A tiny moptop dog greeted me at the door of Robert’s Bookshop in Lincoln City as I stepped into one of the biggest used-book shops on the Oregon Coast. Room after room after shelves and stacks of all kinds of books: mysteries, old Zane Grey westerns, literary classics, poetry, essays, cookbooks, history books, everything you can imagine. I even found a whole room full of books about war. It’s Disneyland for readers.
As I stacked up my treasures, all priced well below what a new book would cost, I thought about how the authors of these books would not make a cent off these sales. Whatever they were going to earn, they received in the original sale. That’s it. No residuals like actors in TV shows that keep airing as reruns. As an author, I find that a little daunting. After our first sales, for which authors usually get royalties, our books are completely out of our control. They’re passed on to friends and family or sold at garage sales, flea markets, secondhand stores, and online venues like Amazon where you can buy some books for as little as a penny. The only people making money off these sales are the vendors, especially if the books get old enough to be antiques.
Here on the Oregon Coast, we have more stores selling used books than new ones. Why? People don’t want to pay full price. And most of us who like to read pile up so many books we have to give some away or trade them for other books at places like Robert’s.
As authors, there’s nothing we can do about this. We have to let go our our creations and just be glad if someone is reading them. Maybe someday someone like me will be wandering the aisles of a crowded used-book store, see your book and smile. “Aha! I always wanted to read that.” Or, “That looks like a great book, and it’s only $2.” They’ll take it home to read and to treasure.
Ideally we would all buy new books at independent bookstores so authors get paid well and the stores stay in business, but let’s be honest. As readers, we just want to read the books, and we’ll take them wherever we can get them. After a certain point, books are just not about money.
If you are ever in Lincoln City–seven miles of beach and books, books, books–you should go to Robert’s, but you can also visit Robert’s sister store, Bob’s Beach Books, which is full of shiny new books for full price.
But there aren’t any new books if we don’t write them, so let’s go write.
A dear friend heard that I had finished the manuscript for my novel and immediately wanted to know when she can buy a copy, as if it would be on the shelves next week. It’s a bit longer process, I told her. But I did email her a PDF.
Self-Publish or Not?
Once you’ve written a novel, or any book of prose, and revised it until you’re sure you can’t revise any more, it’s time to think about publishing. Many people self-publish their books these days. I have done that. I have also had books purchased and published by traditional publishers. The latter is better. They handle design, printing, and distribution, going far beyond what I’m able to do alone from my home office. The imprint of a traditional publisher gives your book credibility, gets it reviewed in important places,and gets you publicity and at least a few promotional events that you don’t have to arrange. Also, instead of having to pay to publish, they pay you. Even in these days when you can put out e-books or publish through programs like Amazon’s CreateSpace for almost nothing, that matters.
There’s another thing about self-publishing. Too many authors rush their books into print before they’re ready. I have read too many self-published books that need copyediting and proofreading. The writing might be good, but a little more time and the help of professional editor would have made them so much better. With traditional publishing, you get that.
So I advise everyone to try getting a publisher to buy their books. If that fails, if you have limited time, or if you have a small, specialized audience waiting for your book, then go ahead and self-publish. You will have total responsibility for your book but also total control. You can get it out quickly and into the hands of your eager audience. You will also spend a lot of time on marketing, money and other non-writing concerns.
Otherwise, let’s try the traditional method first. What does that mean? Querying agents and/or editors.
Do You Need an Agent?
Here’s the deal. Agents help you polish your pitch and your book. Then they offer it to the publishing houses they think most likely to publish it. They handle all the submissions and let you know what happens. If/when they get a yes, they negotiate your contract. They also make sure you get paid your advance and royalties and help you negotiate future sales of foreign rights, movie rights, etc. Plus they support and encourage you while you focus on the writing part instead of the business part. For these services, they collect 15 percent of the profits. A good agent is worth every penny.
Yes, but do you need one? The big publishing houses will not consider books that are not pitched by agents. Even smaller houses prefer agents for fiction and creative nonfiction. With straight nonfiction, you have a little more leeway, and no agent will represent poetry books because there’s not enough money in them. You can pitch your novel to smaller houses yourself, and you can also enter many contests that promise publication to the winners, but I recommend trying to get an agent.
How Do I Approach an Agent?
With agents and editors, the process is the same. Most want a query letter–aka your pitch–and sample pages from the manuscript. Click here for my previous discussion about writing your pitch. We hear tales of synopses, longer descriptions that describe what happens in every chapter. These are a pain to write, and most agents don’t want to read them. They just want a one-page pitch and a few pages (anywhere from five to fifty) from the book to see whether the story grabs them. If it does, they’ll request more pages or the whole manuscript.
In the old days, authors had to put together a printed package which they sent by mail. Thank God we can do it all online these days, but that means before we click “send,” we need to be absolutely sure that what we’re sending is the best we can make it.
We’ll talk next week about how to decide which agents to pitch and what to send them. We’ll also look at pitching in person at conferences and other events. Meanwhile, go work on your pitch and take another look at your manuscript.
Now go write.