Three years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be writing this post. This is a long story. Click here for the tl;dr.
First book, first agent
In 2010, I finished my first “real” book, a zombie thriller. It was a blend of literary and genre fiction featuring both teen-something and 30-something characters, which put it firmly into Demographic Neverland, AKA We Don’t Know How the Fuck To Market It. But Zombie Thriller landed me an agent, and in my absurd optimism, I thought, Thank god, the hard part is over.
As anyone who’s been lucky enough to land an agent knows, I was laughably wrong.
Over the next year, against all good advice, I bit my fingernails and spam-refreshed my inbox while my agent sent Zombie Thriller out on submission. The replies trickled in after long, grueling months: “Love the writing, but zombies are over.” One editor wanted to acquire it, but her house had recently acquired another zombie novel, and apparently the limit was one zombie novel per annum.
Meanwhile, I watched The Walking Dead (zombies!) and Game of Thrones (ICE ZOMBIES!) and played Dead Island (zombies in the tropics!) and read about the upcoming Warm Bodies and World War Z movies and Courtney Summers’s zombie novel This Is Not a Test and the highly anticipated games Resident Evil 6 and The Last of Us and thought, Yeah, you guys are right. Zombies are totally over. What was I thinking?
It was the first serious inkling I had that the publishing industry was out of touch with reality.
Second book & Jodi Reamer
My agent and I parted ways, and I wrote Book #2: a YA sci-fi thriller about a physically disabled half-cyborg girl trying to stop the serial killer stalking her spaceship. I began querying again. YA SF Thriller got me lots of requests, fast. Suddenly, A-list agents were asking for fulls. I was floored. Maybe it’ll actually happen this time, I thought. Perhaps zombies were dead (har har), but YA SF? That was still alive and kicking. And on fire.
Out of morbid curiosity, I queried the Holy Grail of YA agents, Jodi Reamer. You may not have heard of Ms. Reamer, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of her clients: Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), John Green (The Fault In Our Stars), et al. I had no illusions about my chances: no way was THE top YA agent going to give me the time of day. I made a $5 bet with a friend that I’d get a form rejection.
Instead, I got a full request two days after querying, and I was out five bucks.
Shocked and giddy, but still in disbelief, I sent my manuscript to Jodi’s assistant, Alec. From the very start, Alec clicked with my writing. He was smart, witty, insightful, and provided me with insane amounts of editorial feedback, for which I will eternally be grateful. Getting to work with him gave me a good taste of what it’s like working with a professional editor.
A couple days after sending him the full manuscript, he wrote back. Blah blah blah not something that Jodi would represent at this time… My brain could only focus on the word “not.” Rejection. Heartbreak. Jodi didn’t want it. I’d told myself not to get my hopes up, but I don’t have fine motor control over my heart. I skimmed the email while forwarding it to a friend, and she immediately wrote back: “RE-READ IT. HE’S OFFERING YOU AN R&R.”
I re-read it. She was right. He wanted me to revise and resubmit.
Over the next ten (10!) months, I revised YA SF Thriller until that sucker shone like a supernova. The whole time I kept thinking, Oh my god. Jodi effing Reamer. The percentage of queriers who get a full request from Jodi is vanishingly small. And to then be offered an R&R, instead of rejection—it was an honor for me to even get that far. I was delirious with gratitude and can-do optimism. There’s such a sense of validation when you get to that point. Maybe I wouldn’t make it to the winner’s circle, but someone—a renowned, successful someone—thought I might.
An R&R basically means, “I see a lot of promise in this, but I want to see some changes before I commit.” It’s sort of an engagement period. The agent and the manuscript like each other. They can envision a future together. But the manuscript needs to lose some weight and get into shape first.
After ten months and two major revisions, Jodi said no. She just didn’t love it enough to commit. The engagement was over. No honeymoon. No Happily Ever After.
I was crushed. What else can you feel in that moment? I got closer than I’d ever dreamed, I was right at the golden door and someone had started to open it and warm light spilled from inside and the hallelujah chorus fired up and then BAM, the door slammed in my face and I tumbled backward, sprawling flat my on ass in the freezing cold street, like some tuberculosis-stricken urchin out of Dickens. And all I could think, in a piteous faux Cockney accent, was, Please, sir, it’s Christmas…
The decision to self-publish
After a major disappointment, it’s natural to do some soul-searching. I’d tried the traditional route, and despite getting tantalizingly, almost cruelly close, it just wasn’t happening. Everyone had nice things to say about my writing. Almost every agent who requested the manuscript said, “Please send me your future work if you don’t find representation for this.” Well, thanks, but…what am I doing wrong? How can I improve? Why didn’t this work for you?
self-pity depression lifted, I realized it wasn’t the quality of my writing—I’d simply written books that weren’t right for the current market, according to industry professionals.
But maybe they were wrong. Publishing is a slow, antiquated machine. When a novel is acquired by a major publisher, it often takes at least two years until the book actually comes out. Those publishers weren’t thinking it was wrong for the current market—they thought it was wrong for the future market.
And what would I get after 2+ years of waiting? A low advance (if any) and a shitty royalty rate, because I’d be yet another small fish in a big pond. And that major publisher would’ve left me to my own devices, expecting me to do my own marketing and promotion. So what were they offering, besides the veneer of legitimacy that comes with being published by a “real” publisher? A nice cover and professional editing?
But hey now—I’m a graphic designer. It’s what I did for a living before The Recession. If I self-published, I could do my own cover, website, ebook formatting, and other design-related junk.
And hey, I have some Awesome Writer Friends who are agented and have book deals and are willing to do whatever they can to help, including giving me professional-grade editorial feedback. And I have plenty of awesome beta readers, too.
So what, exactly, could a big publisher offer me that I couldn’t do myself or with the help of my friends? Aside from an absurd check full of way too many commas and zeroes, obviously?
Answer: a big fat nothing.
Third time’s the charm?
So, I tried my best to go the traditional route. I did everything you’re supposed to do: a lifetime of voracious reading, hundreds of thousands of words of writing practice, beta readers, ruthless editing, polishing the hell out of my manuscripts and queries. I landed an agent and my first book didn’t sell. My second book attracted the attention of A-list agents, but ultimately didn’t secure rep. All of this left me with a pile of nice compliments stapled to rejections and an overwhelming sense that I’m just not writing the “right” books, whatever those are supposed to be.
Maybe it’s time to face the fact that the publishing industry doesn’t know what the “right” books are, either. Publishers rarely take risks on new talent anymore. The midlist is vanishing. New authors often have to prove themselves in the self-publishing arena first. Big publishers wait for indies to strike oil, then snap them up. Atria: Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover, Katja Millay. Berkley: Sylvain Reynard. Simon Pulse: Abbi Glines. Simon & Schuster: Hugh Howey. Vintage nabbed the infamous cashcow E.L. James. These are just the ones I know off the top of my head.
I’m tired of trying to break into an industry that’s so hostile to unproven authors. This summer I wrote Book #3, a New Adult Romance. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for a long time, one I thought (probably correctly) would never see the light of day with a traditional publisher: very taboo, very morally gray. It’s graphic and unflinching and perhaps painfully earnest. I let all my inhibitions drop while I wrote it (with the help of some Knob Creek), and it was an incredibly liberating experience—writing whatever the hell I want, publishing it however the hell I want. Yee-fucking-haw. It’s like the Wild West out here in Self-publandia.
The awesome part? I don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. I have total responsibility, but I also have total control.
The hardest thing to let go of is the dream I had as a little girl about seeing my book in a bookstore. It probably won’t happen now—the bookstores will all close first. But that’s okay. I played out the bookstore fantasy in my head. The movie deal fantasy, too. They’re nice. But the real goal was getting my writing out into the world, letting people read and enjoy it. Hearing that they clicked with it the same way Alec did. And that’s already happening as I send Book #3, Unteachable, out to reviewers.
All I really wanted was to write and be read. Mission fucking accomplished. Everything else is gravy.