So much for agents?

George Takei on the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Pr...

George Takei on the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Pride 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is thursday of the final week of waiting for agent responses. Sadly, as I recall, all the remaining agents are the sort not to guarantee a response one way or the other — only promise a reply if they’ll take the novel. Tomorrow I suppose I begin sorting everything out to self-publish Now & Forever.

My earlier post was a none-too-sublte attempt to garner some feedback to decide if I should keep searching for agents — I did recently find about an hundred more. So I’m asking outright for advice and opinions.

For those of you reading who aren’t authors and, therefore, (potentially) unaware of the grand dilemma here, please allow me a moment to elaborate. Those who already know exactly why this is a rough decision, feel free to skip down to the comments and throw in your voice on the matter.

For the uninitiated here are the pros and cons of publishing presented in juxtaposition between self and traditional publishing.

  • Self published I can have the book out tomorrow (though it won’t actually be until June, because I’m a perfectionist and want to tidy up a few things first, and will spend a lot of time agonising over the position of the pages in the print version). Traditionally published, it’s liable to be, at least, another year before the first book comes out — and regardless when I finish the other 3, assume at least a year between them
  • Self published I get 60-70% royalties, as opposed in the traditional model of approximately 2-5%, minus the agent’s 15% from that 2-5%. BUT There’re these lovely things called an advance where the publisher (with a little prodding from an agent) decides that the royalties for the first printing of the book ought to equal X and so cuts a cheque (though, these days more like 3, one on contract signing, one later on, and another even later than that) for that amount. Agent gets 15% of it, and I walk to the bank with something that’ll buy some groceries.
  • Self published has no true advertisement but word of mouth. I would, very literally, be relying on those who read or stumble on this blog, those who stumble upon and (praying to God) read the book to tell their friends and family about it. Yes, yes, Project Wonderful, Google AdSense, etc. Tell me, honestly, how often do you click those? Hmm? Not often, do you? Or you do, but how often do you buy? You’re not unique you know. Traditionally published books, don’t exactly get TV spots in the halftime show for the Super Bowl, but they are advertised and marketed to book buyers. Unless you get your paycheque from Barnes & Noble, or own a mom & pop bookshop you are not a book buyer — book buyers are the folks who decide what’s going to be on the physical store shelves, and then buys them. Tell me — how many books have you bought from an author you’ve never heard of from the bookstore versus an online retailer? Getting a picture?
  • Cover art. This one gets fun. As a self-pub author I control the art. I can say “this is amazing, this sucks, etc.” For those who don’t know, an author with a publisher has no say in the cover art (normally, some publishers might ask the author’s opinion, notice I didn’t say value or listen to it). Now, in all honesty this is both a thrilling and horrifying thing. The publisher would find a professional artist (not of my choosing, but hopefully someone with a modicum of talent) to make up a pretty cover for me that’s formulated and market researched to make people buy the book. Sadly, sometimes this means a cover that has no basis in the story whatsoever. Sometimes this doesn’t detract, and helps (Twilight is apparently a fine example of this — though, personally, I always walked right past those covers without a glance). The upshot, however, is that with a traditional publisher I get a, theoretically, unique cover design from a professional. By myself, I get whatever I can put together with a mix of photoshop bungling, some creative commons searching/begging for donated art from artistic friends/scrounging up hundreds or thousands of dollars to purchase some art.
  • Distribution. In this day of the internet, who needs think of distribution?! Just put it up as an eBook and it’s worldwide in 24hrs. Again, I ask, when was the last time you bought a book from an unknown author when you weren’t browsing the shelves of a bookstore? Distribution is important. And face it, it’s the biggest weapon in the arsenal of a traditional publisher, and one that most self-published authors have no means to enjoy. CreateSpace‘s book sizes will often be a mark against many stores carrying them — 6×9 is a trade paperback, yes, but many stores won’t carry the hardback and trades of an unknown. Good ol’ pocket paperback 4×6 or 3×5 is more likely to carry and isn’t offered. Lightning Source, Inc does, but that’s out of budget for many authors — and LSi, offers far better distribution options than CreateSpace ever comes close to.
  • Other promotion: as a self-published author I’m unlikely to be able to have ads for my books show up in any media. Some magazines do carry ads for books — notice how none are from self-published writers? Ever wondered how much that little ad cost? Books might be mentioned on some TV shows and radio programs. For example, in a hypothetical universe, I am picked up by McMillan publishing, their PR guy takes one look at my book, looks up at the TV and thinks, I got it! And calls up the folks in charge of Ellen’s show and gets the book mentioned there, interview with the author (way too shy to talk to a camera, but this is a hypothetical universe where maybe I wouldn’t be) and … you get the picture. Self published? I might be able to get George Takei to mention it on his Facebook page — curiously enough, in both of these cases it’s all back to word of mouth. In this case the mouths of a pair of celebrities whose opinions on such matters folks are wont to listen to. And, y’know, the Takei thing might not be such a bad idea now I’ve said it. Other promotion might also include reviews. Many professional reviewers won’t touch self-published, that’s right, they refuse it outright. So I’d be down to relying on GoodReads and Amazon Reviews. Hmm … there we go again with word of mouth.

And therein lies the problem. If you didn’t notice, the pros and cons are, actually, fairly balanced. I can reach my readership faster and with greater control of cover art, timing, pricing, etc. But I can reach more readers with a traditional publisher. The promotion and advertising — well, the biggest Truth in marketing is that word of mouth is the only guaranteed to work, everything else is guess work; educated guess work but still guess work.

If I knew that the release of my book on Amazon’s Kindle wouldn’t be swallowed by, and I wish I were exaggerating, 13 (I counted) pages of pre-orders going out nearly 15months! For those not in the know, self-published writers and many small press/indie press publishing houses don’t get this option with any online retailer except Apple’s iBooks — not even Smashwords is so respectful to its users. So I would be buried under the Jo Rowlings, the latest adventures of Drizzt, or Junie B Jones.

Round and round, it’s like watching my dog chase the flea that just bit his tail, poor thing, but I watched him just now and realise that it’s a perfect analogy to my problem. Shrug off the rejections by the agents and do it myself, or keep trying? Which has the greatest gain? True, I write for the love of writing, but I also live in a world that relies on money — I’m not going to spend a year or more carefully grooming 140000 words into an enjoyable tale and hand it out with a cheery wave. I’d like to, and if employers in this country felt obligated to pay enough to live on, I actually would — it’s save the headache — but they don’t so I don’t. In a sense, yes, this is about money, but it’s in a “I’d really rather be writing than answering phones all day” kind of way.

So, please, do comment — feedback helps. I have authors following, I know. If you’ve any anecdotes to share, please do. Readers? What’s your answers? Do you prefer to browse the samples of iBooks, Kindle, and Nook to decide who and what to buy? Do you browse past a dozen pages of pre-orders to see what you can get right now? How many of you talk to your friends and family about what you read — how many of you are excited enough by the prospect of reading Love or Lust to recommend it to them or even gift it to them?

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11 thoughts on “So much for agents?

  1. Hmmm this is kinda tough but I would probably keep trying to get in with an agent until that path completely closes to you. My reasoning being that ultimately what you want is exposure if your trying to make this a career. Later down the line if you feel you can make it on your own self publishing then you can more than likely switch gears.

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  2. Hi! I know, I’m a complete stranger, but I wanted to tell you that I understand your struggle. I posted a while back trying to work out the pros and cons for myself. I can’t tell you what’s best for you, but I’m leaning heavily toward self-publishing. A big problem I have with (me) going with traditional publishing is that unless they chose my book to be one of their big ones for the month it comes out (and really, what are the odds?), I’d be lucky to earn out the piddly little $2000-5000 advance they’d offer me. If you’re not one of their top releases, you’re going to be doing you own promotion, anyway. Yes, I’d love to not have to pay for my own editor and cover designer*, but for me, I think it’s worth it to go it alone and retain creative control. I’m not expecting huge sales from my first book, and that’s OK. There’s time to build an audience. Self-publishing success usually takes longer, but it’s possible. Again, this is just me thinking for me; your situation isn’t mine. I wish you the best of luck in whatever you decide is best for you.

    (I found the book “Be the Monkey” very enlightening in deciding on what’s important to me. Just don’t click on the links in the e-book.)

    *BTW, you can get a nice cover for a few hundred bucks. A lot of cover designers will take a stock image and buy it, manipulate it, make it look really professional, and even do back covers and bookmarks for much less than you’d expect. 🙂

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    • Oh, the question was certainly open to any and all — otherwise it’d have been an email =)

      I’ve self published other works. I’m no stranger to it.
      The promotion trouble comes down to this: from some folks inside the publishing industry, while it’s true that “promotion” often just means an ad in the materials sent only to the bookstore buyers, that’s some powerful stuff there. Also, in my case, I’ve got that this is young adult and some distribution channels are closed to any not with a big publisher.

      But, yes, it’s true. The advance can be small — but it comes down to obscurity. An unknown author could take years, if ever, to make that 2000-5000. Also, depends on genre, those numbers sound like SF/Fantasy, which are notoriously lower than others.

      It really does all come back to promotion. The agent and the big publisher have an interest in promoting the book, in terms of investment. A good agent will push to ensure that promotion gets done, and the smart/good publisher won’t need pushed. The trick is getting, at least, the good agent. In the traditional model. On the self-pub side of the world … it comes down to a) having the disposable income to do so — something few self-published authors have b) a little luck in the word of mouth & random discovery department.

      It can happen. It can happen that a big publisher will kill a book — bad art, insane editing, bad layout, bad marketing, etc. It can also happen that they can hold a book up where it can be seen — obscurity is the worst enemy of any artist, no matter their medium.

      It can happen that a self-published book is a sky-rocket success; be it after years of wallowing in obscurity, a slow uphill trickle of more and more fans, or an overnight windfall of good fortune.

      As for art, yes, you can get for far less than a few hundred — but that’s doing no more than many with some patience, a little creative use of http://search.creativecommons.org, some GIMP-kwan-do or Photoshop-fu (or a trip through the CreateSpace cover maker) … ta-da! Which, all told, is all the <$100 crowd normally does. Some are doing original artwork and covers. Most are using a lot of templates and stock art/graphics. Stock art and templates can be done for free if one takes the time to do it. Custom art, usually requires talent, generous and helpful friends, or bigger dollar signs.

      Still — I agree — there’s a lot to recommend self-publishing these books, and it’s not ruled out. And I sincerely thank you for the input. It really does all comes back to promotion and either way is a gamble. One is “did I pick the right people to entrust with this” or “can I manage to get the right people’s attention on my own”

      Ah me, if only I’d become a musician instead.

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      • Nah, musicians have the same issues. 😉

        I guess it comes down to which risks you’re more comfortable taking. I’m (maybe) more comfortable with the thought of failing on my own and trying again in a year than with having a publisher not give my work the best treatment and letting it die (even if there is a possibility of huge success). That doesn’t mean that whatever I choose will be right for you, or anyone else.

        It’s not an easy decision for anyone. I’m usually an optimist, but these days I look at it more and more in terms of avoiding the worst outcomes. Six months ago I was all about trying to find an agent. Now… like you say, either way is a gamble. But I’m so glad we have options now, confusing as they are!

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        • Amen about the choices.

          As for music … ah, but Grasshopper, musicians can busk in a park, play for tips in various crowded establishment dedicated to the serving of spirits and other distillations or fermentations, and there’re entire radio programs dedicated to the indie music scene. Besides, if you look good on a stage and sing close enough for an auto-tuned mic you can be a rock star tomorrow, wisely invest your platinum first album, then retire =)

          Writers get to hide in the attics. Decisions, decisions … it’s hard enough deciding what kind of jam to buy =(

          I’ll figure it out, eventually.

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          • Hmm, true enough. I was thinking more about having to decide whether to go indie. I say we start standing on corners reading our stories and… expect people to stand around for hours listening… maybe not. Grrr. Maybe there jut needs to be more dedicated promotion like indie musicians get. 🙂

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            • Well … now that did used to work for poets …

              True about indie authors getting little to no respect as opposed to the music and movies scenes where they can get a lot of support.

              The worst part is the number of reviewers and review blogs that won’t touch small/indie press or self-published. Heartbreaking.

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  3. Pingback: A decision, of sorts, and not reached lightly | Jaye Em Edgecliff

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