all but gone. By doing things like this they are telling me they are longer interested in working with writers to make money-- they are only interested in taking money out of our pockets.

This I agree with. This was the purpose of my original post. But I will add that Harlequin is just one publisher. That it isn't representative of the entire industry. And there are other commercial publishers that do own self-publishing outfits, but you'd never know it because they don't recommend it. It's just another revenue stream for them, and the company has an entirely different name so authors aren't fooled into thinking they are being legitimately published by a big company. My issue was with the recommending, not with having alternate means to make money. Most all publishers these days are still interested in publishing books, and most every editor I have met is obsessed with literature. What Harlequin did was wrong, ditto Thomas Nelson, but it is not representative of the entire industry. It is important to not take an individual case and then apply it blanket to everything.

So there we go. I hope I answered some of your questions, and addressed your concerns in an adequate manner. I hope others found what I had to say useful.

Thank you so much for the comment, it's always fantastic to be made to think, and I definitely had to give your questions a good deal of thought because I understand the frustration you are feeling.

In the end, I'd truly recommend writing another book. I had a friend who for ten years tried to get an agent with one book until her boyfriend made just that insistence. That second book she wrote landed her an agent. And yet even that one her agent couldn't sell. It was her third that got her that contract with Harper Collins, that has made her an author published around the world. If she had just decided to self publish at the beginning, she quite probably would have never landed that agent, and she most certainly never would have written this series that she adores, and, what's more, is bringing so much joy to so many readers. In fact, that's another really important point to note, just because you might have to write another book, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. You might discover that your next book is even better, something even closer to your heart. Writing another book should be an exciting prospect, not a negative one.

Oh and, btw, my friend's second book? The one her agent couldn't sell?

It now has a publishing contract.


K said...

You are amazing. It is wonderful that you are back blogging.

djpaterson said...

Great post, Adrienne.

Chris Edwards said...

Thanks for putting this together, Adrienne. It's an antidote to cynicism.

Happy Holidays,


Gypsy K said...

And one behemoth of a post, I might add. Very nice though, sorting out the giant snaggle of the publishing world in terms us simple folk can grasp :P

Kudos to your friends book, your upcoming projects and the rest of us would be authors.


Jamie Eyberg said...

I have written 4 books. 2 are for adult audiences, 1 YA and 1 MG. I am subbing the MG book to agents now. It is frustrating, but I will persevere and continue to write my next book (another YA) and edit one of the adult books in the meantime. If they are good enough they will be picked up and if not my children will have something to read when they are older.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I should add that I have only had short stories published. The books, not so much.

Princess Marina said...

I wrote four fantasy books and I loved them but no one else did. So I wrote two Regency romances, I have the offer of a publishing contract for them and will probably have them both published this year. But I am still tempted by self publishing.

I wrote a fifth fantasy and am half way though the sixth and I think I may be finally learning what I am doing wrong with them. They may not be fixable by rewriting but I still love them. The regency romances are readable books and I am proud of them but I still want people to want to read my fantasy.

Is it daft to keep trying for success in one genre when you can achieve it easily in another?