Book marketing · Kindle · My Memories of a Future Life · self-publishing · The writing business

You have an agent: why self-publish? The hybrid writer

Charles Dickens self-published sometimes. And he sat on chairs the wrong way round (thank you Smabs Sputzer)

Writer Laura Pauling dropped by one of my recent posts and asked this rather interesting question:

I’m curious about your decision to self-publish as I believed you had an agent?

Yes, I have an agent. Not just one, actually; two. Jane Conway-Gordon for my adult fiction and Piers Blofeld of Sheil Land for my MG/YA work. Agented up to my eyeballs and beyond, in fact. And yet I’m self-publishing My Memories of a Future Life. What gives?

Well, My Memories of a Future Life is one of those awkward novels that agents love, editors love – but it’s not what publishers are buying as breakout novels at the moment. It’s come back from editors with notes that said ‘we loved it but was too unconventional’.

It’s a matter of timing. My Memories of a Future Life has a speculative element and would have done fine if I’d been submitting it at the same time as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Iain Banks’s The Bridge. But a lot has changed since they came out (particularly The Bridge, which was published in 1986).

So what’s a girl to do?

Even six months ago there would have been a stigma if a professional author self-published a work of fiction. But some books fit the high-volume needs of the publishing industry and some are better as a slow-burn cult discovery.

This doesn’t mean we don’t need publishers. Far from it. But it does mean that professional authors are developing a hybrid approach. Alina Tugend wrote in The New York Times this week that many traditionally published authors are now choosing to self-publish some of their work. The Bookseller recently featured a group of established writers from all genres who are bringing their own projects to Kindle with their own ebook site – Kindle Authors UK.

Writers are creative people. From time to time, what we create doesn’t sit within well-established genre boundaries. But that doesn’t mean people don’t want to read it (I refer you to paragraph 4…)

And we’re only following in the footsteps of other industries. Buffy creator Joss Whedon made Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog himself, rather than take it to a network. But he hasn’t turned his back on mainstream film and TV.

And I’m not turning my back on conventional publishing. Just because My Memories Of A Future Life doesn’t fit the industry’s needs doesn’t mean my other books won’t. Indeed, my MG/YA novel, Life Form 3, is on editors’ desks right now. Because writers today can do both.

Should you self-publish too?

If your novel is solidly in the middle of a high-selling genre and isn’t getting a sale, perhaps you still have work to do. But if you’ve got a book that’s earned its spurs by securing an agent, has had good feedback but hasn’t made it through the marketing department, maybe you should think about self-publishing too. (In fact I talked about this a while ago in this post here… and a lot of you had plenty to say…)

Laura has also asked how I’ll be promoting the novel, as I usually blog only about writing. It deserves a post of its own, so I’ll deal with that tomorrow!

In the meantime, tell me your thoughts on the changing nature of writers’ careers. Personally I love the hybrid approach – some of my books will be right for mainstream and some will be better as indies. It gives us all more freedom to have fulfilling and viable writing careers. It brings readers a wider breadth of work. It keeps the artform fresh. What do you think?

43 thoughts on “You have an agent: why self-publish? The hybrid writer

      1. Roz, I’ve been following your blog for a while, too. I tend to rush when I’m reading blogs, so I’m terrible at commenting consistently, but I always get lots of wisdom out of your posts! 🙂

  1. Hey, even good books by unknowns in mainstream genres are having trouble finding agents—not to mention publishers—these days. No vampires? No riding on the coattails of canonical characters like Elizabeth Bennet or Sherlock Holmes? Not set in NYC? Don’t hold your breath.

    I’ve seen mediocre manuscripts by writers with insider clout accepted by big-name agents who won’t give the time of day to a beautiful novel by a new author.

    The traditional publishing industry is a train wreck in progress.

    So more and more writers who know what they’re doing are looking to self-publishing to break into the industry, even as publishers make offers on books that win awards from the likes of the IBPA.

    This doesn’t mean everyone who figures out how to self-publish knows what they’re doing. Boy, does it not! But it does mean there’s hope for those who’ve been writing seriously for many, many years—those who’ve taken all that time to hone their talent and understanding of the craft and then invested in a good editor and book designer.

    Self-publishing is not a gravy train for inexperienced amateurs. It’s the New Wave of publishing for professional-level writers.

    1. Victoria, my dear! To misquote Blade Runner, ‘you would not believe what I’ve seen with these eyes…’ I’ve seen total dreck provoke bidding wars while worthwhile work is sent back with nary a compliments slip. (Neither of them mine, I hasten to add…)

      Your reply is full of good sense and also quotables. Especially your last line. All hail the new wave.

    2. Thank you, Roz and Victoria, for telling the truth about the state of the publishing industry today.

      I still see authors who honestly believe that the only “valid” way to publish is through an agent and traditional publisher, and that self-publishing means you’ve failed or that your work is crap. I’m sure a lot of excellent books are languishing out there on hopeful writer’s hard drives because of that hysterical belief.

      As for a hybrid approach, I think it’s brilliant. If you are a professional writer, writing is your business. How you publish your work is just another business decision. If you can get an agent and that agent can get you a publishing deal that exceeds what you think you can do on your own, that’s the way to go. Sometimes you go the traditional route just to have a “business partner” who handles the production and distribution aspects of the business for you (just ask Amanda Hocking). That’s worth some money to you too. But, as you said, if your work can’t entice a publisher’s marketing department, self publishing may be the only way to get that book to the audience it deserves.


      BTW, I just finished the first draft of my first fiction novel! I’m releasing the second draft to beta readers in 7 weekly chunks, starting this Friday. I’m using an online system to provide the releases to the readers and to collect their feedback through a built-in discussion forum. Should be interesting. Then I’ll do a third draft, and that is what will go to an editor. Here’s hoping my beta readers don’t hate it!

      1. Daniel, glad it all makes sense. There is still a lot that a tranditional publisher can do – and what we need is to realise all can coexist. Hopefully everyone is getting more level-headed about it now.

        Your strategy with your novel seems eminently sensible. Although you might want to let your readers get to the end of the book before asking them to comment – otherwise you could end up making the wrong kind of changes because they won’t realise where the novel is going. Best of luck, though!

      2. Hi Roz. Thought I’d give you a quick update on the beta reader approach I mentioned.

        You were right. I am getting comments that reflect the fact that the readers are only part-way through the novel. On the other hand, those comments are letting me know where I might need a little foreshadowing or better groundwork to keep too many questions from piling up in their minds.

        The one big advantage of getting the comments incrementally is that the readers are being amazingly thorough. This experience is turning out to be much more a ms critique than beta read. I’m getting three to four pages of remarks (on just 4 chapters!) from my most responsive readers, and they are letting me know what they like as well as what they don’t. I feel incredibly fortunate.

        The best news is that they all seem eager to get the next chapters this week!

        1. Thanks for dropping by with the update, Daniel. It sounds as though it’s working very well for you. And as you say, they want the next chunk – all good!

  2. Your experience fits me, Roz. I had an agent who loved it and editors too, but I’m told it’s not commercially viable.

    It’s doing OK on kindle though!

    1. Hi Debbie! I’ve already had this before anyway. My writing book was apparently too short and the market for ‘how-to’ books was saturated, so I was told. I self-pubbed in print and on Kindle, and it’s doing very nicely. What’s more, people write to me, telling me I’ve helped them in ways no other book had.

      Saturated market indeed…

      1. More proof that it is all about marketing to the traditional publishers. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. The business has become brutal, and they must use their monetary and production resources for only the most likely candidates.

        However, the market saturation argument is specious. The market is, in fact, unlimited. It’s the publisher’s capacity that is saturated.

  3. As long as self-publishing doesn’t harm the author’s chances of acquiring an agent / mainstream publisher in the future, I think it’s a great idea. The only thing I don’t like is the idea that people without a Kindle / iPad / Nook have to pay way more to try a brand new author than they do to get, say, the latest Katie Price from Tesco. I understand the economics of the process, but I’m not sure what it would take to encourage me to pay £10 plus for a book by someone I’d never heard of.

    1. Mr Spalding! Actually, that is a very good question. In this day and age it does not harm your chances at all, provided your work is of good quality. I actually talked to my agent before I decided and she thought it was a good idea. The other agent did too. They thought it would only do me good, and would probably demonstrate an audience for subsequent books.

      Your other point, about the price of the gadget, is a good one too. There are Kindle apps for most devices – you can read Kindle books on PCs, ipods etc. And we can always do print versions. Unfortunately, they do tend to be expensive. My writing book Nail Your Novel isn’t, because it’s quite small. But Future Life is a hefty 370 pages, and is probably going to have to be priced at about £10 or even more – simply because of the physical cost of producing it. That’s the economics of POD.

      1. Ah, thank you Mrs Morris!

        So, may I ask what is your word count for Future Life – I’ve had some problems trying to work out how many pages I would need for 150k words. It seems to be anything between 450 and 500 pages, which would make the POD option fiscally, err, difficult.

        I’m encouraged to know your cover price will be around the £10 mark though, as I’m guessing you wouldn’t have bothered with a print version if you didn’t think it would sell. I guess I’m just “cautious” when it comes to spending money!

        Is your launch date still set for the end of the month?

        1. My word count is 103k. Although I cut it down from 152k. Oh yes, I did. And by gum it’s better for it.

          I guess your page count would be about 500 pages, which will be pricey. You’ll need to use 6×9 rather than 5×8, which most paperbacks are, because a 5×8 will be too expensive and too thick to read. Also make sure the pages are readable – don’t try to shrink the book by closing up the leading, using small point sizes. I spent a lot of time experimenting with typefaces and sizes to get a readable page. I haven’t looked up the definitive price yet, but I’m hoping it will be around £10!

          As for whether a print version is worth it… I’d say it depends on your genre. Literary-type novels are more likely to be bought as paperbacks than genre novels, because genre novels are usually only read once. I’ve heard some people say that a print edition is almost a vanity edition because there are comparatively few sales. However, some people like the option.

          But it didn’t cost me as much as it would cost someone else because I’m an editor anyway, so making a page look right is second nature. In fact, I found it easier to do my final edits straight to page in PagePlus.

          1. Hmm… I had the “print version is mere vanity” conversation about two weeks ago. But still I want to hold it in my hand and say: I did that.

            I guess that’s still possible with POD – people don’t have to buy it if they don’t want and I can still get my one comp as part of the package.

            They do give you one free one – right?

            1. Afraid they don’t give you one free. And they charge the earth for postage, unless you want to wait 8 weeks for delivery. Moral: get your print edition done early.

          1. When you say get it done early, do you mean ensure its as pruned back as possible (i.e. the least number of pages)?

            Also, you cut 49k words? Really?! Did you have to do that across the board to maintain a consistent pace, or did it just work out?

  4. Hey, Roz. I’m still trying to decide what to do. Light and Dark is getting closer to the query stage, and I will be doing that. But I’m considering putting together something shorter for self-publishing and building my brand, but that’s going to take up time, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

    1. Hi Stacy! Would you be better putting the shorter project on the back burner and working up something longer? The agents would probably be more interested to hear about that. Also, a publisher would want a second book anyway, so the sooner you start on it, the better. Unless you simply *have* to get this short project out of your system…

      1. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I don’t even have a solid idea for a short project. I have a new novel I’m plotting and a follow up for it planned. Both would be full length mystery novels. I just (kind of) feel the need to have something out there garnering interest and money.

  5. Thanks Roz for answering the question. I think a hybrid model is terrific. I’ve seen in the past few years the market narrowing, less books being purchased, so I can fully understand your going the self publishing route. And many writers don’t like to or don’t want to fit the mold of what right now is being considered best seller material. Looking forward to part 2 because all bloggers are trying to figure out how to adapt and how seriously to take Kristen Lamb’s charge that writers shouldn’t be blogging about writing. Especially in the kidlit market where our target readers don’t read blogs.

    Thanks! Great answer!

    1. Hi Laura! The great thing is, people are still reading those books that aren’t accepted any more. And people like me learned to write from them…
      Thanks for asking a very important question!

  6. Hi Roz,I agree with you and welcome this post. Another related, issue of concern, I have noticed recently, is hard copy publishers of’ less well known’ authors short-cutting the epublishing process and uploading poorly formatted digital versions of books (i think they just press the publish as an ebook option on the software!) . This damages reputations and will discredit the self publishing movement. so I agree a blended approach is optimal.

    1. Geoff – you’re right that both types of edition need to be done properly. There are actually an alarming number of small presses who try to take short cuts because they don’t know they don’t have certain expertise. They in fact have huge skills gaps. Sometimes it’s epub, sometimes it’s distribution…. moral, folks, is if you’re approached by a small press, check very carefully that they know what they’re doing.

      Interesting aside: one of my agents phones me for advice about what’s possible on a Kindle book. This day and age, we are all learning.

  7. Ros, the hybrid approach is brilliant. I love the freedom and it is great to know there are choices! As you say, in this day and age we have to be flexible and open to new ways of doing things. I agree with you ( and Victoria ), let’s all ‘hail the new wave!’ Thanks for another great post.

  8. In my capacity as a reader who likes the kind of stuff publishers won’t touch, I really hope more writers start doing this!

  9. Mr Spalding asked… ‘When you say get it done early, do you mean ensure its as pruned back as possible (i.e. the least number of pages)?

    Also, you cut 49k words? Really?! Did you have to do that across the board to maintain a consistent pace, or did it just work out?’

    By ‘get it done early’ I mean the process for the print version will take you a lot longer than the Kindle version, because of waiting for the print proof, making corrections etc. So if you want them to coincide, do the print version first. Regardless of size!

    As for my mammoth cutting… I last looked at the book 2 years ago and decided I’d put it on the workbench one last time. Even though the feedback I had from professionals was good, I felt I’d learned a few more things. I found the problems I’d solved on my other novel, Life Form 3, had taught me how to do it better, be more daring and get the impact I wanted. The story’s the same, the characters are the same, the themes are the same… and in the process it effortlessly shed the extra weight.

  10. Thanks Roz for your insight. I would like to see you blog, if you haven’t already, about what you liked about self publishing compared to Traditional and the different procedures in each to get your book on the shelf.

    Ebooks needs a reputable level to seprate them from the writers online who don’t use an editor or proof read. My book has won an award in LA and I got to go to the Algonquin Hotel in NYC for the first place award in best scifi/horror. I can’t get a response from an agent not to mention a “Traditional” publishing house. I thought the traditional publishing houses would be farming the online self published books like they do with ball players in baseball.

    1. Thanks, Matt! I’m sure I can rustle something up on that for you.
      You’re so right to bring up the subject of quality. The last post I did on this question I thumped the desk quite hard for a while about this – make sure your book really is up to professional standards. Can’t say it enough.

      Congratulations on winning an award – in spite of your lack of success with the traditional end of the market. Sometimes it’s impossible to guess why the industry isn’t biting.

      And sometimes – beware here folks – awards are set up to fleece authors into buying an expensive package of award and souvenir book. I’m not saying that’s what’s happened to you at all, Matt – but trad publishing knows there are a lot of these, and probably treats any award they haven’t heard of with suspicion. Unfortunately to trad publishers, there is so much material out there that they hardly need to go to any effort to find it.

  11. I might be in the same position soon. My agent is waiting for the last 3 big publishers she queried for me to get back to her. If no one wants it, it’s just small publishers left. I’m thinking that I’d rather ebook self publish than go for a small publisher who hasn’t got a big distribution. I’d be doing most of the publicity anyway, so why not be in a postion to keep control and maximise profits. What do you think?

    1. Hi Tahlia! There are small publishers and small publishers. Some of them are well established with smashing reputations and connections – eg the UK children’s imprint Nosy Crow. Others are a real mixed bag. They’re often started by editorial people and don’t have all the other ‘departments’ that you need to publish – distribution, printing etc. And you may not know enough to ask about it, because you’ve only ever worked with the words.

      You’re not the first person to ask me about this and I think it deserves a post! Coming soon…

  12. I can certainly see the appeal of the hybrid approach, and it’s becoming very popular. It’s always been popular in the likes of Hollywood, of ocurse, with directors making occasional blockbusters to fund more personal projects. As someone who writes commercial thrillers as well as totally weirded out transgressive short stories and everything in between, I’ve been very tempted to start submitting for an agent or publisher for the former so I can devote more time to what I really love. But I feel (and I know it’s just me) that would be cheating my thriller readers on the one hand, who deserve my time as much as anyone else, and on the other that I’d feel suffocated if I was tied in to writing to a timetable.I’d rather stick to self-publishing, and be in absolute control of every stage, and be free to wander off at tangents. I almost feel like Princess Di – learning my trade in an online age has made me build my readers one by one on a very personal level, and i feel like the relationship is a very intimate private thing – having a publisher would almost be like having 3 people in the marriage

    1. Absolutely, Dan – it’s always been the way in Hollywood. And I like your analogy for building readership – it’s personal and fun. Very different from ghosting, where I just handed a book over and somebody else used it to build a relationship with their own fans.

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