Riding the Fence – Indecision at Your Own Peril

May 11, 2017

There’s something that’s been ricocheting around my pea-sized brain for a while, and it has to do with Riding the Fence…as in, “Do I wanna self-publish, or do I wanna go with a publisher?”

This makes my teeth itch, and I’ll tell you why.

Time Suck

I had an experience recently where the author was Riding the Fence about whether to self-pub or sign with a publisher. I was the lucky slob who drew the short stick.

I liked his book and made him an offer. But we gotta back up and count all the hours that I spent getting to that point to making the offer.

  • Reading his book proposal (1 hour)
  • Reading his manuscript – making copious notes on arc issues, organization, and further development (30 hours)
  • Discussing with marketing/sales teams and other publicity folks (8 hours)

So, going into this endeavor, I invested nearly 40 hours. Big deal; it’s what I do.


He was expecting a six-figure advance. Yah, ain’t gonna happen. He didn’t have the story or platform to support such a fantasy. Depressed, he then tells me he’s considering self-pubbing.


Now I’m thinking voodoo dolls and sharp, pointy things. Nearly a week’s worth of my time is blown to bits.

Reality vs Fiction

Because he’s Ridin’ that Fence like a buckaroo, he asked me exactly what I could do for him and his book. Okay, I’m totally good with these questions, because authors should have a solid idea about what their potential publisher can do for them.


Time spent writing numerous emails pointing out the Realities and Fiction of self publishing (16 hours)

After nearly three weeks hemming and hawing, he wrote to tell me he was self-publishing. Argh. Why in the HELL didn’t he decide this before he wasted all my time? This kind of stuff is so unnecessary.

It Ain’t About Just the Money

Publishing has drastically changed since the heyday of spending like drunken sailors. Publishers gotta work smart if they want to stay in business. We always plan for a book to do well, but the marketplace is a fickle mistress, and the best-laid plans may go awry. And they go awry for all kinds of reasons. Just to say, that they also go very right for all kinds of insane reasons, as well.


  • Author platform was over-inflated
  • Genre Buyers don’t like the topic (that is a whole other post in itself)
  • Intended audience doesn’t respond

Huge advances makes only one person happy; the author (and his agent, if he has one). They get a nice payday regardless of the book selling well or tanking. The publisher eats it. In these uncertain times, advances had little choice but to go southward.

However, what a publisher CAN do is offer:

  • Superior editing and design work
  • National/international distribution
  • Marketing/promotion
  • Getting authors into industry book fairs and conferences
  • Sending review copies and media kits to industry reviewers and media

And that’s just a short list…and they do it all on their own dime.

The self published author is responsible for bankrolling the entire endeavor, and they often have no idea whether they’re getting a great editor or cover designer. They don’t realize their books won’t be reviewed or stocked on store shelves.

In simple terms, self-pubbed authors are a team of one, and they’re competing against publishers who do this for a living. Even as small as we are, we’re a team of hundreds…all who are devoted to selling our books to the widest marketplace.

So, sure, the advance offered to this particular author may have been less than he was expecting, but the cash outlay that we would have put into his book would have been in the tens of thousands…along with countless hours of professionals doing what they do best.

Do the Research

Let me say that I have no problem with those who want to self-pub. Heck, the marketplace is big enough for everyone to play in the sandbox. But don’t hedge your bets to a publisher by Ridin’ the Fence…”I’ll see what they offer me, then I’ll make up my mind.” That kind of attitude really sucks the jam out of my jelly doughnut.

Make up your mind about what kind of publishing options you want to pursue, and stick to it. Someone who isn’t sure will invariably find fault with the publisher for any little thing that happens.

Publishing is a partnership – a two-way street – and if one of those parties consistently rides the fence (“Damn, I shoulda self-pubbed…then I’d be rich and famous.”), then what chance does the committed party have in succeeding? And the self-pubbed author is rarely rich or famous.

Do the work and research ALL your options BEFORE you decide whether to stick your big toe into an editor’s front door. The more information you have, the better able you are to decide which option is best for you and your book. And you won’t waste anyone’s time.

Having a Case of Self Pub Remorse?

January 13, 2015

There’s no shame if you’re raising your hand. Publishing is fecking hard work, and I have twelve years experience and a team of hundreds backing me up. I can imagine how delicously hard it is to be a team of one trying to get a book into the marketplace. Whom do you turn to? How do you promote? Feh.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many authors who have self pub remorse, and their comments are almost universal: “I never expected it to be this hard.”

Yah. It is hard. That isn’t to say sales can’t happen, but it’s time consuming if you expect to sell any books. And while you’ve learned to boatload throughout the self pub process, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to see if publishers would be willing to take over your load. Heck, even Amanda Hocking threw in the towel and signed a four-book deal with St. Martins…so you’re in excellent company.

HOWEVER, chances are you aren’t Amanda Hocking,who knew how to promote ’til the cows came home, so  there are some important things you oughta know about how editors view these queries on self pubbed books.

The Eight Ton Elephant in the Room

The first thought that comes to my mind is WHY? What are the reasons the author decided to stop going it alone. Sure, I can speculate, and I do, because my first thoughts focus on what I can do for the author’s book that the author hasn’t done on their own. It’s important that authors know the specific reasons for chucking in the self pub towel because they’ll then be able to define their expectations of a mainstream publisher.

To say, “Oy, I’m tired!” doesn’t help your cause. Write down the specifics of what made selling your book difficult. The list could look something like this:

  •  Marketing/Promotion – I have no real idea how to do this, and I’ve poured countless hours into the effort with no discernible sales.
  • Distribution – Well, I did it through Amazon, so they’re taking care of “distribution,” but I can’t get my books into the stores.
  • Editing, cover design, page/book layout – I feel overwhelmed and broke.

In other words, you spent hundreds or thousands, and the damn thing didn’t sell. Okay, I grok that. But more importantly, I look at the outside reasons why it didn’t sell.

The Query Letter

An author sent me a query letter the other day about her self pubbed book. I looked at the content, which was meh. It’s something I’ve seen a thousand times already – which could be one of the reasons it isn’t currently selling. So, her first fatal mistake is that the story didn’t sound compelling. It could be the case of it being a truly dull story, or it could be the author didn’t know how to write a mouth-watery synopsis. Strike one.

The letter went on to tell me how well received her book was and the huge sales it enjoyed. Hmm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to smell a rat. If the book is selling so well, then why is she querying me?

Sales History

First thing I did is check Bookscan. Admittedly, Bookscan is far from reliable, because not every store reports their sales to them. Nor does it include Amazon sales. But it does give me a general indication of the sales. In this case, the Bookscan numbers were a grand total of 2 units sold.

Then I checked Amazon, where I noticed the title was ranked at 8 million and only had a couple reviews. Now I’m trying to reconcile this against her claims of “well received” and “huge sales.” The book had barely been out a year. So there’s an obvious disconnect between what her query letter says and what I’m seeing. I mean, it’s possible there was much gushing, and maybe she sold lots of books at talks and such, but I’m just not seeing it, nor did she make any reference to that possibility. Strike Two.


But I took one last chance at finding her platform. This could tell me how she promoted her book. A quick google of her name showed diddly squat. Put that together with the low sales and few reviews, and I’m pretty sure this isn’t an active author, and she’s looking to me to take over where she’s been exquisitely challenged.

But here’s the rub; taking on a book that’s already been published is a big responsibility on my part because the book isn’t new. There has to be something that tells me this book will sell well. If the author doesn’t provide it, then what conclusions can I draw from what I see? Strike Three…she was out.

If you’re looking to try to get your book with a mainstream publisher, then help yourself out by thinking like an editor. With all the queries on unpublished works that editors receive, why would an editor choose yours? Being able to defend you and your published work will help bridge the gap and possibly elicit a sale.

However, all that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the chances of a publisher being interested in your already-self-pubbed book is extremely low. Most self-pubbed authors I know start fresh and go to publishers with a brand new book. It may be the publisher will pick up your self-pubbed book, but that book must have something to offer them in terms of marketability.

Your bestest friend is the practice of putting yourself in an editor’s Sorels (I woulda said Manolo Blahniks, but I’m squatting on 7″ of snow). If you can look at your query from an editor’s perspective, it may help you decide whether you’re better off making a clean break by writing a new book, or whether your self pubbed book is really something that would make a mainstream publisher jump on top of her barstool and offer free drinks for everyone.


Reasons to Self-Publish – Part IV

March 12, 2013

get writing

This is the last installment of my Reasons to Self-Publish series.This series is based on a comment left on our blog that laid out all the reasons to self-publish, with which I heartily disagreed. There are good reasons to consider self-publishing one’s book, but the points brought up in this series aren’t a part of that discussion, and I want to explain why.

Self-publishing offers me control of all my content, cover, rights, and better royalties. In addition, I can offer it sooner than the several years many books take to get into print.

This is true. But do you really want that responsibility? There are gazillions of poorly done self-pubbed books because the authors didn’t know what they were doing. If you’re going to compete against publishers who do this for a living, then you won’t get away with inferior cover art, writing, editing, or no promotion/marketing plan.

Any author who has visions of sales MUST first realize they are a business person, and that means that you want it right – not fast. You may get the book out to market sooner, but if it’s an inferior product, your better royalties aren’t going to amount to the price of a Big Mac.

And cover art? Yes, you do have control over this, but oh dearie me, this is slicey dicey stuff that shouldn’t be left in the fingers of the neophyte. I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you, but everyone – and I mean everyone – judges a book by its cover. Sure, liking or disliking a cover is subjective, but I think everyone agrees that poorly done clip art is like bug spray. Do yourself a favor and hire a good cover artist who can capture the essence of your book.

The days are mostly gone for the writer who wants to sit on a desert island, writing their tomes while sucking down pineapple drinks laced with rum. Writing is a business, which means that you have to be conversant in the entire process – from writing, to production, to distribution, to market and promotion, to sales. If you don’t know, then how will you know when someone is doing a good or crappy job?

Yes, a book can get out to market sooner if you self-publish, but the reason it takes time for a commercial press to put out a book is because of the time they spend on production and promotion. Review copies need to go out to reviewers and media four months before the book comes out. Catalogs need to be in sales people’s hands six months before a book comes out. This is done to make the movers and shakers aware of your book before it ever comes out. Building a ground swell takes time.

Getting it out fast doesn’t equal sales. Working smart equals sales.

The Cinderella Story

I’d be remiss if I failed to talk about the newest Big Deal self publisher, Hugh Howey and his his book Wool. The Wall Street Journal has a wonderful article covering this new millionaire self-publisher. I’m thrilled for him because he did it on his terms and hit the big time. When stories like this come out, I know this will cement the resolve of many, many writers out there to self-pub their works.

After all, where else can you put out a book and sit back to watch the $$ roll in? But like everything else in life, this is the exception, not the rule. It has to do with being the right story at the right time, in the right circumstances. And since it’s the exception, I recommend keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground, nose to the grindstone, and taking control of your destiny – which begins by understanding the industry, knowing how to write, knowing your competition, and treating your writing like a business. And never, never, never blame anyone else for your lack of success.

As I’ve said before, there are lots of reasons to self-publish, but it’s a decision based on reality, and the author does a huge amount of planning in order to capitalize on their hard work and research. If you’re in it to win it, then assume the position and go get ’em.

Reasons to Self-Publish – Part III

March 11, 2013

against me

This is Part III of my Reasons to Self Publish series. This series is based on a comment left on one of my blog posts as to the poster’s reasons to self publish, which I felt warranted discussion. There are all sorts of reasons to self publish, but I don’t feel these are a viable argument to that discussion.

The printing industry is the gatekeeper of content

Vanity and POD publishers were very good at creating the illusion of elitism in order to attract authors. They also excelled at telling authors they “deserve” to be published. This was their “We’re folksy and nice, and you’ll love working with us because we’re giving you what you deserve.” It’s a lovely idea, but it’s little more than sleight of hand because they failed to reveal they couldn’t get books out to market and into readers’ hands nor do they market or promote. The byproduct of this is that they unwittingly created an entitlement culture that believes they’re owed a publishing contract because they put cyber pen to cyber paper, and if they’re rejected, it’s not due to lack of a publishable book.

My fertile imagination conjures up images of secret meetings of all the publishers in smoke-filled backrooms, drinking Bourbon while conspiring to censor what gets published, and the penalty for breaking The Double-Secret Probation Code is a midnight visit from the goon squad who will blow up your company and steal errant rescue beagles.

Come on, publishing is a business, just like selling shoes or margarita mix, and they keep their doors open by selling books that appeal to a lot of readers. This allows them to stay in business. The logical “duh” moment is that they need to have a quality product, which means the best of the best are what’s on their radar.

And mind you, the publishing business is based on speculation. Publishers pour out tens of thousands of dollars before they ever realize any remuneration – and they have only their best educated guess as to whether that book will actually sell well enough to keep the lights on. So to suggest that publishers are the gatekeepers of content doesn’t hold water. The big question is, “Will it sell?”

There are as many topics of books as there are readers who will buy them, and I dismiss the notion that anyone consciously censors a subject. They have to consider whether the subject matter will end up in a lawsuit, or is so inflammatory that they’ll have to recall the book. But “gatekeep” reading material for kicks and giggles? Nope.

I’ve always compared this “publishers are gatekeepers” comment to sour grapes. Reminds me of the complaint that every editor has heard at least once in their career,  “You didn’t publish me because you’re against me.”

Perhaps it would be more illuminating if the author looked within. If you’re busy blaming the publishing industry for your lack of success, then you can become stuck in the excuse and stab about for an easy fix that may not be the best fit for you – ergo “They’re against me, so I’ll self-publish.” This is not an Us Against You business. It’s about carefully choosing the best option for your book and your personality.

Now, does that mean great books aren’t published and really crappy ones are? Sure.  But it comes down to a matter of taste. Look at 50 Shades. I’ve seen tons of people complain the whole series sucks stale Twinkie cream. If that’s so, then how do we explain its huge sales? Believe me, there is no conspiracy. There are simply far more writers than there are publishers, and publishers have the pick of the litter.

Being published by a traditional printing house has no correlation to value, truth, or facts – they keep us in the dark.

I’m not even sure what this means, and I would hand over my collection of bloody red pens if someone could provide proof of this. This eludes back to that grand publishing conspiracy, and that’s plain laughable. What Random House won’t publish, for whatever reason, may find a home at Sourcebooks. What doesn’t fit in at Sourcebooks may find a perfect home at Behler.

Publishing is about competition, and we’re all looking to make an impact in our little corner of the reading world, to touch lives, to make a difference, to entertain. This is a game of numbers.

I’ve had queries come to me that the big guys passed on because those particular books didn’t fit in with their lineup. They have far more mouths to feed than I do, and not all books are going to sell 50,000 units. Does that make them any less important? Not in my humble opinion. I can keep the rescue beagles in designer doggeh chewies with fewer sales because my needs aren’t as grand. That doesn’t mean I won’t pull out the stops to sell 50K units, but the reality is that the book simply isn’t a 50K selling book.

That’s the beauty of the independent trade publisher. They do well with fewer sales, which means more books are being published…not less. They can be more apt to take a chance on a dicey topic because a thousand sales is still a win in their column, whereas those sales would be dismal to a Big Gun.

Here’s Some Free Advice

The bestest gift to a writer can give herself is realizing publishing is a business, and she is a businesswoman. Successful business people don’t waste time playing the blame game. They look at their writing as a business. They don’t blame others as to why they aren’t succeeding, but rather, they attend to ways that will ensure their success.

Anyone can be a whine and give up to play the blame game. But where will that get you? Anyone can be mediocre. Is that what you aspire to?

The ones who succeed look in the mirror and ask, “Am I doing everything I can to enhance my changes for winning? If not, what more do I need to do? To learn?” This is far healthier than believing conspiracies lurk around every corner in an effort to shut you out.

How about your own career? What were some of the tricks you used to help your writing, your querying, your book, and your success?

Reasons to Self Publish – Part II

March 6, 2013

beagle all alone

This is Part II of a three-part series about a comment left on one of my blog posts that gave all the reasons why self-publishing is a better choice than going with a commercial trade press. As I’ve always maintained, there are some great possibilities with self-publishing provided you know what you’re up against and know what you’re doing.

I feel these reasons aren’t a compelling argument:

Publishers would turn down my book because it’s very controversial.

Here’s a newsflash: Publishers adore controversy because it’s very good for news and gets people talking. What publishers do shy away from are subjects they fear won’t sell. They get their lead from what they see in the media because they will look to that same media when their book comes out.

If we see people talking about Alzheimers, then it’s a good bet that Early Onset Alzheimers will be a natural because it affects younger people. This is why Jan’s Story is such a huge hit.

However, if a book discusses the agony of ingrown toenails, then publishers would pass on it because it’s not a big deal, nor is it in the news.

But what about those in between topics? That’s where things can get frustrating.

For example, a lovely woman in my Penn Writers group told me agents and editors weren’t all that enthusiastic about elder abuse, which surprised me. Sure, it’s a tough subject, but so is addiction, cheating, and AIDs, yet there are a ton of those books out there. Elder abuse should be a part of our national discussion because it’s a sick, twisted aberration of our society, and we need to bring it out into the open as well. And agents are afraid to touch it? Hmm.

So yes, there are topics that seem to scare people, but to say that someone won’t touch your book because of its controversial nature is unfair. It boils down to the topic and an author’s platform.

With nonfiction, controversial subjects really need a strong author platform because it’s the only way a reader will take you seriously. If you claim to have proof that the medical community is hiding cancer cures, then you not only need a rocking amount of proof, but a platform to back it up. This is a large part of why I reject works…lack of proof, and lack of author platform. I adore something provocative, but the author has to be bullet-proof.

And it’s not just nonfiction. Years ago, an editor friend of mine read a manuscript (fantasy) whose main characters were gay. It was a good book, and she was prepared to take it to her submissions committee for their gay imprint. The author refused to allow it to be considered for that imprint, insisting that the book should be marketed as mainstream fantasy. My friend didn’t believe it would sell well to a mainstream crowd.

The author was livid and accused my friend of being afraid to publish a controversial story to a mainstream audience. It was a ridiculous argument because it’s about marketing to the audience who will embrace the book. It’s like me trying to market PULSE OF MY HEART (a gorgeous love story about an amazing Heart Couple) to an Alzheimer’s readership. Epic fail.

Making blanket statements that publishers shy away from controversy holds zero water because there is always a solid reason for it. If you hear this from an editor and decide to self-pub, then you need to be doubly aware of the uphill road facing you in terms of making sales should you decide to self-pub.

The publisher refused to print the “real” facts of my book.

Editors don’t obfuscate the facts an author has written without good reason. For example, if an author’s book about the power of positive thinking has a section that states a coffee enema guarantees your mood will improve could lead an editor to balk.  Does this make the editor horrible and the author unfairly treated, or is there no quantitative proof that this advice is valid?

Before an editor removes content, she discusses the problem with the author, so there are no surprises. It’s provocative to make blanket statements about publishers refusing to print the “real” facts because it makes no sense. And if a publisher does refuse to print the “real” facts, then the author needs to appreciate the uphill battle they face in going it alone, where they don’t have support or a literary barometer.

Have you felt victimized by a publisher or agent whom you felt didn’t want your book because it was too controversial, or refused to print what you feel are the real facts? If so, do you feel it was an arbitrary decision, or did they point out the problems with your story?

Reasons to Self-Publish Part I

March 5, 2013

beagle back yard

The other day, a new comment appeared on an old post of mine, and I thought it provocative enough that I’d address the issues brought up in that comment. The issue was about self-publishing and her reasons for considering it.Thing is, there are plenty of reasons that self-pubbing could be an appropriate choice…these aren’t those reasons and shouldn’t be any factor to your decision.

Here is the first of a three part series.

I do not need to go through countless rejections

I’m the first to agree that rejection stinks. I know authors hate seeing them as much as editors hate writing them. But deciding you want to self pub because you want to circumvent the whole rejection process is like your mother telling you all your life that you’re a fabulous singer when, in fact, you can’t even carry a tune.

Rejection is the great equalizer, and it carries all kinds of meanings. It could be that your book is too similar to something the editor is already publishing. It could be that you’re writing in a crowded category like addiction, cancer, vamp romance, YA dystopian. It could be that you write well, but your story needs better organization. And it could be that literary creation isn’t your strong suit.

If you deny yourself the experience of being rejected, you’ll never know how you measure up. Rejection isn’t always a matter of “you’re not good enough, and even if it is, does that mean it’s a good idea to put out yet another inferior book that has little chance of seeing the light of day? The adage of “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” has some merit, and rejection can be a barometer of talent.

Additionally, if you’re trying to save yourself some heartache, then you may want to remember that your book reviews could be extremely painful. The message here is if you’re going to stick your toe into the water, then you must be prepared to get wet. There is nothing painless about publishing, no matter what option you use.

The first authors in this country paid the printer to print their books as Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. No one questions their writings.

I’ve heard this bandied about for years and strikes me as a non-argument because publishing isn’t the same as it was back in Ben’s and Mark’s time. It’s my understanding this is one of those great publishy myths generated to justify using a publishing option that may not be to your best advantage.

But even if this were true, does that mean you should self-publish, too? What’s appropriate for one doesn’t make it appropriate for all. It’s like my mom used to say, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?” Good one, Mom. And just for the record, if it was Antonio Banderas hurling his gorgeous self overboard, I would be tempted to follow.

There have been self-pub success stories, but they are the exception, not the rule, and it rings hollow to use the argument that someone else did it.

My book is a niche book that could go mainstream.

It’s important to define what is meant by niche. Niche means to have specific appeal to a specialized group or market. So are we talking a cancer book, which is geared toward a specialized market, or are we talking ingrown toenails? One group can be extremely elusive and the other, quite large and defined.

Given this tenent, any niche book could go mainstream if enough people buy it, like it, and talk about it. That doesn’t mean yours will. The one thing I’ve noticed with self-pubbed niche books is that they are either so off the wall (ingrown toenail), or don’t say anything new, and this is because they haven’t done their market research.

For example, I remember an author who queried me many years ago with her cancer story. I urged her to do some reading of her competition (this is after she had insisted there was “no competition” for her book), and then come back and tell me she has something new to offer to this very crowded genre. Two months later, bless her heart, she wrote back and agreed that her book had nothing new to say that hadn’t already been written about many times. It broke my heart because she seemed so sad to find this out. But had she self-pubbed it, she would be no wiser, and wonder why she didn’t have any sales.

If you’re going to self-pub, KNOW YOUR COMPETITION.

The whole idea of going “mainstream” is so that your book can educate, entertain, horrify…whatever…which means you need to work three tiems as hard as the commercially published author because you’re a team of one.Conversely, the commercially published author has a team of hundreds.

Those self-pubbed books that made the big time didn’t get there on their own. Those authors worked morning, noon, and night to establish their footprint. They had a plan and spent many hours on promotion.

Having a self-pubbed niche book go mainstream – meaning being read by a wide audience – is rarely an accidental thing, so don’t count on this happening. Have any of you opted for self-publishing thinking it would be easier and gain you more remuneration?

Tomorrow’s post, Reasons to Self-Publish Part II, will cover issues of whether commercial publishers like controversial books and whether they have the chestnuts to “print the truth.”

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