When to quit querying and self-publish

Books and fingersRejections are tough, and when they stand between a writer and his dream of getting published, the call of  the world of digitally self-publishing can start to echo louder and louder. But when is the right time to quit querying and self-publish?

We’ve all heard those stories of great books getting turned down by agent/editor after agent/editor then going onto success as a self-published title. There’s Lisa Genova, who spent a year getting rejections from agents for her novel Still Alice, then finally self-published (ignoring advice from an agent who said it would kill her career) and building the novel’s sales into such a success, the book was picked up and published traditionally by Simon & Schuster.

Then there’s Amanda Hocking, who sold $2 million worth of her self-published her YA novels, attracted the attention of an agent, signed a four-book deal with St. Martin’s Press and has gone on to sell movie rights.

And J.A. Konrath, who was a traditionally published author before ebooks became viable, but has found much more success self-publishing his previously rejected novels than he ever did through traditional publishing.

Of course, these don’t represent the results for the typical self-published writer. Just like in the traditional publishing world, there are J.K. Rowlings as well as mid-list authors you’ve never heard of.

So, the question is, is self-publishing right for you? In an interview with WritingRaw.com, agent Eddie Schneider said he’s wary of writers who self-publish because it “implies that the author has poor impulse control.” But he goes on to say, “That being said, there are books that people (publishers and agents alike) just don’t get and have to be shown, by sales success, that they ought to get.”

In his keynote speech at the 2010 SCBWI summer conference, former publisher and now agent Rubin Pfeffer outlined the economic benefits for authors putting out their own ebooks.

Does this translate to: Getting rejections — just do it yourself? No. Absolutely not. Or maybe.

Rejections to query letters could mean a number of things: the query isn’t strong enough, the writing isn’t good enough, the story isn’t interesting enough, the characters aren’t developed enough. Let’s face it, plenty of us have sent out queries for a book we thought was ready only to look at it later and think it wasn’t.

Or the rejections could simply mean the agents/editors just think the book won’t sell, as in the case of Still Alice. With form-letter rejections and no-response policies, it’s hard to say what your specific rejections mean. So, this is where the hard work and gut come in.

Before you quit querying and consider self-publishing, think about these:

  • Have you worked your novel over and over until the plot is brilliant, the characters come alive and the writing is spectacular?
  • Have you gotten feedback from critique groups?
  • Have you gotten feedback from a professional editor?
  • Have you given yourself time away from your novel and then come back to it with a fresh eye?
  • And, do you believe in this story? Truly, deeply, you’ve said yes to all the above and you really believe in this story.

If your answers to all the above are yes and you’re thinking about quitting the querying and self-publishing, consider this:

All the success story writers I’ve mentioned here worked hard not just writing their book, but also marketing it. As a self-publisher, you’re not only the author — you’re responsible for sales too. So, you’ll have to drum up attention in the online bookstores, get reviews, get interviews, build a buzz. And sure, nowadays, even traditionally published writers have to do the same, but they have an easier time getting reviews and notice just for having that publisher’s name behind them. And after all that marketing and building a following, you’ll have to write more books and market them, etc. It takes hard work, discipline and lots of passion. And success won’t happen overnight.

If you choose to go the self-publishing route, to be successful, you must treat it as any traditional publisher would. That means, get a good book cover, write great promotional copy and — most important — hire an editor. I suggest hiring a good content editor as well as a good copy editor.

Content editors will help with plot, character, tension, show you where you need to build up the action and when to add more description. Copy editors will make sure you have your commas in the right place, that sentences aren’t awkward, spelling and grammar is correct (your word-processor spell-check won’t catch the difference between “they’re” and “their”). Traditional publishers have a main editor for a book and a team of copy editors who go through the manuscript word by word. Even they miss mistakes occassionally, but you want your self-published novel to be at least as professionally produced as theirs. So hire good editors. That could be the best money you spend.

Is it time to quit querying and self-publish? That depends on the writer. Agents sign new clients every day, and Publishers Marketplace lists lots of book deals for debuting authors. It just takes one Yes, and the next query you send out could be the one. But if you think you have what it takes to produce a quality book and market it yourself, today’s technology has made it more accessible than ever.

Whatever you choose, don’t stop writing.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

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17 Responses

  1. jfieldsjr says:

    Hello! Just joined and this my first official reply. First, excellent post! Great examples and intelligent for and against. For me, I spent years writing and sending out stuff to agents and publishers. Started out getting form rejections, then getting little hand-written notes of “no thanks but keep trying”, and got a rejection with a “send me something else – I like your style”, and finally getting a request for full manuscript and almost making the summer list. Almost. It was so emotionally draining I gave up and just wrote for fun. When I read about KDP I uploaded a book and started marketing. I’ve gotten great reviews and a steady trickle of sales to keep me out of bottom five millionth ranking on Amazon haha. But just today I sent out a query after a suggestion from a person I trust who had very kind words of encouragement. So self-pubbing got me moving again on the dream, and it is a very satisfying road – albeit a rocky one – until I have an agent, or a publisher, if ever I’m that lucky. In the meantime I get feedback from readers who I cherish. One at a time.

  2. Samantha says:

    Hi Jfieldsjr,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Yes, self-publishing can help keep you motivated too. This is a difficult business emotionally, even the biggest writers have faced heaps of rejections. It’s very subjective too. No one knew Harry Potter was going to be the phenomenon that it turned out to be, same as Twilight. They needed someone to take a chance a them. How many other books could have been that successful but no one too a chance on them? So, as writers, we have to be our biggest champions — albeit, after all the hard work of editing and revising and polishing.

    There was one link I had planned to include in my post but forgot and it’s Chuck Wendig’s post “25 Things Writers Should Start Doing (ASAFP)” — warning, he has a potty mouth, but he speaks with wisdom. No. 18 on Chuck’s list is “Start Self-Publishing.” He’s quick to add that it shouldn’t be “only self-publish,” but self-publishing something can be good for the writers soul. You’ve shown us that. Thank you!

  3. Great post! Really well thought through. I especially like the balance of this post – it’s not telling everybody to do one thing or the other, because either option can be great. I’m going to ponder this post carefully.

  4. Self publish when you: have money up front to pay for it; know that your options in marketing will be limited because you will have to do all the work yourself and “traditional” outlets and distributors have a “thing” against those who self publish; are willing to take the chance of going it all alone.

  5. Karen Newton says:

    Self Publishing gives me the freedom to pay closer attention to my craft and less to being rejected. Haven’t tried it yet, but like knowing I can.
    Thanks for your post.

  6. Samantha says:

    Thanks, Joseph. Technology has made self-publishing so much more accessible for writers, but it’s won’t be for everyone.

    Debbie, yes, exactly. Great advice.

    Karen, that’s the thing. It’s great knowing that we have that option if we want to choose it.

  7. I stepped out into the self-published world because I believe that publishing houses don’t do a lot for their ‘mid-list’ authors, I don’t expect to be a NYT best seller the first time around, but I’m far enough along as a writer that I need to go to the next level, interact with the potential audience, and perhaps even develop the audience for my work.

    The first lesson learned is that it is a huge investment of time to do all the little things you have to do – editing the book professionally, formatting for the different e-book venues, obtaining covers that ‘work,’ getting good reviews, meta-data and website optimization, a whole host of things that have little relationship to the actual writing!

    The second lesson learned is that it in incredibly freeing, in this new coming age of e-books, to explore the writing of a book that is suited to this format. I firmly believe traditional publishers have no idea what to do next, and are missing the boat.

    I also firmly believe that traditional publishers are missing the boat in terms of markets, genres and topics that sell. They are publishing by ‘looking in the rear-view mirror’ — publishing spin-off story ideas from what worked in the past. Vampire stories, for example. This is limiting to both writer and reader! If readers want something new, the traditional publisher won’t take the risk and develop something (more focused on sales than on developing writers). Case in point (my final lesson learned), I am publishing a crit partners book, which I’m calling ‘Environmental Fiction.’ Diane had been turned down because her writing style is ‘fresh’ and non-traditional (though her voice is really strong). There is no such genre as ‘Environmental Fiction.’ I made it up. I listed Diane’s book on Amazon in the category of ‘Lakes and Ponds’ which is the closest tag they have for wetlands. The book quickly went to #1 in that category, and is now listed among Amazon’s top 100 hot new reads. The reviews are coming in very good (we are in the process of gathering reviews, but the first few are very good).

    Because Diane’s voice is so unique, this book was having a hard time getting seen through the traditional publishing route. But why should the audience be deprived of seeing such a fresh writer simply because traditional publishers are so focused on making money from proven successes? OK, end of rant. (grins). And here’s to the success of the Indie movement.

  8. I made the decision to self-publish 4 years ago. I did try for a year to find an agent, but I knew my book was going to be a tough sell. At 1000 pages, it was just too big for traditional publishing to take a chance on. I published it as a trilogy in 2008 and have been very happy with the results. That said, it was a lot of work and I still spend a lot of time marketing. I won’t go into detail about the process here, but for those interested, I just blogged about my journey to publication here:

  9. MissieK says:

    Great post. This is something I’ve been struggling with. Self publishing doesn’t have the same stigma it used to have and with the Internet, marketing is easier than before. But it’s still a difficult decision to make. Thank you for sharing your tips 🙂

  10. Samantha says:

    Claudia, you’re right, it is a huge investment and I think you have to be a certain type of person to be successful at self-publishing. You have to be willing to cold call for reviews and other marketing purposes and to really do whatever it takes to get the word out. Congrats on your success and Diane’s. It’s awesome that you’re now helping her get her book out. And thanks for the article.

    Catherine, thanks for giving us the link to your story too. And congrats on taking that chance.

    MissieK, I’m glad you found this post useful. You’re right, self-publishing doesn’t have the same stigma anymore, but it is a difficult decision, and a very personal one. For some, the self-publishing route has worked wonderfully, and the benefits of control and profit share are nice. But there are plenty of writers who haven’t had as much success. And there is something wonderful about having your book published traditionally through a publishing house. 🙂

  11. Great points, Samantha! I love your blog and will forward this post in particular to many writer pals of mine.

  12. michaelanson says:

    Good to hear that self-published novels have a chance of success. I was aware of Lisa Genova’s difficulty in getting published. I believe the same thing happened to Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, but he was still in his teens when he published. I myself hope, when my novel is ready, to go the traditional route. I do wonder, however, whether you have information about the self-publishing company that Lisa Genova relied upon. I assume some self-publishing companies are better than others.

  13. annehawkins says:

    As I embark on my querying adventure I came across this blog. Thank you so much for the insight! It was particularly helpful as I learn to navigate the world of publishing.

  14. Hi Anne,

    I’m glad you found this post useful. Everyone has a different journey, and what works for some writers will not work for others. Nowadays, we have those choices, which is wonderful.

  15. michaelanson says:

    I just attended the AWP (Association of Writing Programs and Writing Professionals) and I went to a panel of literary agents and publishers. I carried along a sample chapter of my book because I was so excited about my work. The problem: I have only completed four chapters, two of which must be entirely reworked. Luckily, I listened to the panelists and avoided shooting myself in the foot by sending out work which is clearly still not ready.

    I have been excited because I recently started an MFA program in creative writing at Northwestern University. The school, however, recommends that writers take all seven Fiction Workshop courses before considering publishing, much less self-publishing.

    Thanks for the great advice, Samantha, and I’ll make a more concerted effort to keep my foot off the gas pedal before I have something truly ready for publication.

    I do have one quandry. What is the protocol for querying agents who represent friends or professors? I’d like to use my contacts, but don’t want to create animosity by those who have written novels which have been published.

    Thanks again for the encouragement,

    Michael Anson

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