Thursday, February 28, 2013

Self Publishing post the first: Try for trade

I'm going to head this by pointing out my credentials.

Or rather, my utter lack of them.

Success is defined in the book world by five digit numbers. Mine are in the threes. I sell just under one book a day, so I probably can't tell you the great secret behind the curtain on how to sell a million ebooks in five months (hint: It involves buying reviews and faking others and being generally dishonest.) or how to replicate Amanda Hocking's amazing success (I'm reading her sirens series and all I'll say is, Stephenie Meyer 2.0 and FUCK was Lullaby unsatisfying)

But I can tell you the steps I took and what I did, and what you need to avoid.

I have published six books that I feel "significant", and a whole bunch of short stories that I don't. I've sold 179 books. Of those, 95 were of one series (two books, 80 and 15 sales respectively) and 49 were of the other (26, 15 and 6 of the three books in the series)

These numbers aren't the greatest. 

And so this post is about why you need to try trade publishing first.

You've written your dream book. This is your perfect project. This is what you want the world to see when they read you. And you want to put it out there and be successful and have your whole world change, just because you're sharing the story in your head. You've heard the horror stories, you know the rejection notice roulette usually results in piles and piles of nos and a handful of yesses that eventually lead up to nos, and you don't understand why you should subject yourself to the ungodly nightmare that is trying to become trade published.

And I'm not trying to use hyperbole in that last sentence. I am sure for other (read as: nurologically normal and sane people with thick skins and talent) trying to become trade published was just...normal. Like any other job hunt. For me, I would have been better off mainlining Effexer for six months and then going cold turkey (for those of you not on the up and up with psycheatric meds, this is known for causing psychotic breaks, including one in my own family) I did it for two years, mostly solid rejections all the way around, and by the end of those two years I was literally hanging on by my fingernails. Most of this had nothing to do with the rejection cycle, but the rejections kept triggering several underlying issues. By the time we got to The Big One last April, I was pretty much done and I damn well knew it.

But I do believe even the limited success I do have? Is something I have because I tried to be trade published first. And here is my list of reasons:

1. You will develop that thick skin: 

Seriously. Why one star? It wasn't even that negative a review!

You're going to get bad feedback. YOU ARE GOING TO GET BAD FEEDBACK. And what sucked a little tiny bit when you were posting on fictionpress and and AO3 and wherever else it is you go to put your work online is going to hurt ten thousand times more when it's a bad review on a for pay site and that's the only review on the entire book. You KNOW that book doesn't deserve that review. You know it and you're right about it, and there isn't a goddamned thing you can do about it because the review is there. And everybody who looks at it is going to go "That book must be full of formatting mistakes and misspelling errors and it must have no plot, so we're going to avoid it"

And you absolutely, positively, cannot tell this person why they are wrong. You can't respond. You can't tell them OF COURSE IT ISN'T LONGER THE DESCRIPTION SAID "SHORT STORY". You can't explain the reason why their favorite pairing didn't come together. You have to keep it together and ignore it, even though you know that book is now basically DOA.

And it's a lot easier when you've got 50+ rejection letters under your belt. Seriously. After you've gone through this:

Is it sad that they couldn't get my name right and I still think it's a form rejection?
Having to deal with this:

Isn't nearly as hard. Oh, it'll still make you twitch, but you won't be clicking on that comment button. It's better to be the unknown author of a few awful books than to be e-famous for writing "You're interrogating the text from the wrong perspective" because somebody actually TOLD you your books were awful. Your writing can get better. Your reputation? That won't.

2. You WILL start going to publishing resources

Researching agents and publishers is the second hardest part of attempting trade publication (Not hitting the "send" button on your diatribe on their stupidity for rejecting your masterpiece is the hardest. Seriously. When you open your e-mail from your dream agent, disconnect your internet before you read it.) There are a lot of agents out there who are good, wonderful people who already have lots of clients, who really, REALLY don't need you, who will be happy to send you a nice form rejection and be on their way.

And there are many more bad agents who are desperate for clients who will joyfully accept your manuscript (and, more often than not, your money) right out of the gate. And that doesn't even begin to touch on the large number of terrible, terrible publishers out there.

This is public enemy number one in my book
If your book gets accepted by a bad publisher or a bad agent? You're screwed. And you'll be screwed for however long that contract you signed is good for. You'll need to learn how to research agents to make sure that the one you're querying has actual real deals under their belt. You'll need to learn how to research publishers to make sure their books are good quality, are acutally selling and are not actively ripping off their authors. You'll need to learn how to research contracts so that you don't get screwed by that seemingly innocent clause you just happened to breeze on by.

The good news is, there are lots of websites that will help you. I found the Absolute Write Water Cooler by googling Agentname+Scam, and from there I found Writer Beware, Evil Editor, Author! Author!, Janet Reid's Blog, Predators and Editors, and and about fifty other sites that I STILL read every day even though trade publication and I don't exactly go together anymore. (We're at that "christmas cards and discreete nod at the grocery store line" stage of the breakup)

Why is this valuable to a would be self-publisher?

Tate. Archway. Xlibris, iUniverse.  A quick google of "self publishing" brought all of those up on the first page. They are all companies that offer a package deal--editing, cover, typesetting and a press release--for a significant amount of money. Just looking at them, if you didn't know better you'd compare the packages and the products and pick the one you think you like the best. Problem is? Unless you do the research, there's no way to know that all four of those are Author Solutions, a terrible publishing company with a horrible history of customer service, whose editing sucks, whose coverart is lackluster at best, and who will lock you into a year long contract in which you do not receive any direct information on how much you are selling where, and I can promise you their "distribution" is going through places that you can access yourself for much less than what they'll charge you.

Long before I decided to self publish, I learned to stay the fuck away from Author Solutions. I learned to stay away from Publish America, which deserves a post of its very own for how truely shitty they are to would be authors (If you EVER consider sending your book to Publish America? Burn it first. You'll be happier and if you send them the ashes, they'll probably still publish it) I learned not to go with any agent that doesn't have a sale to a publisher that doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts. I learned to look at what the track records are, and how trustworthy someone might be, and that you absolutely DO have every right to e-mail every author on somebody's list and ask "how are they treating you" before you accept any deal you might be offered.

When you decide to self publish, you're going to have to avoid the obvious scams, like PA (I haven't warned you enough yet. STAY AWAY FROM PUBLISH AMERICA) and the not so obvious ones, like Author Solution's octopus of front companies. And then you're going to have to do things like artwork and editing and typesetting and distribution yourself, which you probably can't because you don't know how. So you're going to have to go to editors who offer you this really great deal to doctor up your book, and you're going to have to ask for a list of clients and books the editor has fixed for those clients, and you're going to have to look at those books and talk to those clients before you decide that you want to hire that editor to do your book. You're going to have to decide if you want to use, Createspace or Lightening Source for your print books and said print books' distribution (I still have not made that decision). You're going to have to do a mountain of research.

Doing it for trade publication will get you into the habit now. There's a lot more valuable support for would-be trade authors than there is for self-publishing authors, and the entire business is a lot more shady. Get into the habit in waters that are only kind of murky before you dive into the quagmire.

3. You will learn how to revise your work.

Oh god. Revision. Revision. Revision. Revision. Revision.

Here is a part of my publishing journey that I am not very proud of. I had an agent still looking at my book when I decided to start self publishing.

I can hear the horrified gasps from here. And it wasn't just the query process, either. They had requested materials. In fact, they had requested materials that they had already rejected once, that they were looking over again because I had asked them if they would, and they said yes.

Agents do not do this. It was a horrible thing for me to move ahead with the self publishing when I had not yet gotten a definite NO from them during that second round. You? Should not do this. I only did it because I hadn't heard anything from them for six months despite four "bland and polite as possible" touch-base e-mails, and I figured they had lost the project somewhere and had also totally lost their interest. They did e-mail me two months AFTER I had begun self publishing new material, which made it eight months total without any contact whatsoever. I told them "Thank you very much, take all the time you need to review my material" and crossed my fingers. That was august of last year. I've heard absolutely nothing since.

(Those materials, BTW, are from the first book of the unreleased trilogy that Exiles is slowly lumbering its way towards. I care enough about this project to try to build an audience for it before I let it go into the wild.)

The Query process is a constant onslaught of revision. Your revise the query letter. You revise the novel. You revise until you begin seeing little lights flash every time you look at a printed word. You revise and revise and revise and then put it away while you send out the next batch of query letters. By the time you get the next batch of rejections, you're ready to start revising again! And you're also working on your next project while all this is going on, so that it will be ready to query when you finally kill that first project dead!

The best way to succeed at self publishing is to have books. Lots of books.  Put out as fast as you possibly can. The best way to do that is get good at typing, get fast at writing, and get even better at revising the sucker in as few passes as possible. And the best way to do that is to spend a solid year doing it for people who are not you. For people who expect your book to be bloody fucking perfect when they get it. For people who will tell you exactly how much your book sucks if, and only if, they actually see potential in it. It's learning to fly by throwing yourself out of the nest. It's the only way to go.

4. You will learn how to sell your book.

You should attempt Trade publication for the query letter. That, all by itself, is worth every single solitary hour of misery you're going to feel slogging up that hill.

The query letter is your attempt to sell your book to an agent. They have very precise expectations. Query Shark, run by the incredible Janet Reid, is the best resource for learning what those expectations are. And you know what they are, basically?

A jacket blurb.

As of right now, I have about ten versions of my query letter. Only one of them (the one I sent to the agent that had and STILL HAS my materials for-effing-ever) has ever netted any results. Each one of them taught me a lesson in what NOT to do to try to sell my book to people. Don't ask retorical questions. Don't be cute. Don't flat out lie (which I did in one variation). Don't go overboard on backstory. Don't mention more than two characters by name, and don't mention more than five characters total in the entire query. Don't suck up to the reader. Ever.

Everything I learned trying to query agents is something I use when I write the blurbs for my books. Yep, they're not the best. But they are much better than they would be if I hadn't spent two years learning why "What if you discovered your fantasy world is real" is the worst opening line ever in a sales pitch. Because that's what your blurb is. It's a sales pitch. That and the cover art are your shots at getting a reader to read your book. It's the most important thing you'll write in the entire project. And the only way to do it is to slam your head against the trade wall until your brain turns into mush and your eyeballs bleed, and it finally sinks in that starting with where the character was born MIGHT not be the brightest idea you ever had.


This is the biggest reason. Self publishing sucks. There isn't much difference, IMHO, between getting twenty form rejections and spending a week watching your Amazon ranking sink lower and lower while your sales reports don't even twitch. It's the same game, only there's a lot more work for you and your chances of success are even harder in the self-publishing game.

And a real publisher might just want you.

If I did not know exactly what would happen to me if I tired (namely, a depressive cycle so deep it'd take a forklift and a flashlight for me to even see daylight again) I would still be querying agents for my projects. And I probably wouldn't have any self published things out there, because by all reports the big boys won't want you if you self publish ANYTHING and fail. I chose to self publish, not because I thought I knew better than the big boys, but because I knew I had just reached my limit and I couldn't go any further down that road without making some really unfortunate choices. I gave it one more shot, it ended rather profoundly, and I knew I was done.

But it's worth trying, anyway. It's better to fail at something you put your whole heart into than it is to not try and spend the rest of your life wondering. I tried, I failed, and I have my answer now.

And who knows? You might just be what they're looking for.


  1. Thank you thank you thank you for writing this! I'm in the process of writing my first novel, and once it's done and I edit it and my dad (yes, really) edits it and I rewrite it until I like it...I'll have no clue what to do with it, who to send it to, etc. My dad likes the idea of getting me out there via Amazon and self-publishing, but I haven't been so sure. I really think I want to try trade publishing, harsh as I know it'll be. But I don't even know what a query letter is! Er, what is it, by the way?

    I'll definitely be sharing this with my dad, and saving it for reference. If you have any trade publishing houses you can recommended (or even just a list of the ones that you hit up, since I have no idea what any names even are) that would be great too!

    1. (My mom edits my books when I think I'm done polishing. She does this stuff in her day job so it's a good balance. Nothing wrong with using parents when they know what they're doing.)

      A query letter is the thing you send to agents. It usually contains (in exactly this order) a greeting to the specific agent you are contacting, a short, exciting summery of the story (AKA a pitch) of 2-3 paragraphs with a hook as a first sentence, a (VERY) brief bio which includes prior publishing info, if applicable, (self publishing doesn't count unless the sales are over four digits) why you are contacting the agent ("I want to be published" doesn't count. "Because you represented this AWESOME BOOK I love that is a little bit like but not identical to my book" does) thanks for the agent (or, more likely, their assistant) taking time out of their day to read the query, and then your name and contact info and any other information the agent wanted in their submission guidelines. This will usually be a synopsis (they are evil) and the first three to ten pages of your novel pasted into the email.

      As for publishing houses...start with the big five (Unless you have an absolute hate-on for Penguin Random House, which I am quickly developing. That's a post for another day). I know that three of them (Tor-Forge, DAW and Baen) allow for unsolicited manuscript submissions in their fantasy imprints as of right now. This changes, so ALWAYS check their submission guidelines before you send anything to anyone. Also go to a bookstore and pick out your favorite books and find out who published them. Google that publisher and find their submission guidelines. MOST OF THESE WILL REQUIRE AN AGENT, which makes things even more difficult.

      The single biggest reason to go with a publisher is THEY HAVE BOOKS IN BOOKSTORES. If you have trouble finding a publisher's book in a store without having to order the book from their desk, the publisher is probably depending on word-of-mouth and e-sales, and on the author doing work the author shouldn't have to do. (The publisher's distributor and sales team ought to be doing it) That's why you should check out bookstores for good publishers before you even touch Google.

      The best place to find good agents is to hang out in the Bewares and Background Checks portion of the Absolute Write Water Cooler (there are some glorious trainwrecks in there took, so there's entertainment value as well as educational stuff) and check out every agent whose thread doesn't devolve into a total clusterfuck. Make sure they represent your genre and are currently open to submissions. Red flags include no prior experiance and/or submissions to self-publishing imprints like Xlibris and iUniverse, and having the tail end of their thread be a discussion about reading fees and FBI investigations and not a long chain of rejection-recieved dates peppered by the occasional post of "offer of representation WOOT" and ten posts of dancing .gifs and balloons.

      I'm probably going to make a more detailed post about this part of the process, because it's worth having up there, and there are a lot of little details I've learned by lurking on Absolute Write.

    2. Thank you so much! Firstly for the advice here and for the future post about more details! Like I said, I have no clue about anything in this game, and if I fail I definitely want it to be just because my book sucks versus not knowing how to play said game.