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Words for Writers: Publishing Sans Agent

I had a great email from someone asking for advice about signing a publishing deal with an indie publisher with no agent.  She was directed to me by a fellow writer because I did the same when I first published – Dragon Moon Press picked up Triptych, and I had no agent at the time.

With her permission, I’m posting my answers here because I think that it could be helpful to my readers.

First, I asked her who the publisher was and how she had submitted her manuscript. She gave me the name, and I looked them up and with some research found them to be a fairly reliable, fairly professional indie publisher of mainly ebooks.

About how and why she submitted to this publisher, she said:

“I am a member of Critique Circle, a writing workshop website and I noticed a fellow writer listed them as publishing one of her stories so I looked them up and submitted one of mine. I am a total newbie and while I am super excited I don’t want to go into this thinking rainbows and lollipops, right?! I just don’t want to do something wrong because I didn’t investigate first.”

My reply:

You’re very welcome.

From what I’ve gathered from the publisher’s site, they do what they say they’re going to do. They’ll publish your book.

Whether you want to publish with a publisher their size is entirely up to you. (I have – I published a novella with Double Dragon Books here in Toronto.) There are pros and cons to going with a publisher this size:

Pros: They’ll pay very good attention to you because there’s few of you authors to juggle, it’s a high royalty, and they probably have a loyal fan base already. They’ve got a publication schedule, they’re visible on FB, Twitter, and on their site. And they’ve probably worked with new authors a lot.

Cons: They’re small market. Now, that doesn’t mean amateur or crappy, just that they’re small and mostly online. That means that probably almost all the marketing will be up to you to do, and that your book will probably not be carried by any book store outside of special request. It will not be ordered for any libraries unless you donate a copy to your local (as I’ve done, and I recommend highly). As long as you take an extremely realistic look at this, it’s not a bad option.

[They indie publisher in question] seems forthright and honest, but I would always talk to other authors who are published with them to see if they are happy with their experience.

In the end if you read the contract and you are uncomfortable or unhappy, listen to your instincts or talk to fellow published authors about the sections you are unhappy with to see how they compare.

And as always, do your research.

As for not having an agent:  agents are great for getting you access to publishers who require submissions to come from representation. Publishers employ gatekeeping tactics like this because they just get so much stuff and they need help weeding the suitable projects out.  Agents are great for knowing the legal hoo-doo surrounding contracts and being able to get you the best deals, or being able to explain things to you that you don’t understand, or making sure your rights are upheld and protected. Agents are great for having the networking contacts and hob-nobbing skills needed to get your books to the right publishers, in the right magazines, included in the right blog tours and signing events, etc. Agents work in tandem with foreign rights and film agents, help arrange appearances and big marketing drives, etc. And most importantly, your agent will be your partner in your career, your advocate, your best and most trusted beta reader, and will help you decide what projects to focus on, will let you bounce ideas off them, and will make sure that your work is the best it can be.

If [the indie publisher in question] was a big-time super-corporate over-the-top-legalesse publisher, then I would encourage you to get an agent before agreeing to publish with them.

However, as this is indie press that is mainly online, I think you’re fine without one. The contract should be straightforward and easy to read, and as the drives around it will be smallish, you should be able to handle it all yourself.

At the same time, I would encourage you to read your contract very carefully and very thoroughly and know exactly what you’re agreeing to.  This is not meant to scare you; this is so that you are clear of the agreement you’re making and to be certain that you’re stepping into it with knowledge.

There were some questions that I had when I published indie, so I will tell you the answers in advance, in case you’re thinking of them right now:

In a small press, this is usually how Who-Does-What is divided up:

Publisher:

  • Provide an editor (either just copy/typos, or a full substantial editor, depending on the publisher) to work with you on polishing the book or fixing more substantive concerns if they exist.
  • Turn the manuscript into a “book” – i.e. register for the ISBN, typeset, etc.
  • Engage and work with a cover designer/artist. (You may or may not be asked for your opinion/ideas for this – usually the cover is ultimately out of the writer’s hands, so be prepared to not be involved. That said, it’s rare that they won’t ask your opinion, though.)
  • Work with you to create the back cover copy.
  • Publish the book.
  • Advertise the book on their site, in their newsletter, and through their regular channels, blogs, and sites. If they do it, they would also submit the book to their regular review channels (Publisher’s Weekly, a regular blog, etc.)
  • Make the book available for purchase at a variety of online stores, including their own. They may also put it up on Goodreads.
  • Provide books to you at the special author’s rate on your request.

Author:

  • Work with the editor to create and provide a clean and polished manuscript for the publisher to turn into a book.
  • Any and all other marketing outside of what the publisher usually does including: having a launch party (and paying for it), booking appearances at conventions (until you’re super famous and you have a PA and people are inviting you), getting any marketing materials (bookmarks, postcards, etc.) designed and printed, building and maintaining your website and social media networks, booking appearances at libraries, community centres, etc.
  • Buy boxes of books at the special author rate for resale at conventions, or to friends and family, or consignment to local book stores
  • Answering interview questions or participating in any marketing the publisher may have set up; setting up interviews with your local library, papers, schools, etc.
  • Research and submit the book for review with other bloggers or reviewers that the publisher may not have.
  • Set up Amazon author profile, make sure books are tagged properly, and maintain the book’s profile page once it’s up.
  • Possibly submit and maintain the Goodreads page as well, if the publisher hasn’t done it.

Both (together) usually:

  • Discuss and decide if the book should be submitted for awards or reviews, and where, and who will pay for what. Sometimes the publisher doesn’t have the budget to submit to awards with an entry fee (my publisher and I have each paid for roughly half of my submissions).
  • Discuss and solicit reviews from which to pull a front-cover blurb for the book.

It sounds scary, but with a checklist, it’s not so bad. As I said above, I’ve published two books sans agent.

The first was with Dragon Moon Press. I was querying small press publishers and agents simultaneously with that MS, and DMP said yes before any agents did. I talked over the contract with the acquiring editor, and also had a published friend look over it as well, and was comfortable signing it without an agent.

The editor and I both worked very hard on polishing and pushing the novel and it was rewarding for me. I enjoyed having so much control with the marketing, but decided that I wouldn’t do a second book with DMP because I was still interested in going bigger with the next project. And it is always possible that I may write another book that’s just perfect for and indie SF/F publisher like DMP and might approach them with it in the future. I’ve also stayed connected with them by publishing some short stories in their anthologies. They’re fantastic folk.

My review on Triptych from Publisher’s Weekly was what attracted my first agent to me. He contacted me and asked if I was seeking representation. I was very pleased with my experience with DMP, and they’re very supportive, but their marketing budget is not comparable to a larger publisher, understandably, and I had put quite a bit of my own money into making my novel visible. I am trying to make a career of writing, so I need to graduate slowly to bigger and bigger presses with their own marketing budgets, and put less of my money into marketing if this is going to be a viable income-earner.

Thus, I needed an agent. So, after a few rounds of phone calls with him and some other agents who had another of my manuscripts for consideration, I narrowed it down and accepted him as my agent.

(Since then I have switched to a different agent, simply because we work together creatively in a better capacity, and we have a better rapport than I had with the old agent).

If he hadn’t contacted me and offered, I was going to continue querying agents with my next project, explaining that I had one book out with an indie publisher that had done quite well critically, and that I was looking for an agent for my next MS to up my game.

The second sans-agent book I published – The Dark Side of the Glass – was with Double Dragon which is very similar, from what I can tell, to [the indie press in question]. That is – they published it, made it available online and in a print-on-demand store, and I email them to buy boxes of books at the author’s special rate.

Otherwise neither of us have done much more for the book – the marketing is 100% up to me with DD (beyond them just putting up on the store and making it available for purchase) , and I’ve sort of left this one to be a world of mouth book. I’m too broke to put any marketing behind it right now. It has been a satisfactory experience with DD, too (even though the first editor I was assigned and I did not get along at all); I just don’t have the resources to push the book as much as I’d like. But I do bring it with me anywhere I am going to sell my books.

I hope all this info has been helpful, instead of overwhelming or harshly realistic.

The summary is this:

If you are comfortable with reading and following the contract on your own, I don’t see why you can’t indie publish your story without an agent. However, if [the indie publisher in question] is not the size of publisher you’re hoping to land with this manuscript, then perhaps beginning to query agents or bigger indie publishers is the better option.

I can’t tell you want the first step of your career should be, but the fact that someone has offered to publish you is fantastic, and I offer my sincere congratulations!

It’s a hard choice for you, and I’m sorry I can’t do more to make it easier.

Agents, as far as I can tell, actually do like it when you can prove that you can follow through – and successfully publishing a novel with an indie publisher and being totally professional and baddass about marketing it is a great way to show that you can swing when you’re up to the plate. I think they may be much more inclined to consider your second project if your first is already out and is totally pro.

(Same way you should always mention in your query letters if you’ve completed a thesis; those things are way more complicated and difficult to finish than a book, IMHO!)

Feel free to ask any more questions.

–J.M.

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For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

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