I’ve been asked a few questions about whether I plan to pursue traditional publishing for Farisa’s Crossing. The truth is, I don’t know yet.
It’s a complicated decision, and a hard one to make this early.
Let me do the best job I can of explaining the merits and drawbacks of each.
Of course, it’s worth saying that “traditional publishing” isn’t monolithic. There are large corporate publishers and small independent presses that operate by different rules. There are some very good people in traditional publishing, and there are some bad actors as well. Writers often have their careers damage by the bad actors, hence an internet full of horror stories about traditional publishing.
Similarly, self-publishing isn’t monolithic; experiences and strategies are vary greatly.
That disclaimed, here are some of the concerns that factor in the decision:
The most dangerous thing about trade publishing is the loss of rights. This is especially true if you’re writing a series. Your series might be dropped for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality. Perhaps the staff who loved your books are gone, and your 3rd book gets rejected because the new editor just doesn’t like you. What do you do? A good contract will allow rights to the first two books to follow the third, but if your agent didn’t get you a good contract, you’re screwed. Then you’re selling the tail end of a series, and no publisher wants that. It can hurt you for self-publishing, because you’re expecting people to buy an out-of-print trade-published book, just to start your series.
Agents, in theory, protect the author’s rights and reputation. They can, or they can hurt. I’ll get to that, soon enough.
Traditional publishing is full of waiting. Some of it has value. For example, getting books into bookstores is a process that takes months. A good trade publishing contract will not only get books into stores, but offer “co-op” to get the book properly displayed in stores. (Without co-op payments, bookstores set your book up to fail.) Review journals demand months of notice. Press and radio appearances need to happen before the book is launched. Why? Bookstores will consider your book dead if its sales are less-than-awesome in the first 8 weeks, and stop ordering. This means that, in trade publishing, a book must be thrown with great force, so to speak, into the world. A trade-publishing launch is all about short-term buzz but it takes a long time for pressure to build behind the dam; this is worth getting right.
There’s also a lot of stupid status waiting in trade publishing, especially before one has an agent. Some people wait for months to get read, only to get form-letter rejections thanking them for wasting everyone’s time.
With self-publishing, you can publish at any time. You shouldn’t. You must treat the book as you would a real book because it is a real book.
In my case, it’ll still take me several months to get Farisa’s Crossing ready. Writing well takes a while, but if you think of revision, line editing, and research to be wasted time… then you’re not really a writer. If you think of agents’ status waits and negging as a waste of time… well, then you’re right.
If I were to self-publish Farisa’s Crossing, I’d give it a 90 percent chance that I’m ready to put the book out by October 1, 2018. (October 1 is the protagonist’s birthday.) If I trade publish? No way. 2019 would be optimistic, and that’s without the bullshit status waiting that agents throw in the mix; a 2020 launch date would be more realistic.
Literary agents have a bad reputation: cranky, snobby, incompetent. Let’s get into that, because it’s actually not their fault. Their occupation has been destroyed by an unethical decision, made about twenty years ago, that was out of their control.
Around 2000, publishers decided that they’d have enough of agents and their negotiating ways, and decided to punish literary agents en masse by refusing to accept unagented submissions. You’d think that this would help agents by making them more important, but it actually made their lives worse. The writing world is full of unsolicited and mostly bad manuscripts (“slush”) written by untalented writers, some of whom respond very badly to rejection. Most of these were bad and could be rejected out of hand within 20 seconds, but someone had to go through them.
Before the ’90s, getting an agent was easy. You called an agent up; that afternoon, you had one. Serious writers did. The non-serious “perma-slush” writers didn’t bother with agents. (“I’m not going to give up 15% of my best-seller, just to work with someone who knows the market!”) They just submitted directly, got form letter rejections, and didn’t really hurt anyone. When the publishers stopped taking unagented submissions, though, the perma-slush went into agent piles.
This hurt everyone. Agents got stuck with scads of work they neither wanted to do nor were good at. Executive sleazebags might have made off, but people who work in publishing lost, because of job losses. When agents realized they didn’t have the resources to dredge slush, they started relying on underpaid interns. This resulted, in addition to long query waits, in a lower-quality curation process. So the reading public lost as well.
Agents want to support careers, not deny them. They didn’t sign up to be the HR Wall that screens out the unqualified. They’re not equipped to handle it, loathe the job, and do it poorly.
Getting a literary agent (“querying”) is a humiliating slog with no redeeming qualities. It’s like trying to get published, except the only thing you get to show for it is… the right to offer someone a job. Agents vary wildly in quality. The best are worth their 15% commission, hands down. The worst are terrible and will wreck an author’s career. It’s hard to know what one is getting, and the most likely outcome for a debut author is to get a low-to-middling amount of attention from an agent without much pull.
Worse, even though agents and publishers nominally work for authors, the culture that has grown up in trade publishing is the reverse. Authors who get dumped by their agents are fucked. This means that authors are often pushed to take bad publishing deals (see above about protecting one’s rights) that damage their careers and reputations, because they know their agents just want to be done with the deal.
It’s a lottery, and the odds aren’t good, even for the best writers.
Also, agents tend to be more conservative in their literary tastes than readers, so manuscripts that are experimental or literary in out-of-normal ways suffer. There are certain “Agent Rules” that you must follow if you want an agent, that don’t make much sense if you’re just trying to write a god book. For example:
Agent Rule #1: No back story in your first 50 pages. No exceptions.
I agree that the first chapter or few ought to, more often than not, be linearly ordered and front story heavy. Does it need to be an ironclad rule? No. Should a manuscript be auto-rejected because a character reflects for one sentence, in a relevant way, on his childhood? No.
The problem with this Agent Rule is that it assumes that back story is implicitly boring. Yet, if it’s boring, does it really belong in any chapter?
Here’s a piece of shitty writing. It would be as shitty on page 157 as on page 3. Sin in bold.
Nalyssa’s heart raced as she ran, but it did no good. There was no escape. Cornered, she drove her dirk right under the orc’s chin, drawing brown oily blood, and sliced its neck. She had broken her commandment. She had slain a living creature.
Orcs branched off from humans eighty thousand years ago, when Vulcan Serafa was still active and sulfurous lahars ran for miles. They weren’t always enemies, though. Humans and orcs lived in peace for seventy thousand years, until the great wizard Pastabol…
Why’s it shitty? Well, it should be obvious. While Nalyssa is fighting for her survival against orcs, she’s probably not going to telepath a not-that-interesting aside about eighty thousand years of orcish history. World-building is necessary; but this is inept, out-of-place world-building.
Whether that bit of sin occurs in the first chapter or the last doesn’t matter.
Now here’s another terrible opening that doesn’t break the Agent Rule. Sin in bold.
My name is Mark Strong. I was born on May 21, 1967 in Princeton, New Jersey to a middle-class family. I got better grades in the sciences than in English, although writing was always my passion, so I studied mathematics at Columbia University in New York. By luck, I was admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois. That’s a top 20 program, and I didn’t expect to get in, given my middling grades, but my undergraduate advisor came through with an excellent recommendation. A thyroid condition cost me time in my twenties, so my doctorate took eight years, but I powered through it. I’ve contributed in a small way to the algebraic topology of seven-dimensional complex manifolds. Did you know that there’s a cross-product in 3 and 7 dimensions, but no other finite-dimensional vector space? You do now! Anyway, I met a beautiful graduate student, Alice Stern, in my first postdoctorate appointment, and now we’re happily married with two kids and a dog. I left academia to work for an oil company. It’s not thrilling, but it pays the bills, and I can work from home on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
On September 4th, 2015, my family was away on vacation, but I had a last-minute work emergency and had to be at home. That day, I woke up, I brushed my teeth, and I drove to work. Traffic was light and I was able to go seven miles per hour over the speed limit. My boss is 500 days from retirement and we had a party for him. That day, I came home from work to find a dead naked stranger in my living room, and someone had left excrement in the second-floor bathtub. My dog was fine, but covered in peanut butter.
That’s not a violation of the Agent Rule, since it’s being told in linear order (birth, education, marriage, job). Ergo, he’s not putting back story anywhere, but he is “driving to the story” and it’s insufferable. Before we get to the murder mystery and the unexplained dookie and the peanut-buttered dog, we have to suffer through a character memoir about as interesting as a phone book.
I’m all for removing info dumps, boring passages, and backstory that’s only interesting to the author. Out, out, out. Kill those darlings with prejudice.
However, instead of the Agent Rule of “No Backstory in the First Chapter”, how about the “Reader Rule” of “Nothing Boring, Ever”?
Where, anyway, did they get the idea that back story is boring? If it’s boring, it’s bad writing.
Agent Rule #2: Don’t use exclamation points! Okay, fine, you get one per 10,000 words.
Exclamation points are overused by unskilled writers. They can be very (gasp! adverb!) annoying! The dislike for this, I understand. Again, it’s the Agent Rule I don’t like. If you use more than 1 exclamation point per 25,000 words, you’ll never get an agent.
Some agents will say that it’s OK to use exclamation points, but only in dialogue for a true interjection or expletive (i.e. “O!” or “Zut!” or “Shit!”) under three words. I disagree. Let’s look at the example below:
“It’s time to get going.” Michael curled his lip and bared his teeth.
Now, compare this to:
“It’s time to get going!” Michael curled his lip and bared his teeth.
“It’s time to get going!” Michael said.
All three of those have different effects.
The first shows anger with his facial expressions, although it may be that semi-cliche expression-dictionary showing-not-telling; I don’t care to debate that. The lack of an exclamation point betrays cold, quiet anger. The second indicates hot anger. The third could be anger or excitement; more context is in order.
Let’s just compare the first and second. They’re different. Cold and hot anger are different emotions, and the exclamation point is a compact way of showing the difference. I’d rather have a ‘!’ than “He raised his voice.”
Let’s not even joke about disasters like “he excruciated” or “she shrieked” in lieu of the simple ‘!’. And yes, I’m aware that I misused the word excruciated. That’s the point.
What about exclamation points outside of dialogue? Agents say: a no-no. I say: still OK. In third-person limited, you’re writing “in character”. Is your POV character a seven-year-old girl? Then exclaim! It’s snowing! If you’re a sixty-five-year-old college professor, you might be inclined to avoid such indulgences.
Don’t write this:
It happened AGAIN?!? What on earth…?!? The fucking cat got to the second floor, then the third fucking floor because Tom– Tom!!– forgot to the close the door again!
“Avast, you landlubber Tom!” I cried out. “As you know, Tom, the cat’s not allowed on the second floor?!”
“You stupid horsecunt!” Tom said very angrily. “Don’t you know that Onyx–”
Yes, Onyx. He fucking renamed my fucking cat!!! Onyx! Without my permission?!
“–is a space alien from the planet Loobario!?!”
The general principle is valid: avoid overuse of emphasis, exclamation, and profanity. The exclamation points are some of the least awful bits of that passage. Does it justify the Agent Rule? No, it doesn’t.
Agent Rule #3: Never mix genres. Unless you went to Iowa’s Writer Workshop, three times in five years, you haven’t earned that right.
Want to write a steampunk fantasy novel with feminist, literary, and historical elements, as well as contemporary political and religious themes? Want to write a hard science-fiction novel with realistic vampirism and lycanthropy? Sorry, but how are you going to sell that? (“I don’t know. I could start by writing a good book.”)
You can’t mix genres if you want an agent. That’s a problem for me. “Genre” isn’t bad and “genre fiction” isn’t inferior. So-called “literary fiction” (writing for other writers) is another genre, and one that has produced much work of merit, but it’s not prima facie better. I’m not against the concept of genre, but against the inflexible mandate that one stay within one.
What are genres? They’re tools that can be used to manage readers’ expectations. If you’re writing a thriller, the pace better be 120-miles-per-hour for the whole book. If you’re writing a mystery, your job is to build curiosity around a central question and solve it in a way that provides catharsis. Since Farisa’s Crossing is epic fantasy, readers shouldn’t be surprised when magic appears, but (no spoiler here) I’m unlikely to introduce simulated realities or alien spaceships. As tools, genres are useful. They shouldn’t necessarily be restrictive. When constraint breeds creativity, use it. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a lot better than most free verse, and there’s something to that. When constraint hinders the work, toss it out. Mix genres? It can be done well or poorly, but agents don’t want to see mixing at all.
If an agent said I needed to replace my brown-skinned LGBT heroine (Farisa, if that’s not obvious) with yet-another 16-year-old boy with six-pack abs and a longsword, I’d say no. If she said I needed to introduce vampires who drink menstrual blood because that’s what the focus groups want, I’d say no. My job is to write a fucking good story. That’s it.
When traditional publishers moved the slush-dredging over to agents, it hurt writing. The quality of books being put out has declined, and so have sales. Authors lost because it became competitive to get an agent, agents lost because they got a bunch of unpleasant work (slush dredging) dumped on them, and readers lost because books are worse now, and declining book sales show it, so everyone has lost.
Winner: self-publishing, by far.
4. Expense / Risk
With trade publishing, you don’t have to pay for your editor or book cover. In theory, the trade publisher will market your book and arrange for publicity. To hire your own editor will cost about $3,000. A good book cover can cost at least $500. When you’re starting out as a writer, that’s serious money.
Also, established people in trade publishing get advances. That said, advances these days for most writers border on insulting, and should probably be ignored. If you can’t sell enough copies of my book to earn out ten times a $5,000 advance, then why are you in trade publishing at all?
Writers can’t live on advances, so why have them? I wouldn’t be surprised to see them disappear. At this point, their main purpose is to cause anxiety about “earning out” and the career-killing effect of failing to make an advance (especially a mediocre advance). Personally, I’d rather have a zero advance and get lead-title treatment (competent publicity) than a typical advance and typical (shabby) treatment.
With trade publishing, you pay in time– especially, wasted time in the agent querying stage– but you don’t have to put up your own money.
Winner: trade publishing.
5. Reviews and Print
Reviews matter (“social proof”) and are acquired based on connections that people in publishing houses have and most writers don’t. Print books live for a long time and continue to market your work for decades. Bookstores are inaccessible without a trade publisher. There are tens of little intangible details– like where your book appears in a store– that come down to relationships and various “I’ll get your kid into [Manhattan preschool X] if you do right by my guy” deals. You can’t access that network as a self-publisher.
Winner: trade publishing.
6. Marketing Strategy
If I use trade publisher, I’m going to put a “copy minimum” in my contract. In essence, if they haven’t sold 100,000 copies in the first five years, then at least 100,000-minus-X e-book copies go out, for free if necessary, at the end of five years. I’m willing to make a mediocre profit (or even a tolerable loss) on the first book. I’m not willing not to have my book read. The whole point of publishing is to build an audience.
That’s an unusual term, and it could sink me, but it’s important. Trade publishers, if your book doesn’t start strong, will divert resources elsewhere and let your book die. Your publicity budget gets spent on someone else’s book, or on hookers and blow by some executive, and your book fades into oblivion. They won’t let you give away 50,000 e-copies just to show the world that you actually are a good writer who got unlucky (or was badly published) and flopped in the first 8 weeks. They’ll just stop returning your calls. Even though your rights will be nearly worthless to them, you’ll have a hard time getting them back.
If you self-publish, you need to make $1.43 in sales to justify each $1 you spend on marketing, because you’ll get a 70% royalty from a platform like Amazon; but if you trade publish, you need to make $4, because your royalties are only 25 percent. There are plenty of marketing strategies between those numbers that might lead to word-of-mouth “breakout” phenomena, but that aren’t financially viable if you trade publish.
Unless you get the lead title treatment, you’re going to have to do your own promotion and publicity. At least, when you self-publish, you have more options: you control the rights, and you only need to make $1.43 per marketing dollar to break even.
7. Social Proof
No one knows what sells books. I repeat: no one knows what sells books. Publishers don’t, agents don’t, readers don’t, I don’t.
In fact, there are plenty of books that garner excellent advances, favorable reviews, and major publicity budgets, but flop.
There is a sure way to guarantee a bestseller: buy your way on to the list. Business book authors do this, to further their corporate careers, all the time. It’s a bad idea for a novel, though: after shelling out $500,000 to a professional book-buyer to buy your own books, you might generate $100,000 worth of royalties. You’ll be “a New York Times bestselling author”, but you’ll be $400,000 in the hole. If you’re writing business nonfiction and can earn it back in speaking fees, it makes sense to treat the book as the loss leader. If you’re an introvert trying to sell a novel, it’s probably not worth it to buy your way onto the list, even if you have the money (which I don’t).
In general, marketing is of less value than publicity. Marketing is the stuff you can buy; publicity is the stuff that’s free on paper (and is, in reality, the calling-in of chips across a complex network of favor-trading) and appears to be “social proof”. If your publisher puts up $50,000 to market your book, that helps a little bit. However, if your editor’s calling people in the press at 7:30pm and threatening to turn off access (or better yet, making the “next call is from my boss to your boss, so do the right thing” call) unless they cover your book… that drives sales a lot more.
You can’t get reviewed in the New York Times if you self-publish, nor are you eligible for many awards. You won’t be received as “literary”, no matter how good your prose is. This will change, as excellent self-publishing writers chip away at tradition and edifice, but it will be slow.
The social proof of getting a publishing deal is, in my mind, not worth it. A small advance and no promotion? Better to post the letter on your website (to prove you were “good enough” to get published) and then self-publish on your own dime. On the other hand, if you can get lead-title treatment and an all-out publicity/press campaign, it often is worth it. You just have to know what kind of deal you’re getting, an all-out effort or a “might surprise” deal. Don’t take the latter, ever; when you give up your rights for so little, you’re in vanity press territory.
Winner: trade publishing, by far, if it goes well.
8. Outlier possibilities.
Trade publishing, like venture capital, is “rocket fuel”. Either you get fast uptake and momentum, or you blow up on the launch pad and they send you home… in an urn.
The upshot of this is that you can go from zero to “never have to work again” in one phone call. It’s extremely rare, but seven-figure debut advances exist. That doesn’t happen in self-publishing; there’s no advance, so you don’t make a cent until you sell.
Though it’s very rare for anyone to make a million dollars in one year on a first novel, I’d say that it happens more often in traditional publishing than for self-publishers. You’ve got to sell several hundred copies per day to make that. With a press blitz and top executives calling in all sorts of personal favors to get exposure for your book, and with them sending out their subordinates to talk your book up at Manhattan cocktail parties and demanding 1:00am phone pics to prove they were there… it’s doable.
Trade publishing picks winners before the readers really decide. Readers and word-of-mouth can add 50 percent or even 500 percent to what was expected, but reader word-of-mouth (as opposed to Manhattan book buzz) is too slow to rip out in a book’s first 8 weeks.
If you want to get rich quick, you might have a 0.1 percent chance in trade publishing, but it’s effectively zero if you self-publish.
Winner: trade publishing.
9. Getting rich slowly.
What if your goal is to get rich slowly?
Most people fail out of trade publishing on their second book, not the first. (A large number choose not to go through the process again, but it’s the second book that gets people forced out.) Why? Well, the first book had to get through query hell and across a publishers desk, then be accepted, and probably had five years of unpaid work, on the author’s part, behind it. So, the first book is often, at least, good enough to get through the process.
Then, what happens? Once a publisher “picks up” an author, the author is seen as an employee. He has deadlines. An average midlist author’s publisher won’t let him spend 3-5 years on his next book. He might get a year– and that’s while working full time, because he’s not going to be able to live on his advance. The second book doesn’t have the press buzz or excitement surrounding a debut, and it doesn’t get much promotion from the house, so it flops. Two and done. The publisher dumps the author, who becomes “damaged goods”, and can’t go anywhere else.
With the first book, the publisher chose the manuscript and therefore a flop reflects badly on them, at the least, in that they chose poorly. With the second book, they can just say that the author got comfortable (living fat off that $5,000 advance) and underperformed.
Once a publisher dumps an author, the agent starts to see him as a charity case and won’t negotiate for the kinds of terms (publicity, co-op budgets) that might set the third book up to succeed. The agent probably won’t even read the third book, but will pass it on to publishers with a “please help this guy” shrug and it’ll probably never see the light of day.
What if, twenty years later, that author discovers what went wrong with the first book and fixes it? What if his writing skills improved in that time? (You’d think that they would.) What if he self-published a book in the mean time, and sold a not-earth-shattering-but-impressive 20,000 copies? Doesn’t matter. Careers don’t restart in trade publishing. If you’re not a hot new thing, and you been off the mid-list for 5 years, you’re now back list.
Readers don’t care if a 50-year-old author fucked up (or if his publisher fucked up, because most flops are publisher-side) a book when he was 30. Readers don’t care if the author was a shitty writer some time in the past, because even us good writers were shitty writers at some point. Readers will accept a re-invention of a failed book from twenty years ago, as long as it’s good now. Publishers and agents won’t. To them, if you flopped once or twice, you’re “a failed writer” (as opposed to a writer who may have failed) and belong at the bottom of a bottle.
If you self-publish, you’re much more likely to start off slow, and might eat some red ink for the first book, but I think it’s probably easier to get rich slowly (“rich” being a relative term, here meaning “enough passive income to write full time, if one wants”). You don’t lose your career if you make a mistake or get unlucky. You won’t
Consequently, I think it’s probably easier to get rich slowly (“rich” being a relative term, and here meaning “well-enough off to write full time”) as a self-publisher than in trade publishing. You don’t lose your career if you make a mistake, or get unlucky. You won’t sell thousands of books in your first 8 weeks– but you also don’t have to. If your book sales in the first two months are poor, you can try another marketing or publicity strategy, until you find something that works. You can actually build momentum over years without worrying about your agent dumping you, your editor getting fired and replaced by an asshole who hates your book, or your sales tanking because some executive spent your co-op budget on hookers and blow.
Trade publishing is, as I’ve said, “rocket fuel”. The right deal, with a competent house, can get a book out to 10 or 100 times as many readers. That can be game changing, career-altering, and worth putting up with agents’ status waiting and negging.
The trick is knowing when to get out, and how to get out. If you’re going to get a lead-title deal and a favorable press blitz, then trade publishing can work. On the other hand, plenty of great authors never manage to convince the small number of people who matter in trade publishing to select them as the pre-ordained winners.
If you’re not a lead title, you’re not going to get much attention from a trade publisher. No one gets promoted if your book sells well, and no one is demoted or embarrassed if they shit the bed and your book flops. You probably won’t get dedicated, full-time people in the publicity office; your book will be that thing they work on if they’re finished up at 4:25 pm (and how often, in any workplace, is a person ever fully done?) and they need to fill 35 minutes.
It’s probably smart to try trade publishing, to play the agents’ stupid querying game for a couple months and see if the lottery numbers hit ya, and if that, see if the lead title package follows. But, one can only wait so long, and there’s a time at which a mature person needs to stop chasing sun dogs and get back to real work.