Sunday, October 23, 2011

Five Reasons I Still Believe in Traditional Publishing

"That is one heavy bag of wishes you've got there!"
Nowadays, when it comes to getting your novel traditionally published, most writers believe it holds about as much merit as believing in Santa Claus. When we first start out, we dream of that instant success. We envision agents fawning over our manuscript, quickly signing us, even quicker yet getting us a publisher, the huge advance and, of course, that book tour we're going to take that goes from New York City all the way to the star-studded mania of Hollywood. But then we grow up. The shininess of this wonderland quickly fades into a swift-kick-in-the-pants reality. There is no shiny wrapped present under our tree, containing our fantastic masterpiece. This getting an agent thing is harder than we thought!

And so it should be.

Honing your craft as a writer is no easy task, to which just about any serious writer can attest. Sure, we write those first few crappy stories and we think they're brilliant, but then we do the one thing we were unprepared to do. We start querying agents. And we get rejection after rejection after rejection. Now, I'll admit, most agents give very little feedback anymore, which is a bit disheartening. And because so many first time novelists are either a) too scared to put their work out there for others to read, or b) so frustrated with the persistent rejections, they tend to turn to self-publishing in the e-book format.

I've stated before in previous posts that I have nothing against the wonderful world of e-books. I do, however, take issue with what's flooding the self-published e-market. If anything, a lot of what's out there is taking the writing world down a few pegs. Thus, why I still believe in traditional publishing. Yeah, you know -- the kind where an agent, editor, and publisher are involved. Here are five good things that come out of having an agent and being persistent when it comes to getting traditionally published:

  1. Agents work as filters -- For a long time, I couldn't figure out what was really bothering me about self-published works, but then I attended a writers' meeting where the speaker spoke on how agents function. They are the filter to a seemingly endless line of aspiring work. We may not all agree on what constitutes good literature, but we can all agree that when we've read a satisfying novel we are happy to see it was published. True, some junk still gets out there when it's run through agents and publishers, but it was never so prevalent ten or fifteen years ago as it is today.
  2. We are not all business men and women -- I cannot tell you how many blogs and websites I've read about those who took the self-pub route and just ended up frustrated. These authors came to realize that, although they may be good writers, they confessed that they knew nothing about balancing finances, keeping track of sales, promoting their book at every turn, etc. In one blog I read, the author confessed to so many sleepless nights over whether the book was selling or not that she became physically sick. Sure, we do have to handle much of the promotion responsibility now, but wouldn't it be nice to have someone extending a helping hand whenever you needed one?
  3. Agents are contractually bound to root for you -- You get your own personal cheerleader, otherwise, the agent would never have taken you on in the first place. The self-pub route can be lonely. You (and usually your husband or wife) end up being the cheerleader for your team. Your agent wants your work to sell, so he/she will be pushing, pushing, pushing to get it out on the market. Encouragement always helps.
  4. Other writers tend to take you more seriously -- Because the self-pub industry has become so flooded (and many of us have read some of those new "authors"), there's a certain kind of stigma that goes along with it. I've seen those looks some self-published authors get and I find it hard to take. And I'm just the bystander! The writing market is like any other entertainment market. We'd be hard-pressed to buy a low-quality rock album cut in someone's garage with horrible acoustics, and yet, self-published authors of all genres think their work should be taken seriously even if the work is filled with glaring errors. Until the self-publishing industry learns how to turn a filter on again, unfortunately, this stigma will always be there.
  5. Deadlines make it feel like a true profession -- When we self-publish, we have no real deadlines. We make them up as we go along. A real agent or publishing house is going to set limits on our time. They will want things when they want them, and that means our butt is going to be in that chair each day pounding out a manuscript. If, as writers, we want our careers to be taken seriously, then we need to treat them as such.
Like many of you out there, I've struggled with getting my work published. It's no easy task. The thought to self-publish has crossed my mind, but every time I feel there is something holding me back from doing so. And I think that "something" relates back to the five things I mentioned above. I want to be taken seriously, not just by an agent or publisher, but also by my peers and the writing community at large. Personally, I don't believe self-publishing is what it's all trumped up to be by the hard-core believers. If it was, then why do so many self-pubbed authors still crave traditional representation? Because one of these five points causes this craving. The luster might wear away the more "grown-up" we become with our writing, but there still remains a wish. And don't all of us want our wishes to come true?

Some basic light literature all would-be authors need in in his/her arsenal:

I'm asking for it! Give me your feedback when it comes to self-publishing and the e-book market. Do you still believe in traditional publishing? Why or why not? Would you add any useful points to my list?


  1. I find it so difficult to read books on-line (and I have done it in the past which is no mean prowess) that e-book publishing appears as some onerous and ominous task. But e-book publishing, whether is agented or not, is The Future. Soon, real books (to my eternal chagrin) will be relics you may find in antique stores. However, your post Sister Marriah is about self-publishing which could be done on line or in what my day was known as Vanity Presses.
    The reasons I believe in traditional publishing are
    a) I would like to spend as little money as possible in publishing. Although, I am willing to pay an agent that will believe in my work, I wouldn’t waste a penny in some narcissistic urge to see my manuscript enclosed between hard covers.
    b) I am willing to self-promote myself to some point, but I would like a professional to be in charge of my book´s marketing.
    c) As Sister Mariah says, I would like to be taken seriously by the writing community.

    About agents-as-filters part, I hadn’t realized how many people in this world want to publish, how many people can’t write for their lives and yet want to become published authors…and how many actually do!

  2. I don't really know much about self-publishing, but I agree with all of the benefits you listed about the traditional route.

  3. I think managing one's career as a writer is a soul-wrenching process and that what works for one does not work for all across the board.

    Never say never, but I will never self-publish. I am a writer-- not a marketer, not a PR person, not anything, really, but a wordsmith who craves the structure of an editorial team and who sees the realization of such within reach. This is just one person's ideas on the path that 'rings true' for her.

    We're all different. We all have different strengths, different aims, different levels of willingness and ability for different tasks and, in the end, different destinies.

    A timely post, M&M.

  4. I don't know if I *believe* in traditional publishing, as there appear to be some massive flaws in the industry ... including more and more work being shoved off onto the writer -- work that used to be part of the publisher's end of the deal, such as editing and promoting the work. This is now, increasingly, something writers are expected to pay for out of their own pocket, outside the agent and publishing house. That seems kind of messed up to me, and is one reason why writers might be abandoning ship. I hope those writers who are turning away from the trad route put some pressure on agents and publishing houses to do what they used to do.

    That said, I doubt I will be one of those writers, for all the reasons given. Not only that, but it's my impression once you self-publish, you can kiss goodbye your chances of ever getting an agent. It's kind of a black mark on your record. I don't know if that impression is true?

    Violante, I don't like reading long stretches of text on the computer, either. But the Kindle is very similar to reading a book, for me. I buy both e-books and paper books and happily go back and forth between them. The books I buy for Kindle are not self-published ... they are all mainstream-published books.

    I haven't read any self-published books, so I don't know how terrible they are, but I'll take your word on it, everyone! I don't even read the freebies on Kindle because the few I've downloaded have been uniformly horrifying. I'm really picky about what I read and rarely pick up a book anymore unless it's been well-reviewed by NPR or the NY Times, won an award, or gotten at least 4 stars on average from readers on Goodreads.

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  6. Thanks for the great food for thought! You bring up issues I hadn't yet thought about (like #3).

    I am also not inclined to go the self-publishing route. But, like Suze, I also think that what is right for one writer might not be right for another.

    Stephanie's impression that "once you self-publish, you can kiss goodbye your chances of ever getting an agent" makes me think of the "urban literature" writers whose runaway success as self-published authors landed them publishing deals. But I don't know if perhaps that genre is the exception to the rule. Does anyone else know?

  7. All I have to do is look at the piles of six self published books in an acquaintance's garage to dissuade me from following suit. His 'publisher' has also formatted them as ebooks- they are listed by Amazon. Last time I saw him, he was happy with his latest 15 dollar quarterly check.
    On a different subject: this may be old hat to most of you. I have learned more about writing fiction from these two sources than a dozen writer's conferences. Regis
    1/ In depth discussions with important writers of the last fifty years. Script, no voice.
    2/ www.wired for Oral interviews (no pix) with several hundred writers up to about 1995. MP3 is the most convenient
    I try to listen to or read one every day. Judy Blume's first interview would definitely be a good place to start for the class of writers who I suspect read this great blog.

  8. I lean toward traditional publishing too, BUT I'll say this:

    1. It's true that there is stigma associated with self-publishing, but there's also stigma that follows traditionally-published authors of certain genres such as romance and erotica (particularly among writers of more "literary" work.)

    2. Someone mentioned earlier that the industry is changing as-we-speak, so if print becomes somewhat obsolete, why would a writer need an agent or a publisher when he/she can e-publish on Amazon at no cost? Wouldn't it be more efficient (and faster) for the writer to simply hire a freelance editor and a publicist?

    3. If a writer has a well-written product, but agents or publishers don't want to take the risk on it because the work is too different, wouldn't it be better that the writer e-publishes that never publishes at all? Think about "Rich Dad Poor Dad" or "The Celestine Prophecy" and more recently, Amanda Hocking. We could even go back to DeWitt Wallace who initially published Reader's Digest by himself and sent it to readers through direct mail.

    I don't think self-publishing is for everyone. I think it takes someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. Someone who realizes that in order to sell a product, it must be in optimum shape and for that he must at least spend money hiring an excellent editor, a graphic designer for the cover and turn himself into a traveling salesman. The problem is that not every writer who self-publishes has a business mind, which I think is essential. A book is a product, a business. And not everyone can run a business.

    PS. Thanks for the links, Regis.

  9. Violante -- Yes, ebooks are the wave of "The Future," but I have a hard time believing that regular books will fall by the wayside and be no more. Like you said, there are many people who just can't read material in that format. As to how many people who are publishing on their own, the market has become flooded with these "debut" authors because the ebook is so easy and cheap to do without anyone holding them responsible. I'll touch upon this when I get to Sister Steph's comments.

    As Suze and Lorena so aptly stated, everyone has a choice as to what they believe is the right fit for his/her writing. I believe that as well. My only problem is that today so many immediately go to self-publishing because they don't want to endure the trials of rejection. But we need that as writers. Rejection only makes a writer stronger and it separates the chaff from the wheat. Every profession has something that weeds out those who shouldn't continue on. Look at all the standardized testing for undergraduate and graduate programs. If you can't hack them, then perhaps you should be looking elsewhere for a career. So, if you can't hack a little rejection and critiquing, then should you ultimately be a writer?

    Raquel -- I've heard a lot about kissing your career goodbye if you are self-published. One agent stood before a roomful of aspiring writers at a conference and said never mention in a query if you have self-published a book. No agent will take you, because if your book never sold, then they don't want to mess with an unsaleable author. It's not an urban legend.

    Stephanie -- I will agree with you 100% that the traditional writing world is messed up. Ever since I got into this business this has been the one thorn in my side. It comes down to two things -- who you know and the luck of the draw. Writing is so subjective that you basically have to have connections (or win the lottery) to get an agent to glance at your work. Most agents will openly admit that they don't even read the queries -- their assistants do. Something about this is so messed up. So, then, as a debut novelist, how do you get noticed? You stated that you don't buy anything except what has received high praise and awards. But what about the little guy who can't get an agent to look at his work? Does that automatically make it junk? Well, no. Look at the examples Lorena cited. The problem with self-publishing in the ebook market is the good gets lost among the junk, it's so flooded with "would-be" authors. There is no filter, and I really think there should be.

    Regis -- Thanks for the links! That's such a disheartening story to hear about your friend. It's such a tough market and just putting a book out there doesn't mean anyone is going to read it. I have a question for you, though. In an earlier post you stated you would maybe take the self-publishing route. Have you changed your mind?

  10. 'My only problem is that today so many immediately go to self-publishing because they don't want to endure the trials of rejection. But we need that as writers.'

    I scoff at the word rejection but I embrace, fully, what you have said here, M&M. Those trials beat us up and soften us in the middle and strip us and then make us stronger. Process. Due process.

    Incidentally, I answered your comment over at my place more than once. Mulled over your words quite a bit, yesterday. Thank you.

  11. Incidentally, the 'stigma' of self-publishing will lift, I think. We're in the midst of an evolution akin to the advent of the press and I, for one, hail the process. There are good things and bad things about every route toward publication and I wouldn't demonize any of them, full stop. As in all things, the work stands or falls by its inherent quality.

    Nickel's worth of a couple pennies.

  12. On the topic of e-books vs. self-published: every e-book I own is also available on paper. None are self-published. I don't think the popularity of the e-book is a reflection of the end of the publishing industry as much as it's a difference in medium. The same services publishers and agents (theoretically) provide with paper books -- editing & publicity -- are necessary for e-books. If traditional publishing stops providing those, then writers will be more inclined to bypass that route and do it themselves, no matter what format their book is in.

    "But what about the little guy who can't get an agent to look at his work?" Mary Mary, that is a problem. I don't know how that little guy can become known. Even if he self-publishes, he still has to find an audience. I wonder how many readers have the time, energy, and inclination to browse through unknown and unvetted works in hopes of finding a new and remarkable voice. I guess I hold to the idea that if our hypothetical writer is really that talented, someone is going to pick him up eventually ... do you/we think there are really great writers having their fantastic books constantly rejected? Or are most rejected writers ... rejected for a reason? I'd love to see the original manuscripts of Harry Potter, the ones that were initially rejected. Did she improve dramatically with each iteration? I don't really have a feel for how this industry works -- how it *really* works. I hear a lot of rumor, and a lot of frustration.

    You know what's interesting, and ties into this, is the kerfuffle about the National Book Award, and how it's given out to "the best book nobody's reading." Apparently the panel is picking more and more totally obscure books, to the point where people wonder if the prize has become irrelevant. It's not about the best book overall, but about finding and promoting an unknown author. Is that a good thing? It certainly helps that little guy you mentioned! Not sure if it helps us readers, though. About every other one of those books is nearly unreadable, I find. Too precious, too I'm-trying-really-hard-to-impress. Here's where I turn to Goodreads ... the reviews are done by regular people seeking story, not academics in love with wordplay. (That's why applying several sets of criteria is handy in winnowing down my picks.)

    Oooh, I am rambling.

  13. To Sister Stephanie, until I get a hold of a Kindle, let me be a Doubting Thomas. Can you take a Kindle to the Jacuzzi with you? Can you drop it from he second floor and recover it unscathed? Can you place it under your pillow, like children do with fairy tales? Books have an aroma of their own.

    You are absolutely right about the “laziness” of the industry. But it reminds me of the medical industry. In the 90’s, in USA I saw a shift, people went for alternative methods shunning traditional medicine. I hoped physicians would wake up and smell the coffee. They never did. Why would the publishing industry be any different?

  14. I'm so happy I don't have to choose between paper books and Kindle books! I have both. :) I love paper books for the reasons you mention and just bought a couple at B&N. I also like flipping back and forth quickly between pages -- more diifficult on an e-book.

    But I can't tuck 50 novels into my purse and take them with me wherever I go. A huge tome like War & Peace suddenly becomes so much easier to read, since it only weighs as much as the Kindle. Shelf space is a big issue; we've maxed ours out and for every new paper book I get, I have to let go of another book I own, which can be a sad decision to make. In paper books, I can't click on a word and get the definition of it instantly. I can't have all my highlighted phrases and notes in one file. I can't search every book in my paper-book library for one phrase. It's not either-or for me, thank goodness.

    BTW, you can take a Kindle in the tub with you if you put it in a Ziploc bag. Have not tried this myself. Someone said she does it all the time -- I'll take her word on it. :) I wouldn't recommend dropping it 2 flights, though -- you've got me there. ;-)

    Alternative medicine: interesting analogy. I suppose service providers go where the money goes, so if an industry is making money, there's not much incentive to change. Medicine is pretty lucrative and resistant, somewhat, to economic fluctuations; I wonder if the same can be said of traditional publishing. I have seen doctors (at least in the US) trying to fill in that gap, somewhat, by being cuddlier. A lot of what people like about alt. med is the attention providers will pay to them -- a warm hand and listening ear. Actual MDs are, of course, bound by the Hippocratic oath, so there's only so much they can do.

  15. Mm, space could be a good point for moving into Kindle. My library is pushing me out of my apartment.

  16. My, my, you ladies are all abuzz! But it's great! I think self-publishing is something the industry needs to take a hard look at. It's not going anywhere, but what can be done to make it more conducive to the author's needs? I'm not really sure. Steph, one reason all the new ebooks get lost in the fray is because just about every traditionally published book is now in ebook form. So, we have a market that the "little guy" was using and hoping to make some headway, but then the "big guy" sees he can make more money if he jumps into the mix as well. The top ten downloads each week are consistently the likes of known names such as Nora Roberts and John Grisham. Does this mean that the ebook market needs to be revolutionized so everyone has a fair chance? Again, I don't know how that would be done.

    On the Kindle topic: I have a Kindle. It's good for some things, but honestly, I would choose a physical book over the digital one any day. There's just something about the Kindle that makes reading feel so sterile!

    There we go! Back to the doctor analogy!

  17. Mary Mary---Regis here. (Blogspot refuses to accept my URL because it has an 'illegal character'. All the other sites accept it, so I'll stay anonymous.
    Re: my publishing plans. Several factors, my age, the length (300k words), no second book ready, and being a 'coming of age' novel make it less attractive to agents. I don't have time to get into major editing, negotiating etc. Income from sales is less important to me than to others. I have several (devious?) plans for publishing and promotion under consideration. For now, I am concentrating on getting a good readable book ready.
    Please do a forum on foreshadowing. Some readers like it, but one of mine says I put in too much of it. It's easy to remove, but I don't want to.

  18. Regis, I don't mind you being anonymous as long as you keep comin' around.

    Foreshadowing is a good idea. Thanks for suggesting it! Everyone knows what route works best for his/her novel so I think you'll know when the time is right.

  19. Good idea about foreshadowing, Regis! We're always open to topic suggestions.

  20. All points I agree with. That #5 I hadn't thought of previously, but how important it is! Especially for those of us who thrive under deadline.

  21. Interesting you should post about self publishing. I just attended a writer's conference where the agents said there are lots of changes taking place in the e-book market. Amazon is starting Amazon Imprint, which is supposed to be similar to traditional publishing.

    One of the agents said "The Big Six" are trying to compete by offering endorsements to new authors. Basically, if an author chooses to e-publish his/her book, then the traditional houses would give their stamp of approval. Of course it goes without saying, the books would still have to pass muster.

    If all this new publishing stuff comes to pass, then any e-books without Amazon or traditional endorsements from publishing houses will be considered muck. Looking forward to seeing where this goes.

  22. Lore -- I don't think many of us think about #5. A deadline can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you organize your time as a writer. Languishing in writer's block land isn't going to do any writer a bit of good, so I think, like any other profession, it's good to have a deadline set on our time.

    Andrea -- There are so many changes in the e-book market and I don't mind change, as long as it doesn't mean just a bunch of junk being churned out by anyone who gets bored and decides to become a writer. I'm very interested to see what comes to pass with "The Big Six" and Amazon, but if it means just transferring well-known authors work to e-books, well then, that's not doing the little guy a bit of good.

    Thanks both of you for stopping by!

  23. Great points and I completely agree.

    However appealing instant success sounds, on a deeper level it's more rewarding to work on our craft and become better writers - and then affect a wider audience, or a small audience in a more fundamental way.

    Interesting times, once again. :-)

  24. K.C. -- You hit the nail on the head! I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of instant success. Being able to tell your family and friends that you are NOW an author because your book is published is what we all crave. I just feel that a writer needs to properly learn the craft and treat it as though it was a real job. Churning out junk gets little respect in the writing world!


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