If you’ve gotten this far in Words for Writers, you might be wondering who the author behind all of these articles is. My name is J.M. Frey – I’m an agented author with several awards under my belt with six of my novels currently published in the trade-wide traditional manner with professional smallpress houses.
But I’m also a self-published author. Both here, on Wattpad, and in via IngramSpark, Smashwords, and Kindle Publishing. These services allow you to take your manuscript and turn it into either a paperback or hardcover book (IngramSpark) or a Kindle-compatible and distributed ebook, or a every-other-reading-device-compatible and distributed ebook (Smashwords).
I am what we call a hybrid author: like the chimera of old, I have one foot in the traditional publishing scene, and one in the world of self-propelled publishing.
But why, you may ask, why selfpublish if you have an agent, and an editor, and a publisher?
Mostly, for the same reasons you do. I want full control of the projects I choose to selfpublish; I want a larger piece of the payments pie; I want to share my story with a specific niche set of readers that my publishers can’t/won’t target; I have a strange little story that doesn’t fit the narrow confines of what my professional connections want to publish.
See, not every project I write is going to get picked up for publication. Either my agent doesn’t like it or doesn’t want to represent it (like “A Woman of the Sea” on Wattpad), or my agent tries to sell it and none of the publishing houses bite. At that point I can either put that project in a desk drawer and never look at it again, or I can polish it up and offer it to my readership anyway. This gives me greater ability to go a bit weird with my work, or challenge the (still, unfortunately) sometimes narrow-minded mainstream preference in regards to the diversity of my protagonists.
I’ve talked a lot in previous articles about how and why to achieve your tradepublishing goals. But there are also lots of reasons for tradepub authors to jump into selfpublishing.
So Why Self Publish? Usually because your book is…
The book or story produced is either hard to sell to mainstream publishers, or they’ve rejected it. In this case, I mean when the agent/publishers think the book is “too” something. “Too poetic.” “Too weird.” “Too queer.” “Too diverse.” Make sure that you’re not mistaking a book being “too” something for feedback that indicates that your book requires more work. “Too raw” may actually mean “requires some serious editing.”
…shorter or longer than books traditionally are.
Tradepub houses sometimes have a pretty firm set of guidelines for how long they want a book to be, because of the cost of manufacturing that book, and because of the market research stating how long a book ought to be in order to be appealing for the target demographic. But sometimes a story ends up being outside those guidelines, and that margin is just too large to make printing such a book viable.
For example, skinny novellas with only 20-40 pages are often too small to produce and make a profit – it would cost you almost as much to produce it as you could sell it for, making it a project not worth taking on for a publisher (whose goal, of course, is to keep the business afloat while publishing great books).
Alternately, a 600 page book’s price needs to be jacked up to account for the large amounts of ink, paper, and special binding to keep something that large from falling apart. Publishers prefer books in that sweet spot where they’re making good profit, but purchasers aren’t feeling like they’re being ripped off.
… weirdly formatted.
This is anything that would make the book more expensive for the publisher to create, would require that they hire an extra graphic designer, or might be confusing to a reader used to just straight-up prose. For example, if part of the story is told in pictures, or in verse, or a book that requires extra special formatting allowances, such as a good deal of illustrations or footnotes, or a book that ties in with and is dependent media available elsewhere – a webcomic, or a video hosted on your site.
I’m not saying that tradepub publishers aren’t interested in taking risks, but they are calculated risks and that have been costed-out carefully, and usually are executed only when the author involved is a big enough name that the bizzareness of the project won’t put off the hardcore readership of the author.
…backlisted and/or out of print.
One of my novels, TRIPTYCH (also to be found here on Wattpad) was originally published with a tradepub small press out of Canada. When my contract with them was up, I clawed back the rights because I was unhappy with their marketing efforts on the book. A second publisher took the ebook rights for the book, but was uninterested in also publishing the hardcopy version, so I too myself off to IngramSpark, and along with the help of a hired interior designer and the incomparable Adrienne Kress and @RodenyVSmith, produced a paperback and hardcover to fill the gap myself.
Over a decade or so of being a professional writer, most authors end up with a hodgepodge of short stories, poems, and articles that they’ve written for anthologies and other publications. Usually you get the rights back on these kinds of short pieces a year or two after they were originally published. And then they’re just sitting there on your hard drive, collecting digital dust. This is a good opportunity to collect them all together, put them in some sort of order, and publish them as a single volume. Unless you’re a big name, most agents and tradepublishers aren’t interested in publishing this for you, as there’s little guarantee of a return on investment. But these are great volumes to have for your readership, especially for the completionists and hardcore fans you may cultivate.
… to complete a series.
Sometimes, and it happens to us all, something happens and a publisher doesn’t end up publishing a whole series. Firstly, publishers don’t always sign the rights for a whole trilogy or series at once. Usually it’s in one or two-book deals. If book #1 does well, the publisher may then contract for books #2 and #3. Or just book #2.
And if any one of those books flop (whether it’s the publisher’s fault for marketing it poorly, or it just doesn’t do well), then the publisher will either decline to sign the rest of the series or cancel the contract. After all, why should they publish a proven money-waster?
It’s harsh, but it’s one of the realities of the biz. In this case, your readership is left with an incomplete series, and you might have a book or two that you’ve written already, or a story you want to finish, and now can’t.
In this case, it’s usually possible to negotiate with the publishing house to bypass the Right of First Refusal clause, and claw back the ability to publish the rest of the books in the series on your own.
…been rejected by agent / publisher.
My first agent read the original version of A WOMAN OF THE SEA (then called “First Impressions”) and said that he didn’t know how to sell this “weird Victorian romance crap.” Putting aside the fact that A WOMAN OF THE SEA is neither Victorian nor crap, I did a revision on it and then put it away. When I pitched it to my second agent, she also said that she wasn’t interested in trying to shop around something that another agent had already rejected, and that she wasn’t sure what to do with a queer time-travel love story either. With no support for the book at all, I decided to revise it again, changed the title, and thought I’d give Wattpad a proper go.
The book has done quite well there. It’s not a flip-off to either of my literary agents that it has, though, because what works on Wattpad and what works at a tradepublisher and in bookshops are often very different things. And even here on Wattpad, A WOMAN OF THE SEA has been rejected for Paid and for Wattpad Books, because, again, what works in those narrow frameworks doesn’t always work for the website as a whole.
However, in this case, I have a segement of my readership that isn’t on Wattpad and doesn’t care to engage with the app/website, and who prefer hardcopy books. I have free rights over all the licences and ownership because my agent doesn’t want to rep it and Wattpad doesn’t want to monetize it, so I might as well make money on it myself.
If I decide to go forward with selfpubbing the novel, I’ll be working with the same team that did TRIPTYCH for me. I might possibly even narrate and selfpub my own audiobook too, as I have experience and a home recording studio. Who knows? The great part about selfpubbing is that you can do anything you want! (Though if you want to make money as a selfpubber, that anything you want has to be quality.)
… to kickstart a tradepub career.
Selfpublishing is also a great way to kickstart a tradpub career, too, if that’s something that appeals to you. It shows an agent that you can complete a project, and produce a professional-grade manuscript, and it also demonstrates that you understand how to market a book as well.
This also provides the opportunity for you to build up an audience that can migrate with you to tradepub; publishers and marketing departments sure do love lots of wonderful high stats and numbers in terms of audience engagement and readership.
Of course, as I’ve said in earlier chapters of this series, agents can’t sell manuscripts that already exist in book-form, so if you’re going to selfpub a book, make sure it’s not one that you’d rather see tradepubbed.
It is very very very rare for a tradepub house to pick up a book that has already been selfpubbed for large distribution. I can think of just two titles off the top of my head.
Tradepub publishers will only republish a book that already exists if they know the numbers are going to be through the roof – I’m talking millions of copies here, not just a few thousand, or a few hundred. If your project isn’t going to bring in that kind of money for a publisher (meaning, it’s already doing hundreds of thousands of copies, and you’re Big News – like Fifty Shades of Grey-sized news), then don’t pitch it.
Agents and Publishers are in the business of turning manuscripts into a product called a book. If your manuscript is already a book with a cover and an ISBN, then there’s nothing for them to create and sell. You’ve done it already.
So if you intend to selfpub a book, gain a readership that way, and then pitch the exact same project again to an agent or publisher, I urge you to give it a real think-over. There’s no harm in pitching the book around first and then selfpubbing if the book isn’t picked up.
By the same token, there’s also no harm in selfpubbing a book first, using that to build audience and loyalty, and then leveraging those numbers while pitching a second, different book to agents and publishers in the tradpub sphere. (So long as this second book has nothing to do with the first – don’t pitch the second book in a series that you’ve already begun to publish.)
Hybridity Makes You Stronger
Whichever way you want to go, making your career a Hybrid one can be rewarding and useful.
While discourse around selfpubbing often sets it head-to-head against tradepub, I firmly believe that not only can tradepub and selfpub can work hand-in-hand, but that an author who has feet in both worlds is a stronger, more well-rounded, more educated, and more professional creator.
Once you’ve tradepubbed, you know what level your selfpub work ought to be at. And when you’ve selfpubbed, you understand how all the gears and cogs of the tradepub machine fit together before you sign that contract, and will have a greater sense of how much marketing you’ll need to do or be involved in.
Don’t feel that you have to limit yourself to one kind of publishing or another. It’s a big wonderful world out there, and you can fill it with stories however works best for you.
Have a question about this chapter, or want to ask a different question? Feel free to leave a comment, or drop me an email. You can also read other WORDS FOR WRITERS articles here.