Monday, May 24, 2010


I've whined a lot on these pages about how sad it makes Jon and me to turn down well-written, deftly plotted books, not because they are lacking something, but because we just can't sell them. It's one of the most difficult aspects of this business.

But the book world is being turned on its head, and many authors are using this to their advantage. Instead of going through the "traditional" publishing channels of agents and mainstream publishers, some authors are choosing one of the many self-publishing routes. One of these books has come to our attention this week, and I want to mention it here.

I reluctantly turned down a manuscript entitled A Place to Die by Dorothy James. I just loved how Dorothy set the scene for this murder mystery that takes place in an upscale Vienna nursing home. In my opinion, this book had the makings of a best-seller--quirky characters, romantic setting in the Vienna Woods, marital discord and sexual misbehavior. But the editors I contacted were not moved to buy. Some didn't like the European setting, others found it too long and involved. After working for several months, I decided that I'd have to let it go.

Dorothy just emailed me to tell me that she's self-published A Place to Die. In her words, "The fact that you genuinely liked it -- I was always convinced of that -- helped me not to give up altogether on the idea, and I finally decided to self-publish -- something that more and more people are doing. I do not know how this will turn out, but I am giving it a go, and I now have a very nice looking book -- whether I can sell it remains to be seen! If you have a moment, I would be very pleased if you could look at the web site."

I did look at the site and it's quite striking. I hope this works for Dorothy. She's a talented writer with entertaining stories to tell.

The point here is that as literary agents, Jon and I work very hard to find books we think we can sell to traditional publishers. Sometimes we can; sometimes we can't. But today there are other options for authors who cannot find representation or whose books are not being picked up by publishers--self publishing is one.

Is self-publishing a threat to traditional publishing? I don't think that's the right question to ask. I believe that the traditional model of book publishing will be with us for a long time. But it's changing too, and the self-publishing / e-publishing /traditional publishing worlds will meld, morph and separate many times within the next few years. No matter what form it takes, the important thing is the story and the story will always be with us in one form or another.

It's Book Expo week in NYC. I'll be there on Wednesday and then off for a week in the Northwest with a client. Jon will go to Book Expo on Thursday. Have a great work week everyone!


Lee said...

An interesting post. I had a similar experience myself with a book I recently self-published and am having moderate success selling it. The face of publishing is changing, but I don't see self-publishing as pre-empting the traditional publishing world in any way. Rather it is diversifying it and as with any industry, survival of the fittest will determine the outcome.

Janet Hulstrand said...

Thank you so much for this piece! It is really wonderful to hear an agent articulate the benefits of self-publishing for authors whose books--some of them VERY GOOD books--are, for one reason or another, difficult to sell to publishers.

Self-publishing is just one more available option that can help authors achieve their ultimate goal: to get their books into the hands of readers who appreciate them. This is a good thing!

NC Weil said...

I'm leaning toward self-publishing - what stops me is that when I had a short story published in an anthology 3 years ago, I bought 20 copies to sell on my own. I still have 4.
I can write. What I don't do with any skill, is self-promote. I always thought the value of a publisher is to have them do something (place & promote books) they are set up to do. Otherwise, what are they good for?

Best New Writers said...

I find myself happy self-publishing. Luckily I'm really good at marketing and I love keeping creative control.

My biggest problem with traditional publishing, is how long it all takes to even get your book out on the market. Maybe if I had started my career when I was younger it would have been okay. But I'm a 90 mile an hour person. I wish everyone Good Luck - there is room for us all.

Tammy Snyder said...

I just read this post and agents try to find a publisher before turning down a writer. I hadn't considered that before.

Why, I wonder, are books not selling? It's the cheapest form of entertainment. Everyone I know who has always read books is still buying them and reading them. Most I know just hate (including myself) reading on the internet. You just can't curl up with a good laptop.

It's a shame. Technology is not always our friend.

Mohamed Mughal said...

Nice post, especially: "No matter what form it takes, the important thing is the story and the story will always be with us in one form or another."

Story is King. The Queen is the love of the craft of writing.

cherilyn david said...

The whole self-publishing thing really has me perplexed! I sp'd my first novel, I guess i have to say out of laziness and impatience. I could work my tail off, query the world and face countless rejection... or just do it myself! BUT, of course, I am left with a beautiful, bound, oh-so-real looking BOOK, my BOOK... but of course no money, no fame. This may seem like an easy thing to undo, but now I seem to be reading and hearing a lot about sp books being trapped that way forever, not to be queried, submitted anywhere else, ever!
So I just finished novel number 2 and though it is sooooo tempting to beautify it as well.... I'm not going to. I'm pounding the pavement, tying up the web and burning through printer cartridges like my english teachers taughts me! Ho hum.

Dorothy James said...

Almost two months have gone by since Kae wrote “Times they are a’changing” and mentioned my self-publishing my novel “A Place to Die.” She was very generous about the efforts of self-publishing authors, but I see from some of the responses that people have many questions about whether it makes sense. In these two months, I have spent a good deal of time trying to adjust to the idea of being not only a self-publisher, but also a self-promoter. The latter is very difficult for me, as I ‘m sure it is for many writers. But in this time I have discovered a whole world that exists out there on the Internet, thousands of people beavering away, writing, corresponding, and, yes, self-promoting and selling, or trying to sell. I do not yet know whether this will work for me. It is clear, as one of them recently wrote, “They won’t buy it if they’ve never heard of it.” On the other hand, it’s also true that if you spend huge amounts of time on self-promotion, you have very little time left to write the kinds of things that got you into this in the first place! As in every other sphere of life, it’s all about organizing your time and not being swamped by trivia. After six months, I will have more idea of where I am going and what I am doing. Perhaps I will come back to Kae’s blog, with her permission, and write an honest report! Meantime, good luck to anyone who is trying to go the same route.