15 September 2014

Bookstore Shelves, Gatekeepers and the Brave New World: Why I’ve Decided to Self-Publish

We Love It, But....

When I last posted on this blog, I was in the thick of querying with the hope of being traditionally published. The fruits of my querying were positive: 5 partial requests and 7 fulls. And then, eventually, the feedback on the novel itself began to hit my inbox.

There were comments such as... "I am completely charmed", "there was a lot to like here", "you have a very nice voice", "I found your premise intriguing", "delightful", "please let me know if you hear from the other agents" and "We are really intrigued by your story—it sounds like just the kind of thing we love—and we would be very interested in reading it!"

But there was also: 
"After careful consideration, I regret to say that I am unable to offer you representation."
"I'm being particularly picky right now"
"Please do keep in mind that mine is only one opinion and that another agent may very well feel differently."

Two agents in particular struggled with passing on the manuscript:

Agent 1

After MUCH deliberation we have decided, unfortunately, to pass.  While we love the premise and were really struck by the caliber of your writing, we just don’t think this is the right project for us.  But we think you are a fantastic writer and we would be really interested in seeing more from you.

I think self-publishing is a great idea for you.  We really enjoyed the book, we just weren’t confident that we knew how to position it.

Agent 2

This was a tough one.  I enjoyed the story very much, and I thought that your writing was excellent.  I had two other readers take a look, but ultimately, we all came to the same conclusion.  Although there was much to enjoy here, an agent has a further job: finding the right way to sell it to the right editor and house.  I felt that the story was neither fish nor fowl, actually.  It wasn’t entirely a formulaic romance nor was it literary enough to be historical fiction.  Perhaps unjustly so, editors really do care about “slotting” a book, particularly women’s fiction and I couldn’t see how I would place your novel.  I’m so sorry.  This is a tough market and editors are ruthless. 

Of course, maybe it’s me and someone else will think I’m all wrong.  I do hope that you find appropriate representation, but I will say this.  If you cannot find a home for this novel, I urge you to keep writing.  Please do send me anything else you finish, as I was quite taken with the tone, your characters and your sheer ability to put words on paper. 

And after I thanked her, and mentioned I may self-publish... 

I agree that traditional publishing is not a perfect world! And I’m glad you’re sufficiently confident to self-publish. Of course there’s an audience for this – I love these kinds of books as you do.  The problem is the market!!! Publishers are buying fewer books these days, and it has so many people tearing their hair out (like me).  Again, I wish you the best of luck with it.  Prove these narrow-minded editors wrong!

I have found similar books to mine and they sit on the general fiction shelf, so I'm not quite sure it's such a problem. However, the agents have spoken, and they have not offered representation. So whether what they've said is true or not is irrelevant.

Other agents had varying reasons for rejecting it - no common threads, except that the various things don't fit with the conventions of the genre.
 I need to respect their opinion - and accept I am taking a risk by publishing something which is different to what modern romance readers may think of as "conventional".

I decided I would self-publish, and got quite excited about the idea. Then I decided to enter in the RWNZ national competition, the Pacific Heart, and I couldn't self-publish while I was in contention. I didn't final, and in the meantime life got very very busy (delightfully so). The results were sort of like with the agents: 2 judges loved it (giving it a score of 98%), while the third was a little less impressed (78%). I received comments such as: "A lovely story, well written and easy to read. Thoroughly enjoyed it", "I enjoyed all the characters in the is book" and "As I got more into the book, I couldn't put it down".

Why I'm Deciding To Self-Publish

I could decide to put this, my third completed manuscript, in a virtual drawer, and write something else with the aim of pleasing the market - the "commercial" market. The market that agents and editors live in. 

There always seems to be two different streams of wisdom around this: write from the heart, don't worry about the market: you need to write your own story and if it's good it will sell anyway. The other advice is: ignore the market at your peril. The conventions are there for a reason: give readers what they expect.

Here is what I know: most people who have read this book, or parts of it, have enjoyed it. I know not everyone will like it - this is a very subjective business after all. But I think that the risk of getting some negative feedback is worth taking, for the chance that other people may be glad to spend several hours escaping into the world I've created. That even a handful of people will have their hearts warmed or have their day made better would gratify me.  

My hope is that there is some sort of audience who share my tastes - who like love stories but don't gravitate towards traditional/commercial romance titles. The crowd who lapped up Cranford, love Jane Austen and can't get enough of Downton Abbey.

Why am I self-publishing? Because in this brave new world I can - and I believe in myself and my product. I have a background in digital marketing, and several people have told me I have a strong book. Because I love this novel and I hope someone else will love it too, I cannot bear to put it under the proverbial mattress.

Wisdom From Legends

The RWNZ conference was a great source of inspiration and authorial bonding, with a huge amount of insight around self-publishing and managing yourself as a writing business. One of the key learnings for me is that you need multiple books in the market to be successful. That may sound obvious, but more than just selling multiples, the idea is that your first book needs to be leverage to sell the next ones. A bigger backlist means more opportunity to keep yourself visible between book releases. So I need to get busy.
Fangirling: me with Marie Force and my signed copy of Courtney Milan's latest
Armed with Marie Force's self-pub checklist, I am embarking on the final stages of readying my novel for publication. These include going through the critiques I received over the last year, and making the changes I believe are required (and with the intervening time hopefully I am less sensitive to criticism of my darling child). I am fine-tuning my cover, figuring out US tax (avoidance) processes, and considering how to redesign my website. I need to sort out Facebook, an email list, and a proper book page. There's other admin like getting an ISBN and formatting. Lots to do, and I hope to get there by the end of this month... because I want to use October to plot the next book in time in NaNoWriMo. Onwards!