How can I possibly break this down to be a single post? The decision is part of a journey, and I can’t figure out how to yank out the reasons and present them out of context. I’m not a bullet-points kinda girl; I’m a novelist, for Heaven’s sake. So I’m hoping that if you’re interested enough to know the whys, the what I’ve been through, the what I’ve learned, that you’ll be willing to sit through the tale, backstory and all. I’ll provide you some headings if you want to skim and maybe someone could write up the bullet points for me later.
About 13 months ago, I released my first novel, Hush Money, independently. It’s a short, YA novel of about 50,000 words, the first in a planned series called the Talent Chronicles. The series is about people with supernatural abilities who are trying to hide what they are amidst governmental abuses of their kind, and yet they keep finding themselves in situations in which they have to embrace and be what they are in order to win the day.
Why Indie The First Time
The negativity on the internet surrounding traditional publishing had become so prevalent and so disheartening, that I had actually given up writing. Every article I read about why your query letter will suck, why you will never make it out of the slush pile, why your chances of being struck by lightning are better than your chances of ever selling your book were personally directed at me, and I took them to heart. That’s just how I am. I’m working on it. The point is that I became certain that Bill, sitting there on Capitol Hill, should stop his whining, because he had about a million times better chance of becoming a law than I did of becoming a published author.
Long story shorter, I decided that I needed to stop torturing myself and find other avenues for my creativity. I wrote for other purposes, I continued to do critique and editing, but I quit the novel-writing thing. When I started to learn about indie publishing, that’s when I got excited again. At the time I had had a successful run with an Etsy shop, but I got in over my head with a popular design and I was just burnt out. Everything I learned about indie publishing seemed so analogous to everything I loved about my Etsy business, and I became crazy eager to dive back into writing and catch up with my friends who were building audiences of readers.
Releasing the First Book and Living Indie
When I released Hush Money, I had no expectations. I mean, I didn’t know what to expect, so I tried very hard to keep my wishes and dreams in check. By the time the book was six months old it had sold 10,000 copies. People were writing to me to thank me for doing something that I loved. People were commenting on instructive articles I wrote and asking me for advice, like… Well, I don’t know if I’d ever in my life felt like I’d earned anyone’s respect before.
Living within that indie publishing community, I began to identify very strongly with being indie. There was certainly a component at the outset in which I would introduce myself as an “indie author” or “self-published author,” simply as a disclaimer. I’ll be clear up front about what I am so you don’t think I was trying to style myself as “published author” when I’m not publisher-vetted. Or whatever notion. I was happy to be indie, and proud of my accomplishments, of my work, and all I’d learned and done. But my view was still that others would see it as less, even though I, myself, came to a point where I truly didn’t. I was truly, deeply, passionately, devotedly indie.
It wasn’t all perfect. There’s a lot to keep up with. And there’s a lot I was keeping up with that I should have just let go so I could write more books. I got very caught up in being indie, and that was part of what was keeping me from writing. (Lots of stuff was going on that was keeping me from writing, and most all of it was me.) I’m not a multi-tasker. I focus passionately on one thing at a time and my focus was not on writing my book. Anyway, I don’t beat myself up for this. I watch it happen to other people, and I think it’s a phase a lot of us go through.
The Case of the Mysterious Foreign Agent
Also relevant to mention is an incident in which I had a foreign agent contact me about the translation rights to the book. This freaked me the f out, as anything legal does. I didn’t even know how to respond to the email I received, and I found next to nothing on the internet to help me. Which is rare. You know, usually you can find the answer to anything on the internet, and usually when you’re indie you don’t even have to go that far. You can just ask someone. So that was my next thing. I wrote to the two people I knew to be indie, with whom I had had some kind of brief contact in the past, and asked their advice. Both of them were unable to tell me what to do. Their agents handled that stuff. Their advice: get an agent.
But a) I didn’t have time to query an agent, so I just continued to freak out about the foreign thing. I ended up having to find an intellectual property attorney. Which means I had to TALK ON THE PHONE, which you know terrifies me, especially when I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. And then I went in and talked to a VERY nice man who was interested in my story, seemed genuinely excited to learn about my successes, gave me good advice on how to respond and how I might go on if anything came about, and sent me on my way with the suggestion that maybe I should really think about getting an agent.
Well b) as indies we’d been practically beaten over the head by others with the notion that no reputable agent would ever touch us. Kind of amazing how things have changed over the course of one year, but my impression was that most might just be insulted that I wasted their time with a query. I did spend some time researching agents, but I found practically none who stated that they had any interest in representing self-published authors. So I threw up my hands and walked away, very unsettled by the whole incident.
Jane came to me in the spring. In my inbox was a message with the subject Representation. I could not have been more blase about this. Seriously. Months after the foreign rights incident, after finding no help with that, after having given up on the notion of any agent ever coming to me (Kait Nolan had already accepted representation, as had indies well ahead of me like Amanda Hocking and HP Mallory and who knew who else), I was probably a little bitter and had set this firmly aside.
It didn’t take long for me to get excited about Jane’s offer to talk. And by “get excited” I mean “totally freak out and spin up into a whirl of dramarama,” because that’s what I do. I was in IM with Kait, had told her about the email. I think then I got up to get a drink or make a snack or something and she had to demand I open the email.
When I did, Jane was complimenting me on my Amazon success, mentioning her interest in the possibilities of electronic publishing, inviting me to call her to discuss print publication. She also mentioned that her agency represents Joe Konrath, of whom I may have heard. Um, yeah, just been hanging on his every word for the last year. So already there’s a certain amount of Wow-factor. I go to her website to look at the client list. James Dashner, Richelle Mead, Carrie Ryan…NYT bestseller this, NYT bestseller that…
Holy shit, why is this woman writing to me?
Talking to Jane spun me up to drama-level magenta. I was still working on Heroes ‘Til Curfew, deeply, hopelessly mired in Second Book Syndrome and absolutely consumed by doubt that I could produce a second book that wouldn’t disappoint. I was creatively paralyzed by fear, with a million brain-eating voices in my head, from every review of Hush Money I had ever read, every time I opened my file. Jane was offering to help me make the best book I could make. And when Heroes ‘Til Curfew was the best book I could make, she would take it and Hush Money and try to sell the rights to a traditional publisher.
In a way, Jane was an answer to prayers. I didn’t want to go unrepresented. I didn’t EVER want to go through again what I went through with the foreign rights thing. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but trying to seem like a grown-up professional and handle my own shit when I’m just a clueless kid (inside) who has no fucking idea what she’s doing or how to get the answers she needs to act how she’s supposed to act on the outside was very affecting to me. And as a writer who wants to make a living and help my family, I’d be a special kind of idiot not to jump to say yes to Jane.
Temptations Toward Trad
And yet I hesitated. What Jane was talking about was taking my two books and selling both the print and the ebook rights. While I could do something else on my own, the Talents would belong to someone else. I would no longer be free to do whatever I wanted with them. I might have restrictions on length, content, language, who knows. I might not be free to give stuff away when I wanted to. I would be giving up my carefully chosen cover art that was really working for me. I would be pulling Hush Money off the market and putting the building of my readership on hold for the next 1-3 years, while postponing the release of my already delayed second book for years.
Lots of stuff to consider. And on the other side of the coin: opportunity. Indies have done a lot on our own and will continue to do more. Opportunities will continue to open for us. But they’re not all there yet. One very real thing I had to consider was the possibility of a sizable advance. Konrath talks about not taking a contract unless the advance is “life changing money.” Well, it wouldn’t take a whole lot of money to change my life. That’s my reality. If I thumbed my nose at the opportunity to bring my family security, wouldn’t that just be plain wrong?
And look at all the stuff I could learn? Haven’t you wondered about all the stuff that goes on between the time a writer finishes the manuscript and the time it comes back as a bound book? Haven’t you ever wanted to be on the inside of that? And the possibilities for mentoring. I will always be a work in progress. I hope that I will always be a work in progress. My writing improved exponentially when I started getting critical feedback from peers at my own level. They pointed out weaknesses for me that I couldn’t see on my own. How much could my writing be improved with feedback from the kinds of professionals I’d be exposed to under contract? I know there have been a lot of negative things said about this, and I get that. But that’s not all of it, and I could choose to see the possibility as exciting.
Then the extras. Yes, it is possible that indies are making movie deals and I don’t know what else. But right now at this moment, cool stuff like that is a lot more likely (though perhaps still quite unlikely), with the backing of a traditional publisher. If those opportunities were possible for the Talents, I did want them to have that chance.
Paperback and Bookstore Relevancy
Finally, and most obviously, distribution. I mean, forget vetted validity. I believe that in the numbers game, that’s practically a non-issue. If a few people on the internet are still saying they won’t read a self-published book, if they’re actually checking for the publisher imprint to make sure they’re not getting indie when it looks like every other good book on the surface, I don’t think those people represent enough “lost readers” to get upset over. Non-issue. Distribution: still an issue. Right now, at this moment, paper books and book stores are still entirely relevant.
Yes, ebooks are becoming more and more popular, as are ereader devices, as has shopping online every day for the last 15 years. Big pluses for us indies, for sure. These are things which make it possible for us to succeed financially on our own.
But what I’m talking about here is another level. Kristen Lamb, social media expert for writers, tells us that writers are often marketing to the wrong crowd. We love fellow writers and other avid readers. Of course we want to sell our books to those people. But the books that break out and become the ones that “everybody’s reading” are the books that…everybody reads. That person who picks up just a few books a year. Each of that person who picks up a certain book because they keep hearing about it over and over again. And where do those people go to buy a book? Often it’s the bookstore. Even if they buy it online, they buy print. And a mass market paperback is probably going to be a more attractive price point than what you can do with POD.
(Note: In spite of the price of POD trade paperbacks, the point is that print is still relevant and it’s not expensive for authors. 1% of my sales are print. But if I’d only ever sold 5 copies, I still believe it would be worth it to have it out there to offer.)
Anyway, there are so many higher levels that seem at lot more likely with publisher backing, and I wanted that opportunity.
I finished Heroes ‘Til Curfew at the end of June, got a couple beta reads to make sure it made sense, and then I sent it off to Jane. After the holiday she was able to start reading it. Ironically, she had no editorial suggestions. She and her partner, Miriam, approved the book as written. So score one point for the side that says Susan’s self-doubt may be overblown. After getting in touch with some editors to check on their vacation schedules, the book was submitted to the first round of her picks toward the end of July.
I’ve no idea how Jane goes about deciding whom to contact first. That’s her job and I never asked. I figure it’s some combination of what imprint and what editor she thinks are the best match based on what they’ve put out before, her contacts and personal relationships in the industry, who might be in a position to give us the most both in terms of money but also marketing and distribution and stuff like that.
Waiting and Rejection
The waiting wasn’t difficult for the first maybe two weeks. And then I’ll admit that I started to get antsy. Finally I asked Jane how things were going and she sent me the few rejections she had received.
They were awesome! I really got a charge out of reading them. By now there’s something you understand about me: I’m not full of self-confidence. I will probably always be surprised to find that someone else enjoyed my work. I got responses in which editors at this big label imprints that publish all kinds of really awesome books tell Jane things about me and my work like “engaging and compulsively readable,” “great, commercial writing,” “able to completely suspend disbelief and become immersed.” And these from people who have read everything!
Still, what we kept hearing was that the concept was not quite original enough for them to get behind. There’s that thing we keep reading where we’re told that you can have a swell, well-written book that people might love to read. But you might not be able to sell it, and it may never see the light of day because NY might not find it marketable. That phenomenon? Yeah, I haz it.
Signing with Jane was hard. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Because I had spent the last year of my life so excited about independent publishing, and the last several months embracing it and enjoying my success. It had become part of my identity.
It took a lot of soul-searching to become open to traditional publishing again. But when I made that decision, I embraced that too. All the stuff I said about the opportunities it offers are things I believe, continue to believe. They’re things I wanted and continue to want.
But I missed being indie. I missed having a current book out there. Hush Money sales began to fall at the beginning of the summer. I know that lots of people have experienced a dry summer, but this book’s rank plummeted. Because it was time for that. It had been out for nearly a year with no sequel. I had put out a free short story, but that’s hardly the same as putting out a new novel 2-3 times a year which is what we tend to see when we talk about big number indies. With one book out, it was pretty much a miracle that I saw 20,000 sales for Hush Money before it was a year old.
I felt out place. I felt like I never knew what to say. I continued to have to stall on the question of a release date for the second book because I didn’t know if I’d be releasing that myself or breaking the news that I had sold it and the release would be further postponed. I was carrying a lot of guilt about that, even though some rational part of me knows that my readers are both supportive of me and what I need to do for my family, my career, and the series; as well as people with full lives who are not actually suffering from the delay.
But beyond the guilt, I began to recognize what I was feeling as longing. I longed to share this book. That’s why I wrote it. Friends kept asking, “Well, what do you really want?” And I couldn’t figure it out. It was a big mess of what I want, what I need, what I dream, what I think I can have, what I should want, what I should be doing—aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!
Why do I write? A hundred thousand reasons, intertwined with stunning complexity. But maybe, at the heart of it, because I have something share. And while I was tied up in submission and it had been over a month and there were still people we hadn’t heard from, and if it got sold and all kinds of stuff had to be done with it by a staff of people before it sat in queue waiting to be released for who knows how long–while all of that goes on, it’s not being shared. And I’m unhappy.
I Want It All, And I Want It Now
I wanted all the opportunities of traditional publication and I wanted the control and immediacy of going indie. And by this time, the dramarama has reached EPIC proportions. I’ve gone to Jane and I’ve dumped all this on her, told her maybe don’t want to go into the next round of submission with another handful of editors. I now get to be in the middle of the
epic guilt deathmatch of DOOM
as I contemplate that I can either
a) stay unhappy with what’s going on and what will probably be the result if I continue this path, ie, delaying the book for the current readers who say they’re waiting for it while we wait for a publisher to buy and then release it, or
b) be equally selfish by pulling the books from submission to release on my own, deny my family the potential for the security of an advance and career opportunities I might have with a publisher, and, AND, take Jane’s opportunity to earn a commission for this such that I have just asked my agent to work for me for free.
Oh awesome. Fuck. Me. Running.
YA novel, Gone, the third book in Lisa McMann’s Wake trilogy, talks about Morton’s Fork: a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives. Morton’s Fork, I haz it.
OMG, Susan, snap the hell out it. You call that a Morton’s Fork? Did you learn nothing from the reading? You have a choice between two potentials for AWESOME in your life. And YOU’re the one who makes it about guilt. NO ONE puts that on you except you. So get your head on straight and figure it out.
“What do you want?”
I want both.
And somewhere in the muddle of feeling like everything was so absolute, that times are what they are and I’m looking at two mutually exclusive things, I came across this little thread of sanity that I followed to an understanding.
I can have both.
I can’t have both right now.
Nothing is forever. This is not my one and only shot. Part of this was finally accepting that Jane does want to work with me. That she’s not going to up and abandon me because I’m difficult. Because she thinks I have potential. Maybe things will come up, like that foreign rights thing, as the series progresses. And maybe that won’t be anything big enough for her to get excited about, but she’s got a whole staff of people to deal with stuff and a whole bunch of money-making clients and me needing to do this right now is hardly putting her on the food stamp line. (Not all agents will be able to be this understanding.)
Meanwhile, I’m going to be working to come up with a new idea. Something that’s not the Talents. Something to do on the side. I will get better at this. I will get better at writing and better able to handle the other stuff, and I will be able to do that. And Jane is going to work with me on starting from a marketable concept. But I’ll still have the Talents for my own. I’ll still have control over that to see what I can make of them on my own. Because that’s interesting, and another kind of opportunity. And I’ll have this other thing that Jane can be more involved in, that will allow me to learn more of what she knows, and I can have another shot at this trad thing and learning all the things that those guys know.
And certainly, if anyone wanted to go to Jane with an offer at this point, I’d be willing to hear it. I’m not closing this door because I want it closed. Right now I just really want to share this book so that I move on to other things. Jane just got John Locke a print deal where he keeps his erights. I’m no John Locke but things are changing and maybe something like that will open up for me someday with the Talents.
The Possibility of Failure
The possibility of seeming like an epic failure here is two-fold.
It is no small thing for me to be worried that a lot of people are going to see it as me having failed in NY and crawling back to indie. I don’t see it that way. A) Indie is not something you crawl back to. It’s a choice with its own awesomeness that I’m embracing after a lot of soul-searching. B) Yeah, I got a few rejections, but every one I read said positive things about my books, about the quality of my work. I got no indication that I suck. What I understand is that I do NY quality work, but that the concept is “too familiar” and therefore not marketable enough for any of these editors to take on. And while that’s surprising (I have no proper word for the amount of surprising) to me, it’s okay. I truly believe that Jane would have found a buyer for this, both because I believe in the series and because I believe that Jane is a BAMF of an agent who would not stop until she found the right editor.
The second possibility is that I sold over 20,000 copies of Hush Money merely because it was 99cents, most of those people didn’t read it, a lot of the people who gushed about it are over it now and will not rush to buy the second book. At $2.99 it might not make the charts to get the visibility it needs to really sell. Heroes ‘Til Curfew is a different kind of book from Hush Money. I have no doubt that some readers will embrace what it is, while I also know as a certainty that there will be people who won’t like it. And who will tell their friends and strangers how very much they don’t like it..
I doubt there are many people who don’t experience performance anxiety over a release. I’m trying not to make this too important. I’m trying not to attach to the numbers. I will try not to watch them. And I will try very, very hard not to put even more pressure on myself for things I can’t control in some effort to convince myself that I haven’t just made a horrible decision.
And yes, I’m not even close to being so big a person that I don’t want this book and this series to sell like MAD to prove that it was marketable. As an indie I want to be able to point to it and say “Look, here’s a series that was rejected in NY and look what’s done. So don’t give up.”
But as an author, ever so slightly, politely, complimentarily scorned, I would not mind hearing “I wish I had grabbed the opportunity to buy this when it was offered, would you consider…?”
As I come to the end of this epic post, I realize that this still isn’t everything I’ve learned. How is that possible? If you read all the way through, bless you. I hope you got something out of my long-winded share-a-thon of spew. I, of course, feel better for having written a story and shared it with you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some publishing to do.