Best Way to a Traditional Publishing Deal: Query Agents or Self-Publish?

| Posted in E-publishing |


Every couple of weeks a reader asks me why I chose to self-publish. I don’t mind the question because (I think) it implies that said reader believes my stories are good enough that I could have gotten a traditional publishing deal (if that’s not the implication, please don’t tell me, as I prefer my nice delusions). I’ve written about the reasons I’m glad I self-published before, so I won’t go into that today, but I thought I’d chime in on one of the arguments going around the blogosphere.

Is it still worth querying agents, or is self-publishing a better way to a traditional deal?

If you haven’t been paying attention to the world of self-publishing lately, you may not be aware of the number of indie authors who are being picked up by publishers. Granted, it’s a small number when compared to all the indie authors out there, but it’s something that wasn’t happening at all before the e-publishing revolution of the last couple of years. Now, nobody in the industry is surprised when indie authors get picked up, some with quite lucrative publishing deals.

Many of these successful indie authors are people who once tried the traditional route to publishing (querying agents or submitting manuscripts to the slush piles of publishers). The agents and publishers weren’t interested. Then.

It’s a different story when the same author starts selling thousands of ebooks a month in the Kindle store.

If you’re an up-and-coming writer, and you’re hoping to land a traditional deal, is it still worth it to query or should you start publishing on your own, build a platform, sell books, and wait until you have something to brag about before approaching an agent?

I doubt there’s a right or wrong answer here, but here’s my take:

If you skip querying and all the associated dithering around, you get to jump right into the realities of the business. It’s not an easy business, and there’s a lot of on-the-job-training required. You’ll have to bust your butt if you want to succeed as an indie, especially now that there’s more competition in the e-bookstores.

But if you can make it as an indie (build a platform, sell books, gain a readership), you’ll have the confidence and bargaining power to get a traditional deal that doesn’t suck.

That, from all I’ve read and heard, is not something that happens much with new authors signing on with a publishing house for the first time.

To sum things up…

If you decide to forgo the agent hunt, you’ll skip:

  •  Tedious research into finding an agent that represents what you write
  • Wasting time stalking selected agents on Twitter and following their blogs to see what they want
  • Wasting time crafting a synopsis
  • Wasting time writing multiple versions of a query letter
  • Wasting time emailing and waiting for replies
  • Wasting time doing things that make you look good for an agent but do zilch for you financially speaking (i.e. entering contests in hopes of winning some pretty writing award)

Instead you’ll be:

  • Publishing your book and potentially making money on Day 1
  • Learning the business of writing (people who write for a living have long since learned they have to be entrepreneurs, not just artists)
  • Learning how to market yourself (you’ll probably have to do this sooner or later, even if you get a traditional deal)
  • Building a platform (blog, mailing list, social media presence)
  • Acquiring fans
  • Writing the next novel (money’s nice, but what’s really motivating is when people email you and ask when the next book is coming out), a novel that can come out in months instead of years

If you choose self-publishing first over querying, you’ll also find out, much sooner than later, whether your book is “good enough” for the big time. Agents may or may not tell you that. As many traditionally published authors have admitted, agents and publishers aren’t really gatekeepers or holier-than-thou entities that determine what’s worth reading and what isn’t. They’re business people, and they base selections on the potential for a pay off. Subpar manuscripts get picked up because they fit into what’s popular right now. Excellent manuscripts get passed on because they aren’t in a popular niche.

At the end of a year of self-publishing, you will know if your book is “good enough.” Assuming you’ve put enough effort into marketing to sell some copies, you’ll know if there’s an audience for your work or if you need to put more time into honing your craft.

If you’re doing well, you’ll have a far greater resume with which to wow an agent. Think about it: If you were an agent or publisher, would you rather take a chance on an unknown or on someone who’s already laid the foundations for a successful career as a novelist?

Of course, once you’ve done all that work, and you’ve reached a modicum of success (as I’ve blogged about before, the numbers say you can make a living a lot sooner as an indie), you may realize that you’re not all that interested in a traditional deal any more. 😉

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Comments (22)

You are very inspiring, Lindsay. Can’t tell you enough.

Thanks, Lydia! I hope things are going well with your novel.

It is a catch-22. It’s rather difficult to justify turning over works for a smaller percent of the cut and less control when book sells are going well.

One of the benefits for going traditional is the marketing advantage and few out-of-pocket expenses. But if you already have the fan base to bring in the $$$ and the $$$ for marketing, why do you need a traditional publisher?

I think people overestimate how much help traditional publishers actually provide in the marketing area (or maybe how much the help they do provide really, er, helps).

I’ve seen several folks from my old writing groups go on to get published, and I can tell from their sales rankings that they’re not selling many books, at least on Amazon. While I can’t tell what’s happening with brick-and-mortar sales, I do know there’s a high turnover there, and that their books were probably only on the shelves for six months or so.

From what I’ve heard (and I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not in the know when it comes to trad. publishing), the exception is when you get a big advance (because there was a bidding war over the manuscript or some such) and then the publishers have big money they have to make back. Then they push your stuff hard.

Most people, though, seem to get more like $5,000 for an advance and a limited amount of marketing power thrown behind their book. Just the view of someone looking on from the outside though!

I do wonder how Amazon sales differ from sales authors receive from other venues. Some times I look at the sales ranking of some traditional authors and think “bummer.”

Not only are their sales mediocre, but their royalty cuts are smaller also. I truly feel for them. Instead of receiving a royalty check with their quarterlies, the see how far they have to go to out-earn their advance.

Then again, if the average number of books sold is 200 for an indie author, a $5k advance isn’t so bad in many cases.

I do know Amazon is the big kahuna (by a long shot) for online sales, at least in the U.S.,and considering how much book buying is done online these days, I’d guess it’s a pretty good indicator of how a book is doing overall. I’m sure there are exceptions though.

$5,000 (or more) is fine as long as the book ends up selling enough copies to pay the publisher back for the advance. I’ve heard lots of stories of authors who couldn’t get a second book deal because the first book wasn’t successful enough.

I am, of course, highly biased with all of my comments. 😀

I spent months sending out queries to try to find an agent, and then a publisher for my books and it was all a waste of time. I like your idea of going directly to self-publishing instead, especially since it is so well-accepted by readers now. Your blog has really inspired me to continue my writing and self-publish rather than hope for a book deal. 🙂

Glad to inspire, Deanna! I hope things go well for you, whatever route you end up taking. Thanks for stopping by!

The same day this went up, Jim C. Hines (who has 7 novels published with DAW and self-published IIRC 3 ebooks of previously published works), wrote a blog post explaining why he’s glad he has an agent.

Doing your own thing may work, though. I remember Ursula Vernon got an agent by posting art and bits of writing online, being friends with an author, the author told her friends about that crazy artist-with-a-bit-of-writing person, and one of those friends was an agent who called Ursula and begged her to let her represent her.
I don’t remember if the Dragonbreath kids books series will go up to 10 or 12, but, anyway, it worked.

Those things are only a waste of time if you’ve vowed never to go Traditional. If there’s a chance you will later sign your series (or the next series) with a Traditional publisher than all you’re doing is shuffling the order.

There are some advantages to Traditional still, especially for new or shy authors. A slew of rejection letters should be a red flag to authors, not an invitation to dump their half-edited manuscript on the unsuspecting readers who like self-published work. An agent and editor can help a new author figure out what they’re doing with their career (many are fairly clueless). And even if you only ever want to Self-Publish the blogs and Twitter streams aimed at writers have a ton of useful information on everything from trends to marketing.

Not to mention you’ve overlooked Option #3 – Indie Presses. The small presses are less intimidating than the Big 6 and can give an author a crash course in everything from query writing and editing to marketing. It’s a good place for someone to get their feet wet.

Self Publishing is easy, but it isn’t easy to do well.

An author who wants to successfully Self-Publish is going to do just as much research and prep work for publishing as they would if they were going the Traditional route. Possibly more. There’s more required up front for a Self-Published author: editing fees, cover art, advertising, confidence… And I don’t think it’s something everyone can do.

In the end, I don’t think it’s an all or nothing game. You need to pick the best format for the project, for you, and for where you are in your life. You need to pick the publishing style that plays to your strengths and weaknesses. Do what works, and don’t burn the bridges on your way through.

I want to add to Liana Brooks’ comment, “A slew of rejection letters should be a red flag to authors, not an invitation to dump their half-edited manuscript on the unsuspecting readers who like self-published work.”

This is true. But it’s important to realize rejection letters are a sign the agent/publisher doesn’t think the work will make enough profit to make the investment worth representing.

Publishing a half-edited manuscript and hoping for the best is definitely not the way to go. However, that same manuscript which received rejections doesn’t necessarily mean the work is a loss. Agents/publishers reject works for all sorts of reason, not necessarily because the work isn’t worthy of the market.

If you believe in your work, it doesn’t hurt to do what’s needed to properly self-publish your work (items Liana mentioned in her comment). Who knows, you might be the next Amanda Hocking. 🙂

Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Liana!

I should have mentioned that most of the indies I’ve read about who got deals were approached by agents/publishers, so it wasn’t actually a matter of shuffling things around. Sell enough books, and people notice and come to you. Even I’ve been approached by small presses, and my sales are laughable compared to what some indies are achieving.

I don’t talk much about small presses, since that’s not a route I’ve considered. Maybe I’ll learn differently some day, but to me, it seems similar to being an indie, but with zero control over price, cover art, etc. and less money coming into your pocket. I don’t know anyone selling well who went that way (so often, books are just too overpriced to be competitive), though I’ve seen one big exception in the SF/F field. Ridan, run by Robin Sullivan, does amazing things for its authors, and that’s because Robin’s a smart, business-savvy lady who knows how to market online. Her handful of authors are selling tens of thousands of ebooks a month, at $4.95, not 99 cents.

That said, I know some folks who are going with small presses and are enjoying the experience very much. Some people just want to be published and read, and money isn’t all that important.

And you’re right that some are intimidated by the idea of doing it all themselves, though I’d argue that if you want to make a career of this, you have to be willing to learn new skills. A lot of people have this notion of just being an artist and letting someone else handle the monetary side of things, but that’s really more of a fantasy than anything grounded in reality, especially these days.

“A slew of rejection letters should be a red flag to authors, not an invitation to dump their half-edited manuscript on the unsuspecting readers who like self-published work.”

I’m a picky reader, so my natural inclination is to agree here, but I’ve seen too many success stories from authors who never even would have gotten a request for a partial from an agent. I sure as heck didn’t get past the sample chapters when I tried their books. But I’m apparently not the target audience, because tons and tons of people leave 5-star reviews for these novels. That said, I believe the people who will do the best going forward are those who probably could have gotten an agent anyway. I think selling a few short stories (to paying, not necessarily “pro”, markets) is a good litmus test for if your writing is ready.

Oh, and I definitely agree that burning bridges isn’t a good idea. Most of the people I see out there railing against the system are traditionally published authors who have seen both sides and can’t imagine going back (though I still wouldn’t want to burn bridges myself). I’m not arguing against traditional publishing or agents here, just suggesting that there might be a better way (for those interested in it) to get a deal.

Ugh. For me, going indie was worth it just to avoid having to write another synopsis. 😛

# Wasting time crafting a synopsis
# Wasting time writing multiple versions of a query letter

I will say that if you hope to go the traditional route, you will need to learn to write a synopsis. And learning to write a good query is akin to learning to write a good blurb, something you need to entice readers anyway.

All in all, I’m glad for all the options open to writers today.

Not true that you’ll have to write a traditional query letter. If you self publish and establish yourself, you’ll be writing a different kind of letter that says what your sales stats are and how big your fan base is.

You do need a blurb, true, but you might find that what you write to entice agents isn’t quite what you’d write for readers. Readers like a lot of the things agents think are tedious and overdone for one example.

Yes, it is good that there are options. Not everybody has the heart for self publishing.

Self-publishing is the way to a publishing deal today if that’s what you want and if you’re willing to put the time and effort into putting out good books with professional covers and editing and building up a following. If you’re not willing to do a good job and invest in yourself, then don’t bother self-publishing, because you don’t want your name associated with a crappy book that hasn’t sold any copies.

You mentioned Robin Sullivan and she says the same thing. You can download some of her interviews on podcasts, but more than once, she’s basically said, “If you want to go traditional the best path to that is to self publish first.” That’s what she did with her husband’s books. They put out the first five as ebooks and were selling about a thousand copies a month, and that’s not all that huge a number as he went on to sell a lot more later, but at that point he was able to get four mainstream publishers interested and very quickly sign a six figure deal. HP Mallory is another who did that in the fantasy genre. Everybody talks about Amanda Hocking but she isn’t the only one this is happening for. Publishers want you a lot more once you’ve built a fan base.

Thanks Lindsay. Very good tips on self-publishing. You definitely know the publishing industry well.

I will apply your advice. Thanks again.

Lots of great comments here! Seems there’s no hard and fast answers as far as self-publishing vs. traditional publishing goes. Depends on what you want as a writer. Personally, I just wanted to start getting myself out there and branding myself and am not as concerned about the money or sales numbers right now. Self-publishing seemed the right path for that and I don’t regret it. I have a dozen or so books I hope to publish one way or the other (I have one on the market right now) and have hunkered down for the years-long haul. My end goal is to get the traditional publishing deal via self-publishing like some posters here have mentioned. Other people I know want money and high sales NOW NOW NOW so they self-pubbed and put every ounce of sweat into their first book. Some have gone on to sell thousands and tens of thousands of books that way (still don’t know how, though) while others like me have sold only hundreds. Goes to show how much the publishing industry is in flux and that everybody’s journey is a little bit different. Exciting times, these. Best of luck to everyone!

I’ve been vacillating between both. I’m on hold for self-publishing at the moment because I have several queries still out to agents and one publisher (who asked for the full manuscript). Writing a pitch and synopsis is by far really hard, yet I think indie authors need to do it as well because being able to develop an intriguing pitch is what you need to do to entice readers. I also think that regardless of the route you take, platform and marketing is crucial. I think traditional has better distribution which makes it easier to garner readers. Yes indie authors can be on Amazon etc, but its’ harder for them to get into stores. As I consider indie publishing it’s clear to me that a quality story, to the right market and TONS of marketing are the key to success. Indie authors that get traditional publishing deals do so because they have a large following. But as the publishing world changes, and advances and royalties change, indie publishing may be the faster and more lucrative option.

Thanks for this. I couldn’t agree more. Many people in the offline world don’t realize how easy it is to get published online. To get your article into a newspaper can take a lot of doing, and to get it published in a glossy magazine is next to impossible unless you’re a professional writer and have contacts or previous publications.

But getting your book published on a Kindle takes things to a whole new level. You’ve got a BOOK! And if it seems difficult to get an article published in the offline world, getting a book published seems to add a whole other level of difficulty. Kindle Publishing is just amazing!

Thanks for the great tips. Self publishing is an option for authors who need immediate credit. Thus, the authors control their fate. Thanks again.

Great post. Would you be interested in writing a guest blog post for my blog?

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