How to Get Published, Part 8: No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

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Welcome back to the How to Get Published series.

Let's say that you didn't get an agent, that you've been banging your head for a year or several years or several projects and you still don't have an agent. There are other paths to publication.

Self-publishing is open to everyone. You pay a fee, and they put your manuscript in book form. Prices range from a couple hundred to several thousand. Self-publishing utilizes a system called POD or Print-on-Demand and it’s similar to Cafepress. They do not waste materials until someone wants the book; meaning, the reason you can usually only get self-published books online rather than in a bookstore is that they don’t exist until someone makes a purchase and then they are printed within the day and mailed out.

The writer pays an upfront fee (Booksurge, Amazon’s program, asks for anywhere from $800–$6000 depending on what you need done–and I’m sure there are places that do it for much less, but you also sometimes have lower quality with the lower fee), and then receive back a portion of the book sale–sometimes up to 35%. So … just to explain the math to see if this option is right for you, if a book costs $15, you should receive back $5.25 per book sold. You’ll need to sell a little over 150 copies of the book to break even and after that, you’ll turn a profit. (That is, if you go the cheapest route on Booksurge. You'll need to sell well over 1,ooo books if you choose a more expensive option.)

Advantages are clear--it is entirely within your control. All you need to do is write the book. And frankly, if you’re not up to enduring a lot of rejection (because even JK Rowling endured rejection), self-publishing is the way to go. It is a sure thing. You also have control from start to finish, deciding what goes in the book as well as the look. Though you have to front the money for the process, if you have a thousand dollars to invest, you can easily turn a profit if you have a decent platform. And for most writers, turning a profit is not the reason they wrote the book: it’s to get the information into the hands of people who need it or would enjoy it. Therefore, self-publishing is the perfect way to make sure that information or a story doesn’t linger unpublished on a Microsoft Word doc on your computer. It is the only way within your control to make sure that it gets sent out into the world.

One other advantage is that some PODs then get picked up by a publisher, though this is uncommon and not something that can be controlled. This scenario is the needle in the haystack and I can only think of one book like this off the top of my head, but the point is that self-publishing does not need to be the end-point. It can also be the starting point to prove the book's worth.

The disadvantages are clear too–since anyone can publish a POD, there is a big range of quality. POD-dy Mouth used to be the place to go to separate the wheat from the chaff, but with that site closing, it’s really up to you to exercise a buyer beware mentality as a reader. Every book you are purchasing from a publishing house (small or large) has been professionally edited as well as vetted if it is a work of non-fiction, with research notes examined and challenged. Publishing a book is VERY different from writing a book, and self-published books miss out on the whole publishing process.

Having been a freelance editor--sometimes called a book doctor--(as most MFA grad students are at some point in their life) and having been on the receiving end of a publishing house edit, I can tell you that it’s two very different processes where one is receiving a collection of notes (book doctor) and one is participating in a collaborative process with (1) some control over using the notes removed but (2) a keen-eye focused on getting the right message across (a traditional editor at a publishing house). Removing the publisher from the publishing process can remove some credibility depending on the reader. There is much, much more to publishing than slapping a cover on a book, arranging the pages, and getting it listed online, and self-published books miss out on some important steps in the collaborative book birthing process that come with traditional publishing. Self-publishing should actually be called self-printing and not publishing.

The other disadvantage is marketing. You are entirely on your own for marketing with a POD unless, again, you pay for services. If you have a pretty strong platform or the book gets a cult following, this isn’t an issue. But it means that you keep having to take the initiative to get it out there and it can be exhausting (and avenues can quickly be exhausted). Most publishers expect authors to take a certain amount of initiative, so it isn’t as if this disadvantage is unique to PODs, but the difference is that (1) you will not get the foot traffic picking up your unknown book off the shelf at a bookstore because it’s usually only offered online and (2) some traditional reading sources and media outlets will be closed to PODs.

The last disadvantage is that as an author, you think like an author and you can't see the big picture that someone on the other side of the business can see. Traditional publishers have seen which covers work and which do not. They know where to focus their energies on marketing a book. You know your book best, but they know marketing best. Self-publishing rejects the idea that professional out there might know a thing or two. Sometimes, you're right. Unfortunately, sometimes you're also wrong and if you're wrong, you might be out a lot of money.

And really, at the heart of this, is a central idea that everyone needs to remember -- book writing and book publishing are two very different things. You may find that you love the idea of book writing, but hate the actual process of book publishing. If that's the case, self-publishing may be the best route for you. But some people really want to experience both sides of the process -- the writing of the book and then the publishing of the book -- and may find that it's better to leave a document on the computer or choose the route I'll discuss below instead of self-print the book.

It's sort of the difference between a veggie burger and a hamburger. They look alike, but a veggie burger is not a hamburger. And if you're craving a hamburger, you're probably not going to be fully satisfied with a veggie burger. Though sometimes you just want food and if the veggie burger suffices, eat it.

So, to review about self-publishing–-it’s great if you want control of the process and you want it to just happen without having to jump through hoops. Yes, you need to front the money, but if you can sell between 150–1200 copies, you’ll recoup your investment. And if you have a strong platform, selling 150–1200 copies won’t be a problem. The information will be out there instead of sitting on your hard drive. And there’s always a chance it will hit cult-success or be picked up by a traditional publishing house. I am personally a fan of self-publishing because there’s a lot of good stuff that will never be considered by a publishing house because it doesn’t have marketing potential (remember, a publisher buying a manuscript is essentially making an investment and just as you wouldn’t buy stock in a company that looks like its going nowhere, publishers will not invest in books that they don’t think will make a profit. And publishers need to sell many more than 150 copies to turn a profit).

One thing happening right now is that self-publishing is trying to move away from its earlier title of "vanity press" by renaming itself independent publishing. But something already exists called independent publishing and it's the smaller presses (non-big six presses) we're going to talk about below. I know this can be confusing, but when I use "self-publishing," I mean places you pay to print your book for you (such as BookSurge). I use "independent press" and "small press" interchangeably to mean any publisher that is not a big six publisher, though I tried to stick to the term "small press" to make this clear. Think of the distinction the same way you would (with similar advantages and disadvantages) between a large bookstore chain and an independent bookstore. Both contain books, but the way they market books is different. Big six publishers are the chain bookstores and small publishers are the independent bookstores. Self-publishing is equivalent to the book peddler, with one person selling their one book.

Okay, so now that we've established that, the other option is self-representation.

Sort of like applying to college, self-representation is open for everyone to try, but you’ll have to be accepted. Though small press publishers prefer to work with agents, some will accept direct submissions. (Big six publishing houses will not accept submissions that do not come through an agent with few exceptions.) Most small press publishers work with a specific genre or within a specific swath of the population, but if you fit their profile, you may be able to send your work directly to the house and have it considered for publication. If you get accepted, it contains all the advantages with working with a publishing house--you get paid to write the book, you get a professional editor, and you get help in marketing the book. It will appear in bookstores and you will have readings and reviews (hopefully--but even that is not a given these days).

The advantage with self-representation is that you don’t need to first obtain an agent. You can present yourself however you wish, meaning, you can highlight what you think is important rather than having the agent decide what to highlight. In certain cases, you can represent yourself better than an agent, though with few exceptions, an agent always represents the book better (meaning, you know you, but your agent knows books). Personally, I’d trust the agent because you’re not selling yourself per se, you’re selling the book. But there are cases where this is important (for instance, if your book is about social media and you can’t find an agent who is Twitter-proficient and you know of a publisher who would be perfect for the book.)

The big advantage is that unlike self-publishing, you will never have to layout any money to be published–they will pay you. If a publisher asks you to pay for any part of the process beyond mailing your manuscript, you will know it is not a legitimate press. Publishers will not ask you to layout your money because by buying your manuscript, they are essentially making an investment.

Some people who self-represent to get the deal will turn around and get an agent once they have an offer on-hand. They will have the agent look over the contracts and help negotiate things. Personally, I see a lot of advantages and disadvantages to doing this: you get an agent, but you miss out on the reason for having an agent in the first place (more on that in a moment). But I do think it makes sense if you see yourself writing more books or negotiating more contracts (international rights, film, etc) later on.

The disadvantage to self-representation is that fewer and fewer small press publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts (the term for a manuscript that you want them to read, but they did not ask to read nor did it come from an agent). So on one hand, it’s more immediate than getting an agent, but it’s also harder to have your manuscript read. And once you’ve taken this path, it’s hard (though not impossible) to get an agent to look at your manuscript because it has already been out there. So it’s a path I would only take if you’ve already exhausted searching for an agent or if you’re prepared to either self-represent yourself to the end of the road or self-publish.

The other big disadvantage is that you will always be negotiating (instead of having someone negotiate on your behalf) and you’ll have to be vigilant. I think only those who know what to expect and look for within publishing should take this route. The way it was explained to me in graduate school is the offer you will receive through an agent is so much greater (not just financially, but in retaining rights et al) than what you can receive for the most part on your own, that it’s worth the cut an agent will take from your contract because you’ll still come out ahead.

So, to sum up self-representation, if you’re pretty savvy, have connections in the publishing world, have access to free law advice, or want to try this before self-publishing, it’s a great route. If you are set on publishing with a publishing house, this isn’t a great starting point, but it can be a good finishing point before you throw in the towel.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about self-publishing and self-representation.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Get an Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next--Waiting for a Book Sale

8. THIS POST

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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