Let me start with a disclaimer: this is not a screed against traditional publishing. Yes, those are trendy and you’ll find lots of them out there, but this is not one. Life has taught me that when something sustains as long as traditional publishing has, it’s because it remains, however confounded and confused, a vital player in the scheme of things. I’d say that’s the case with the Big 5.
This is, instead, a few of my cobbled thoughts on the topic of why one might choose otherwise; why one might self-publish, or hybrid publish, or publish outside the realm of that iconic process of securing an agent who’ll, hopefully, wrangle a publishing deal, that will, hopefully, vaunt you into the stratosphere of big awards and New York Times bestseller lists. As much as one might dream of that starry-eyed path to literary greatness, there are myriad reasons why one might choose another turn. And very few have to do with not being good enough.
As someone who’s been involved in a variety of creative mediums throughout my career, the concept of stepping front and center to be judged toward some artistic goal is not a foreign one. Which is a convoluted way of saying, “I’m well-versed on the audition/rejection process,” which seems to apply to pretty much every step of life.
From birth on, in fact, we’re immersed in the act of striving for something: the cookie, the pat on the head, good grades, parental/teacher/coach approval, attention of boys/girls, that job we want, the lead in the play, first prize, the record deal, a deserved raise, and so on.
An actor? You submit your picture and resume; if you’re lucky, you book an audition. If that goes well, there’s a callback. If your luck holds, you go to the director, producer, network; whatever, and, usually, within a relatively short period of time, you know whether you’re in or out. Jobs, much the same timeframe. Record deals, boyfriends/girlfriends; that raise? All of these typically come to some recognizable fruition quickly enough to either celebrate tout suite, or launch your grieving process before the next snow.
If you’re an author? Not so much. The audition process toward getting traditionally published is far less linear, less step-by-step; less clear and more circuitous. It’s based less on talent and more on market trends; less on who deserves what and more on who knows whom. Less on right time and more on ‘how much time have you got?’ (a friend recently told me she’d just gotten a rejection from an agent she’d queried over a year ago!). Some of the words I’ve heard writers use to describe the process include: Time consuming, dismissive; rude. Arcane, confusing; contradictory. Exclusionary. Limited. Elitist. Devastating, elusive… impossible. And that’s just one Facebook writers group.
I’m sure there’s another, much jollier list of adjectives for those who actually make it through; who crack the code, score the agent, get the publishing deal. But this is about the other 96%, whose audition process might look something like this:
- Write, rewrite; polish, re-polish the book and/or book proposal.
- Spend oodles of time (and money, if inclined to take classes, seminars, webinars, tutorials) fine-tuning the notorious query letter with the goal of meeting the arcane and specific demands of the literary agent world (which, most authors discover, will require several different versions of said letter).
- Diligently research which agents are open to unsolicited queries in your particular genre and note how they like to be approached.
- At this point, you should have your Excel spreadsheet out, organizing all the info you’ve gleaned into appropriate rows and columns (you do not want to double submit, for God’s sake, or query your novel to someone who won’t read fiction, or make the mistake of “checking back” if their site says “we only respond if we’re interested”).
- Once organized, put together impeccable packages with that perfect query letter and whatever else each specific agent prefers; then judiciously send them off in whatever amounts, order, and time increments you see fit.
- There. Done.
- Then you wait.
- And wait.
The seasons turn. You celebrate a birthday. Your sister gets married. The people next door move out. You lose the Oscar pool. Somehow you gain five pounds. You finish your non-fiction piece on elder care. You wait.
Then, oh happy day, you hear back! From some. Only some. Most are quickie email responses: “I’m not the right agent for you.” Some are scribbled notes on your snail-mail queries…same basic message. Others get more detailed: “Although it’s an interesting premise, I didn’t connect with the story the way I’d hoped.” They might give you some info as to why they didn’t connect or why they’re not right for you (usually not), but whatever you do, don’t write back and ask; they won’t tell you. Other than to tell you they’re too busy to tell you.
But, if you’re lucky, you garner a few requests for more (more pages, chapters, the manuscript). You’re excited to take that next step, thrilled that your sample grabbed them, your “premise was intriguing,” or your title “caught my eye,” and you send it all off, wishin’, hopin’, thinkin’ and prayin’…and then you wait. And wait.
Your parents take that cruise to Greece. You finally learn how to use Illustrator. More of the Arctic Shelf melts. You attempt making baklava. Your brother quits school to join a band. You start working out again. Your boyfriend gives you a cordless vacuum for Valentine’s Day. You wait.
Then you either hear back on the requested material or you don’t. If you do, you get something like, “I didn’t fall for the writing as much as I’d hoped.” Or, “Given the competitive marketplace, I need to love a project more than I loved this one.” Or, “You’re a white author writing black/Muslim/Hispanic/Asian characters and fear of cultural appropriation is too impacted a conversation right now.” Or… well, suffice it to say, rejection comes in a never-ending spectrum of hues and shades.
And then you…
You what? You’ve done your work, learned your craft, spent years honing it to a spit-shine by writing articles, blogs, short stories, screenplays, poems, etc. You’ve gained the expertise to know how to build a compelling narrative, construct a propulsive story arc, and conjure characters that jump off the page. Your dialogue is spot-on, you can make ‘em laugh and cry; your themes are resonating, universal yet unique, and those who’ve read your work are moved. Your book is loved (certainly by you), and it deserves life.
But after years of auditioning without finding the agent who is “right” enough to want you, your options are limited: traditional publishers aren’t welcoming to new writers who don’t have one of those. So what do you do now?
You shelve it. You write something else and try again. You set a bonfire in the backyard and burn your manuscript. You declare you’re done writing. You take up quilting, join a choir; finally paint the bathroom.
YOU DIY. You self-publish. You submit to respected hybrid publishers. You reach out to small presses that don’t require agents. You grab your destiny by the collar, drag it up on stage, flick on the lights, and make that sucker dance.
Like indie filmmakers, indie musicians; indie theater companies; freelance photographers, painters, potters, and mimes (yes, I do know some indie mimes), you take matters into your own hands, gatekeepers be damned.
You apply the same diligence to researching the art and craft of doing it differently, of doing it yourself, as you did researching agents. You suss out the pros and cons, talk with authors who’ve done it and have worthy experiences to share; you read everything you can on self-publishing. You zero in on the hybrid, small press, university publishers open to indie authors. You access professional book builders—content editors, copyeditors; formatters, proofers, cover designers—and you build the book you loved writing into the book you will love selling. One that reads, looks, and feels exactly as it should, with the edit, title, cover, and marketing plan you dreamed up and will launch with the help of skilled collaborators. A book that will sit comfortably next to any traditionally published book on any bookshelf anywhere in the world.
You stop auditioning and give yourself the job: published author.
And don’t let anyone tell you self-publishing is a consolation prize. It might be for some, but there are countless reasons why authors self-publish. Some, yes, see it as their only option. Others never even consider the “traditional publishing audition gauntlet.” A few straddle both worlds, bouncing back and forth, depending on the book, the available opportunities, or the experience they want to have.
Me? After a year spent querying my first book, I stopped auditioning and gave myself the job. My second: no “auditions” at all; went right for the stage. Both experiences have been a wild ride of hard work, empowerment, and tremendous satisfaction, but after finishing my third novel at the end of 2016, I decided to set out, once again, on the traditional route. Bluntly, I wanted the experience; it was one I hadn’t had. But after another year of querying, and with time spent at writers’ conferences meeting with and listening to agents, publishers, and writers working on both sides of the publishing divide (one that is more disparate than I even imagined), it came down to this for me:
I want to write the books I’m inspired to write without limitation, without fear, without focus on “what’s trending in the marketplace” or what “impacted conversations” may dissuade others from inviting me in. I want to work with courageous, innovative people who look to nurture and develop good writers, who are willing to take chances, push against resistance, and advance compelling ideas and forward-thinking mission statements. I could either continue on my own, with like-minded collaborators helping me get it done, or, this go-around, I had the option to work with a hybrid publisher who met my criteria and welcomed me in the door. I’m lucky to have that choice: my next book, THE ALCHEMY OF NOISE, will be published by She Writes Press in early 2019, and I’m thrilled to have Brooke Warner and her team in my corner. That, too, will be a new experience.
But which ever way each of our roads turn, however we get to where we’re going, how lovely is it that we do have choices? Auditioning may be a valid option for some; that long, arduous process will likely always have a place in the publishing industry, and I wish well to anyone taking that particular path.
Luckily for us indies, it’s no longer the only path that gets us there.
“The Stage” by Laura Wielo on Unsplash
“You Are Here” by John Baker on Unsplash
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.