Musings on My Decision to Self-Publish

Twitter is a fun tool, particularly for writers, but it can also cause foot-in-mouth syndrome, which I recently experienced when I tweeted something off-the-cuff and snarky (I’ll fully admit) about literary agents. I’ve since deleted my tweet, so I’m posting what I remember I tweeted below.

Here’s the thread:

@LitRejections: Every literary agent has been rejected. But they do not quit being an agent. They understand that rejection is part of the business.

@Me: Hmmm. I wonder how much longer Literary Agents will be part of the business?

@Agent I’m following: Forever. I’m both an agent and an author. Agents will adapt & remain valuable.

Yes, I know. Ouch. It’s dangerous to put that kind of disgruntled musing out there on Twitter because (as I’ve learned in the last few months), literary agents love twitter and they definitely use it as a tool to screen potential clients which is why there’s a sort of universal deference from all writers regarding anything and everything agents tweet.

So first, I want to apologize to the agent for potentially offending her. Now, having said that, I’m not someone who’s partial to mindless deference. I am, in fact, frustrated about the query/pitch/gatekeeper paradigm that exists in the publishing industry. My feeling is that agents are just one (large) cog in the gigantic machine that’s part of an archaic industry. What frustrates me most is how small a cog the writer is.

Let me take a step back for just a moment.

I’m not a new writer. The book I wrote last year isn’t my first. I wrote a fantasy romance novel about 15 years ago. I spent the majority of the 90’s dreaming of publishing it. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest for years (from about 1989 to 1996) and saved every single damn copy. I was too broke back then to afford Writers’ Market, but I used to go to bookstores and copy down the names of publishers and agents right from the book. It took me years to finish that novel, mainly because I researched it exhaustively. The premise is heavily influenced on Greek mythology. The only place I ever submitted it to was Tor Books – because my favorite fantasy writer of all time was published by Tor (Tad Williams – check him out). I printed the manuscript using my dot-matrix printer (I kid you not), shipped it off to Tor and when it was rejected a few months later, I put the manuscript in a drawer and never submitted it anywhere else.

Life got in the way of the DREAM. I discovered a talent for online marketing and grew my freelance business. But I never stopped writing. I’ve always blogged professionally (though not always consistently), but I really warmed up to blogging when I was pregnant with my younger daughter who was diagnosed with a cleft lip when I was twenty weeks pregnant. I maintained that blog consistently for years and new parents still routinely find it and email me. The hospital where she’s treated used to send all new parents to the site (I’m not sure if they still do) and many new cleft lip and palate family blogs have sprung up since I originally launched it in 2004.

When my older daughter was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 – well, I knew I had to blog about it. The blog was my lifeline and, more than that, it made me realize that I am a good writer. People were reading it – many people – every single day. It wasn’t only friends and family – it was everyone in my community and many people outside of it. This reinforced my faith in myself as a writer and gave me the motivation to write my second book, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO. A book that will be self-published next month.

But…before I got to the point of deciding to self-publish, I tried my hand at going the traditional route. I began soliciting agents. My first fifteen queries were submitted before I knew any of the rules. For example, my middle grade fantasy (I didn’t even realize middle grade was a thing – I was calling it young adult), was over 100,000 words when middle grade is generally 45,000 to 60,000 words (for example). The few agents who responded to me pointed that out along with a few other comments that I interpreted as me sucking (“It’s not for me” being the top one, but also, “I don’t think this will sell.”)

Okay. Why? Why isn’t it for you? Why won’t it sell? I mean, I’m not writing it for you. I’m writing it primarily for middle grade children who love fantasy. I’m also writing it for 10-year-olds with cancer. Maybe it speaks to them?

But..WHATEVER. I got a crash course in proper querying from Janet Reid’s web sites – Query Shark and
Her advice was very helpful (and hysterical). I wholeheartedly recommend both sites as required reading for anyone who wants to go the traditional route.

I spent hours and hours (and more hours) on Query Shark. After chopping my book in half and rewriting the beginning and ending, I now had a 62,000 word middle grade fantasy and a much better query. I queried about 13 additional agents (all of whom I’d located via twitter and were actively soliciting manuscripts) and got a flurry of additional rejections including one with the heart-stopping comment, “I can’t rep this because I have a client whose book is extremely similar and it will come out in 2015.”

I was more terrified by the fact that her client’s book wasn’t going to come out until 2015 (I’d queried her in December 2013) than that his book was similar to mine. Each rejection – particularly the form rejections – chipped away at the confidence I’d gained from blogging about my daughter’s illness. A very large part of me wanted to file the book away as I had my original novel – stick it in a virtual drawer, let it collect virtual dust, maybe I’m not a writer after all. But I also realized (mainly via Twitter) that agents were being inundated with manuscripts. They were drowning in them! They were sometimes reading the first line or two of the query and that’s it.

Agents don’t have the same qualms about being snarky or direct when it comes to tweeting about writers that writers have about agents. They reject manuscripts for many reasons – their name is mispelled, or incorrect. They’re averse to a particular word or style. You called something young adult when it should’ve been middle grade (ahem). These are our gatekeepers and they have a shitload of work to do. My chances of being “discovered” seemed slim…and don’t get me started on what happens after you land an agent.

But then I started reading about indie writer success stories and got involved with a group of independent writers on Facebook, many of whom knew Hugh Howey (a hugely successful independent writer who has now gone the traditional route) and they reminded me of something that I’d discovered through my blogs. It’s not about the agents. It’s not about the publishers. It’s about the readers. I realized that I looked down on self-publishing as much (or more) than agents did. I was stuck in the 1998 version of the writing industry when vanity presses preyed on desperate new writers and filled the back pages of Writer’s Digest with enticing ads. Did I mention I’m no spring chicken? When you start your professional writing career at 42, you literally do not have time to swim with the sharks.

It’s not 1998 anymore, after all. I made the decision to self-publish even though I had two agents who’d requested that I resend my manuscript after making the extensive revision of shortening it (from 120,000 words to 60,000). By now I had a 62,000 word book which I’d edited multiple times with the help of a trusted friend (and 7th grade English teacher). I then took the bold step of hiring a professional editor and a cover designer, stopped reading Janet Reid’s blog (which I miss more for it’s humor than its advice) and didn’t look back (much).

During the last four months, I’ve become increasingly enamored with being an independent author. There are no vanity presses involved in this process, for one. I’m doing it all myself (or hiring professionals directly). I have complete freedom to do whatever I want with every aspect of my book, and things are moving a lot more quickly than they ever would if I’d continued along the traditional path. This was the right decision for me for so many reasons, but I still believe the main one is that I’m not a new writer. I don’t have time to play by the old rules.

Despite my snarky tweet, I don’t think that agents are going anywhere soon and that’s fine. There are plenty of writers out there who need and want them. But what I’ve realized (for myself) is that I can put out a quality book without an agent’s approval and get it in front of kids a lot more quickly. At the end of the day, it’s all about the readers anyway, right?