Friday, January 21, 2022

Getting Your Work Out--How to Choose Your Best Avenue for the Time, Money, and Effort

A former student wrote me with a very good question about publication, a question so many new and even established writers wrestle. Is it better to try to get an agent, to go the traditional route? What are the advantages and disadvantages? If you decide to self-publish, what do you need to do it well? And what about the relatively new option of hybrid publishers--what are they about?

My first response to these questions is to send the writer to Jane Friedman's website and her book, The Business of Being a Writer. I admire Jane's smarts about the often-confusing publishing industry today. If you browse her site, check out her Publishing Paths diagram, which is updated each year to outline the differences between traditional and DIY publishing and everything in between. She's a goldmine of reliable information, in my opinion.

But this writer was interested in my personal experience, so I'll briefly share my up and down publishing history. I've been published in almost every type of option, from traditional via agent to small press to self-publishing to hybrid. It's been a wild but always interesting ride, and I have come away with opinions about the pros and cons of each. So, if your question is similar, read on.

When I began publishing in the 80s, I had an agent who shopped my first manuscript, a nonfiction book, to a top publisher. It sold, and it was released about a year later. I was a very young writer, in terms of experience, so I admit I didn't know too much about what to ask or watch out for. My agent reviewed the contracts, caught errors and got them corrected, and handled the advance and royalty payments. I had an editor who was very hands-on. The whole process went along without incident.

My agent resold rights to part of that first book to be included in an anthology. Then my agent retired and referred me to a colleague. I signed with that agent but we didn't get along. I didn't worry too much because the editor for my first book got me more book contracts with the same publisher. I did fine without an agent for about a decade.

Like many writers, I became curious about other genres. I decided to move from nonfiction (how-to) to more of a self-help book based on memoir stories. Having no agent, but believing in my own ability to pitch a project to a still-friendly publishing industry, I sold that next book to a small press. I published two books with them. They took care of all the legal details.

The publishing industry was changing a lot by then. Colleagues still in traditional publishing, the big five, were having traumatic experiences with contracts being cancelled, editors quitting, projects being dropped. This was the early 2000's. I felt a strong advantage to working with small presses and their good editorial support, so when I moved to yet another genre, fiction, I still did my own pitching and eventually sold a novel to another small press. I loved the editor there too, but the onus of marketing fell heavily on my shoulders--again, a sign of changes in the industry. My first small press had paid for publicity including radio and TV spots (this was pre-social media), but the new one had no budget for that. I had learned quite a bit about the process so I pitched my own interviews, spoke with book groups, presented at bookstores.

I'd been teaching for a lot of years by now, and I wanted to write a book to help writers through the book structuring process, which had become my specialty. This book became my DIY project. Getting an agent was a huge task by now--as it is today--and if I was going to do all my own marketing anyway, it made sense to self-publish. So I hired an experienced editor, got the cover designed professionally, and found a typesetter to lay out the interior. I had to apply for all the legal documents that my publishers took care of: ISBN, Library of Congress's CIP data, any legal releases for contributors to the book. After studying the publishing options, I went for Create Space (amazon). I used Audible for creating a audio version of the book. I asked colleagues for blurbs for the cover and back cover.

Both versions have sold well and more than paid back my costs. I'm still proud of the book ten years later, because I was very careful about creating a high-quality product from the start. Both Goodreads and Audible readers rate it 4.5 out of 5. That makes me happy.

A few years ago, though, I decided to enter the fray and try to get an agent again. I had a second novel ready. I chose 40 agents who seemed like good possibilities, from top agencies to smaller startups. I chose based on their list (what books they'd represented), how frequently they sold manuscripts to publishers (info gained through a subscription to Publishers Lunch), and how much writers appreciated working with them (mostly learned by word-of-mouth or social media. The research took me three months. I gathered all my info into an Excel chart and began sending out queries by email.

I sent them in batches of ten, recording the results and sending new batches every 2-4 weeks.

A rather bold colleague recommended sending a sample of the first 10 pages of the manuscript, even though many agents prefer you don't. I did. It paid off, except for a few times.

Some agencies have an electronic submission form (more and more are using these now). It feels impersonal but it's reasonable for those agencies that handle hundreds or thousands of queries a week (no lie--this is real!).

Responses fell into three groups: (1) no response, which meant resending or abandoning that name; (2) thanks but not interested; or (3) interested enough to request a larger sample (20-50 pages) or the full manuscript.

The goal, obviously, was to get enough interest for the agent to ask for the full. Because I'd worked extra hard on those first pages, this happened about 60 percent of the time, which is an excellent average.

I wasn't totally prepared for the hassle and amount of energy, stamina, and belief it took to hang in there. Based on what I'd read and heard from friends, I knew it could take a year, minimum, to find the right agent. (There are always exceptions, of course!) And it took me nine months. I finally had two agents interested, and one offered. We talked on the phone about the book, what her editorial approach was. I had wanted an agent who was hands-on, because I believe in editors, and she has been great.

She submitted my second novel to about 40 publishers and it did not sell. We took the feedback and talked about how I might rework the manuscript. This was very challenging to consider, since I'd worked years on that draft, but I'm going to try.

In the meantime, she's submitting my third novel, just finished before Thanksgiving.

I love the relationship we have--she's everything I could want in an editor, for one, but I also think she knows publishing inside and out, and for that I'm grateful she's on my side. I'm glad I went through the hassle of getting an agent. It has made a difference.

That said, I am also thinking about my next DIY book, because I've learned a lot about writing since the first one was published in 2011.

When I interview clients and past students who have published, I hear a broad range of experiences in publishing today. Several have gone the agent route and gotten multiple-book contracts with Big Five publishers who backed them with good publicity. Others have chosen small presses, landed with strong editors, and sold well by their own efforts. Another group have decided to work with hybrid publishers, like Wise Ink or Epigraph or She Writes Press, who handle the production and legal aspects and some publicity, paid for by the writer. Still others have gone the DIY route and put together their own publishing team, from editor to typesetter to cover designer, and launched the book themselves.

If you go DIY or hybrid, can you expect to get editorial reviews (newspapers, etc.)? Less likely. Social media, though, can be a big part of your promotion and marketing, and there can be good momentum from sites like amazon or Goodreads, as I've learned. Will bookstores carry you? Maybe not--they buy from the traditional publishers more often than the indies. Is this important to you? Also, maybe not--considering over 60 percent of books are bought online now. (I love bookstores, so this is not my preference, but it's reality.)

Which is best? Do you have more time (and patience) than money? Would an agent relationship be worth the effort? Or do you mostly want to get your book in the hands of readers and are willing to pay professionals to help you get there?

I am glad I tried them all, and I hope my notes, above, about my experience will help you choose wisely, if you're in the enviable position of having a book ready for print.

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