Dec 15 2012

Should I hire an agent or self-publish?

Which way should I publish? Should I try for an agent and a contract from a major publisher, or self-publish? I hear with self-publishing, I can get my book out to the public in a lot less time and I get to keep a larger percentage of the profits rather than share it with a publishing company and an agent? — This is a question I’ve received from several clients. I’ve also heard this question in writers’ groups, seen it on blogs, Facebook, and online writer communities. I’ve been down about each of these roads, so here’s my take on it.

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First, I would go in clear-eyed about ‘profits.’ These days, the average debut fiction author with an agent and a publishing contract gets an advance of less than $5000, which is paid out in three or four installments over a one- to two-year period from the point of signing the contract. That, of course, may be after you’ve spent a year or more writing the book and another year or two (or longer) editing, revising, querying agents, and eventually landing an agent, if you’re lucky enough and good enough to get one. Then the agent has to pitch it to publishers. For debut novelists, the agent is often not successful with that first book. The vast majority of debut authors who do land that contract don’t sell enough copies to earn back the meager advance. From the time you are offered a publishing contract, if you ever get that far, it will likely be 18 months to two years before your book is published.

So if you land an agent and a major publishing house contract, maybe you will have earned $1000 a year for your hard work on that novel. Then, if the book’s sales don’t cover the advance, there’s probably no second book deal from any publisher. Why would the publisher, or any other, take a chance on an author whose first book didn’t sell well? They’re looking for the next big thing, and it wasn’t you. So the agent eventually drops you.

The average self-published writer will sell less than 500 copies a year. Depending on pricing and whether it’s an eBook, in print, or both, maybe you earn a $1000 a year in royalties. But you’ll pay for cover design, the cost of any stock photos used on the cover, editing (assuming you hire an editor), formatting and uploading (unless you can do all this yourself), plus the set-up fees and printing costs from companies such as Create Space, Lightning Source or Lulu.

Whether self-pubbed or traditional, you’re going to shoulder all or most of the cost of marketing and promotion. One excellent and successful writer I know spent $10,000 on marketing her debut novel. It sold well and won awards, but she lost a few thousand dollars on it. Of course, her second novel starts at a much higher point with a readership base, benefiting from all the promotion of the first book. So it may pay off in the long run, if you’ve got that kind of cash to invest and can consistently write a new award-winning novel every year.

There are also a wide range of middle ground publishers. These run the gamut from traditional small presses (often aimed at the literary market), to self-publishing assistance (for a fee and/or a percent of profits), to writer co-ops, to small digital publishers and niche publishers of all sorts. And there are still the old-school vanity presses that are always finding new ways to play on the hopes and dreams of naive writers.

Yeah, we all see the Rowlings and the Pattersons and the Meyers, the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams, but for every one of those, there are a few hundred thousand writers trying to break in.

So that’s all the gloom and doom. Now back to the question. If you’re still interested in writing, and you’re still interested in people reading and enjoying the fruits of your passionate labor, you’ll put all that aside and concentrate on the art and craft of writing compelling fiction. Then you’ll research all the various markets and methods to get your work in front of an audience.

You need to figure out which one suits you and your temperament and your knowledge/expertise. No one can answer that question for you, and there isn’t a “this is the best way to get published” response.

Ask yourself, with brutal honesty, if you have a book that agents and major publishing companies will be clamoring for? There are books with strong commercial potential. Agents and major publishers are constantly on the lookout for great stories. Is yours one of them? But remember that most agents sign a tiny fraction of one percent (1 out of 10,000 or less, according to some agents’ blogs) of the query letters they receive from new writers.

Ask yourself if you have what it takes to be a self-published author and handle everything yourself as a writer and publisher and business person and a marketer, and if you can consistently put out top quality products all on your own (plus whatever professional help you have to hire). Do you have the money to invest, knowing it might or might not ever pay off? Sometimes lightning strikes, and a self-published author hits it big or captures the attention of a major publisher. Just remember that these instances are extraordinarily rare. Don’t make that your plan and take out a second mortgage based on that happening.

Would you feel more comfortable with a small press or digital publisher? Is there a niche publisher that fits your book and your potential audience? Do a lot of hard research in this area, and talk to a lot of writers who have used a particular publisher before you sign with one. There are great ones, and there are scam artists galore more than happy to part you from your money. Have an attorney review any contract before you sign anything. Search the Internet for reviews and comments and complaints about any publisher you’re considering.

The bottom line is that you can’t count on a bottom line. There are pros and cons to every possible avenue to publication. Each writer has to sort through it all and find the best fit.

Figure out which is the best way for you to build a readership audience and reach people with your books rather than trying to figure out which way will provide the largest profit.

It’s perfectly fine to dream big, but act with optimistic yet cautious realism, and spend more energy writing your next novel than calculating your potential profits.

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2 Responses to “Should I hire an agent or self-publish?”

  • Conda V. Douglas Says:

    A well considered and well done post, Robb. I totally agree with the end of your post–every author must consider several questions when deciding which way to go. I’d like to add that authors can also try different approaches as well. What I hate to see is the desperate newbies who fall prey to scams.

    I’ve gone every route except self-published. I’m not against self-publishing but I write fiction and I believe fiction is more difficult to self-publish and promote successfully. Plus I wanted to have the support of a publishing house and more time and focus to write. I’m taking the long view for profits and am very pleased with the two small independent publishers who have published my novels.

  • Pete Morin Says:

    This is an excellent, thorough, even-handed assessment of the current state of fiction publishing – and superb advice, too.