Q. These days, it seems harder and harder to land an agent and a traditional publisher, while on the other hand, many of the growing number of self-published books on sites like Amazon have difficulty finding an audience. What is your advice for unpublished novelists who are faced with this dilemma?
As an agent, I read an unbelievable amount of crappy books. I obviously read a lot of great ones too, but a majority of the projects that come across my desk are incredibly bad. I don’t say this to be demoralizing, because in the chance that you’re reading publishing Q&As on the internet, you’re more informed, constructive, and thoughtful than a solid 85% of the other people writing books. There is a huge amount of people writing picture books because they love Jesus, writing a young adult book even though they haven’t read one since high school, lightly fictionalizing the summer they backpacked Europe. Traditional publishing exists to cherry pick the next fabulous new voice out of the throngs of people writing sex advice for baby boomers.
I am unsurprisingly a believer in the traditional publishing process because I’m an agent, but I also think it’s a worthy effort to shine light on brilliant talent and pour our many resources into making distracted, inured readers pay attention. But I also think self-publishing works fabulously well for the author committed to spending the time, energy, and money into making it a success.
Unfortunately, undiscovered geniuses writing terrific, interesting, experimental work are basically indistinguishable from the folks writing Jesus picture books when readers are browsing in the Kindle store. The unstoppable tide of self-publishing has created a cacophonous amount of noise, which makes it very hard to be heard.
So what’s a writer to do?
Perhaps it’s true that it’s getting harder to land a traditional publishing deal, but in my experience, agents and editors are certainly still looking. We cannot exist without new talent. Like sharks, if we don’t swim we die. But agents and editors alike are looking for something new and fresh and exciting, something we haven’t read before that makes us look at the world in a new way. We want to be surprised and impressed and moved. It’s really hard to write a book like that. But you should try.
If you’re committed to the self-publishing route, be prepared for time spent editing and copyediting your text, investing in a great cover designer, and researching freelance publicists. If paying money out of pocket isn’t feasible, get ready to hustle. Know your audience and how to reach them, be super active on social media, connect with other authors and bloggers, do giveaways on GoodReads, create and update a whiz-bang website. Without a publisher behind you, you are responsible for each sale and if you aren’t hustling, books aren’t selling. It’s absolutely possible to rise above the noise, but it takes effort. Be committed to the effort.
For more insight on this topic, please check out Paths to Publishing: Thinking Ahead. by Ross Browne and John Marlow.