I’m a huge fan. I have a quick question. Can you tell me the benefits of being a self-published author vs. going with a publishing agent?
Hey Calvin, thanks for getting in touch and for the fantastic question. It’s so fantastic, in fact, that I’d like to use the answer as a blog post. My advice, briefly stated, is to do both if you can.
Agents and self-publishing aren’t always at odds with each other. For most agents, this might be the case, but more and more agents are handling self-publishing in one of two ways: After exhausting their submissions to publishers and receiving nothing but polite rejections, some agents are backing up their authors’ decisions to self-publish as a last resort. The other hybrid method are those agents who take on successful self-published authors in order to shop their works around. I know authors in both camps. They have all the benefits of representation and all the benefits of self-publishing.
The benefits of an agent are numerous, but first, a word on landing one. I published a dozen works before I produced something an agent deemed worthy of representation. I didn’t waste my time trying to find an agent for a work that wasn’t ready or right for them. I didn’t even think about agents. I wrote what I wanted to write, what I wanted to read, what I loved immersing myself in. And when readers, those ultimate arbiters of taste, decided I’d written something halfway decent, agents came to me.
Now, that makes a lot of hard work sound frightfully easy. I worked my butt off at something I loved before I had the success that made agents take notice. But I also find the correlating advice from traditional publishers hopelessly oversimplified: “Write a manuscript. Write a query letter Land an agent.” Both recipes require a ton of work and an equal amount of luck. So when I suggest waiting for success to come before seeking an agent, know that I’m talking about winning the lottery in order to pick up a hot date. And keep in mind that the inverse is equally difficult: landing a hot date before you’ve won the lottery. The advantage of what I’m suggesting is that you just write. You don’t waste your time in bars testing pickup lines; you’re at home increasing your odds of winning the jackpot.
(Of course, if you’re writing for the reasons I write, you’ll be happy if you never land an agent or pen a bestseller. I was just as happy with a few hundred readers as I am today. That might be my own neurological disorder. I’m not on any drugs to help me feel this way, so I can’t offer you any. All I can tell you is the way I went about things and what I would do right now, just starting off, knowing what I know.)
Now, what exactly can an agent do for a self-published author? They can target markets the author is hard pressed to infiltrate on their own. Foreign publishers are always on the lookout for new titles to translate. Many of their works come from English-speaking territories, where the output of publishing houses are so great. An agent will work with co-agents overseas to submit and promote your work for translation. These aren’t usually huge chunks of change, but there’s always a chance your work does better in Germany or China than it does domestically. You’ll pay a 20% commission on these deals, with half going to each agent. That’s a little more than the normal 15% agency fee, but it’s worth it. You wouldn’t land these deals on your own, not with the same terms.
Your agent may also pitch your work to film and TV studios. Again, this can often be a small chunk of change, but if nothing gets made, you get your rights back. Their third goal (really the agent’s primary angle of attack) will be for domestic publication, where sales and therefore earnings can be highest. But you probably won’t get an offer that I would suggest taking. Which is why I say to take on an agent if you can, but to stay self-published.
Why self-published? I’ve listed the advantages elsewhere, but those posts get buried, so I don’t mind reiterating them. When you self-publish, you retain complete control over your work and its rights. The biggest advantage here is that you can price your work where it will sell, rather than what the publishing industry does, which is price the ebook in an upper tier so it won’t cannibalize print sales. The publishing houses have this completely backwards. Rather than use ebook sales to drive print sales, they feel the two are in competition with each other. Until they figure out what they’re doing wrong, it gives indies a lot of power on the pricing side.
You also make 70% of your ebook’s price rather than 15%. If they left the price alone, it would take 6 times as many sales with a publishing house before they made you a penny. Of course, they’ll probably be selling the book for much more, which means it might only take a doubling of sales, but the higher price will cut the sales in half, instead. I’ve seen this with my WOOL series overseas. When the price was no longer in my control, it went up. And sales went down. Publishers don’t mind this because they have thousands of books for sale at a high price. What happens to that single book is of less concern (for the author, it’s the only concern).
Publishing contracts are detrimental in other ways. Many of them contain non-compete clauses, which preclude an author from writing and self-publishing anything on the side. These contracts often gives them rights of first refusal on subsequent works. You may be signing more than just a book over — you may be signing away your career. And if your book doesn’t do great, they drop you. There’s an endless stream of new authors to try out. They’re looking for the Dan Browns and the Stephen Kings, authors whose works go to the top of the charts and guarantee sales on subsequent works. On top of winning the lottery once, you’ll need to win it again. These are the double lightning bolts that admirers of the traditional machine love to point at as exemplars of that path. Meanwhile, they point to any breakout indie as the rare exception. It’s an unfair and weighted argument.
Back to those contracts. Domestic book contracts never expire (unless the publisher wants to cast you off, which they can in an instant, sometimes demanding their advance back). The foreign contracts I’ve signed, meanwhile, expire in 5 or 7 years. I get all my rights back, and we can renegotiate based on sales. This is what publishers here in the States need to move toward. Until they do, I won’t recommend anyone signing with them. In fact, if enough people refuse to sign, we’ll win these rights for more than just the indie authors. Established veterans like Sue (if she circles back through the alphabet again) will benefit from the competitive state the publishing industry would then find itself in. Think of it as a superior form of a union. Rather than strike and threaten violence on scabs, we just move across the street and set up a factory that sparkles with all kinds of benefits and higher pay. The old crumbling brick factory belching smoke up into the sky will adopt our ethics and codes once nobody is showing up for work. They will, or we’ll just erect another factory on their property once they go under.
But what about bookstores? you might ask. I suspect most of us get into writing because we were avid readers. And avid readers grew up in bookstores cherishing their bound volumes. Which is one helluva lure for getting us to sign publishing contracts. It’s the fulfillment of a dream, seeing our books in print. I’ll admit, it works on me. I still do videos of every proof I unpack, that’s how much I love holding my printed works. But you have to understand what you’re getting when you sign those rights over.
With a publishing house, your book will sit spine-out on several hundred or a few thousand bookshelves that increasingly fewer people are browsing. It’ll sit there with a ton of other spine-out books. Shoppers, meanwhile, are rushing in to grab whatever the hot book of the moment is. They’re browsing the center aisle and the bestsellers. Your book will be in these bookstores for 3-6 months. I know. I used to shelve these books when they came into the store, and then I boxed them up to send them back. Soon, your book will be out of print. If you want another copy for a friend or to sign at a craft fair, tough luck. They’re gone, and there won’t be anymore.
With self-publishing tools, I can create a print book for ZERO cost. I make the PDF at my leisure, upload it to CreateSpace, and they show me what the book will look like with their new digital proofing tools. I can see the cover and flip through every page. I press a button, and the book is on sale on Amazon, which puts you in every home and every place of business, every coffee shop and every airport, FOREVER.
There is no going out of print. You want a dozen copies for a book convention? You order them wholesale through Createspace. The printing cost is so cheap, that I can sell a 250 page book for $9.95, which is competitive with major publishers who have their books printed in China by the thousands. Mine are all printed in Charleston, SC by people I know. They arrive about a week after ordering them. I can order a single book or hundreds, the price doesn’t change. You have to have lived in the era before these technologies to fully appreciate them. They seem miraculous to me.
So: The only way I recommend publishing is self-publishing. At least until the contracts, terms, and royalty rates change. And if an agent approaches, ask if they are cool with you remaining self-published. See if they want to represent you overseas and with other forms of media (like audiobooks). If they are, great. I wouldn’t give up working with my agent Kristin for anything. But keep in mind that winning the lottery in the publishing world is a lot easier to control than landing that hot date. Not only is it more in your control to concentrate on writing and publishing rather than querying and handling rejection, it’s a lot more fun! You’re doing what you love. You’ll have a handful of readers. You’ll get a positive review on Amazon, and maybe an email from a fan. And until that hot date comes along and asks you to dance, having a wink or a free drink aimed your way isn’t a bad deal at all. Better than walking around rubbing your cheek while agent after agent slaps you for not wowing them with your first five pages.
I hope that helps. Best of luck. And keep in mind that my opinions are based on years of writing on the side, dreaming of making it big, and now my temporary success. I’ve seen almost every angle of the publishing world: As a reader, a writer, a bookseller, my own publisher, with a small publishing house, and with a major publishing house. I’ve had agents and editors and worked without them. I’ve done my own covers and had them commissioned by both experts and those starting off. These variety of experiences have taught me a lot, but someone else might have a different suggestion based on what they’ve been through. Sue Grafton, for instance, has spent 150 years writing the same book in the same manner, and she would advise you to not be lazy and follow her path. So take my answer with a grain of salt. And thanks again for the excellent question.