Friday, September 22, 2017


This morning, I received an email from a frustrated writer who I met at a conference last year. Her story wasn’t right for me, but she did eventually sign with an agent. And this agent recently found her a decent deal with a major publisher. Normally this would be cause for rejoicing, but today she’s feeling overwhelmed. Her question:

I wanted to self-publish my book, but you told me that I should wait to find an agent and a traditional publisher. Now that I’ve done so, my agent and editor have given me a to-do list a mile long. They want me to rewrite my book, build a website, get onto social media, form a marketing plan, solicit endorsements, and a dozen other things. If I had self-published my book, it would already be on the market by now. What have I gained by following your advice?

Well, first, I don’t tell anyone what they should do. If you ask my advice (and only if you ask), I will review options with you and discuss the good and bad of each. Based on your situation, I might suggest a specific course. But only you can decide what you will do.
Every time I speak at a conference, no matter the topic of my workshop, I find a way to fit in this information:

When you write a book and seek to have it published, you are a self-employed business owner. As such (as with any business), everything is your job and nothing isn’t your job.  You might retain an agent (great!) and indeed he will have a role. You might sign with a good publisher (awesome!) and indeed the editor and staff will each have a part in the process.

But that doesn’t mean that you can just hand over your manuscript and then go wait by the mailbox for that advance check to arrive. Every restaurant owner hires waiters, cooks, and dishwashers, but she still knows how to wait tables, cook, and wash dishes.

You know your book better than anyone, and you are by far the best salesman for it. You have the most passion for it. And you have the most skin in the game. Your publisher might have a thousand books in print, and your agent might have dozens of clients. But for you, this one book is everything. You are by far the most important person in the process, at every step.

So what do you have to gain by hiring an agent? He knows dozens of editors who handle your genre, and you don’t. Even better, they know him, and trust him to only send projects that have been thoroughly vetted and edited. He will know how (and how often) to press for an answer, how to negotiate that contract, and when to walk away (yes, that could happen!). If you had these contacts and skills, we wouldn't be here.

A traditional publisher will invest their own money in your project (possibly tens of thousands of dollars), even for a first-time author. Collectively, their staff have hundreds of years of experience in the business. They will assign a seasoned editor to refine your manuscript. They have an art department that will work with you to design a beautiful cover. And a sales staff to promote your book far and wide.

But wait, you say. The self-pubs pay much better royalties! Yes, and there’s a good reason: They will do none of these things (except for a fee). Their process is almost completely automated, and you do all of the work. They print exactly what you send them, they design lousy covers (if at all), and they don’t have a sales force. All told, they have no investment in your project. None. They don’t print a book until after they’ve collected money for it (which costs more, per-copy, than a traditional offset print run). In order to meet their desired profit margin, they might set an uncompetitively high cover price. They have nothing to lose if your book tanks. So sure, they can afford to pay higher royalties, because they have no skin in the game with you.

Put all of those factors together and what does it mean? Such vendors are not publishers. They are book printers. Which is neither good nor bad; they offer a service, and you make your own grownup decision.

Now, back to our original question: You say that your publisher loaded you up with work? Good! You scored a publisher deal without social media, endorsements, website, and all the rest. More often than not, a traditional pub will expect you to already have those things in place before they even talk to you. If you consider it a burden to promote your own business, then you clearly don’t understand how truly blessed you are.

Now, which course is best for you and your book? I don’t know. That’s a long conversation. But it’s not as simple as you think.